Carrie Brownstein Rules at Everything
On Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein demonstrates that with a little persistence, anyone can pickle anything. In real life, the indie-rock star turned music critic turned sketch comedian proves that the same general principle applies to mastering an art form—or a racquet sport.
There's a 12-piece polka band setting up in Carrie Brownstein’s neighborhood dive bar when we pop in on a Saturday afternoon in November. We’re looking for a quiet place to chat after our photo shoot, and this is not that place. “It’s like an episode of Portlandia!” says the 39-year-old cocreator and costar of IFC’s hit television sketch show, which lovingly satirizes modern life at urban hipness ground zero.
That Brownstein has enough energy to summon a joke is amazing. She was out the night before at a wrap party. Portlandia’s fourth season just finished three months of filming, and she spent that time in “a state of mania,” on set 12 hours a day, jumping between two or three locations, playing four or five characters (requiring at least that many wig changes). At times like this, she says, “I don’t need to sleep as much. I don’t need to eat as much. I exist on a level that’s fervent and restless.”
If you’ve paid attention to Brownstein’s career, that explains a lot: She seems to have the superhuman ability to master whatever she pursues. Portlandia is just one line on her résumé. She’s also a guitarist and singer who spent a dozen years co-fronting the celebrated indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney. Not long ago, she released another critically acclaimed album with a different band, Wild Flag.
And as if that weren’t enough multitasking mastery, she’s about three quarters of the way through writing a new album—one she won’t say much about except that she’s working with people she’s worked with before, which is enough to make a Sleater-Kinney fan’s heart skip a beat. In her free time, she’s working on rewrites of a memoir.
“I would describe her style as ‘Keep going, then go more, then let’s do this, then let’s think about that, and then here’s another idea,’” says Fred Armisen, her Portlandia partner. The verb Brownstein uses to describe her work life is vacillate. But switching from acting to music to writing doesn’t feel like shifting existences. “It’s coming from the same place of energy and intention and drive,” she says. “It’s easy to take lessons from one discipline and apply them to another.”
Although she comes across as a perfectionist—she speaks in thoughtful complete paragraphs—Brownstein’s training has been ad hoc. As a self-proclaimed drama nerd growing up outside Seattle, she went to theater camp and acted in school plays but was “diffident and awkward” on stage. Something about it appealed to her anyway. “There were moments that I could transcend that and sense that the stage was a place you could step outside yourself,” she says. “It was music that got me further outside, to that place of fearlessness or trying not to care what people thought.”
At 14, she saved up babysitting money to buy a guitar, enlisting a neighbor to teach her chords. She played in a riot grrrl band called Excuse 17 at Evergreen State College in the early ’90s and then, from 1994 to 2006, in Sleater-Kinney, a tight trio that, over the course of seven albums, transcended punk rock to become a staple of critic’s-pick lists. Greil Marcus, in Time, called them the best rock band of 2001, and Rolling Stone declared Brownstein one of “the 25 most underrated guitarists.”
But even at Sleater-Kinney’s pinnacle, Brownstein’s interest in acting didn’t recede. In Portland for a summer in the early 2000s, she and her friend Miranda July, the writer and performance artist, embarked on a course of study that could double as a segment from Portlandia. They collected a group of seven or eight acquaintances into what Brownstein describes as a “folksy, casual, almost self-undermining” theater group. Each week, a member was tasked with coming up with a lesson plan. He or she would go out and buy a book on acting technique—Meisner or Stanislavsky—and teach it to the group through improv activities.
July was fond of using psychoanalytic ’70s board games she found at thrift stores. “We’d just pull the cards out and sit around someone’s living room or backyard and play out these scenarios,” Brownstein laughs. But the endeavor wasn’t a joke. “It was a way of dealing with tedium but also acknowledging a kind of ambition we had. It was a way of taking risks couched as silliness.”
It was her first experience publicly embracing awkwardness—of harnessing the power of those little moments of clumsy uncertainty. In Sleater-Kinney, she says, “We were OK with being disarming, but you didn’t want to be awkward.”
Portlandia’s impulse is the opposite. Its humor is predicated on a layer of clumsiness, on dipping a toe into real life’s often uncomfortable current. To Brownstein, it’s why the comedy works. “Clunkiness can be charming if it’s married with intention and bravado,” she says. “It’s OK to embrace the parts that seem mismatched. That’s when you surprise people. It’s very hard to surprise people.”
People who knew Brownstein as a serious rock star were surprised when she started popping up in goofy online improv videos with Saturday Night Live’s Armisen in 2005. With Sleater-Kinney winding down, Brownstein was looking for other things to do. In the ensuing years, she contributed to NPR’s All Songs Considered, volunteered at Portland’s humane society (she’s good at training dogs), and, even briefly, worked a day job at the hip Portland ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. (“I was dreaming of corporate lunches,” she told NPR’s Peter Sagal in 2012. “But it turns out I’m not very good at working with a traditional boss.”) She and Armisen met at an SNL after-party (he was a Sleater-Kinney fan, wearing a button with her face on it) and became fast friends. Their comedy duo, ThunderAnt, made satirical sketches about snooty foodies, uptight feminist bookstore employees, and bloviating performance artists—a rough draft of Portlandia, which debuted in 2011.
If Brownstein’s new role as comedic actress was incongruous—this cool rock star wearing a fake mustache in a crude rendering of a muscle-head boyfriend—it was also totally hilarious. She eased into the role with such charm and shared such obvious chemistry with Armisen that the juxtaposition was hardly jarring. Together, they’re the Lucy and Desi of the YouTube era.
Brownstein also found familiarity in the process. To her, writing a song and writing a sketch are similar exercises. “There’s a moment of vulnerability when you present your ideas to someone else,” she says. “I like the sense that the idea is not fully formed until it’s been added to or rethought or restructured with collaborators. If you’re working with people you trust and admire, there’s an implicit awareness that the idea will actually be better once everybody chimes in.”
This makes writing her book both the least collaborative of her pursuits and the most challenging. After she finished filming Portlandia’s third season, Brownstein turned her focus to writing the first draft of her memoir. Being alone with a laptop can be intimidating. “All the onus and drive is whatever is inside me every morning, and sometimes it’s not there,” she says of writing. “I’ve never known procrastination greater.”
After rejecting the loud dive bar, we end up across the street at a bicycle shop that serves espresso and flights of beer on skateboards. “That is such an unnecessary presentation,” she laughs. “People always ask if Portland is like Portlandia, and I say it’s weirder.”
The show may be a skewering send-up of hipster culture, the earthy, overearnest, faux-inclusive Portland variety in particular, but it’s also a loving homage to the city and its people. It’s the kind of good-natured teasing that can only come from a place of genuine investment. Brownstein cares deeply about the city she’s called home since 2000. It’s not just the small-town outsider spirit that lets things like backyard theater groups arise. There’s also an enduring faith in the future and in community—something the show gently lambasts as “the dream of the ’90s”—but which for Brownstein is still an important motivating force.
“I want others to feel a sense of ownership. I like to feel invited into a space, whether that is a creative space or a dialogue with art or culture,” she says when asked whether it’s important that her work have underlying politics. “It doesn’t have to be overtly political. It doesn’t have to be aggressive or contrarian. But I like something that posits a question, something that foments engagement and loyalty. We’re in an age of dabblers. There are so many dabblers. To have something that somebody wants to engage and reengage with is exciting.”
For Brownstein even dabbling is a chance to gain a new proficiency. She won a ping-pong tournament a couple of years ago. She’s “entranced” by sociolinguistics, which she studied in college. She recently accidentally mastered slam poetry. (“I started extemporizing slam poems in jest and then started to get pretty good at them.”) When I ask Armisen whether there’s anything Brownstein can’t do, he says, “She cannot bring liquids, aerosols, or gels onto a commercial aircraft if they are not consolidated into one bag and X-rayed separately.”
“I’m not very good with stillness,” Brownstein says. But curiously, this hasn’t turned her into a classic multitasker. She’s more like a serial tasker—a master of prioritization with an ability to focus intensely on one thing at a time. And it’s clear she’s careful to concentrate on what’s truly important to her while letting the rest—namely cooking and yoga—fall by the wayside. “I want to be present in everything I do,” she says. “That’s the only limitation I set for myself.”