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“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.” – L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
Ol’ L. Frank had it right, and maybe that’s why we all try so hard to find one. And if you never had much of a home to speak of in the first place, you try that much harder. That’s where the story of Carrie Brownstein, or at least her new book, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, begins. Brownstein, who’s now probably best known for co-creating and starring in the cult hit Portlandia, began her search as a fan of bands, and then by being in one, and ultimately, by breaking it up for the perceived shelter of various and sundry office buildings.
With parents who for their own reasons were largely absent, Brownstein was at once free and compelled to immerse herself in the Pacific Northwest music scene of the 90s, and pursued it with the hunger and passion to connect that drives so many artists. What eventually emerged was Sleater-Kinney, a band [with singer/guitarist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss] as fiery and original as its members. They lived the floor-sleeping, van-touring, equipment-schlepping, basement-practicing existence of most scrappy bands while they built a small but loyal following. Then to the surprise of everyone, none more so than the band itself, Time magazine named Sleater-Kinney the Best Rock Band in America. Another surprise was their first feature article in SPIN, one that drove home what happens when your life is no longer just your own. So Sleater-Kinney was “famous”, or about as famous as you could be in the modest Northwest indie rock world back then. Though Brownstein had begun to realize the same scene that embraced them as outliers had its own set of rules more restrictive than the mainstream, she nevertheless sabotaged a meeting with a bigger label that came calling. At the time, Brownstein thought she was being loyal to a scene where “selling out” was anathema; in hindsight it might just be what happens when three very tough but vary naïve young girls try to navigate a career without management, agents, or even parents to provide guidance and an objective voice of reason. They returned to their small Olympia, WA label, and to hauling their own equipment down broken stairs to a cat-pee scented basement. Misfiring on the verge of mainstream success was a pattern that sadly defined the rest of the band’s career. Ambition and talent go a long way, but making a band your substitute family puts a dangerous amount of weight on a creative partnership. It’s Band Psych 101’s top reason for a breakup, and that’s exactly what Brownstein did, in dramatic fashion, before a show in Brussels.
For Brownstein, the end of Sleater-Kinney marked the beginning of a 10-year stint of “day jobs” that seem unimaginable for a creative soul who spent 15 years touring the world as her own boss. But the schedule and structure of the office buildings where she worked – as a substitute teacher, an animal shelter and an ad agency – seemed like just the solid vessel she needed to hold her. It took another traumatic incident and a lot of reflection to realize the most stable home is the one you build inside yourself. In this episode we talk to the musician, writer and actress about the birth, death, and rebirth of Sleater-Kinney, the disparity between the perception and reality of fame, what she’s learned from the process of writing her book, and what might be next for Portlandia. That, and the fine line between drawing too few and too many cats. Brownstein says she wrote ‘Hunger’ in part to figure out how to make decisions that put you at the center of who you want to be. We think she’s home.