MARNIE STERN DOESNT fit the profile of a guitar-shredding virtuoso. Shes too chipper, too warm, too cute and too blond.The woman lives on the Upper East Side for Gods sake. But to her credit, she seems aware that her apartment location isnt exactly a breeding ground for sick rock music. How is life on the Upper East Side these days? Horrible! she chirps. But its pretty and quiet. Its away from the scene.
Sterns choice to live uptown allows her the distraction-free quarantine she needs to focus on writing songs, but its also an area shes familiar with. Stern grew up on the Upper East Side as well as in the Village. She was a smart kid who skipped her senior year of high school and applied for, and was accepted to, New York University under an early admission policy. Stern studied journalism and describes herself at the time as a newspaper junkie. But the writing career didnt pan out as she had anticipated.
I just wasnt very good at it, she says. When she graduated, she took a job as an editorial assistant and proofreader at Columbia House, notorious hucksters of the 12 CDs for a Penny deal. She quit after working there for a year and picked up other gigs temping and waitressing around the city. She was around 21 at the time, and, with time to spare between work hours, she started playing guitar. It was just something I always wanted to do, she says, but didnt think I could.
Stern had picked up a guitar as a teenager with lackluster enthusiasm. Now, she dove headfirst into playing, working constantly at trying to learn the instrument.
It was a very, very slow, steady process. Stern played for hours on end, honing her skills by way of the word every child musician hates to hear his or her parents use: practice. But by the time I was older and practicing, my parents were like, What the fuck are you doing with your life? Stern says she developed her style by experimenting and trying out new sounds, finding contemporary influences in Hellas Spencer Seim and Lightning Bolts Brian Gibson; but a viewing of a seconds-long YouTube video of math-rock legends Don Caballero proved especially influential. Although the clip was short, and Stern couldnt quite make out what guitarist Ian Williams was doing, the sound caught her ear. I didnt see what he was doing, just that he had two hands up, she says.Williams practiced finger tapping on the fretboard of his electric guitar, a technique that Stern acquired that would eventually become a signature style of her playing.
Throughout her twenties, Stern crafted demos and submitted them to various labels, but she had no real feedback until the Kill Rock Stars label perked up to her music in 2006. Right before her 30th birthday, she got the message that the label would put out her record, and her music career shot off basically overnight, according to her. Stern, now 32, is an anomaly for having released her debut album at an age beyond the early twenties. But having success later in life has had pros mixed in with the cons. Its more difficult to be touring when youre older, Stern admits, although, I know myself a lot better.
The debut album, In Advance of the Broken Arm, came out in 2007 to strong critical reviews.The success put a lot of pressure on Stern to produce a gem the second time around with this years This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is It and He Is It and She Is It and That Is That, named for an essay by philosopher Alan Watts. I just stayed up for a year basically working on stuff, she says.With this album also receiving critical praise, it seems Sterns insomnia was well worth it. Stern admits that she doesnt practice as fervently as she once did and that spatial constraints on a tour bus keep her from writing songs on the road. But the poster child for the phrase practice makes perfect dives right back into work when she returns home, tinkering with ideas that evolved on tour and chucking those that dont come together. But perhaps most importantly, she gives a hipper name to Upper East Side girls with every finger tap.
> Marnie Stern
Nov. 28, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 N. 6th St. (betw. Kent & Wythe Aves.), Brooklyn, 212-260- 4700; 8, $15. Also Nov. 19 at Santos Party House.
Marnie Stern and her fearsome fingers.