Carrie Brownstein’s “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl”: A Reserved Peek Behind the Curtain of the Sleater-Kinney Show

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Carrie Brownstein is famous. Most people know this because of Portlandia, the popular sketch comedy show on IFC that she co-created with Fred Armisen. The rest of us were just obsessed with Sleater-Kinney, the late-stage riot grrrl trio born in the mid-’90s that recently returned from a nine-year hiatus to tour behind its new record No Cities to Love. And while Brownstein is carving out a second career as an actress, with recent roles in Jill Soloway’s TV series Transparent and Todd Haynes’ film Carol, she is first and foremost a musician, and the music is the basis for her story.

That story has now been immortalized in the form of a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, out tomorrow on Riverhead Books. Brownstein started the book before the band decided to get back together, and it doesn’t try to be the definitive version of anything — it’s just a take on her life and the band from her perspective.

Brownstein writes that for years, she strove to compartmentalize herself from the music that she shares with the people who love her work. She’s been on the other side, been the obsessed fan, and knew she could never provide what her fans wanted. “For a long while I could share nothing more than the music itself. I think I was too scared to be open with fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be,” she writes. “How could I help them if I was just like them?”

She split the difference by opening up just enough to give her band and her music context. There’s plenty about the making of Sleater-Kinney’s seminal records, but less about her (brief) romantic relationship with her bandmate, Corin Tucker. And we hear about her mom’s anorexia, but less about their currently strained relationship. There’s plenty about the various animals she rescued during the band’s hiatus, but you won’t find much about Portlandia.

Structurally, Brownstein breaks the book up into three sections: Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and Aftermath. A prologue hints at the circumstances surrounding the traumatic European tour that necessitated the band’s hiatus in 2005, and an epilogue recounts its lurid details, including the nervous breakdown in Brussels in which she repeatedly punched herself in the face before a show.

Many of the personal truths that Brownstein reveals are related to her parents. Her mother has suffered from anorexia, first checking into an into an eating disorder unit at a hospital in Seattle when Brownstein was 14. She reveals that much of her response was self-centered — rather than sympathy for her ailing mother, she felt disappointment at losing her mother to the affliction, and even enjoyment at its effect on her social status. “I was mildly enjoying the attention that having a mother in the hospital granted me,” she writes. “An illness in the family felt like the currency I needed to make myself more interesting.”

She admits to being distant to her mom even today, but doesn’t really elaborate. The closest we get to understanding it is when she describes how her mom shared a closeness with other eating-disorder patients, an understanding she could never have. They provided a circle of safety and shelter, one that Brownstein was distinctly outside of. She acknowledges her mother had a desire to be closer to her, but it wasn’t mutual. “I judged,” she writes, “these weak women and their diseases. Eat already, or stop eating. Get it together!”

Brownstein seems much closer with her father now, but in the book she recounts how she didn’t really know his true self until he came out when she was in her 20s. (In fairness to him, he likely didn’t know himself until then either.) She recalls a moment after he’d moved from her childhood home in Redmond, Washington, to an apartment in Seattle, the first time her dad bought Christmas ornaments. He was starting fresh — a new life — and in the new ornaments, free of memories, free of the bonds of Christmases past spent with family, Brownstein saw the family that she longed for but didn’t find in the nucleus of her mom, dad, and sister.

That being said, the meat of Hunger Makes a Modern Girl is Sleater-Kinney, and the book is dedicated to her bandmates Tucker and Janet Weiss. She started the band with Tucker 1994, originally as a side project of the two bands they were in at the time, Tucker’s Heavens to Betsy and Brownstein’s Excuse 17. Brownstein was 19 years old. So much of the band is defined by their relationship; at first romantic, but always musical. She recounts the odd way Tucker’s guitar was tuned the first time they plugged in, how it affected her vocal register, and how they haven’t changed it since. She talks about writing for a band with two guitars, how her chords were incomplete without her partner. “My chords were half formed,” Brownstein writes. “I was always trying to leave room for Corin. My entire style of playing was built around somebody else playing guitar with me.” But she doesn’t go into much detail about their romantic relationship, other than to admit their breakup was “heartbreaking,” and that Tucker’s relationship with now-husband Lance Bangs, which started just after theirs ended, made touring uneasy at first.

But she also allows for some fun trivia, like the origins of the clank sounds in “Heart Factory” being a space heater that Weiss drummed on, and the rationale behind her signature leg kick: “When I kicked my legs out toward the crowd or swung my guitar close to the heads in the front row, it was about trying to physically harness the moment, to crash into strangers in a horrible but ecstatic impact, a shared bruising.”

As a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl tries to look back without being overly sentimental, withholds a lot, and doesn’t fill in all the biographical gaps. But as a writer, Brownstein uses some old paradigms of music journalism to great effect, using the more creative aspects of memory to help us view her past the way she does, like when she recounts how the smell of the Eating Disorder Unit has a color: “Like any part of a hospital, an eating-disorder unit has a smell. The smell is like a color that doesn’t have a recognizable hue, an Easter egg dipped into every kind of dye until it possesses an unnamed ugliness. It is beige, it is skin, it is bile. The EDU smelled like protein-rich powder supplements and chemical cleaners, like a hot, stinging exhale of despair.”

Such transportive language is somewhat unnecessary in modern music criticism, when one can stream a new album and read a review simultaneously, but it works much better here, since we rely on her memory to take us to the places she’s writing about. And for a peek at just where she’s coming from, one need look no farther than “Modern Girl,” the track from 2005’s The Woods that serves as inspiration for the book’s title:

“My baby loves me, I’m so hungry/ Hunger makes me a modern girl/ Took my money and bought a donut/ The hole’s the size of this entire world… My whole life/ Looks like a picture of a sunny day/ My whole life/ Looked like a picture of a sunny day.”