Carrie Brownstein talks protecting her private life, intersectional feminism and Sleater-Kinney’s compelling new album


“I’m not interested in performing relationships for the public,” Carrie Brownstein tells me over a cappuccino in a London hotel. 

Despite this, the press remains extremely interested in speculating about Carrie’s dating life. Twenty five years after being thrust into the limelight as part of legendary punk band Sleater-Kinney, and eight years since earning A-list status co-creating and co-starring in Emmy-winning sketch show Portlandia, she’s racked up an impressive roster of alleged romantic partners: Orange Is The New Black’s Taylor Schilling, Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, St Vincent aka Annie Clark (who, incidentally, produced Sleater-Kinney’s most recent album, but more on that later). 

I wonder, how does it feel to be so regularly subjected to the rumour-mill? “I don’t bemoan or begrudge it, but I try not to play into it,” she replies level-headedly, taking a sip. “There’s a lot of people who really like to have a relationship on a social media stage. It just feels like, ‘Wait. Why are you guys talking to each other on Twitter? Aren’t you right next to each other?’ There’s a pageantry to it that I find strange.”

One reason Carrie’s particularly protective of her own personal life is that at the very beginning of her career, the choice of what she did and didn’t share publicly was snatched away from her, when a past relationship with bandmate Corin Tucker was exposed in SPIN magazine. “It was hurtful. We each want to control our own narrative.” Neither Carrie nor Corin had a chance to speak to their parents before the story broke. “I was barely over 20. I was still searching and didn’t quite have the words for what my heart wanted and how I wanted to be seen in the world. It was a difficult time. I think it instilled in me a defensiveness. I also just think there are things worth protecting in an era where people feel very entitled to know everything. It’s ok to have things that are just for you.”

Image by Charlie Engman

Carrie is incisive and forthright, whether expressing her opinions about social media PDA or singing on Sleater-Kinney’s brilliantly urgent new album, The Centre Won’t Hold. After over a decade-long slog of writing, recording and touring, followed by a much-needed eight year hiatus, the band burst back into life in 2014 with the acclaimed No Cities To Love. Their latest offering is, as you’d expect from a group famously influenced by the riot girl scene, furiously feminist. In a world telling women to take up less space, Sleater-Kinney have produced their most epic, expansive-sounding record yet. It’s a rare joy to behold 40-something women unapologetically refusing to conform to societal expectations or reign in their rage. They’re still as scrappy, potent and pissed off as ever, only now their razor-sharp lyrics and gut-punchingly raw emotions are accompanied by more synths and special effects. There’s a line in Love, a nostalgic mini-herstory of band life, in which Carrie sums up the album’s central thesis: “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.”

Carrie’s full of praise for St Vincent’s input. “Annie is fearless. She wanted to illicit from us the most personal, honest version of the band and each song, really just searching for… a feeling.” One of the most effective moments is the closing number, heartfelt piano ballad Broken, which was inspired by #MeToo. The lyrics invoke Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who spoke out against Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh: “She, she, she stood up for us when she testified. Me, me too, my body cried out when she spoke those lines.” Carrie reflects, using academic language with ease, “We’re singing a lot about the ways the female body deals with resistance and despair. At its core, it’s about dismantling hierarchical structures that subjugate people. We can’t separate who we are from what we’re writing about.”

Sleater-Kinney have, of course, been fighting the patriarchy for decades. They were pioneers in the 90s punk scene, discovering community through creativity, as documented in Carrie’s excellent 2015 memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. She resists any temptation to romanticise the era. “There are a lot of ways that scene excluded people of colour. There’s always flaws in early iterations of movements where it aims to be inclusive, but tends to focus on whiteness. To yearn for the past is usually yearning for a time where other people felt less seen.” She admits, “There was something exciting about the 90s, when there was a version of queerness that really embraced otherness. It’s interesting to see queer enter the mainstream. I don’t lament it, because people should feel safe and seen, but it forces the question, ‘How do we find that space that’s still transgressive?’ Because to me, transgressive art is interesting art.”

I’m curious how Carrie feels about Sleater-Kinney’s reputation as “the lesbian punk band”. “I certainly would not want to hide who I am, but we’ve always worked really hard to have the music transcend specific categories. We’re not just a female band or a queer band; we’re a band.” Nevertheless, her queerness is integral to her identity. “I’m not interested in moving through the world as a straight person. I find heteronormativity – I kind of find homonormativity – pretty boring.”

Carrie is forever creating, forever stretching herself. As a prolific musician, author, actor, and director, having multiple plates spinning simultaneously “quells” her “mania”. When I ask how those closest to her would describe her, she answers, “Cerebral, a little restless, kicky. Despite getting older, there’s part of me that always feels irascible and feisty.” 

A few months after we meet, the group’s longtime drummer Janet Weiss announces her departure, tweeting, “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on”. Carrie responds on Instagram commenting, “What am I supposed to say? She left. We asked her to stay. We tried”. She tells The New York Times, “I just realise that there’s nothing that feels like this band. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to do it.”

When I hear the news, I feel a twinge of sadness that the album title, The Centre Won’t Hold, now reads as poignantly prophetic, and that such an undeniable talent will no longer be part of the line-up. But then I remember that Sleater-Kinney have gone through many changes in their lifetime. Before Janet joined in 1996, they worked with a number of different instrumentalists, and with each new album, they strive to push boundaries. It is in their DNA to survive and adapt. Sleater-Kinney are, and always have been, ever-evolving and vital as hell.

This interview originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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