Itinerary: Marnie Stern Takes Care of Business
A scant few years ago, Marnie Stern sent her ferocious punk demo to independent record label Kill Rock Stars. This critically adored hurricane of noise, In Advance of the Broken Arm, was succeeded by three more LPs—her third, The Chronicles of Marnia, is out March 19. Each puts dissonant, intricate guitar work into the service of almost shockingly tuneful face-melters, but Marnia may pack the biggest rush of any, squalling with something like a quicksilver consciousness of its own.
Despite her dedication to thunderous, unrelenting rock, Ms. Stern isn’t exactly living on the razor’s edge. She’d be the first to apologize for this, as it turns out. The good news is she’s that witty, laid-back friend who can make doing nothing pretty fun. We tagged along while she ran a few important errands around her native Upper East Side.
Brace yourself when entering: you are about to get some love from an excitable nine-year-old Maltese-Yorkie mix named Fig, who is about as small as a large guinea pig. Marnie cuddles and coos at what she views as a superior alternative to a human child, of which this neighborhood has too many. Though, she notes, “this is the same apartment I was a baby in.” Mom now lives in Florida, where Marnie spends most winters. “She goes on tour, she’s on every album cover,” Marnie says of her pet, who nearly died when one of her mom’s dogs attacked her a few weeks ago. You wouldn’t know it from her sunny disposition—what a survivor.
“Old lady furniture and cheap pieces” is how Marnie describes the apartment, knocking on a wooden coffee table made by an ex-boyfriend. A back room reveals electronics, guitars, a bed, and a rack of eclectic clothes on hangers. She records here, with possible overdubs later. Usually she writes in Florida, out on the patio, but quitting cigarettes ten months ago threw a wrench into her process. “Twin ballerinas used to live in this room,” Marnie mentions, shuddering at this memory. “I’m going to have to find another roommate soon. Even though we’re rent-controlled, it’s still pretty expensive.” As we leave, she points out a framed photo of herself as a mischievously smiling kid. “It’s weird that I leave that out there, right?”
U.S. Post Office
The rack of clothes, it transpires, is not for the wearing but the selling. Marnie and her mom have an eBay business in scouring thrift stores for items to be auctioned online. “I don’t have an income!” she explains—it’s giving guitar lessons and this. As such, it’s time to mail a package to some lucky bidder. “It’s a sweater. For someone in…Glenwood Springs, Colorado,” she reads off the address label. Sales have been slow recently; some days she would drag a wheelie cart full of stuff through snow to the post office. “And I would see these old spinster women doing that and think: oh, please not me in twenty years.” She confesses to hating this part of Manhattan when she first moved back to the city, figuring she had nothing in common with its inhabitants. “Now it doesn’t bother me, which is scary,” she says. At the very least, she’s over the idea of Brooklyn, having lived in Clinton Hill in a seedier era. “There’s always moving to L.A., being warm all the time. But thinking about it gives me the bad feeling.”
Second Avenue is all blinding sun and choppy gusts of wind. “We’re going to blow away,” Marnie is confident in predicting. “My nephew took Tae Kwon Do at that place,” she points. She laments the poor shops run out of business by the constant and abrasive construction of a new subway line. “At night you can hear the explosions down there.” Suddenly the ground underneath our feet seems not altogether solid.
We hit the Goodwill Store to find something else for the eBay rack. An employee is noticeably confused to hear Marnie, petit as she is, ask after the plus sizes. “That’s what’s been selling,” she says, beginning to methodically work through the selection. “Some brands sell, some don’t, and it changes; it’s hard to keep up. For a while it was J. Crew." Speak of the devil: she pulls out a red fleece J. Crew hoodie with leather drawstrings and deems it cute. Only eight bucks. But final inspection reveals a hole, and we leave empty-handed.
“This is really exciting, isn’t it?” Marnie says by way of apology once more. But what New Yorker’s day would be complete without a visit to the only drug store in town? On the way we discuss the buzzed-about Win A Date With Marnie Stern promotion, which she at first resisted “because what if nobody entered? That’d be too sad.” Now she holds out some hope. “I’m not looking to date a musician or anyone in their twenties, is the thing.” Forty-year-olds, line up. At the Duane Reade pharmacy counter there’s a snag with the insurance. “How sick is that shit? You have to pay to rent space on the planet?” She picks up some pepper flakes for a French onion soup she wants to make later on. We kill a few minutes in the cosmetics aisle, where Marnie explains the difficulty of gluing on fake eyelashes, which she’s only attempted twice. As if it’s been on her mind all day, she broaches the topic of luck. “I used to not believe in it—I didn’t want to believe in it. Now I’m on the fence, but I don’t to be!” She agrees that some talented, hard-working artists haven’t caught a break. “But they will,” she insists.
Yorkshire Wines & Spirits
Marnie is full of good stories. One of her first jobs, at age 21, was proofreading for the Columbia House brand, “but I didn’t do anything.” Her greatest mistake was allowing a Bob Dylan box set to be priced at $6.99 instead of $69.99. She never bought CDs on impulse, she says; she always did her research. She says she doesn’t get recognized, ever, but once after two full hours on the phone with tech support she was asked, “Wait, are you Marnie Stern the lyricist and guitarist?” The guy went on to inform her that punk music was very important to him. Marnie, for part of our walk, verbally compiles all the logistics she has to sort for the tour, which starts in April. She does it all by herself, since she doesn’t have a manager. “I had one, but I couldn’t afford to pay them. I ended up doing things myself because it’s easier that way.” In the liquor store, Marnie wants to find some wine to cook with but professes ignorance as to quality: “There’s this Yellow Tail and it doesn’t taste too terrible.” She ends up with two bottles of Shiraz and something white, choosing a card to swipe almost at random. “Have to see which one works.” It’s a go on the first try.
“Do you download movies?” Marnie asks. “Not, like Netflix, but the other, the bad kind? I do. I don’t for music, but I do for movies. I’m a hypocrite.” That self-effacement is evident, too, in Marnie’s ultimate decision not to cook using her wine and pepper flakes but order some French onion soup to go: “It’ll be more expensive to make it myself, and it won’t be as good, and cooking for one…” So there’s every reason to make one last stop at Gracie’s, a cozy corner establishment that at least one tourist could be heard mistaking for the Seinfeld diner. All in all, it’s been a pleasantly uneventful afternoon. “For two, three years of my life at a time, there’s nothing,” is how Marnie describes the periods in between the heavy touring and publicity that come with a new album. “Just nothing at all. Then, something something something.” We sit at the counter to wait for the soup, which arrives almost right away.
Photos by Natasha Kaser.
Follow Miles Klee on Twitter.