Marnie Stern is sitting in a pile of her own smoked cigarettes. Another one is on its way down. “I’m going to die of lung cancer in the next few hours,” she says, her voice wobbly, her ankles crossed tightly in a knot below her chair. “I am so stressed and I just, can’t, stop smoking.” Stern, a Manhattan-bred guitar siren of shreddy, pinballing repute, doesn’t seem stressed so much as in pain, the kind of pain that can make you puke. For the past six weeks, she’s been nursing a broken heart after she and her boyfriend split up over the phone. Her eyes are cratered. She’s on a liquid diet of beer, soup and Slurpees. She can never really sleep. But she can still smoke and work. “Everything I’m writing right now sounds like Alanis Morissette,” she says. “It’s an angst-filled disaster. You know how my music teeters on cheesy? Right now, it’s falling full-throttle into…” And she wails and strums the air.
Stern’s time with her ex, Matthew Flegel of Calgary post-punk upstarts Women, can’t be separated from the chest-swelling arena tangle of Marnie Stern, her third and ﬁnest full-length. The bass lines are all his, and “The Things You Notice,” her favorite song on the album, is what she calls her “love him” song. Her beer glass empty, Stern says she’s not sure how she’s going to be able to play it live, if at all. “Bruce Springsteen wrote Born to Run when he was 25 fucking years old,” she yells. “I want to write songs like ‘Baba O’Riley.’ I want to write a song that’s a lasting, classic, awesome song. I don’t really know how to do it, but that’s what I want to do. It’s trying to ﬁgure out why a song is so sincere that when you hear it and you feel it, you know it.” Songs like “Gimme” and “Cinco de Mayo” are as close as she’s ever come to that. In fact, even if things don’t work out between Stern and Flegel (they’ve been Skyping and texting and e-mailing), her writing has found a new, dreamier gear now, something even the unsentimental can embrace. Though her guitar work is still wowie zowie complicated and longtime drummer Zach Hill’s snare sounds like a family of swallows in a trashcan, Stern’s cotton candy voice has caramelized. Everything feels and sounds softer and more supple, like her guard is down. “Forever I was trying so hard to prove I was a good guitar player, that I could put parts together that are so difficult to match up, that take forever to interlock,” she sighs. “Whatever phase I’m in right now, I’m over being difficult.”
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