Marnie Stern Exercises Her Mind, Wit and Fingers

Giddy guitar tapper experiments with new concepts and shred techniques

Marnie Stern
Michael Benabib
Marnie Stern
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WHO: Fingertapping master Marnie Stern has been putting out giddy, triumphant, riff-heavy albums since 2007; her most recent, 2013’s The Chronicles Of Marnia, is a glorious, shred-filled affair packed with gumption and against-all-odds wit. TV viewers might recognize her from Late Night With Seth Meyers, where she's sat in with Fred Armisen's band, or from ads for MTV's faux-lesbian sitcom Faking It, which are soundtracked by Marnia's fist-pumping opener "Year of the Glad."

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NOTES TO SELF: Stern is currently at work on her fifth album—and this time, she planned the songs more in advance. "I was taking a lot more notes beforehand because I really was trying again, for the millionth time, to make a concept record. I'm so emphatic that if it's not a really good concept through and through then you can't really do it, because there's nothing worse than a crappy concept record," Stern says from her apartment on New York's Upper East Side. Extra inspiration has come from her guitar students. "I've been giving a lot of guitar lessons, and seeing kids learning something has helped my brain. When you approach something every single day in the same way, in the same place, sitting in the same chair in the same room, it's hard to bring in new influences besides listening to music."

PAST IMPERFECT: "As the years have gone by, some of the things that I found most unique about what I was doing were the mistakes," Stern says. "Like my voice — by no means has it gotten good, but when I've been writing and coming up with my vocal lines, the harmonies are much smoother. In a way, I'm not happy about that; I can't take my brain to the less smooth place — it just goes to what has naturally happened over all these years, which is probably a little bit more musical than 'fun.' So I've been trying to do things that are not in my comfort zone so I can get back to unknown places."

SWEAT THE TECHNIQUE: Stern is known for her prodigious use of fingertapping on record, but lately she's been experimenting with new ways to shred. "I've been using fingerpicking to texture the rhythmic parts of the songs," she explains, but other techniques elsewhere. "I've been trying a little bit of sweeping. I've been building off different chord structures, playing in minors a little bit more."

BABY, IT'S COLD OUTSIDE: Stern has been playing some one-off shows around the country over the past few months, but few were as chill as a block party she and her band played in Chicago — where the mercury read nine degrees. "This [Music Frozen Dancing] festival sponsored by the Empty Bottle showed just how tough Chicagoans were in February," she recalls. "I had just gotten over bronchitis; I had been sick for a month, and I was thinking, 'How am I going to do this?' I saw snow covering [audience members'] heads and bodies because they were standing there for so long."