"THERE WAS A POINT when I wasn't sure if anyone would even want to release an album of mine again," Marnie Stern says from her New York City apartment. "I don't know why; though I seem to get a lot of attention, it doesn't really translate into a larger audience."
Stern's been on the phone all day long with journalists from across the country, attempting to vivisect her fourth, and arguably most diverse, album to date, the radically titled The Chronicles of Marnia. Her insecurities, mostly concerning the deftness of her guitar-playing ability—lauded though it certainly is—are fairly well documented, and came to light even more with the release of 2010's Marnie Stern. The personal lyrics became a lightning rod alongside Stern's already electric weaving of finger-tapping arpeggio, yelping vocal takes, and thunderous drums via renowned percussionist Zach Hill (Hella, Team Sleep).
Chronicles, though, threads a pattern with different material. This time Stern employed the mind-altering skin work of Kid Millions (Oneida) on the album, who at the least matches the frenzied pace of her compositions. The in-your-face quality of Stern's technical proficiency, however, is ever so slightly subdued, an audio byproduct that was less deliberate than you might think.
In fact, it mostly had to do with shitty recording software.
"I bought a new computer and it wasn't compatible with the Pro Tools I had been working on with the new songs," explains Stern, who called on producer Nicolas Vernhes to assist. "I didn't have enough money to buy the new software, so I downloaded one off the internet that was all messed up. It would crash if I added more than five tracks. I'm used to always having these very specific plug-ins and effects on my guitar, and the engineer didn't have those. There isn't as much distortion."
Sonically, Chronicles is as robust a record as Stern has dropped, pairing rhythmically titillating riffs with Millions' steady percussive algorithms, driving tunes like opener "Year of the Glad" to suitable party-time music status. Stern's sometimes cartoonish timbre resonates like Kim Deal huffing helium, especially on "Nothing Is Easy." In fact, the album's only remotely earnest-sounding moment is in the track "Proof of Life," a song that writhes as a kind of diary-entry ode, confessing, "Give me a sign/I am nothing, I am no one/I am running out of energy."
That the next track is titled "Hell Yes" goes a long way in describing Stern's cyclical and lyrical mood swings.
"It's definitely lighter," explains Stern of the album. "It still has personal stuff going on, but it's a little more upbeat even if the content is still heavy. It was a period of my life when I was working on it where things were pretty even."
Stern's self-reflection has obviously bled into the titles of her last two albums. Aside from her reputation as a guitar shredder, it's in her words that the clearest chasms of her artistic psyche may be hidden. Sample snippets include refrains of "working so damn hard" and of her "losing hope in my body." It feels genuinely exploratory, and despite the content, deceptively fun.
"I noticed that my ego gets too tied into everything," says Stern, who adds she recently stopped reading her reviews. "If the reviews are really good, I feel elated, but my confidence depends on it. Then when they're bad I feel depressed."