Brownstein traces her interest in making people laugh back to her childhood in Redmond, Washington, where she and her younger sister would put on "weird radio plays" and perform "ersatz ballet" at home to distract from what she calls "the permeating sadness in my family." The sisters were raised by their father, a corporate lawyer, after he and their stay-at-home mom divorced when Brownstein was 14. (Many years later, her father came out as gay.) Compounding matters, "one of my parents was sick," she says without elaborating. "Anything that drowned out that narrative was a relief." (Brownstein doesn't like talking about the details of her childhood, but she is working on a memoir, due out next year.)
Punk rock provided the most powerful escape. After enrolling at Evergreen in 1993, Brownstein started a noisy band called Excuse 17. "I felt like a match being lit," she says. "It felt like growing up." The riot-grrrl revolution was in full swing, with Olympia bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile leading the way. Within a year, Brownstein had met Tucker – whose window-shattering howl powered another local band, Heavens to Betsy – and joined forces to become Sleater-Kinney, whose seething, searing debut arrived in 1995. Force-of-nature drummer Janet Weiss replaced original member Lora Macfarlane two years later.
As the trio's national profile rose, though, Brownstein began to feel trapped by the scene that had incubated them. "There was a whole set of rules you could never deviate from," she says. "Anti-commercialism, anti-ambition. If you played anything larger than a basement, you were selling out. No one watched television. When I see Friends or Seinfeld now, I'm like, 'Oh, my God, I missed all this.'"
Some of Portlandia's funniest recurring characters are based on types she knew back then, like Toni and Candace, the hyperjudgmental proprietors of a feminist bookstore called Women & Women First. In the series' second episode, Toni, played by Brownstein, confronted a sheepish customer reaching for a book: "Every time you point, I see a penis." "Those characters are a way of acknowledging how important those kinds of people were in my life," Brownstein says. "But also how ridiculous it was."
By 2001, a year after releasing their fifth album, Sleater-Kinney were being hailed as America's best rock band in Time magazine. But Brownstein was fighting a private battle even as the group reached new creative heights. The nerves that had made her terminally shy when she first enrolled at Evergreen – "I literally couldn't speak in front of people in a room," she remembers – came back with a vengeance in Sleater-Kinney's final years. "There's this momentum that can become so threatening – you're always coming and going," she says. "I think that's why a lot of people drink on tour. I was a hypochondriac." Brownstein checked herself into emergency rooms around gigs in Denver, Seattle, Berlin and Leicester, England. "I'd think I was having a heart attack and I couldn't breathe, or I would have hives and be going into anaphylactic shock," she says. "My body was rejecting the life that I had built for myself. It didn't stop until the band ended."
Today, Brownstein says she's put those challenges behind her for good. "I was just hanging out with Corin, and she was saying that I'm so much less of an anxious person now because I have so many different outlets for my creativity," she says. She and Armisen – who met in 2003 when Sleater-Kinney showed up at an SNL afterparty – have built a close partnership as colleagues and friends. "Carrie is my best friend," says Armisen, who texts constantly with Brownstein even during the half of the year when Portlandia isn't in production.
One of their specialties is portraying outrageously co-dependent twosomes like the bed-and-breakfast-owning, ethically-sourced-poultry-loving Peter and Nance. "We have couples that embody all sorts of behaviors that I wouldn't want to achieve," Brownstein says.
Brownstein has had relationships with women and men (including, for a time, with Tucker), but she tenses up when I ask if she's currently dating anyone in real life. "I don't talk about my personal life at all," she says. "I don't see how it's that interesting or important in terms of what I do." She does say that acting with Armisen has taught her a lot about love. "I've learned that there's a kind of beauty in being in concert with someone that way," she says. "I don't think it's necessarily for me. But I feel less scared of it."
Every morning around 6:30, Brownstein wakes up in Portland in the four-bedroom house she shares with two dogs, brews a pot of coffee and sits at her dining room table to write. "It's difficult," she says of working on her memoir, which is nearly finished. "I feel too young to do this, but I can't imagine waiting 30 years and trying to remember it all."
She has done extensive research for the book, interviewing family members and former bandmates to corroborate her memories. The chapters that longtime fans will be most interested in, naturally, have to do with Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein has found she's inclined to blame herself most of all for the tensions that killed the group. "I feel a lot more culpable than I ever thought I would," she says. "My anxiety was getting bigger than the band. For Corin, it was kind of like, 'Well, this isn't fun anymore, because we have this crazy person in the band.' Meaning me."
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