“Riot grrl” gets used as a modifier a lot when we talk about Carrie Brownstein. There’s a big reason for that, of course: her band Sleater-Kinney, set to release its first album in a decade and embark on a reunion tour later this year, is one of the most identifiable and essential groups to spring out of the genre. But scan through the tens of thousands of results you get when you plop the term next to her name in Google, and it’s quickly apparent that—more often than not—it has become a sort of lazy shorthand, an identifying buzzword scribbled onto the back of a flashcard.
“Riot Grrl Carrie Brownstein.” “The former riot grrl.” “Riot grrl-turned-comedienne.” More recently, the phrase has been used as a play on her IFC series, Portlandia, which kicks off its fifth season on Jan. 8: “The Riot Girl Turned Laugh Riot,” or even simply “the laugh-riot-girl.”
The thing is, Carrie Brownstein has been a woman for some time now. And she’s never been one to be so easily categorized.
On top of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, she’ll be releasing her memoir this fall. She just finished a draft of Lost in Austen, a screenplay adaptation of a British miniseries Nora Ephron was working on before she passed away in 2012. Later this year, she’ll begin shooting season two of Transparent, and she’ll make her major film debut in Todd Haynes’ Carol. In the past, she has written NPR’s “Monitor Mix” column, worked at an ad agency, studied sociolinguistics.
So is there really any one descriptor that can encapsulate the many hats Brownstein has worn over the years, as well as the ones she plans on trying on in the future?
“That’s a really philosophical question,” she says over dinner in Portland the week before Christmas. She laughs a little, glances at her plate—a radicchio salad and dungeness crab—and looks up again. “What is me?”
Of course, that word doesn’t begin to cover all her responsibilities—writing, performing, producing—on Portlandia, a show she and Fred Armisen never imagined would be entering its fifth season.
“I think that the most well-intentioned, optimistic, creative people often live for the moment, and for Portlandia, our goals were always very sort of short-term and attainable,” Brownstein says. “Keep the stakes high. If we spread the stakes out over multiple seasons, then each season is kind of betting on the next one, betting on the future, and I don’t think you can do that in any art form, so we had no idea.”
Those stakes may be higher than ever—at least logistically. With Armisen in New York serving as bandleader on Late Night with Seth Meyers and Brownstein balancing her array of projects, time together to work has become an increasingly rare commodity.
“One thing that’s really beautiful about our friendship and also the show is that we’re aware of the way the show has granted us new opportunities, and we try to allow the other person that freedom to explore those things,” Brownstein explains. “It also keeps us very protective of Portlandia, so it’s sort of the more that things start to challenge our time, the more we feel that Portlandia is sacred and that we focus on it so intently, and that’s definitely how season five felt, where I was doing Transparent and Jon [Krisel, Portlandia’s director] was working on a show for FX, and Fred was doing Seth Meyers, and I think sometimes when you have to carve out something, when you’re working in opposition to other things, that’s when you hone in on why you’re doing something. It creates a reason to justify and remind yourself. And that’s when I think there’s a clarity.
“And I mean not that we wanted to completely obliterate Portlandia,” she adds, laughing. “but I think the more forces that are conspiring against us, that forces us to protect what we made and make the best season we can. So hopefully in the remaining seasons, that will be the case, because we’re trying to sort of nurture those few months where we get together.”
That said, she doesn’t plan on putting a bird on it or berating customers at the Women & Women First bookstore indefinitely.
“I think a couple more years,” she offers. “I‘m of two minds about it. One is I feel so lucky to be part of something that was such a natural extension of a friendship. That’s so rare in the world of TV or film to have a genuine friendship turn into something that people watch, that people relate to. That’s so unique. And the third part of that is Jonathan Krisel who’s our director and writer, and the three of us share that point-of-view, and it’s very insular and singular, and I think there’s just a weirdness to Portlandia that I’ve not really seen and I don’t think—no matter what we do, whether it’s a total success or a total failure, this will not happen again. So I’m in no hurry to make it stop, but at the same time, a couple more seasons and we’ll have told our story. What I love about it is this year we decided ‘Let’s just focus an entire episode on a singular topic’ and that freedom we’re very lucky to have. There are so many great sketch shows, Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, that there’s no reason that we would keep doing that. So when I see the Schumer show, I’m just like ‘Ah, that’s so brilliant, we don’t have to do that anymore. She’s doing it so well.’ It allows us to go on and do the next thing. So a couple more seasons of that, and then the other reality is we’ve only made 10 episodes a year, so it’s not like we’re doing 22 episodes and if we do eight seasons we’ve done like 160 episodes. If we do six, seven seasons, we’ve still only done 70.”
But Brownstein’s acting career has already branched out beyond Portlandia. She’s making her Hollywood debut (if you don’t count 2002’s Group and Some Days Are Better Than Others, the 2010 indie she starred in with The Shins’ James Mercer) with a part in Todd Haynes’ Carol— although she’s quick to insist it’s a small role (“From what I’ve heard, the first cut of that movie was very long, and they cut it way down. I mean, if people can even recognize me in the movie, I will be shocked. But it was a good experience. I feel like I went through a classic rite of passage that many people go through in terms of film where it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I was in that movie until they cut me right out of it.’”). She’s also had an opportunity to showcase some of her dramatic chops on Transparent as Syd, the best friend of youngest Pfefferman sibling Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), a part written specifically for her by creator Jill Soloway.
“We were sort of orbiting each other’s worlds for a while,” Brownstein says. “I was a big fan of her work and she was a fan of mine, and I think she just intuitively felt that we would have a kinship just because we have similar backgrounds in some respects, and we met in Los Angeles. She had shot the pilot, and they ended up reshooting a lot of it, so Jill wanted to find a way of getting me into the show, and Syd had a couple permutations before we kind of settled on her being Ali’s childhood friend. I felt very lucky. I had read the script and then saw the pilot, and I just knew she was doing something so special. It just felt so authentic in terms of ‘this is what it’s like to be a family.’ And all the variables or sort of modifiers about what sort of family they are, to me it was just about a family, and the perspective on it was so fresh. I was really excited to get to work with them.”
In 2008, Brownstein told Pitchfork that acting was “a mere hobby,” but when asked today if she still feels that way, she pauses.
“I think when I step back and assess it, there are two through-lines,” she says. “One is writing, and the other is performance. I think I’ve just come to accept that those take on different permutations, and as a kid, I did acting in that sort of more theatrical, drama/improv world before I did music, so I feel like when I latched onto music as a teenager and in my 20s, there was an immediacy that I really related to, and it was in some ways like a life raft, a community and that sense of recognition. And I don’t mean external praise, I just mean seeing myself in the world for the first time. Hearing songs and thinking ‘that’s my story.’ That sense of community. I don’t know. I guess now with a little more perspective, I just feel that prime through-line of work that connects to people and feels relevant, and whether that’s writing or music or acting, it’s kind of part of the same beast.”
On this particular day, prior to meeting me, she was at rehearsal, getting ready to tour behind Sleater-Kinney’s new record, No Cities to Love (out Jan. 20). The band surprised fans last year with word of the record, their first since 2005’s The Woods, waiting until October to announce it and its accompanying North American jaunt. But Brownstein says the idea to reunite came up about two years ago, at singer Corin Tucker’s house, over an episode of Portlandia, of all things.
“I think that the main goal was to have an album,” she explains. “I felt like I didn’t want anything to be motivated by nostalgia. I’m wary of that as a directive or an impulse in terms of creativity, so I wanted to be in dialogue with the present. I was very insistent that if we did anything that it was couched as an album, and that we should write an album as if we were writing our first album. It should sound urgent and as necessary as if we had just started as a band. And I think the only hesitation was whether we’d be able to achieve that, and so that’s what gave us pause. That’s why we didn’t announce anything. We kind of waited to see if we were capable of that. I don’t think there was a broader hesitation; it was just waiting to make sure that whatever we did honored the legacy of the band and didn’t tarnish it in any way. There was sort of no reason to do something if it was going to be this sort of flaccid addendum to this work that we’d already done.”
Once the decision was made to reunite, Brownstein, Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss found themselves aware of the time that had passed, yet also able to dig right in and pick up where they left off.
“It’s kind of like reconvening with an ex-lover or hanging out with a relative you haven’t seen in five or 10 years, where there’s just this familiarity that’s completely obvious and undeniable,” Brownstein says. “The problem I think with creative endeavors is familiarity is not necessarily from where you want to start working. It’s kind of ‘Oh, this is easy.’ There’s a slightly regressive quality to it. The same way when you get together with your family for the holidays it’s like ‘Oh, I’m the youngest’ or ‘I’m the middle’ so you just fall into this role and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Wow, I act like an adult around my friends, but with my family I guess I’ll always be 16.’ Sleater-Kinney I think operates in the same way. You know, I started in that band when I was 19, and I’m the youngest in the band, so even though I’m fully an adult and have a whole world outside of Sleater-Kinney, you can easily slip back into the role. So it was definitely a combination of feeling like nothing had changed and feeling that everything had changed.”
“The Woods came out in 2005, and this album was just a less reactionary experience,” she continues. “I think when you’re in the cycle of right before tour, especially in terms of the album, you tend to be reactionary in terms of your last. And you can hear it in any artist now. ‘Oh, I made this kind of record so my next record will be the opposite.’ You try to kind of stay ahead of the curve. But when you take more time, you have a little bit of perspective and you don’t have to do something that’s just in reaction to the most recent thing because there isn’t a recent thing. So we were able to survey the whole landscape, but I think we want to make sure that we did something that sounded new.”
The world could use a great new Sleater-Kinney record, especially after what a weird year for women in pop culture 2014 turned out to be. On the one hand, female artists both dominated charts and put out many of the albums deemed by critics to be the year’s best, but across other media—particularly on the internet, where female videogame journalists and developers were systematically harassed and doxxed and stolen nude photos of celebrities were posted as if they were public property—misogyny continued to run rampant.
“To me it’s exciting that women are dominating the pop charts,” Brownstein says. “I think that there’s so many versions of femininity, and in terms of gender as a binary construct, that seems to be being dismantled…That someone like Taylor Swift embraces the term feminist, or Beyonce, they have a huge amount of cultural power, and I think it’s exciting to see that play out…The only thing to me that I think is frustrating to me is this debate over what constitutes a ‘real’ feminist. It seems very counterproductive.”
Much of the sexism we saw in 2014, she says, is connected to this cultural shift, a negative reaction to a positive situation from people who have been conditioned to fear empowered women.
“I think there is a cultural shift towards femininity, and that’s very threatening to people who benefit from patriarchy and masculinity being the norm. And I’m not even talking about gender; I’m talking about a worldview. Seeing that drift into more grey areas, that’s very threatening [to them]. So I do think it’s all kind of interrelated, kind of a huge combative rejection of a perceived threat. I feel the tide shifting but I feel like there’s also a really very—even like the leaked photos or some of the reports of sexual violence, people speaking out—there’s just a sense [that] the chorus of protest is just kind of threatening for the people that benefit from everybody staying quiet.”
Brownstein and Armisen aren’t staying quiet; instead they’re highlighting the issue by blending humor and food-for-thought in a way that only Portlandia can. In this season’s premiere, we find out the backstory of feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace—they were cutthroat publishing executives pitted against each other by their male boss. It’s goofy, yet incredibly smart, and Brownstein took extra care to make sure they got it right.
“It was very important to me that despite the absurdity that Portlandia can embrace, that we kept a very precise and clear message of solidarity and feminism in that episode,” she says. “I was very careful to watch the edits and make sure that we didn’t lose that in that story. I think we really wanted to make sure that at the core of who they were, despite them being flawed and outdated in some of their modes of thinking, that at the core of it was a friendship and that their struggle had been real. And even though they ended up at a place where they’re really obnoxious to their customers and sometimes are insolent and ridiculous, that there was a genuine and earnest motivation for what they did. And I think that we struck that balance in this episode. It’s so silly sometimes and so ridiculous, but there is that great scene I’m proud of, in Toni’s apartment that’s like ‘We will never throw another woman under the bus,’ and that was really important to me, even if it was just a slight insertion of reality, that we stuck by those realizations that I think people have all the time, where you’ve been operating under a certain set of circumstances and thinking that there’s only one way of achieving your goals and then you hit a point of frustration and anger and then you turn the corner. I’m glad that something genuine happened to them, even though the rest of it is very silly.”
And her writing—whether it’s for TV, film or her upcoming memoir—has taught her to look both within herself and to the work of others for inspiration.
A few months ago, Brownstein told NPR that the common thread in all of her endeavors is the sense of being an outsider peering in, saying “I think in all of the creative pursuits I have, I feel like it’s an exploration of otherness and feeling like an outsider and creating work that’s strange and unusual that goes along the periphery for people to find if they need it. I think that’s how I go through life—kind of in an outside lane, sort of observing.” But that’s not her approach when it comes to writing about her own life.
“I think with the memoir the challenge is to not be on the outside looking in,” she says. “You have to kind of dive into the stickier elements and be critical and honest and vulnerable. I think more from a subject matter perspective, it feels like a book or a story about an outsider, but I think that it’s not written from a detached perspective at all. I think that detachment can be kind of alienating with that sort of writing. And it’s not overly confessional, but I think it has to have a transparency and a vulnerability that lends itself to being relatable.”
For Lost in Austen, the method was extremely different—picking up and adapting someone else’s story instead of looking at her own life—but the end-goal is the same: to relate.
“I found it very freeing in the same way that I found Transparent freeing, sort of trusting a vision that exists outside yourself,” Brownstein says. “I think it’s those kind of differences that allow me to balance things. It’s more interpretation, and there are parameters there that someone else has set for you. I think when you’re creating your own work, you have to set your own parameters. Pushing up against somebody else’s rules is really important in terms of defining what your point-of-view is. So with something like Lost in Austen, where there’s rules and there’s expectations and logic and tropes in terms of romantic comedy, it’s fun to sort of step into that world and do my best with the outline and that infrastructure.”
“The first thing I did when I got the job was watch romantic comedies,” she continues, “And you realize that when you’re watching a romantic comedy, you know that they’re gonna end up together, and you know they’re gonna fall in love. It doesn’t matter. It’s exciting. It’s almost like it’s triggering all these synapses in your brain, all these pleasure synapses in your brain and the pleasure centers in your brain. It feels like you’re falling in love. So there’s a very symbiotic projection onto the characters that you feel, and it can be a very exhilarating ride. You don’t want to remove that. You don’t want to apply too much cynicism, so it’s tricky because I think everyone wants to revolutionize or modernize this idea of a romantic comedy, but there’s something very fundamental about it, and that was a good challenge for me, because I feel like with something like Sleater-Kinney, there’s this kind of irreverence, you know? And irreverence doesn’t necessarily work if you’re writing romantic comedy. No one wants to feel alienated.”
We’ve all gotta relate somehow. “I think one thing I’ve realized is I have a perennial restlessness and a continual sort of agitation,” Brownstein muses. “I’m just always someone with an itchy sweater on or something, you know? It’s just my way of relating to the world.”
She may have four or five more careers than the average person, but ultimately she’s like any of us: eager to connect and determined to keep moving.
“I think it’s the path I found myself on to stave off loneliness and inertia,” she says. “It’s my way of feeling connection and meaning. I like creative partnerships, I like collaboration, I like the sense of community, and for me, as someone who doesn’t have a day-to-day job, it’s a way of being in the world. But I wanna be in the world in a lot of different ways. I guess it’s almost a sort of selfishness of just wanting the experiences and wanting the connection, and it’s not self-serving, it’s really just a way of tethering myself to a multitude of worlds that feel fulfilling and exciting to me.
“It’s not that I don’t feel content”—she catches herself here, clarifying “I mean I’m not content” and laughing—“but I’m not unhappy.”
“To me content is a passive state, and happiness is an active state. I always want to feel activated and motivated. Contentment is momentary. I never want to be passive. That feeling is very dangerous to me. And I think it’s dangerous to art and culture and politics. I always just think ‘stay alert.’”
You can pick up on that alertness from just sharing one meal with Carrie Brownstein. She’s one of those people who really look you in the eyes when you’re talking to them—really look at you, not just in the way an interview subject waits expectantly for you to ask them a question, but as if she’s simultaneously listening intently and getting a read on you. It’s the kind of manner well-suited to a reporter. Of course, “journalist” is yet another descriptor that can be applied to Brownstein, another trade at which this renaissance woman has tried her hand.
So, what is Carrie?
“You know,” she decides, “I’m a seeker, I guess. I think that they’re all a version of me, and I think the challenge is to feel myself in all of them and feel a sense of wholeness and fulfillment in those worlds and to try to get better at all those things.”
But ultimately, her goals for this new—and in her case, insanely busy—year have little to do with excelling in any specific field. They’re about trying to get better at being a person.
“I think I’m starting to learn that the things that are really worthwhile are—and they’re trite—but just happiness and kindness and health and the things that actually carry you from one year to the next,” she says. “The career ups and downs and permutations of what it means to be successful, I am so grateful for, but I really think 2015 will be a great year if I at the year’s end feel I’ve improved as a human being and that I’ve learned more empathy and kindness. I mean, it’s so cliché, but I really just think like those are the things that matter when you’re staring down Dec. 31. It has so little to do with award nominations and accolades. So yeah, the best 2015 is that I’m good to the people that love me . It couldn’t be more cheesy, but I really think it’s true.”