june 2012

carrie brownstein
Carrie Brownstein:‘It's so clichéd but animals really provide this kind of unconditional love--especially animals that are in shelters. You realize how basic our needs are, and that needs can be boiled down to something so simple. Not only what the animals are getting, but how easy it is to give. I think that's just what I needed, at that time, a real sense of purpose and duty. And volunteering at a Humane Society is pretty humbling.’

Multi-Talented and Multitasking

Carrie Brownstein Swings from Wild Flag to Portlandia to…Canines

ta logoBy Duncan Strauss
Host, ‘Talking Animals,’ at NPR affiliate station WMNF-FM, Tampa, Florida; online at www.talkinganimals.net

When rock bands get stuck on the road too long--or get sucked into the exhausting vortex of make album/tour/make album/tour/lather/rinse/repeat--it's not uncommon for their behavior to be likened to animals. It may go without saying that this is not a compliment.
A few years ago, when Carrie Brownstein came off the road and foresaw the end of her band Sleater-Kinney, she plunged into working with and helping animals, which is a far more uncommon rock 'n' roll saga.
For starters, these animals weren't metaphorical--this involved dogs, mostly, real canines. Another notable aspect distinguishing this tale (feel free to send me a thank-you note for not saying "tail") is that Brownstein was an accomplished rocker leading a group acclaimed as one of the greatest to pick up a guitar. "Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau consistently raved about Sleater-Kinney throughout the Portland trio's career, while Greil Marcus, writing in Time magazine in 2001, called them the best rock band in America.
But if all good things must come to an end, that conclusion can sometimes yield altogether different good things--even if what's coming to an end is as momentous as the demise of Sleater-Kinney, as Brownstein explained in a June 6 Talking Animals interview.

Wild Flag makes it national television debut on the Letterman Show, December 13, 2011, performing 'Romance' from its first album

"I had been in Sleater-Kinney since I had been in college," says Brownstein, 37, who now leads the band Wild Flag, "so it was coming up on 10 years and we were a band that toured fairly frequently-we put out an album every few years. And touring was something that started to feel more and more fragmentary and jarring for me. I would just head out on the road and it was like my body was rejecting the tour.

"I kept coming down with weird illnesses that all seemed a little psychosomatic. And I just started to feel I was a little at odds with the lifestyle--always being away from home, and being on the road.

"And I think collectively we were starting to feel like we needed a break, and yeah, it was at the end of Sleater-Kinney that I was starting to look for something in Portland that could just tether me to the city a little bit. So I started volunteering at the Oregon Humane Society, which is a really wonderful facility in Portland."
Underscoring the notion that the more you learn about Carrie Brownstein, the more she stands as a singular yet multifaceted artist, it's an interesting impulse that when the band she's poured her heart and soul into for the better part of a decade appears to be coming to end, she decides to devote all her time to serving animals. Naturally, it begs the question of to what extent this reflected a longstanding love for critters.
"I think so, partly. At that point, I had one dog, Toby, who I still have. And I had a cat," remembers Brownstein, who went on to work another Portland-based gig, alongside "SNL"'s Fred Armisen, as the co-creator and co-star of the celebrated sketch series Portlandia.

"But thinking about a lot of my friends who volunteered at the Humane Society, I would say many turn to charity work, particularly with animals, when they need to project a lot of things onto those animals. It's not a bad inclination, but you find a lot of people who are at these crossroads in their lives, thinking,  'Who needs me now? But who's not going to talk back?' "

'Is it local?' From Portlandia

What were you projecting?
"I think wanting to have a sense of purpose that was a little more grounded," she says. "It's so clichéd but animals really provide this kind of unconditional love--especially animals that are in shelters. You realize how basic our needs are, and that needs can be boiled down to something so simple. Not only what the animals are getting, but how easy it is to give.
"I think that's just what I needed, at that time, a real sense of purpose and duty. And volunteering at a Humane Society is pretty humbling. I mean, you're cleaning up a lot of messes and you're taking these dogs on walks--they're very appreciative. There's also all these rewards of seeing them get adopted into good families.  
"It was something I really loved, and I dove into it. I was there all the time. By the end of my first year and a half, I had won an award."
At this point in the conversation I laugh, and then so does Brownstein. Because the self-effacing mention of  "an award" actually refers to her being named the Oregon Humane Society's Volunteer Of The Year. Clearly, rocker as diletante this ain't.

carrie brownsteinShe started her stint at the Oregon Humane Society in the dog walking program, where she and fellow early-bird volunteers, took all the residents of 80 kennels--in some cases, two dogs per kennel--out to stretch their legs and do their business. Brownstein then moved over to the canine enrichment department, which involved training some of the dogs, chiefly in the hope of smoothing out the behavior of rowdier dogs that may have been passed over for adoption, or were adopted but returned.
She also took on something called "lobby hosting," which involves plucking a dog from the kennels that's friendly and outgoing but also a longer-term resident that, for whatever reason, has not been adopted, and showcasing that dog in the Humane Society's lobby.
So someone could walk into the OHS lobby and spot Carrie Brownstein touting the virtues of this well-mannered dog she's hanging out with?  This sounds like a scene right out of Portlandia....
"That's true. But Sleater-Kinney, at the time, I mean...it's weird with music. It's not as recognizable a medium as television," she says, noting she was rarely recognized--her lobby hosting stint happened pre-Portlandia.
"My identity is not wrapped up in my TV or music world, so I was very happy to just fit in as any volunteer. And rarely would anyone think 'this is that woman from this band with a dog.' They'd think-they weren't even looking at me. I was wearing a teal apron that all the volunteers had to wear, and my pockets were stuffed with smelly dog treats--they were just looking at the dog."

Portlandia, with Carrie Brownstein: ‘Whose dog is this?’

That may well be true. But the energy, drive and restlessness that's marked Brownstein's professional career was also brought to the wearing of the teal. She put in endless hours as a volunteer at the OHS, and began creating programs there, like The Great Eight (a rotating cast of eight canines who'd been at the shelter the longest, highlighted with photos and bios, to promote their adoption).
In our on-air conversation she copped to having a deep aversion to being idle (she also said "I don't know what to do with free time"), so it may not come as a surprise that in addition to volunteering at the shelter, she started assisting at a private dog training facility she had taken Toby to. Eventually the volunteer gig at the Humane Society became a paid gig, which meant she was juggling two dog training jobs...right up until the launching of Portlandia and then Wild Flag.
Even now, when she's not on tour with Wild Flag, otherwise out of town, or putting in long days shooting Portlandia, she still sometimes volunteers at the Humane Society. And reflecting yet another talent and passion (and perhaps further ensuring she wouldn't even brush up against free time), Brownstein spent the better part of three years writing "Monitor Mix," a blog for NPR about music and pop culture.
She penned her final post in October of 2010,  when  Portlandia was gearing up for its debut on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) in January of 2011 and Wild Flag (which includes another Sleater-Kinney alum, drum demon Janet Weiss) was roaring onto the music scene. She also explained in that farewell post that yet another project demanding her time and energy was a book she was writing, The Sound Of Where You Are. Near as I can tell, that book was put on hold, or mutated into the memoir that she'll be writing under the terms of a new book deal announced in April of this year.

Carrie Brownstein on the allure of the after party, especially the one where she found herself surrounded by people in animal costumes…

She might be too humble to say so while banging out her memoir, but I imagine it's pretty clear by now that a major theme of the Carrie Brownstein life story is multi-talented--to say nothing of multi-tasking. No matter who's telling it, that story is rich, textured, colorful, inspiring and positively vibrating with her keen intelligence and creative restlessness-truly, the soul of an artist. And I don't just say that because she's also a dog nut. Hell, no less august a publication than The New Yorker feels that way, too, running a lengthy profile (I know: in New Yorker-Ville, that's highly redundant, dude!) on Brownstein in January.
While the magazine does carry a column about twice a month by its pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, devoting the pages and resources to a massive feature on an indie rocker and cable TV neophyte felt like a very pleasant surprise to some of us longtime New Yorker readers--including Brownstein.
"Well, it was definitely a little surreal," she answers when I ask how she reacted upon hearing the publication wanted to profile her. "There are very few periodicals that I actually subscribe to, though I'm an avid reader--but The New Yorker is something I've subscribed to since I was in my early 20s. There's just this moment of surreality when this thing that's this extraneous, separate part of you merges with the career part of you. It's just bizarre. I was very flattered, of course. 
And the piece, authored by staff writer Margaret Talbot--how did she like it?
"I really liked it," she says. "I actually rarely read press about myself, but what she did a great job of was contextualizing everything. It seemed like she really understood where I came from--how the cities I grew up in, went to college in--informed the music I made, and the sensibility of Portlandia. A lot of people just don't really get that, or don't know that. And she just really did."

Record shopping (mostly vinyl!) with Wild Flag

From reading The New Yorker article and speaking with Brownstein, I arrived at the strong impression that throwing herself into both Wild Flag and Portlandia is extremely important to her--not just as a major multitasker for whom idle time is kryptonite. But in helping to create a fundamental balance in her life.
She agreed with that assessment, adding "I love the kind of frivolity and absurdity that Portlandia allows me. And music is just a more intense, cathartic pursuit for me. But in some ways, they just kind of meet in the middle. I really love that. And I think because I am someone who can get manic if I have too much downtime, it just allows a bit of vacillating between two things that I really love, without ever taking either one for granted."
Throw in plenty of dog action, and the whole combo is likely to render Carrie Brownstein wonderfully busy, balanced and blissful.

Click here for the complete Talking Animals show featuring Carrie Brownstein.

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