Musician Annie Clark, perhaps better known as St. Vincent, posted a photo of herself in studio with the members of Sleater-Kinney this winter. It was revealed Clark was producing their album The Center Won’t Hold, released on August 16. The news circulated on the Internet for days among casual fans, die-hard riot grrrl listeners and other musicians.
Clark’s collaboration with the group signified new music was forthcoming, but there was something powerful about the women together in a studio – away from the world and in their own space of being, ready to create and share that world with others. Despite the buzz, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein says she created distance from the discourse of the viral tweet and the actual recording of the album.
“I think it’s always healthier to create a little bit of distance from online reaction and your real life,” she says of the buzz then, and perhaps even now, around the record. “I think using that as a litmus test or a way of buoying yourself can be tricky, because if you’re reliant upon that then you’re definitely at the vicissitudes of a lot of fickleness, usually.”
It’s not surprising to hear Brownstein say this. If you’re not familiar with her work in Sleater-Kinney, a seminal band out of the iconic Pacific Northwest punk and riot grrrl scene, perhaps you know her as co-creator and star of IFC’s hit show Portlandia, or for her appearances in the movie Carol or Amazon’s series Transparent. She wrote a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and is at work on another book – this time a collection of essays.
It’s easy to imagine that when you work across many mediums, it becomes essential to tune out the white noise of other people’s commentary – no matter how positive – in order to stay in tune with one’s own vision. She works diligently, but says it all comes back to writing. Still, balancing so many aspects of a creative personhood is no small feat.
“It all feels very holistic for me,” she says of her collective body of work. “It doesn’t feel like individual silos, but the different creative outlets are distinct enough that they allow me perspective and relief from one or the other. There is something that feels very energizing and kinetic about music that I’m drawn to, which then helps me appreciate the other thing.”
Within her career as a musician, Brownstein’s dynamic with bandmate Corin Tucker has evolved and rebalanced, too. One would expect a certain level of creative intimacy between people who have worked together for over 25 years, especially as both contribute guitar and vocals to the band.
While this is certainly true, Brownstein says she and Tucker drew more on their ideas as individuals to craft their new album. The result is an album that clearly takes great care in representing both bandmates’ talents and voices – and emphasizes who they are with and without Sleater-Kinney and each other.
“Corin and I really wanted to give stage to the other person and say, ‘Okay, what is your idea? Who are you as a songwriter?’ We are collaborators but we also are individuated, and we wanted to give each other moments to fully realize an idea and really take ownership over certain songs. I think there is, on one level, this sharing and giving. I think part of our growth and deepening as friends is saying, ‘Well, who are you without me? How can I use restraint to help you be more centered?’”
Brownstein notes that this ability to sit back and embrace the ebb and flow of a collaborative relationship is new, but doesn’t necessarily mean it is their new normal as far as producing work. She says there are more tools in the toolbox they’ve been adding to since their early days.
They have always come back to their willingness to speak truth to power and be political, harkening back to their unwavering voice in the early aughts of the riot grrrl and punk scenes that made a space for questioning, correcting and acceptance.
The Center Won’t Hold deals with themes of love, anxiety, technology and more. But standout moments include the album’s closer “Broken,” wherein Tucker calls out an explicit thank you to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against the abuse at the hands of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh: “She, she, she stood up for us / When she testified / Me, me too, my body cried out / When she spoke those lines.”
The notable gratitude to Blasey Ford as opposed to condemnation of Kavanaugh seems a powerful choice here, too. They grant power to her, someone who was made to feel powerless. The song feels like a tonic in an era fraught with devastating and sometimes triggering stories of assault rampant in the news.
I ask Brownstein if she and Tucker are ever exhausted by the prospect of carrying a torch for these issues, singing things like this every night. She’s quick to remind me that even the ability to ask this question is a privilege that she and I both possess – and have to reconcile with as we move through a time rife in unrest and injustice.
“It’s a question for all of us trying to balance a sense of vigilance – of being present, empathetic, available to the people who we love. But also, that kind of self-care sometimes requires distancing from a certain level of toxicity. It’s a privilege to be able to create any psychic distance from trauma or chaos. Ideally, everyone would be able to have that balance where you can take a step back and take care of yourself, your family and your loved ones [and] be more of a participant in culture or protest or however you are able to go about life.”
She says that as a musician and as a person, she is working to find that same balance. But her hope – along with the many others, myself included, who have found comfort in her band – lies in music.
“What’s nice about art or music is just getting in a room with a bunch of people and having a sense of collective relief or collective catharsis or hopefully, collective joy.”
There is certainly a prevailing sense of collective joy that Brownstein and Tucker cultivated on The Center Won’t Hold. In trying times, the album itself serves a dual purpose of respite and protest for all who seek both.
Experience it live when Sleater-Kinney play The Anthem on Friday, October 25. Tickets begin at $37.50. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. For more info on Sleater-Kinney and The Center Won’t Hold, visit www.sleater-kinney.com.
The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com