Marnie Stern is surrounded by things she can’t afford. We’ve agreed to meet at Rudy’s Music, a classic guitar shop off West 49th, near Broadway. It’s the middle of January on a brutally cold afternoon.
When I push through the entrance, I find her standing alone, eyeing the rare and expensive merchandise with an expression that’s awe mixed with fear. She wears Tabasco red jeans and a metallic gold blazer, the epitome of rock star chic.
Her swagger would suggest that she owns the place, but the weight in her eyes conveys a deep sense of longing, a look that says, “I don’t belong here.” No matter that Stern is one of the most critically acclaimed guitarists in recent rock history, known for her blistering finger-tapping technique and gut-wrenching lyrics. Even in a guitar store, she doesn’t feel safe.
Over the course of our candid, at times manic one-hour conversation, Stern will reveal that she’s anxious and barely scrapes by. At 36, she lives alone in a rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a Yorkie-Maltese mix named Fig. Her life is “boring,” she says, and she spends the majority of it reading at home on her Kindle and selling clothes for her mother on eBay; that is, when she isn’t teaching guitar or playing herself. She won’t compromise to sound more commercial or get a job that would keep her afloat financially. Mostly she wishes she didn’t have to hustle to make rent.
“Sometimes I wonder, do I want the kids and the marriage to fill the void,” she says. “It would be less of ‘Oh crap, I don’t have enough money to buy the milk and I’ve got to get dog food. Let me see if can get another credit card. Oh, I can’t. Well, what can I sell.’ That life is exhausting. “When asked if she wants to start a family, her eyes widen: “I feel like the kid that is still in high school and everyone I know has gone to college. All my friends have moved away, have children, have these very adult lives. I feel all the time, ‘What have I done with my life?’”
She’s very eager to settle down, but a recent split with her boyfriend of two years and all the “19-, 20-somethings” she encounters on tour have discouraged her. “I’m telling you, it’s kind of almost easier not to be with someone. I’m so used to being single.”
For all the neuroses brought on by her choices, Stern is still somehow pursuing her dream, even if it’s a nightmare. With the release of her fourth studio album, The Chronicles of Marnia, she blazes a trail of pent-up frustration, fully realized and hyper-aware. That last part is nothing new, but this time around her vocals are front and center, a bold decision she admits wasn’t hers but producer Nicholas Vernhes’.
“He was like, ‘Redo all the vocals and make it sound correctly sung,’” she recalls before adding in a matter of fact voice, “I am not a singer.” “I was like, ‘I don’t want to pretend I’m Taylor Swift.’ I like it when it’s a mess. But I let them do it because it was different. He wanted a more natural thing.”
Doing away with the “weird guitar meshing” wasn’t the only change on this record. Chronicles was produced in Brooklyn (at Rare Book Room Studio) as opposed to California, and Oneida’s Kid Millions stepped in for longtime drummer-engineer-collaborator Zach Hill. The polished result—helped in large part by Millions’ subdued percussion—is anything but expected for the self-described “lady shredder” who is best known for hammering out dizzying yet dazzling guitar riffs that make your heart feel like it’s run in a hundred-yard marathon. Chronicles might be her most accessible album to date, boiled down to her sound’s purest form.
“It’s a little more direct, less big mottos, but it’s still the same thing,” she says, referring to the cheery optimism of This Is It … . “It’s always about the struggle to keep going.”
Though the songwriting didn’t come easily.
“I kept wanting to break away from the process,” she says, flailing her arms like an orchestra conductor. “I would think I was starting on Mars, like I was doing something so different, and then at the end, I’d be right back to sounding just like me.”
In an effort to push her sound farther, she gave herself writing assignments each day. “I would sit down and say, ‘Today I’m going to think like Bob Dylan, sing like him and write a song like him, and then I’m going to put punk riffs on it. Today, I’m going to do a song with power chords. Today, I’m going to deal with warmth.’ A million different things.”
The process became “a discipline,” and she could barely bring herself to sit at her desk and write for an hour. But she forced herself to keep at it, and over the course of two years, the album trickled out. Often, she thought of quitting, but after so many years of sacrifice, of staying in when she could gone out, of striving to bang out “just one classic song that is going to last” like Bowie, she realized she has too much riding on this whole music thing.
“I’ve made this life for myself where I’m [making music], I’m turning 37 and I love it,” she says. “I’d like to keep doing it, it’s just that when you put all your focus on one thing and there’s no balance, that one thing had better turn out okay.”
She adds, “I want enough to always be able to go to the supermarket, to go out once in awhile. To be comfortable so I’m not stressed about paying the rent, because every month I’m worried about paying the rent. If I could do that, or at least put out another couple records, then I would feel like I’ve had the luckiest, best music career.”
The Chronicles of Marnia is out March 19 via Kill Rock Stars. Listen to it at NPR.