Photo by David Torch
There’s a song on New York singer-songwriter/axe-monster Marnie Stern’s new album called “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black,” which she readily admits was inspired by journalists asking her questions in situations like the one she found herself in a warm late summer’s day at an Upper East Side Irish pub. “When people ask what’s it like to be a female guitar player, um, I don’t know what it’s like to be a male guitar player!” she says.
Counterintuitively, Stern’s objection to such lines of questioning have less to do with their condescending, “you sure play good for a girl” nature and more to do with their underlying thesis that she is a great guitar player. For you see, Marnie Stern is not a very good guitar player. According to Marnie Stern anyway.
“I don’t really think I am,” she says. “I would like to think that what I do sounds a little bit different. Or sounds personal, or original, but in terms of skill, no, I’m not [good]. I have so many friends that get on the guitar, and I am blown away.”
This is all wildly inaccurate, but part of her charm. Stern readily admits to repeatedly watching any feel-good Rudy-esque sports movie made in the past 30 years (including Miracle, which even your dad didn’t get around to) because she has “always felt underdogish.”
At least part of this is because she started playing music later than most. Her mother gave her an acoustic guitar when she was 15, which resulted in what she calls some Say Anything/“Joe Lies When He Cries”-like strumming, but she didn’t really begin practicing until she graduated college and took her first job.
“I wasn’t good at it. And I wasn’t good at music either, but I enjoyed it more,” she says. “So that’s how I was able to go in with it. And I’m very compulsive, so, you know, when I decide to go on a reading binge I read 15 books. I go really crazy with stuff.” She began balancing near constant practices with a series of New York City area temp jobs that took her from an advertising company to waitressing to Columbia House Records to “all kinds of magazines,” including Playboy and Vogue
. (Regarding her work at the later: “I would move the clothes from one rack to another, and I got the grossest arm muscles in the world.”)
After ten years of practicing, holding sparsely attended solo gigs, understudying at various experimental noise rock shows (the friends that she claims can outplay her are in California weirdo bands Deerhoof and Hella, which are pretty great but not prone to the Guitar Hero-worthy theatrics that Stern regularly pulls off) and sending out several rejected demos, Stern drew a line in the sand. When she hit 30, she quit her job to focus on one last-ditch effort at getting a record deal. “It was looking bleak,” she admits. But finally, her dream label, Kill Rock Stars, called.
The label hooked her up with her dream drummer/producer, Hella’s spastically bombastic Zach Hill. Critical acclaim, dropped jaws and three albums, including a new, self-titled effort, followed. “I’m trying to grow as much as possible as a songwriter. I don’t want to make the same record over and over again, so this was my attempt at trying a different side,” she says. “I felt like the first record was very experimental and noisy and gritty. And the second one was more of a fun rock album. And this [new one] was more of a softer side.”
“Softer” is a relative term, but her manic attack has been toned down just enough to allow enough breathing room for Stern’s tough-talking vocals. Most notably, “Nothing Left” indulges in the nautical nature of Stern’s name with the mantra “that man told me not to walk that plank.”
“I honestly don’t remember where that line came from,” she says. “I think that was just talking about going in the opposite direction of the norm. And walking into the craziness of a crazy world, as opposed to staying on the straight and narrow.”