“If you’re not stretching yourself, it tends to be safer – and who cares about being safer?” Marnie Stern’s new album welcomes back a modern guitar great
The indie rock shredder and singer/songwriter talks about getting back into songwriting after having a steady job on late-night TV, and entering the process with no expectations.
Image: Nick Johnson
Marnie Stern never intended to go an entire decade without releasing any new music. Back in 2014, after she wrapped up the touring cycle behind her fourth album, The Chronicles of Marnia, the indie rock singer/songwriter and guitarist – known for her intense, idiosyncratic yet ecstatic finger-tapping style – had every intention of continuing much as she had been over the past seven years. During that time, she had released four albums each in two- to three-year intervals as in addition to having toured the world.
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Then she received the kind of phone call most professional musicians dream of: An offer to join the 8G band – the house band of NBC talk show Late Night With Seth Meyers. Not long thereafter, Stern also became a mother, and as she juggled her busy full-time schedule on late-night TV along with raising two kids, the prospect of getting back to writing new music of her own, slowly but surely, fell by the wayside.
Yet it ’s only with the benefit of hindsight that Stern even fully processed how much time had passed.
“I kind of got swept up in the nine-to-five grind and then I had two kids and you know, then I got to a point where I thought, I really miss what I do,” Stern says via a phone call from New York. “Those 10 years went by so quickly. If you asked me I probably would have thought it was only three, even though my kids are five and six.”
In 2022, after clocking eight years with the 8G Band, collaborating with a long list of other musicians and playing hundreds and hundreds of other songs, Stern found herself struck with a realisation: She missed making her music. And make no mistake, it’s a distinctive style of music that she plays, driving and hyperactive, loud but celebratory, fun yet frantic. After a long tenure with a steady gig and a much less chaotic home and life routine, Stern jumped anew into writing her first new music in a decade, emerging on the other side of her ProTools excursion with a new album, The Comeback Kid.
The music on Stern’s latest should no doubt reveal some familiar sounds for those who followed Stern through her electrifying first four albums. Leadoff track Plain Speak roars out of the gate with a mixture of her signature finger tapping, big rock ‘n’ roll riffs and super-catchy hooks. Believing is Seeing rides a lengthy intro (at least in the context of a two-minute song) of tremolo-picked repetitions, and “The Natural” is rife with hypnotic arpeggios. The title of the album more or less says it all: Marnie Stern is back.
Back In The Saddle
When she began the process of writing music for The Comeback Kid, Stern embarked on her journey without a roadmap – and, in making that first step, was both delighted and surprised to find that her own signature playing style from her first four albums came back to her without hesitation.
“I was curious about what would come out, and I was shocked that my style picked up where it was. I hadn’t played it for so long, and there it was. Muscle memory is a crazy thing,” she says. “The heart of what I was feeling when I was writing it was, as you go through life, sometimes you’re no longer the priority and you’re just grappling with that. As we get older and in music, especially, we’re sort of considered less relevant. So I really wanted to make a real rippin’ record to say ‘Hey, I still got it.’”
Stern created The Comeback Kid much the same way she did her previous albums: almost entirely solo. On this album, Stern sings and plays every part except for drums, which were provided by Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire). Her go-to guitar of choice is a Jazzmaster Telecaster hybrid that she received from Fender eight years ago. She has another, older Jazzmaster that she keeps in the rotation as well.
But for the most part, she keeps her setup pretty simple, putting the emphasis on the playing itself.
“I plug straight into the ProTools box and then just added a lot of plugins,” she says. “(For playing) live, someone at Seth Myers had built me this great board and I fucked it up as soon as I got it home. I play with one old SansAmp preamp pedal, that’s my distortion pedal. And I have a digital delay pedal, Boss I think, and that’s pretty much it. It’s as uncomplicated as can be.”
Though The Comeback Kid is unmistakably a Marnie Stern album, it features more than a few stylistic experiments and surprises amid the undercurrent of her signature, euphoric sound. Til It’s Over is a more sleek, driving set of post-punk, with darker tones and an immediacy more attuned to mainstream alt-rock. She drops the tempo on Working Memory, which is more of a straight-ahead rock anthem revolving around big power chords, albeit with plenty of technical flourishes. Perhaps most surprising of all is Il Girotondo Della Notte, a cover of an Ennio Morricone piece from the film Chi L’ Ha Vista Morire?, featuring layers of vocals overlapping and more direct, surf-rock riffing.
One specific thing she did seek to do with The Comeback Kid is challenge herself as an artist. At no point in her career has Stern’s music ever felt stagnant or rote, but from her own perspective, the process is even more rewarding when she can step out of her comfort zone and push herself to try something she’s never tried before, or that somehow might feel counterintuitive to the kind of music that she makes. If she’s not growing, somehow, in the process of creation, she’s not making the most of the experience.
Not that anyone has ever told her not to.
“I guess because I’m categorised as ‘art rock,’ I always get to just do what I want. I never expect anything to happen in that arena, which is pretty freeing, because I do just play what I want,” she says. “Thankfully, I’m on Joyful Noise (Records) now, and at no point are they saying ‘don’t do what you want.’
So it’s great. I don’t edit myself. The more uncomfortable I get with myself the better. That’s how you stretch yourself or push yourself a bit, to put yourself in a bit of an uncomfortable situation. Whether it’s your vocal line, or the length of the song, or maybe just not meeting everyone’s expectations. I think if you’re not stretching yourself in that way, it tends to be safer – and who cares about being safer?”
Stern says that, despite the creative challenges she sought, she didn’t necessarily put any pressure on herself this time around. Part of that is due to taking a more measured look at how the landscape of being a professional musician has changed in the past decade (and she admits that it wasn’t much easier when she was releasing music back in the early 2010s).
Given the difficulties of making a living as a touring and recording musician, she doesn’t look at The Comeback Kid as a project that succeeds or fails on the basis of commercial performance. Creating something that she’s satisfied with, she says, is its own reward. Though if other people like what she’s made, that’s simply an added benefit.
“For me, the thrill is for myself when I finish something. Even if I have a tiny, 10-second piece of something that I think is really good,” she says. “I just think of five people that I admire. If they heard it, would they like it? That’s as far as my expectations go. And honestly, I didn’t think ahead to what would happen, I just wanted to get it out there.”
Just as Stern approached writing and recording The Comeback Kid with no specific expectation of what she’d be putting into it, she releases it into the world with no particular expectations of how it will be received or, for that matter, what happens next. She says that making music for her is a “selfish” act – the joy she gets from creating something that feels and sounds good is her only real aim. Yet, as she explains through an anecdote about a tour in Australia earlier on in her career, there’s nothing better than transferring that feeling to others.
“The most important thing is having fun. Rocking out. Getting into something,” she says. “I have a memory of being on tour in Australia, in Perth, and the promoter was driving us around in his car, and the top was down, and he was blasting AC/DC and it was a really fun, great feeling. And I just remember thinking I hope my songs give people this feeling. That’s the goal.”
The Comeback Kid is out now on Joyful Noise