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Carrie Brownstein's Life After Punk

Before 'Portlandia,' Carrie Brownstein led one of rock's most radical bands. But the loud, fast life never quite suited her

Carrie Brownstein
We Are The Rhoads
March 20, 2014 3:10 PM ET

"I'm just going to try a bunch of shit on," Carrie Brownstein says. On an icy February afternoon in Manhattan, the co-star of IFC's sketch-comedy series Portlandia has just ducked into a brightly lit Opening Ceremony boutique in search of an outfit for a New York Fashion Week event that night. "I like to go to other cities because I can dress up," she says, eyeing a stylish black blazer with blue and white checks. "I live in a city where fleece is considered an appropriate fabric for any event."

At home with Carrie Brownstein: see our full photo shoot

Jokes like this have made Portlandia, which co-stars Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen and returned for a fourth season in February, into one of basic cable's biggest hits. Last season, 3.7 million total viewers tuned in to see Brownstein and Armisen make fun of her crunchy, quirky Oregon­ian neighbors. "I almost feel like Portland closets are this magical cupboard where you put in a normal piece of clothing and you open it later and it's turned into outdoor wear," she continues as she appraises a Nehru jacket. "If I put on high heels or a dress there – if I look better than when I got out of bed – it feels conspicuous."

Brownstein, 39, is casually cool this afternoon in black skinny jeans, a gray sweatshirt and thick-rimmed glasses. A lightning-quick talker, with a warm conversational tone that veers into sarcasm a few seconds before you realize it, she sounds like she was born to be a comedian. Just a few years ago, though, no one thought that's what she'd end up being most famous for. For more than a decade, from the mid-Nineties to the mid-2000s, Brownstein was one of two singer-guitarists in the influential feminist punk trio Sleater-Kinney – the single most important act to emerge from the Pacific Northwest after grunge's peak, and beloved cult heroines for a generation of indie-rock rebels and riot grrrls. "Sleater-Kinney are iconic," says Girls creator Lena Dunham. "They were my first-ever unchaperoned concert. I pushed my way to the front and was elbowed in the face by a very excited girl in a beanie."

The Best Musical Moments From 'Portlandia'

Now, with the success of Portlandia, it's as if PJ Harvey joined the cast of Parks and Recreation, or Eddie Vedder began hosting The Daily Show. Aside from Fashion Week galas, Brownstein can be seen at network upfronts, Emmy afterparties and White House Correspondents' Dinners, and she has a new army of fans who know little to nothing about her past life. "It's very strange for me to have police officers and construction workers who like the show," Brownstein says. "I'll sit next to a 70-year-old guy on a plane, and he'll say, 'My daughter watches, and so do I.' I've never experienced that before." That trend should continue with the new season, which is full of vignettes that could take place in any American city: A group of amped-up retirees tailgate a live taping of A Prairie Home Companion; Brownstein deletes all her social-media accounts only to discover that her friends no longer know her. "The question of the first season was, 'Will people outside of Portland get it?'" Brownstein says. "That question has been answered."

After a few minutes in the dressing room, she decides to go with the checked blazer – something she'd almost certainly never have put on when she was in Sleater-Kinney. "Oh, my gosh, I dressed horribly in the Nineties," she says, walking over to the register. A cashier with freaky faces tattooed on his skull asks if she's going to a certain Fashion Week party. He wears the unmistakable grin of a regular person interacting with a celebrity. Brownstein smiles back: She is, in fact, planning to make an appearance. "See you tonight," the clerk calls out as she leaves.

***

In the summer of 2006, the band that had defined Brownstein's adult life came to an abrupt end. She had struggled with anxiety for years, and was overwhelmed with the stress of constant touring; meanwhile, singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, who founded the group with Brownstein while they were students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, had shifted her priorities after starting a family. "It was nerve-racking," says Brownstein, sipping a glass of Spanish wine in a cozy West Village bar the night before her shopping expedition. "I didn't want to feel like, 'OK, the thing that I'm going to be known for is done. It happened.'"

Looking for a change of pace, Brownstein put in six months at the Portland office of the hip advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy. "The third weekend in, I had an existential crisis," she recalls. She lasted longer as a music blogger for NPR's website, spending a few years evangelizing about new tracks and attempting to get into Phish (it didn't take). At the same time, she began putting more effort into an online comedy series called ThunderAnt that she and her pal Armisen started in 2005. "Carrie seems so cool and precise," says her friend Amy Poehler. "But she's hiding an inner goofball."

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