“We’re Just Feeling Our Feelings”: Sleater-Kinney, in Conversation With Blondshell


Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, photographed by Chris Hornbecker.

With ten albums under their belts, the women of Sleater-Kinney have come a long way from Olympia’s riot grrl punk scene. Indie-rock duo Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s newest record Little Rope, their first in three years, is an enigmatic triumph that gets back to the swirling guitar riffs and vocal bursts for which they’re known. But the album also grapples with more recent events, particularly grief and transition. Last fall, while working in their Los Angeles studio, Brownstein received a call informing her that her mother and stepfather had been killed in a car accident. In impossible circumstances, the pair came together to write in person. “On this album, there was a need and desire to return to being in the same room,” explains Brownstein. “The intention was one of togetherness and returning to those very essential qualities of Sleater-Kinney, which is this strange guitar and vocal language that we created around each other because we were self-taught and didn’t really know any other way.” Last week, as the pre-release nerves began to set in, Sleater-Kinney joined their spiritual successor Sabrina Teitelbaum, better known as the singer-songwriter Blondshell, to compare notes from the studio.


BLONDSHELL: How’s everybody’s Thursday?

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: It’s pretty good. I feel like this week has gone by really quickly because we’re rehearsing right now, so our days are long, but in a good way. What about you? 

BLONDSHELL: It’s good. I’ve been in the studio because I’m making my second album, and it’s one of those weeks where I don’t know what day it is because the hours have been weird. How are you feeling about your album coming out in a week?

CORIN TUCKER: Good. We made it a while ago, so it’s exciting to have it actually be out in the world.

BROWNSTEIN: I was feeling only excitement up until yesterday, and then I started getting that anxiety about putting it out, because you’re suddenly susceptible to all of the opinions and the moods of all the listeners. There’s that kind of vulnerability that I can’t deny. There’s that little tinge of hesitation, knowing that this is it, there’s nothing we can change. How are you feeling in the studio following up the album that brought in all these fans?

BLONDSHELL: It’s a different process, because I was just so excited about making an album for the first time that I was not thinking about how it would be received at all. Now I’m finding this voice is much more present that’s like, “Oh, what if people think this about it?” Or “Is it cohesive?” That voice is a little bit louder, but I also feel more confident. 

BROWNSTEIN: How is the process of this one different logistically? Do you bring in other musicians? Do you have the same producer? 

BLONDSHELL: I have the same producer and the same people playing on the record. Last time it was just so quick. I spent probably six to 12 months writing the songs and then I brought them to the producer I work with. We recorded everything in five days and then pieced it together for a couple months. This album is more dragged out because I’ve been touring, so I’ve had more time to sit with the songs.

BROWNSTEIN: I think that’s a blessing and a curse, sitting with songs for a long time. Sometimes I feel like they’re better for it, because you are able to wrestle with them or be contemplative or more deliberate, and then sometimes I worry about overcooking things. It’s about finding that right balance. We recorded our first couple records in a matter of days. But just by default, because we didn’t have money. 

BLONDSHELL: That’s kind of nice, because you really can’t second guess.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. You were mentioning that you are touring and writing simultaneously. Has that informed how you write or how you think about songs?

BLONDSHELL: I don’t know if it’s really informed the lyrics, but in terms of the music, we were working on something last night and I kept thinking about how it would feel to play it live. It’s a lot heavier. Those kinds of things I never thought about before.

BROWNSTEIN: When we first started out, obviously there wasn’t the internet, so you could test out all the new songs with melodies that were still being worked on and terrible temp lyrics. No one was really there to put it up on YouTube and get attached to something. So we would play almost everything that we were going to record live, and now we don’t really do that. But I do still think about tempo and tone and heaviness live because often, we’ll record something and then take it out on tour and I’m like, “Oh my god, now the song sounds sort of how I wish the recorded version was.” So we try to consider that in the studio. “Is this song in its final form? Are we missing a certain tempo of the song live on this album?” 

BLONDSHELL: Yeah, that makes sense. Something I want to ask is, when you’re making an album, how much are you thinking about what you just said like, “What am I missing on the album as a whole? What kind of texture is missing?” How much are you thinking about the big picture versus, “What does this song need just in a vacuum?”

BROWNSTEIN: I think it’s a little bit of both, right? Each song has to be a great song. It can’t only exist as part of a whole, it has to be able to stand on its own. I do think we consider the album as a statement. When we get into the sequencing, we will often discard a song that feels like it’s repeating something or is redundant. I don’t mind a variation on a theme or having there be a through line sonically or thematically, but if one song conveys an idea better than another song, we’ll end up getting rid of one. What about you?

BLONDSHELL: I’m figuring it out, and that was why I wanted to ask. That’s coming up for the first time with this album, because I look back on the last one and I wish I had thought about that a little bit more, what was missing. And I can hear that in your album. It’s amazing.

BROWNSTEIN: Oh, thanks.

BLONDSHELL: What was the first one that you recorded where you guys felt like, “Okay, now I know where this is going. I know what this album’s going to sound like”?

TUCKER: Well, I think when we recorded “Hell,” which was a weird song, it gave us a flag in the sand like, “We’re doing something that’s going to be weird.” It’s dark and it’s meant not just to be about a personal situation, but to look out in the world as well. The guitars are really present, but it’s got a gritty sonic palette underneath that we played with on the album. It helped us coalesce the sounds that we wanted in the other songs when we finished recording that one.

BROWNSTEIN: I was going to say “Untidy Creature,” but Corin had a lot of doubt about that. Actually, from the first session it was “Dress Yourself” that I thought, “Okay, this is going to work.” Aside from “Hell.” But what’s your writing process like? You said you have a small ad hoc small situation at home. Do you have software or do you do something more lo-fi where you’re just doing voice memos and guitar and vocals?

BLONDSHELL: It’s really janky. Basically, I have an interface, a mic, and Ableton so that I can get guitar sounds. It’ll come out of my speakers and I’ll record it on my phone and then just sing into the phone. It’s really simple because I don’t want to think about production. I’ve wanted to be able to produce myself for a long time, but it’s just not how my brain works. 

TUCKER: I think that’s fine.

BLONDSHELL: Something I’ve noticed in the last year is there’s an expectation to do every aspect of music. I usually don’t play guitar live, I just sing. I’ve had a lot of people ask me like, “Are you going to start playing guitar?” I’m like, “Isn’t it enough just to sing?” 

BROWNSTEIN: It’s enough.

TUCKER: Absolutely.

BROWNSTEIN: To me, that’s a strange mindset. I’ve had people say that in different ways about things that we do. Back in 2015 when No Cities To Love came out, we added another guitar player, Katie Harkin, because we have so many intricate guitar parts and sometimes it’s really hard to sing and play those parts. I would often give the more complicated lines to Katie if I was singing. If I wasn’t singing, fine, I’ll do the more difficult riffs, but I would often hand those to her and someone asked, “Well, don’t you want people to know that you wrote those?” I was like, “I’m okay.” I feel confident that if we put this out as Sleater-Kinney, people will know that we wrote these songs. I would not have doubt in your musical ability or your songwriting ability if you’re not holding a guitar on stage just to signify that you are capable of playing. But I do think we’re in that polymath era where everyone is supposed to be wearing so many hats. You have to be like, “Oh, I’m expanding my brand right now.” You know what I mean? To me, there is something still very sacred about that diligence.

TUCKER: I was going to say that one of the things I really like about your music, Sabrina, is the lyrics. It seems like you have something that’s really unique about the way you write about life, and I love the song “Sober Together. I was wondering what your process is like.

BLONDSHELL: I mean, with that song in particular, I was upset about a friendship. I sat down and was like, “I just need to talk about this because it’s heartbreaking.” I wrote half of that song. It can be tough for me because I know there’s supposed to be a whole structure and a whole song, but I’m like, “All I have to say right now is this verse and this chorus and I don’t have anything else.” So I left it alone for six months. How did the writing process on this album differ from the past for you guys?

BROWNSTEIN: We used to just write songs together in a room. Corin and I would get together and play guitar, and usually the music came first, and then we would work on vocal melodies. Sometimes we would bring each other ideas and then sit together and sort them out. I would say we have deviated from that on the past couple albums, where we were really demoing things more fully at our respective houses. I was living in Los Angeles for a while. But on this album there was a need and desire to return to being in the same room. I would say that the intention was one of togetherness and returning to those very essential qualities of Sleater-Kinney, which is this strange guitar and vocal language that we created around each other because we were self-taught and didn’t really know any other way. It’s a sound and a singularity that only really happens when we play with each other. We detune our guitars. So there’s moments that we’re just a little out of tune, and there’s that kind of sourness. The flip side of sourness is that it’s that feeling of heartache or something, or being forlorn. We really wanted to get back to that, and also make an album that didn’t sound like our other albums. 

BLONDSHELL: I love the lyrics so much on this album, and the vocals. I felt like on “Untidy Creature” in particular, I want to sing it and listen to it over and over. I feel like that thing that you’re talking about right now, the conversation between guitars and vocals, if you read the lyrics on paper or you listened to the vocals isolated, you would feel one thing, and then when you hear the guitars and you hear the music under it, it gives a new meaning. 

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks. That’s very insightful. I like talking to other musicians.

TUCKER: We were talking about how you’re expected to be good at everything in music, and I definitely feel like I’m not. I know it’s my voice that’s probably my strength. And when Carrie plays a riff like the one in “Untidy Creature,” it felt like a gift because I was like, “I know what to do with that.” 

BROWNSTEIN: Corin was speaking to your skills as a songwriter and lyricist. I wholeheartedly agree. One thing I love about your voice is that it has body to it. There’s a throatiness to it, it has personality, and I am curious who you were listening to growing up and who you think of as influences vocal wise, and what are you trying not to do? 

BLONDSHELL: The biggest thing I’m trying not to do with this album is just, “Would I say that?” Not in terms of the lyrics, but in terms of the vocal performance or delivery. It’s interesting because as I grow up, my singing changes. On the last album, it was the first time where I felt like I don’t need to try to belt as loud as I can or as high as I can to be a good singer. Part of why I was like, “Oh, I can sing lower if I want” is because I grew up listening to my dad’s music. It was a lot of dude rock bands and classic rock. It’s all of these Mick Jagger type voices and talk-singing. I think that made its way onto the last album a lot.

BROWNSTEIN: I love that. I think that knowing you can do something, but being able to make a choice, shows a lot of control over your voice. What I am drawn to in your music, and I imagine a lot of listeners are, is yes, it’s technically great, but it also has meaning. You’re bringing yourself to the songs, which brings the listeners so close. It does feel like it’s a conversation in some ways. Your lyrics also lend themselves to that. 

BLONDSHELL: Thank you. 

BROWNSTEIN: I did some more close listening to your music, and I was reading interviews, and a lot of writers are just like “Anger, anger.”

BLONDSHELL: They love it. They’re like “Feminine anger.”

BROWNSTEIN: I was curious how you felt about that?

BLONDSHELL: I’m forming my relationship with all that stuff and thinking about what I’m down to talk about in interviews and what I’m not. It can be confusing because I talk about everything in the songs, and it’s either the most shameful or intimate parts of my life. So people want to ask about that stuff. 

BROWNSTEIN: That is such an endless internal debate. It’s hard to figure out what to share and what is helpful. I sometimes think it undermines to over-explain. It’s a song. I’d rather read a writer’s interpretation of something or a listener’s interpretation of it than start to get into the weeds with some overly intellectual or cerebral backstory that doesn’t do much to explain anyway. In fact, it sometimes muddies it or takes away from the listener’s ability to find themselves or see themselves in the music. I don’t know, I get confused about it too. 

BLONDSHELL: Because this album is obviously so personal, I was curious how you both decide in general what to talk about and what to keep private. I guess what I’m hearing is that it’s an ongoing question.

BROWNSTEIN: It feels ongoing. Sleater-Kinney has always been a vessel for vulnerability and honesty and rawness, so it does feel slightly disingenuous to then say, “Don’t ask me about this.” But on the other hand, I do still think, “Well, it’s there in the music, and anything beyond that is open to interpretation.” I don’t have a good answer because it’s a fine line you walk all the time. Mystery, to me, is really important in art. That’s the wonder of music, the ineffable quality of it. There’s no period at the end of the sentence, I’m not waiting for the thesis. I’m waiting to revel in the questions and the uncertainties of it, and I don’t need much more from it than that. I get frustrated with what’s almost greediness now. We all feel entitled to just know so much and to share so much. Sometimes, I’m okay with less.

BLONDSHELL: I never thought about the mystery aspect, but that makes a lot of sense.

BROWNSTEIN: I still think if you’re writing personal songs like you’re talking about, it leaves the listener space to find their own personhood and experience in it. We’re not telling them what to feel. We’re just feeling our feelings on tape.