After a break, a memoir and the return of her band Sleater Kinney, Carrie Brownstein talks motivation with Lydia Jenkin.

For 12 years, Sleater Kinney was the world's foremost riot grrrl band. At the age of 19, Carrie Brownstein started the group with Corin Tucker, shortly after adding drummer Janet Weiss, and the trio recorded and released seven righteous, urgent albums, touring the world, and setting a high bar for melodic, insightful punk music. Then in 2006, they broke up, or went on a sort of permanent hiatus.

They were burnt out, needed a break, and as Brownstein has explained in her recently released memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, one night in Brussels, backstage before a show, when she was basically punching herself in the face, trying "to box myself into oblivion", that was simply the "culmination of exhaustion and illness".

If that story gives the impression that Brownstein is extreme or volatile, then talking to her on the phone paints the opposite picture. She's very calm, measured, thoughtful, eloquent, and self-aware. She more than matches the lofty, even intimidating expectations you might have of a woman who's made such wonderful music, a hit comedy TV series (Portlandia), become an acclaimed actress (she's recently appeared in Transparent and also Todd Haynes film Carol) and written an amusing, surprising, self-deprecating memoir.

Above all, Brownstein seems great. She's loving the experience of being back on the road with Sleater Kinney once more, and clearly proud of the new album, No Cities To Love, released in January last year - their first since The Woods came out in 2005.


"Probably the most immediate difference creating No Cities To Love was this was the most time we'd ever taken between records, and previously most of our albums were reactions to the previous body of work - we'd think about what we'd done on the previous record, and then purposefully push away from that, or deliberately try something different. And with enough time between albums, I think it allowed for us to make something that wasn't reactionary, because we had greater perspective."

They also used to road test most of their songs with live performances before recording, but that didn't happen this time either.

"Obviously because we were keeping it a secret, and that changed the process a bit."

Doing things differently with this record was also a purposeful way of avoiding old habits, or getting too comfortable.

"I think actually the comfort was something that we were wary of creatively and artistically, because we have such an innate chemistry, and we share a common language, so it would've been easy for us to slip back into things feeling very familiar, and that's not necessarily a great place to be writing from, because then you're not pushing yourself.

"We didn't want to sound like anything we'd done before. So we were more cut throat about the editing process, and we tried to be less precious about our ideas, and if we had a chorus or a song that we'd been working on for a long time, that felt almost done, we would re-examine the songs. So the process took longer but I think we really relished that."

While the band have always had a poetic way with political insight, and a general sort of "rage against the machine" type attitude, despite having aged and extra decade, they seem to be at their most hungry, raw, and restless on No Cities To Love, full of rule-breaking desire and wrath that's not directed at any one issue in particular.

"There is no settled, passive version of Sleater Kinney, so I don't think we would've come back to the band if there wasn't still intentionality and deliberation behind it. We don't really write soft music, so I think sometimes the lyric is vociferous and forceful because the music can carry that, it can carry something that's intense or dark or uncomfortable" Brownstein explains.

It's interesting that the new album and Brownstein's memoir ended up being released in the same year, because although it wasn't intentional, it was partly the fact that Sleater Kinney had reunited (they first started working together again back in 2011) that made her feel like she was now able to tell the story of her early life.

"I think the story I wanted to write about felt like it had happened, and that it was far enough behind me to write about. The story is of feeling disembodied and outside of something and through creativity and community, finding a sense of belonging and self, and the best container for that was Sleater Kinney. That was a narrative that seemed like I could tell it and have some perspective on it. I always wanted it to be narrowly focused on that coming of age as a creative artist and person."

The book also details her mother's battle with anorexia, and how she left the family when Brownstein was 14, along with other intimate aspects of her childhood and teen years, so she did have a moment of pause before releasing her personal story to the world.

"There was a moment before the book came out where I had a sense of panic, but then I just realised that no, it's fine. It's a book. It's not like somebody broke into my home and is going through my life, or exposing me, you know. You have to remember, yes, you wrote this, you crafted this, you're fine."

Spreading herself across creating an album, a TV show, and a book has certainly kept Brownstein busy, but she's relishing the opportunity to switch between different skills and collaborations.

"I think being able to vacillate between different creative endeavours and projects and collaborations, with a variety of people, I think it brings a new perspective to each project, and you realise the value of each of them and what you're learning from them, and what you can apply to another.

"Music will always be very primary for me I think, because it was my first love, and I think it will always occupy a specific space for me that's passionate and urgent and I'm such a fan of it too. But I do prefer this balance, and being able to go from one to another. I guess I prefer the multi-tasking to being entirely consumed by one thing perhaps."

Who: Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman for Sleater Kinney
Where and when: Performing at the Powerstation in Auckland on Monday, February 29
Listen to: No Cities To Love (2015)