On her self-titled third album, the badass rocker gets personal.
When self-taught guitar impresario Marnie Stern answers her phone, she sounds disoriented, her voice downright froggy.
“You woke me up!” she protests, after a hazy greeting. Yeah, world’s smallest violin, Sleeping Beauty, it’s noon on a Tuesday. Fortunately, once Marnie fully regains consciousness, she switches from disoriented and mildly cranky to pleasant and affable, despite the fact that the vestiges of the previous night’s debauchery weigh heavily in her scratchy voice.
According to Stern, the previous night consisted of the company of some friends and “a bunch of cosmopolitans.” Sounds like the appropriate cocktail choice for her tony Manhattan stomping grounds.
“I’m very out of place in the Upper East Side,” Stern says of the rent-controlled apartment she took on from her mother, who recently moved to Florida. “I like it that way because I’m a weirdo, There are no young people here. It’s very isolated and very pretty.”
Stern is a thin blond toting her teacup Morkie (cross between a Yorkie and a Maltese), so she can’t be too out of place in Blair Waldorf’s coveted ZIP code. But that matters little, as her neighbors probably never lay eyes on her. She’s a self-described shut-in, and admittedly isn’t much of a social animal. More often than not, she’d rather be holed up in her apartment reading, playing computer games, watching movies, knitting or playing one of her many guitars.
Of course, touring is a welcome disruption to her comfortably solitary lifestyle. Unfortunately, the return home won’t be a pleasant one.
“This tour will put me in so much debt that I’ll have to get a job as soon as I get back,” Stern laments. As many a musician can attest, critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills.
“I’m broke. I live off credit cards. I’ll never get a job because I’m a lazy bum,” she says.
It’s a shame tearing up a fret board with almost surgical proficiency doesn’t come with a 401(k) and a dental plan. This might be a good time to dust off her unused NYU journalism degree (not that it would pay any better).
Speaking of guitar skills, when Stern’s reputation as “the girl who shreds” is brought up, she lets out a frustrated groan.“I don’t know how many times I can say that I’m not that great of a guitar player!” she says. This may sound like false modesty, but her tone suggests otherwise. She addresses her frustrations with being treated as a novelty on the track “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black,” off her third LP Marnie Stern.
What doesn’t get enough credit is Stern’s voice, a glistening falsetto that’s heavy on the treble and takes on an almost otherworldly and pleasantly unsettling quality, especially when augmented by the bouncy, manic energy of her songs. Her wail countered with her music’s relentless tempo and thunderous drums (provided by Hella phenom Zach Hill) would almost be overpowering if it wasn’t blanketed under the perfect amount of fuzz.
Still, there are worse things to be known for, especially given the fact that many female musicians struggle to be acknowledged for their skill instead of more trivial fare like their sex appeal or dating history.
Perhaps Stern is starting to make some peace with the guitar impresario label.
“It is flattering and nice, I don’t mind it,” she eventually concedes.
What she’d rather people notice is the new direction she took on her self-titled album, namely the fact that she delves into personal themes for the first time in her lyrics.
“It’s a really vulnerable record,” she says. “I hope it moves people.”
It’s certainly hard not to be moved by opening track “For Ash,” an emotional salvo dealing with the suicide of an ex-boyfriend.
The decision to delve into her own life was less deliberate and more a natural by product her own tumultuous circumstances.
“It just happened. My life and my music are pretty much the same thing. I couldn’t stop it,” she says. “When you’re writing, you’re not thinking that anyone is going to hear it. After the fact ... I can get a little self-conscious.”