Inspired by Lightning Bolt and Yoko Ono, Marnie Stern is known for unleashing dazzling, finger-tapped guitar melodies — staccato notes rendered to melodic squiggles — like a superpower. But about halfway through “Proof of Life,” the penultimate track off her fourth album The Chronicles of Marnia, she lands on a devastating realization: “I am nothing, I am no one.”
On Marnia, Stern wrote songs about how stress resurfaces and tests her belief in herself — and, as she realizes in “Proof,” how rewarding it feels to ride that stress out (“I am something, I am someone”).
eMusic’s Christina Lee spoke with Stern about Marnia, her latest influences and how her new job as a guitar teacher has shaped her views on modern-day music consumption.
You’ve mentioned not feeling inspired when it came time to write this record. What did you do to overcome that?
Well, it’s an interesting battle, to continue to dig deep inside of yourself, to try to find new places, because you only have so many resources in your arsenal. So I spent a lot of time trying to reference different standpoints, finding new things to write and also looking up other classic artists and [trying to] just move like them. That’s a lot of what I’m still doing. I feel like artists in general find their voice, and then they either keep repeating it or they grow. But it’s different for me, just trying to find different resources and be inspired, and just still loving music so much and finding a connection to it and feeling grateful for it.
What were some of your new sources of inspiration?
Well, it’s more like — the way I used to write songs would be, “OK, I’m going to put this kind of riff here, and then layer some voices here.” This time I really got into sort of the Chuck Berry-vibe riffs — like, ’50s guitar styles. I was more interested in things sounding pretty as opposed to banging you over the head.
I don’t mean Chuck Berry in particular. In the car my mother plays this ’50s SiriusXM radio station, so it was just a lot of hearing that style on the radio and thinking about it, and thinking about how a lot of the Rolling Stones and the rock generation of the ’60s was inspired by those guys, and also just about how young rock ‘n’ roll really is — and just things like that.
I was just trying to invest myself in different ways of playing — different styles, things I had never done before in my life. Like, “OK, let me hear this Jimi Hendrix song,” just to learn different stuff. I ended up stripping down most of the songs, taking away a lot of parts. That’s basically how I approached the record.
Who are some of your other favorite writers?
I’ve listened to a lot of David Bowie. When I was writing these songs, I listened to a lot of things that normally I would not, like Tom Petty. There’s something very poignant and beautiful — and I don’t mean that in a patronizing way — about Tom Petty’s songs. I’ve also been reading a bunch of rock biographies like Slash. It was crazy thinking about [Guns 'N Roses'] time, and how there will never be a time of that — full of money and gluttony. They would have a backstage show after their concert, and it cost $10,000 at least, and they rarely ever went to it. It was just so dumb — so fun to read, but certainly not enviable in any way.
I have a similar relationship to reality shows — just seeing the level of preposterousness there and being amazed that it exists.
The difference is, because of the lack of internet [back then], once [a band became popular] they held on for a lot longer in the consciousness. Now with everything being a quick sound byte, things are just so different. What I mean is, it seems like with young people now, the cool thing is just to like and to know about everything, as opposed to having a few favorites that you really like. That’s very uncool now. But you know — I don’t know. I give guitar lessons and [my students] don’t feel that way.
Maybe it depends on the role that music plays in someone’s life. Maybe the difference with your students is that they’re interested in clicking through YouTube as research.
Which is good. And obviously it’s a good resource. The internet was just coming up when I started to make music, and I remember [before that], you had to dig to find what you were looking for. When you found it, it was so rewarding. That’s kind of gone now. I remember at one of my lessons, this girl was looking for some ’90s seminal band, and she couldn’t find anything. It was driving me crazy, because that never happens.
Even with, like, the [early] Mountain Goats [cassettes] — only [a few] people really had access to them.
And that used to be a normal concept. Now it’s a very strange concept. That’s what so weird – it used to be you would only be exposed to certain stuff, and that was it. It was rare, and that was it, so you had it and you appreciated it. And I guess I haven’t embraced any of the positive parts of all the changes, and I feel like that’s the thing to do, because there’s nothing you can do about it. So I sort of got over my frustrations with that stuff. There’s always been commercial music and less-popular music, and that will just continue to evolve.
[Giving guitar] lessons has been good, because I’ve been meeting real people in their late teens, early 20s, and some a little older. Some of them have a more removed relationship to music. They want to learn to play the guitar, they have a job, but they like music. It’s obvious their relationship is different than someone who’s like, “I want to get a record deal, and I’m working so hard.” [Meeting them has made them] real, as opposed to me thinking, “I wonder what the kids are doing these days. They seem so dumb.”
You’re seeing it for yourself.
And that’s real life – where every teenager is different. And there are some similarities, but it’s not the generalization thing that I was doing before. Each person is different, and each person brings their different experiences to it and that affects how they play, and what they listen to and what they like. And that’s what’s cool about music. There was this thing that was going around the internet and it said that the thing about [when you're] starting out [in the arts], you’re usually not really good at all —
He was talking about the process of being a writer, how he had to increasingly learn to vouch for his good taste.
Right, you have your taste, and it’s good to trust your taste — you like what you like. I think that’s really neat. If you’re not, then no personality comes across in your stuff. I think it’s really all about your taste, and it’s cool to hear people’s taste and [realizing] there’s no right and wrong. I’m always disagreeing with friends. They’ll like something and I can’t stand it, and no one person is right or wrong.
And at times it can be very frustrating, being like, “Ah, I like all of this awesome stuff, I want to make stuff that’s just like this awesome shit,” and then it comes out like garbage. And we were just talking about being uninspired — that [lack of inspiration] is largely my fault, because I don’t search for music actively, just because I feel turned off by everything I click on to listen to. I’m not into it, and I’m just giving up really quickly, and that stinks.
It’s tough. And I think it’s much easier to “move on,” now. Years ago, even if your primary mode of discovery was radio, and even if it was that same Top 40 hit, you had a chance to reconsider it, without ever asking for it — even if it was, like, Britney Spears, because you hate it the first five times they play it but, for whatever reason, the sixth time wins you over.
Absolutely. Where do you live?
I’m in Atlanta.
I’m in New York – I just got here. I was visiting Florida, and I basically flew from 75-degree weather to nine degrees. It’s terrible.
The photo on the album cover — was that taken in Florida?
No, I was on tour at a rest stop. I don’t know where we were, but we were somewhere, and we just got out for some reason and took that picture.
I had a horrible experience in Florida. My mother’s dog bit my dog, and she almost died. Three bites and they pierced her jugular. There was blood everywhere. We rushed to the hospital and it was so horrifying; I’ve never seen anything so violent. I love my dog, and she almost died. I thought it was so crazy that I brought that dog on every tour — she’s been everywhere — then I take her the sanctuary that is my mother’s house, and she almost died.
Her name’s Fig, right? How would you describe her personality?
She’s not spoiled, even though I give her so much attention. That’s why she’s so loveable. She’s the sweetest girl. I’m way too attached to her, but there’s no way to get unattached because you have to love them while they’re here. I’ve got to say that 10 years ago when I got her, I did not expect I was going to be [living] in the same apartment with just her.
As opposed to…?
Getting married, having kids or just even relocating. I remember when I got her I didn’t think that I would get this attached to her. She’s ended up being my whole world. She’s worth it.
Whose idea was the dating contest?
How did that come about?
A friend is friends with my publicist and we were chatting, and my boyfriend had just moved out, so she’s like, “You’re single,” and I was like, “Yeah,” and she came up with this whole thing. And I was so in the throes of all the stress with the dog and all things happening that I said, “Yeah, sure.” I really don’t need anyone, ever, because I’m always such a homebody. But maybe I will. I don’t know. It’s just for fun.
I hope it pans out.
I’m sure it won’t, but I’m sure it will be funny, and that’s worth it. It’s for a fun story, like the kissing booth. There were only five people over the whole tour that I wanted to kiss…
What was on your mind when you wrote “Proof of Life”?
I started that before the third [self-titled] record…I was talking to somebody, and we were talking about apprehension and feeling like I live in a bubble of just me and the dog: “Am I missing out in life, just doing this all the time?” That’s kind of what that song was about, wanting to feel like there’s no right or wrong decision — when you put all of your eggs in one basket and then things aren’t working as well as you’d like. All of my joy comes from when I feel like I’ve written something that I like, and when that’s not happening, there’s not much else going on in my life.
We live in a very immediate, “now” world, so when you’re immersed in one thing, you can’t ever remember a time when life wasn’t like that. When I’m on tour and hanging out with people, I’m like, “This is so fun!” Then two weeks into being back home it’s like, “Oh my god, I’ve always been alone.”