Music

Why Can’t I Be You: Carrie Brownstein

In which we learn how to be a rock star, writer, comedian, and all-around gift to humanity.

Photo by Petra

Carrie Brownstein is kind of three Why Can’t I Be Yous rolled into one, because she kills it on so many levels. She’s a rock star (most recently with Wild Flag, before that with Excuse 17, Sleater-Kinney, and the Spells), a writer (formerly on Monitor Mix, her NPR music blog; currently on the sketch show Portlandia, which she created with Fred Armisen; and future-ly of a memoir), and an actor (in a few movies, including Miranda July’s Getting Stronger Every Day, and of course on Portlandia).

She grew up all over Washington State, starting in Seattle and making her way through Redmond and Olympia before winding up in Portland, where we met up with her while we were on our road trip. We talked while we ate a gigantic breakfast (and Tavi experienced an important milestone in life; more on that later). Carrie was incredibly generous with her time and her knowledge, and we thank her for that.

ANAHEED: When did you tell your parents that you wanted to be a musician for a living, and how did they react?

CARRIE: When I was 15 or 16, I decided that I wanted to get a guitar. By then I had gone through a lot of phases, just like any teenager. My interests were constantly changing, and I think my parents, very wisely, thought that investing in musical equipment wasn’t the best way to spend their money. So they asked me to buy my guitar myself. There’s something about when you’re asked to do something on your own that changes your relationship to it. Because then you have something to prove—which is a really good motivator for any art or creativity. That’s actually the hardest thing to maintain, I think, the more you do something—always resetting yourself to having something to prove. Playing guitar was the first thing where I had something to prove to my parents, but mostly to myself. Like, “I can stick with this.”

I didn’t think of it as a career or a job until probably my first or second year of college, when I remember telling my dad that I was going to take a spring quarter off to tour. That was really the first thing that seemed threatening to my parents, like it was going to veer me away from what they perceived as the proper course of action: you go to college, you graduate. I guess sometime in the middle of college I thought, about music, This is actually what I care about. This is the most healthy version of myself, the most dynamic version of myself. I’d never felt that way in connection to other pursuits. But I think my parents continued to think of it as a hobby for much longer than I did.

I think it’s scary to imagine yourself doing something creative as a job for a lot of people. There’s this volatility to it, whereas other careers—even though it’s an illusion—seem like they might be more stable, even though really nothing now is stable! But I did finish college.

ANAHEED: What were you studying in college?

CARRIE: I was doing sociolinguistics, which was highly esoteric subject matter. [Laughs] It’s basically the relationship between language and society. I was doing a lot of discourse analysis—studying computer-mediated discourse, the way that people communicate online and how that changes power dynamics. It was pretty interesting.

TAVI: Do you think studying that kind of communication helped you with writing for Portlandia?

CARRIE: I think so. I’ve always had an interest in the minutiae of social dynamics and how people perform at relationships—the way couples kind of perform at being couples for an audience, or even to themselves. There’s who they are, and then there’s who they imagine themselves to be, which will sometimes manifest itself in conversations. Like when you hear people talking a little bit louder, and you realize, Oh, this is a performance. Studying the way people talk manifested itself in Portlandia a lot, because a lot of what Fred and I do is to look at the ways people communicate and try to get down to the most essential but also the most absurd part of that.

TAVI: Many of the girls we’ve met on the road trip are about to go to college, and a lot of them want to study something that they’re interested in, but that isn’t directly related to a job of some kind. But I feel like that is still helpful.

CARRIE: I really think it is, because, first of all, studying something that you’re interested in—that’s what you’re going to retain. I think of all the subjects that I wasn’t interested in, and I haven’t retained hardly any information from those classes. I think everyone feels this way—they can’t believe how much they know about movies and records and actors and fashion, but then you can’t recall poems or historical facts nearly as well. So you might as well study something that you already love, because then you have a really interesting lens through which to see everything else. And that’s going to stick with you a lot longer than trying to force yourself to study something that you don’t feel passionate about.

ANAHEED: How did you choose guitar as your instrument?

CARRIE: I had taken piano lessons when I was very young, but it didn’t feel that expressive to me—even though now I listen to piano music and think it’s very expressive. I just didn’t relate to it. Guitar seemed like a very good tool for angst. It has this flexibility and bendability to it, and it can take a lot of abuse. It also has a fragility; you can vacillate between something being very sweet and something being very angular and gritty, just within a matter of seconds. I liked how expressive it was. Also, I really like distortion. And, as a young person, I liked the way it amplified—it was exciting to have volume in my life. To play something loud, to fill a room—and then that room just gets bigger and bigger as you start to play out—that’s very exciting. I just thought, Oh, I didn’t realize I could be this loud, and heard so far away. That’s a really great feeling.

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40 Comments

  • rosiesayrelax July 26th, 2012 3:07 PM

    I love these interviews! You Rookie folk always chat to the coolest of peeps :)

    Rosie Say Relax

  • farawayfaerie July 26th, 2012 3:34 PM

    I always find it strange when people think they’re ‘selling their soul’ if they are successful in the selling of their music. Woody Allen said that making money is an art, and so is good business. It makes so much sense to me. Lovely interview :)

  • caro nation July 26th, 2012 3:37 PM

    OHMYGOD

    • caro nation July 26th, 2012 3:55 PM

      Please interview Eleanor Friedberger because she is my other Stevie Nicks, besides Exene Cervenka. Those two and Bradford Cox.

      Wait, INTERVIEW BRADFORD COX! Not for this segment, but just….. for stuff. I’m sure you guys will articulate a more valid reason.

      Please.

  • Claire July 26th, 2012 3:38 PM

    I’m a little ashamed to admit that Portlandia served as my introduction to her, but since then, I’ve become a Sleater-Kinney fan and come to generally dig Carrie. Nice interview, as per usual.

  • LeatherStuddedFae July 26th, 2012 3:39 PM

    Bacon. <3 Haha. Oh, Tavi.

    Carrie is so amazing. I love the interview. <3

    http://stylestuddedfairy.blogspot.com

    • Maddy July 26th, 2012 5:23 PM

      Well cuz she was probably Kosher and didn’t eat pork, not because of some weird self-imposed isolation from normalcy.

  • ladiesfirst July 26th, 2012 4:44 PM

    Two emotion:
    – Extreme jealous that someone got to interview Carrie Brownstein
    – Glee&joy at the fact that I get to read a Carrie Brownstein interview.

    http://politicizenow.wordpress.com/

  • falkor4eva July 26th, 2012 4:47 PM

    Thank you for this interview, it comes at a perfect time. A friend and I were talking about appreciating new music, and about a certain band I said I liked them especially because they were girls. She is also in a band and feels like fans will like it just because she’s a girl, and she feels like that can be unintentional sexism. While I think of it as a girl who has been prevented from doing things creatively, it is really encouraging and helpful to see other girls pursuing those creative endeavors. That’s what I really meant, but I can see more of what what she means because of what Carrie said here about “Every time I want things to be transcendent and not have to do with gender dynamic or sexism, those things just rear their ugly head.” It’s still confusing to me, but conversation really does open things up…. thanks again!

  • Lillypod July 26th, 2012 4:49 PM

    sometimes i wonder if Rookie is in mind head, listening to my thoughts…

  • whatnaomiloves July 26th, 2012 4:57 PM

    Portlandia is one of my favorite new shows. Love the picture of Carrie, Petra!

  • tellyawhat July 26th, 2012 5:02 PM

    YAYAYAYAYAY

    I am in love with this conversation! Carrie is RAD. Just saw Deep Time play in Oakland last week (for the 4th time). Formerly known as Yellow Fever. They are my favorite modern band.

    Jennifer, of Deep Time, just wrote an awesome article about sexism in music http://www.imposemagazine.com/features/jennifer-moore-of-deep-time.

  • July 26th, 2012 5:26 PM

    I LOVE Carrie Brownstein and Portlandia!! This interview us the best :)
    On a mildly related note I never liked bacon…sorry bacon lovers
    http://thelunalovingbookworm.tumblr.com/

  • July 26th, 2012 5:26 PM

    *was

  • suburban grrrl July 26th, 2012 6:28 PM

    I’m just gonna throw this out there.

    Cacao.

    http://sub-urbangrrrl.blogspot.com/

    • Whatsername July 26th, 2012 11:46 PM

      Cacao to leaving! CACAO TO CACAO.

  • lylsoy July 26th, 2012 7:09 PM

    I never heard of Carrie Brownstein, and I absolutely fell in love with her in this interview. Itis just so good, nd so inspiring and I don’t even know how to put this in words, I will bookmark this and get all the paragraphs out, that inspired me to follow my creative dreams. I am so excited!!
    Thank you so much Carrie, I am going to check out everything about you rite now :**
    http://gossipgonzesse.blogspot.com.au/

    • Anaheed July 26th, 2012 7:17 PM

      You are in for a really great night.

  • isobele July 26th, 2012 7:31 PM

    I wish I was friends with everyone on rookie, you all seem so awesome.

    http://seesusiebean.blogspot.co.uk/

  • flowerchild49 July 26th, 2012 8:34 PM

    first the ice-cube-milk… now all this bacon business. tavi, your food world is morbidly backward.

  • youdonotdo July 26th, 2012 8:45 PM

    The only reason I will consider having children is that hopefully Rookie will be around for them to read when they’re old enough. I love this website.

  • Ben July 26th, 2012 10:55 PM

    I love Portlandia! This interview is wonderful for many reasons!

  • lindzi July 26th, 2012 11:01 PM

    I love her on Portlandia!

  • Whatsername July 26th, 2012 11:44 PM

    Loving the band advice and the discussion of sexism in music and the entire interview in a general sense.
    She’s so cool omg

  • ivoire July 27th, 2012 2:49 AM

    Tavi did you like bacon?! Cos I love bacon. And Carrie seems like an incredible person.

  • unefillecommetoi July 27th, 2012 11:14 AM

    god i’d never seen portlandia before!! best show ever :O

  • Spotty July 27th, 2012 11:51 AM

    sleater kinney is my baaaaand, y’all don’t even know!

  • Laia July 27th, 2012 11:57 AM

    YES CARRIE BROWNSTEIN FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER <3<3<3

  • Aubrey July 27th, 2012 10:30 PM

    I was nervously awaiting this interview! This concept of being A Girl Who Makes Stuff is so absolutely true. Unless men pursue a traditionally “feminine” vocation, they’re never asked “How does it feel to be a male [blank].” That just doesn’t happen. And I love that you guys discussed it.

    ALSO TAVI NO BACON EVER BEFORE? HOW. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE.

    http://www.lifeofmagicalthinking.blogspot.com

  • Aubrey July 27th, 2012 10:31 PM

    Oops. That was supposed to say anxiously. Nervous has negative connotations. Which I didn’t intend at all.

  • Tavi July 28th, 2012 4:17 AM

    yo i really love bacon now

    • caro nation July 28th, 2012 1:35 PM

      Tavs you’ll never transition into food bloggin with your track record gurl

    • firky November 4th, 2012 8:42 PM

      I won’t tell your Rabbi.

  • florans July 29th, 2012 7:21 PM

    Às rookies brasileiras : O que acham de organizarmos um encontro das leitoras da Rookie no Brasil?

    • Rafaella Cardoso April 22nd, 2013 9:02 PM

      acho uma ótima ideia!

  • starpower July 30th, 2012 1:21 PM

    great interview, I love Carrie so much.
    Thank you!

  • Faith August 11th, 2012 2:06 PM

    You read my mind, Rookie! I was hoping you would interview Carrie.

    Would love to see an interview of a visual merchandiser (makes displays for stores) and an artist like Emily Winfield Martin!