Marnie Stern: Tapping Back Into a Solo Career

The string-tapping method employed by adventurous musicians isn’t new, and it wasn’t devised by Eddie Van Halen. Some 200 years ago, composer Niccolò Paganini used the technique on his violin. Jazz guitarist Barney Kessel used one- and two-hand tapping techniques in the 1950s, and Harvey Mandel was tapping the fretboard of his guitar while a member of Canned Heat. Guitarists across the musical landscape – Stanley Jordan, Buckethead and Steve Vai, to name just a few of many – use tapping as part of their approach to their instruments.

But none of the aforementioned artists sounds much like Marnie Stern, nor she like them. Though Stern is perhaps best known for the comparatively mainstream “day job” she held down for the better part of the last decade, the electric guitarist is among the most unique and compelling exponents of the unconventional tapping technique.

“I had picked up the guitar when I was around 19,” Stern recalls. “I just learned a couple open chords, but I didn’t really play much.” Her musical tastes weren’t exactly adventurous; certainly nothing that might hint at the direction she’d eventually take. “I didn’t listen to stuff that wasn’t on the radio,” she says. But after college – “I don’t know why,” she admits – Stern decided to take the guitar seriously. Yet not too seriously: “I didn’t take lessons.”

Instead, Stern figured it all out on her own. And her autodidactic method yielded unexpected results. “The reason I have such an unconventional approach,” Stern laughs, “is because I didn’t know what I was doing!” But she had clear goals. “I wanted to try and convey a lot of emotion,” Stern explains. “I was trying to use the instrument phonetically, [tapping] back and forth on single strings to convey intensity.”

Intensity is an apt word to describe a key quality of Marnie Stern’s original music. Her debut album, 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm is a jagged, overwhelming listen, combining dazzling guitar pyrotechnics, a clattering, thrash-like rhythm section and Stern’s squalling vocals.

There was little else like it; melodic lines crisscross and occasionally intersect, and that intensity never lets up. A high-profile review in The New York Times described Stern’s music as “riotous,” “raucous” and “wriggly,” naming her very first release as that year’s most exciting album.

Over the next six years, the guitarist followed that release with three more, culminating in 2013’s The Chronicles of Marnia. Each album built on Stern’s prowess and reputation as a shredder par excellence. Remarkably, Stern characterizes those years as “maybe a little more mellow phase,” though it’s a safe bet that few would describe any of the music on Chronicles as mellow: her yelping vocals on “Year of the Glad” suggest an agitated monkey who just happens to know how to play the electric guitar with unparalleled mastery.

But Stern’s career trajectory took an unexpected turn when she abruptly placed her solo career on hold, joining the 8G house band on Late Night With Seth Meyers. Even against the unconventional backdrop of her music, such a move seemed odd. And in many ways it was. “We had to write eight songs a day… it wasn’t my style [of music] at all,” she candidly admits.

And applying her unorthodox methods to the needs of a general audience wasn’t always easy. Sometimes she’d put a gonzo guitar line onto one of the songs. “They’d say, ‘Nuh-uh; too weird. Too dissonant. Not good for TV,’” Stern says with a chuckle, noting that she had to be “checked,” and often.

So after having placed her own music on hold for eight years – an eternity in the career of most artists – Stern left Meyers’ show and relaunched her solo career. After “playing nice, happy music, I wanted to undo that,” she says. “I wanted to go no-holds-barred with my own stuff again.”

The fruit of that renewed focus and newfound freedom is the pointedly titled The Comeback Kid. Released last November, the album demonstrates that Stern’s heterodox approach to music is as sharp as ever. And though filled with musical in-jokes that most listeners couldn’t possibly understand, the music skillfully conveys Stern’s gleeful attitude. And that draws listeners in, even if they don’t get all of the obscure, Zappa-like references. “I’m aware of how wacky – and sometimes shrill and harsh – my stuff sounds,” she says. “I kind of like ‘taking the piss’ a little bit, and I’m not a person who takes myself too seriously.”

The lyrics on Stern’s early albums were the product of extensive effort. “I sat for endless hours working on lyrics,” she says. And those words often displayed the angst of a young woman. These days – at age 47 and with a young child – Stern is in a very different place. Stern’s vocals – often buried in the mix on those early albums – have taken on a more assertive character on the new record. “I’m in this very comfortable, happy period of family life, so the lyrics are very motivated by that.” Pausing for a moment, she shifts gears and adds, “But no one wants to listen to that!”

At her core, Stern is an instrumentalist. And with the exception of the drums (played by Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara), all of the sounds on The Comeback Kid come from Marnie Stern. For her tour in support of the album, Stern is joined by a second guitarist and drummer, but no bassist. “But then,” she points out, “there’s not much bass on the record, either.” Asked to sum up her live show in a few words, Stern doesn’t hesitate. “It’s very fun,” she says with a wicked smile. “It’s loud, and it’s real rocking.”