Carrie Brownstein Is Redefining Ambition

Portlandia’s eighth and final season premiered last week on IFC. And while Carrie Brownstein will miss the rich, off-kilter world she and Fred Armisen created together, she’s also looking forward to striking out on her own. “I’m excited, just because I’m more certain of my own voice as a writer now then I was eight years ago,” she tells me over scrambled eggs at the Smile, in Noho. “I think me and Fred’s sensibility coalesces with Portlandia, but there are also many places on which we differ. When I watch sketches that are so much more explicitly my point of view versus someone else’s I think, Well, now I can just run with that.

Brownstein is no stranger to starting over. After her beloved riot grrl band Sleater-Kinney parted ways in 2006, Brownstein went on to reinvent herself as a sketch comedian, with a show that single-handedly redefined Portland in the public imagination. In the past few years, she’s also written an acclaimed memoir (Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl), and broken into acting and directing. So, what can we expect from Carrie 3.0? Well, for starters, she’ll be making a rom-com for MGM, creating a Hulu TV show based on her memoir, getting back in the studio with Sleater-Kinney, and in general continuing to make art from a place of passion, empathy, and solidarity. “It’s important to redefine what it means to be ambitious,” Brownstein tells me. “I think that ambition doesn’t have to be married to consumerism or materialism or capitalism. Ambition can embody compassion. It’s not just about the most for yourself. It’s about creating the most for everyone, and pushing forward so that other people can come along or take over.”

Over a long lunch, Brownstein chatted about bittersweet endings, exciting new beginnings, and what it’s like to make art in 2018.

How did the Trump presidency affect the way you think about the show and its characters?

It was interesting to take people who had embodied a certain kind of idealism and thrust them into this more ambient anxiety and force them to question — as many of us have had to do — what privilege allowed them to ignore. We were able to explore larger shifts through people’s relationships to each other. How does greater fear and anxiety affect a couple? How does it affect a person’s relationship to where they live? What kind of questions does that bring up? As we looked at the board, we did start noticing patterns of anxiety that were really evident in the scripts.

Does it feel like some of the things that were easy to lampoon seven years ago are less laughable now — for example, the feminist-bookstore owners?

Actually, it was season seven that forced us a little bit to change the feminist-bookstore characters. We felt like that the vernacular of outrage had actually sort of caught up with Toni and Candace, who at one point really seemed like an outsized and outdated version of feminism — barely second wave. It was nice to be able to take Toni and Candace and say, Well, it’s not that interesting anymore to have two angry women. We’re all angry at this point. That was when we decided instead to explore the men’s-rights guys, who were suddenly feeling that they somehow were the ones that were not being treated fairly and being disenfranchised. Which to me is a very ridiculous idea, but it’s so real. You sense it all the time, this toxic level of anger.

What was your reaction when the real feminist bookstore in Portland said they were upset about the show?

On a personal level, it was hurtful because I think of myself as an ally and a feminist. But I’m also a creative person that’s always been in conversation with my community and I don’t expect anyone to not talk back. I disagreed with their assessment of what the show was and what it represented, but also I didn’t want to say anything because then my statement is automatically louder than theirs because I just have a bigger platform. All I did in response was contribute — like I just went online and donated a couple hundred dollars. I was just like: You know, that’s fine. That’s just how the world works.

Do you ever write sketches with the hope that they’ll go viral, like last season’s “What About Men” song?

To be honest, when we were filming that sketch, it was before the #MeToo and Time’s Up moment that we’re in. It’s a sad reality, but that sketch could have been made five years ago, ten years ago, and be completely relevant. It just happened to hit at a time where what was part of a broader political conversation. We definitely don’t go into things with that intention though. I think when you go in with this feeling of “Oh, we’re nailing it,” it can have this kind of self-aggrandizing feel. People can sense it. Fred would say it’s sweaty. There’s something conspicuous about it.

How much are you concerned about your show being “woke,” especially as that becomes more of a prevailing cultural metric

My feeling in general is that it’s very dangerous to prescribe what is deemed important in art. If you look back on a decade ago, the things that last are not necessarily the things that are important at the time; it’s the things that are good. Think about the Velvet Underground. They’re so influential. No one would have said the Velvet Underground were important in 1960-something.

I also think what you end up doing if you prescribe importance to something is you end up with conformity, mediocrity, and things that are reductive and derivative. The human condition does not just revolve around states or cycles of trauma. It also revolves around joy and levity. I think it’s the artist’s responsibility to express those multitudes. I want artists to thrash around and make mistakes. If artists aren’t going to do that, then who is? When I read something, I’m like: Can people still like this show because it’s just a white guy, because it’s just Larry David? I’m like, Yeah, that’s okay. We need a spectrum. How can we define what’s woke if there’s no things that aren’t woke? Personally, I’m always aiming to be part of a conversation, but I would not prescribe that everything needs to be part of the same conversation because not everyone’s living the same moment.

In terms of the final season, was there any bucket-list stuff that you’ve always wanted to do or characters you knew you had to say good-bye to?

Well, we definitely wanted an episode with Kyle [McLachlan]. We wanted to kind of send him off and have a sense of conclusion and closure for the mayor. There were some characters I felt like we were cognizant of, Okay, this may be the last time that you see them if you’re watching it chronologically, and this could feel like an ending that befits who they are. But I think we also always try to avoid that sentimentality, and we’re in a good position with sketch — no one is expecting everyone to get married. We don’t have to have a big lesson where everyone is hugging and pregnant.

You and Fred have talked about how you have this really close relationship and partnership that’s come from working together. How does it feel to know that you guys aren’t going to be working together on this yearly project? And are you excited to step out as an independent creator?

Yes. I think that I am someone who carries around a lot of humility, and that’s very innate to who I am. Because I came up through an indie-rock community that definitely espoused collectivism, I think I still operate from some of those same principles of really being grateful to predecessors and always acknowledging context and all that stuff. But I will say, something that I have been working on is just taking more credit for things that I’m a part of.

I’ve learned so much from Portlandia, but I’m excited just because I’m more certain of my own voice as a writer now then I was eight years ago. Now I’m doing this pilot for Hulu that’s based on my book [Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl], that’s sort from my own POV.

I’ve read things in the past where you’ve said you wanted a separation between comedy Carrie and music Carrie. How does it feel to do something so autobiographical?

One thing I like about the fact that it can be fictionalized is that I can deviate from my own story, so it’s not like the character will be called Carrie. The band is fictional. It definitely is based on my experiences in Olympia, the Pacific Northwest, in the band. It’s much more about coming of age and as a young woman and as an artist in relation to a dysfunctional family and in the context of a highly politicized creative environment. I am excited to take something that for me was highly valuable and very formative, and that I have real affection for, and poke fun at it a little bit. I think in some ways it is kind of a culmination of the things I have been doing. I wouldn’t say that it is a a straight-up comedy; there will be subtle humor.

Do you see echoes of the riot grrl spirit in the current feminist moment?

All of the organizing feels very reminiscent of those meetings. It’s kind of interesting just because that was so scrappy and punk, and the Golden Globes aren’t punk. So that’s a little surreal. This is definitely the first time where it’s been embraced by people who claim so much of the spotlight. The history of feminism feels very underground. It feels like something you have to uproot from the edges, from the margins or from academia, because just by nature people are very fearful of women coming together and organizing, so it tends to have been a little more peripheral. Now, it’s very central, which is strange and amazing.

I think what’s nice is that with every generation of feminist politics there is an aim for greater inclusiveness and intersectionality and class difference. Riot grrl was trying to acknowledge those things too, but there’s always something about it that was myopic. I think right now, there’s a lot of trying to get out of that centering your own narrative at the expense of someone else. I think it’s really important to make sure that we are also having a conversation about class. It’s not about silencing woman who want to share their experiences, but it’s about remembering that in terms of public discourse, that stuff is clickbait, and it’s perpetuated because it’s sexier to write about and it’s obviously more inflammatory and more eyes are on it.

People look to you as a feminist icon, but have you felt yourself having to educate the men in your life? Have you talked to Fred about these things? I know he has alluded in the past to his poor treatment of women.

I think a lot of women feel a fatigue of having to explain things to the men in our lives. It’s always the people who are oppressed that explain to their oppressors or their harassers what’s wrong and why it is the way it is. That was so apparent at the Golden Globes. Not a single man in his acceptance speech mentioned anything. I guess what I appreciate about this moment with the men in my life is it’s sort of a stepping-off point in which to have these conversations that women have been having all time, probably for centuries or maybe millennia. It feels productive to start having these conversations, whether it’s with Fred or some of my other male friends, just kind of having to check yourself about things that were assumptions or that we felt were a default mode, because that default mode is no longer working.

What else are you working on right now, other than the Hulu show and the film you’re directing?

Sleater-Kinney has been recording very slowly. I’ve been working on a book of essays that will probably take another year to finish. I’m really just trying to make it all part of a mission of connecting and passion and continual, almost uncomfortable openness, so that I’m still curious and not letting cynicism creep in. Cynicism, I think, is really anathema to any of these things. The minute you start letting cynicism guide you, that’s when I think you can kind of calcify into one of those really misanthropic people.

In this next phase of yourself, do you see yourself focusing more on writing and directing or going back to music?`

Music will always be a part of my life. I am so fond of Corin [Tucker] and Janet [Weiss] that I never want to not have that connection with them. Music came into my life at a time where I really needed it: It was sort of a dictionary and a weapon in so many ways for me. It helped me explain things. I don’t know if I could ever completely let that recede into the background, because for me, it’s such a shortcut to feelings. But I think generally the through line for me has been writing, so writing and directing will be the things that I focus on.

In your memoir you talked a lot about trying to resist labels, when you were starting out with Sleater-Kinney. Are you more ready now to take on mantle of ‘female creator’?

I still am more interested in dismantling the categories and resisting the ways we index our identities as default. At the same time, I do want to embrace the ways that I have a different perspective on things. With Portlandia, sometimes people can’t put their finger on what’s different about our show, and it’s because we’re really exploring performing categories — performing whiteness, performing heteronormativity. There’s a lot of queerness on the show, but I think one of the reasons our characters feel so weird is that I’m actually approaching heterosexuality as a queer person — I don’t take heterosexuality as default. So I think I’m more interested in the ways I can do that with other things: exploring modes of being that people presume are fixed because they are the status quo, and kind of tearing away at the idea that they should be considered normal in any way.

What has it been like making the permanent move from Portland to L.A. now that the show is over?

As someone who’s definitely susceptible to seasonal depression, well, there are no seasons in L.A. When I am depressed, I feel like it’s an affront to the sunshine there. It’s easier to be depressed in the Pacific Northwest because you feel like rain is a validation of your sadness. It’s like: You deserve it. You should really wallow in this, we’ll do it as a city. In Los Angeles if you wake up melancholy, you feel like you’re just immediately contradicting everything that L.A. stands for. I guess I was worried a little bit about my methodology because I’m just so used to writing in this dreariness and grayness and thinking of it as part of the process to kind of fight my way through.

What are you inspired by right now — TV, movies, books?

I’m rereading a lot of bell hooks. She’s just always such a good guide for thinking about structures that we have in place and how to restructure them, dismantle them, critique them in a way that’s holistic, and she always puts well-being of oneself at the center of anything. I think Exit West and Sing, Unburied, Sing are my favorite books of 2017. They’re off the charts. TV-wise, I love The Crown. It’s such an immersive world.

Are you a fan of the royals?

No. It’s weird. I actually am someone who is very wary of that. My friends who are British are quick to say the monarchy is fucked, super elitist, and the wealth disparity is off the charts. But I’m very interested in the notions of pageantry and spectacle in terms of where we are today, because of course we’re going to end up with someone like Trump as president when we exalt spectacle on a daily basis. I mean, just spend ten minutes on Instagram and you’ll see it. So I think The Crown is consuming me because it’s such a dissection of pageantry and ritual. I also love Princess Margaret. She’s so amazing.

The movie that you’re working on has been billed as a rom-com — is that a fair characterization?

I would call it that. It’s funny because it’s kind of a subverting of the fairy-tale ideals of romance and marriage. It’s in that zone of combating a well-worn cynicism and trying to just avoid clichés about women who are independent. I actually love rom-coms. I’m not above a rom-com. I could watch Moonstruck ten times. Even Notting Hill I like. I just want to make it actually funny and surprising and complex, and not insult people’s intelligence.

Are there any rom-coms you’ve seen recently you felt were good subversions of the norm?

I feel like I can’t think of one recently because the genre has been kind of overtaken by “women behaving badly” films. I think Girls Trip is revelatory, but I kind of don’t like this idea that woman can only behave badly if they’re getting married or are already married. I think that’s the only time we get to see women being transgressive — as long as they put a ring on it at the end or that they’re escaping from their marriages to do something crazy. Can’t women just be bad and insufferable and annoying because they are?

Carrie Brownstein Is Redefining Ambition