“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Sleater-Kinney made it from dorm rooms and basements in Olympia to theaters and festival stages around the world without professional management – an impressive achievement, but one that Brownstein now regrets. “We didn’t have anyone to say, ‘You need to go to therapy and get your shit together,'” she says. “A manager might have told us, ‘You guys don’t need to break up, you just need to chill out for a year.'”
She and her ex-bandmates remain friends: Tucker guest-starred on the first season of Portlandia, in 2011, and around the same time Brownstein recruited Weiss as the drummer in a new band, Wild Flag, which ran its course after one excellent album. (“We had a fun run,” Brownstein says of Wild Flag, “but all the logistics started seeming not quite worth it.”) Last November, when Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss came out to jam on Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” during the encore of a Pearl Jam concert in Portland, it set off feverish speculation among fans about a possible reunion. “I was Sleater-Kinney’s biggest fan,” says Armisen. “Does the world need another Sleater-Kinney album? It’s like asking if the world needs food.”
I ask Brownstein if she’d like to record a new album or book a reunion tour with her old band, and she smiles enigmatically. “There’s definitely a feeling in the air,” she admits. “Even I’m like, ‘Wait, are we?'” The Pearl Jam appearance felt good: “It was exciting. Those two are very special to me, and we have an indescribable chemistry. Corin and I in particular.” But the truth is that Brownstein is deeply ambivalent about the prospect of getting Sleater-Kinney back together. Part of her, she says, wants to keep their legacy untarnished, protect the George Costanza-esque high note they left on. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t. I mean, I’m definitely curious.”
Brownstein drinks the last of her wine, weighing what to say next. “It could happen,” she adds after a while. “But I’m not someone who wallows in nostalgia. I don’t think the past was better than right now.”
She glances across the room, where a group of young women are tearing open several large bakery boxes on a table.
“Are those cupcakes? At a bar?” she says. You can almost see a Portlandia skit beginning to take form in her head. “They totally are.”
This story is from the March 27, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.