Lemonade from lemons

Pub date November 11, 2008
WriterMosi Reeves
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

With a title as whimsical as This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, it’s only appropriate that Marnie Stern begins her second Kill Rock Stars album with the sounds of a simple clapping game. "I am vanishing into the trees," she chants while rapping her knuckles on a hard surface. "Defenders get onto your knees. This Is It is a decidedly girly affair. Its CD-booklet artwork, illustrated by Brooklyn painter Bella Foster, depicts Stern as a hiker in the mountains, surrounded by watercolor flowers and pen-line squirrels and foxes. The lyrics seem full of self-empowerment phrases such as "you rearrange your mind" ("The Package Is Wrapped") and "so I rearrange and I don’t mind the change" ("Clone Cycle"). But the electric feminist explosion that is This Is It masks deep personal anxieties, something she describes as a "combination of zen and extreme loneliness." It’s why she lyrically reaches for zen bliss. It’s the musical equivalent of making lemonade from lemons.

"It was therapeutic," Stern says by phone from her New York City home. "That first song ["Prime"] is just about feeling alone, and battling that, and just trying to get as authentic as I possibly can. With ‘Shea Stadium,’ I had been watching some baseball movies such as The Natural. There’s a real epic feeling to those kinds of movies, and how the team overcomes. So it’s in part about that, and in part about a relationship with someone.

"It’s much more difficult to try and be positive," she continues. "At least for myself, I automatically go to the negative place because it’s much easier. But nothing good would come of it. As I progress, only really good things that happen when I embrace being positive."

Much of the laudatory press for This Is It from outlets such as Pitchforkmedia.com and The New York Times tends to ignore or criticize Stern’s violently happy lyrics in favor of her shredding. With only her second album, she has established herself as an ace guitarist. In an age where everyone’s afraid to play a monster lead solo, Stern lets it rip early and often, instead of sticking to boring rhythm guitar. On "Transformer," she taps out a volley of chords on the guitar’s neck, replicating Angus Young’s hook from AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck." For "The Crippled Jazzer," she picks out a lightning-fast and furious line.

"A lot of times people say I’m a virtuosic player, and I’m not," Stern says. When asked if she’s comfortable with mantle of indie-rock guitar hero, she exclaims, "No, of course not! No, no, and no! I’m not!" Instead, she modestly calls herself a singer-songwriter.

Stern first picked up the guitar when she was 15. "I didn’t really start playing until I was 21, 22," says the 32year-old musician. "It was really late. I didn’t take lessons." For her second album, This Is It, Stern wrote 30 numbers before settling on 12. Her goal, she says, was to make the songs coherent, with a clearer verse-chorus structure than her earlier work. Each number is made up of several unique 15-second guitar parts: she would write those first, then write a lyric for each part. "The tendency is for it to sound fragmented, because it’s just part-part-part," she says. "The joy for me in making the song is to get those parts to interlock together."

Stern self-deprecatingly refers to herself and This Is It as a poppy, accessible incarnation of noise bands she likes, such as Arab on Radar, Sheer Accident, the Flying Luttenbachers, and "that whole family of music. To me, my stuff is really straightforward." On one level, it’s a love of classic rock that sent her from the experimental noise community into the welcoming arms of pop music critics and fans. Still, it’s not her guitar playing, but her lyrics — and her conflicting emotions of karmic joy and nervy pessimism — that makes her a potential sonic revolutionary.

"Before I found music I was always pretty cynical about things," Stern says. "Then, as I found my connection with playing and writing songs, I began to feel that connectedness. It made me feel hopeful … It was the only thing that really satisfied me."


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