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Exploring the Threads of Sleater-Kinney’s Little Rope

Carrie Brownstein on shapes new and familiar.

by Sophie Noel

Photo by Chris Hornbecker

Shortly after starting recording on her latest project, Carrie Brownstein received a devastating call from the Italian Embassy. Her mother and step-father had been killed in an accident while on holiday. Upended, Brownstein decided to move forward in the recording process. She sheltered in the familiarity of what is, to her, comfort and consistency, but to everyone else, one of the most influential rock bands of the last 30 years: Sleater-Kinney. “There was a steadiness in Sleater-Kinney as an ongoing, consistent facet to my life,” says Brownstein. “It is a shape that I know.”

Historically taking on vocal performance as well as instrumentation on past albums, Brownstein was not ready to sing on the band’s latest offering, Little Rope. At the time, her grief was too fresh. The result is a distillation of, and a conversation between, the two characterizing elements of Sleater-Kinney: Corin Tucker’s shattering voice, and Brownstein’s searing guitar riffs. 

Brownstein tended to the songs with care, recording and re-recording guitar melodies, harmonizing and re-harmonizing chords under Tucker’s vocals. “There was a living, breathing quality to [the songs], and being able to sit in something that felt unfinished actually was really comforting,” she says of the process. The ability to “form them, and converse and communicate with them” was a shelter from grief; as she mentions, “death is a disallowance of all those things.” 

Little Rope slingshots composure. Moments of measure are meted out and then abandoned. Brownstein shares that she and Tucker “thought about the album as a statement. A throughline, tonally, is that beauty or subtlety is then offended by chaos and messiness.” Brownstein, as intentional and precise in her speech as in her playing, explains a recurring motif on the record: “dark passengers.” These passengers of uncertainty and discomfort, thematically already at play in the writing, were magnified by the circumstances of the album’s recording. 

The duo came to realize that these companions are agents of self-erasure. Depression, loneliness, and feelings of being trespassed upon or rendered invisible by societal pressures are some more of the passengers that Brownstein alludes to. “Whether it’s fear that sits beside us, or the prospect of death, or heartbreak,” Brownstein says, “How to come to terms with that, or defy it and become resilient in the face of it definitely recurs on this album.”

On a record shaded and textured by personal narratives, Brownstein takes it into the universal as well. “The thing you fear the most will hunt you down,” repeats the chorus of “Hunt You Down,” an active and transfixing sentiment about things that put you in what Brownstein calls “that primal state of reactivity and reflexive defence.” “There are a lot of people in this world right now that are just in a state of survival,” she says. 

“There are a lot of people in this world right now that are just in a state of survival.”

Brownstein and Tucker have been trying to reach those people for decades, ever since meeting at the heart of the riot grrrl movement in Washington. As a genre, it was a musical expression of third-wave feminism and a response to women feeling unsafe and under-represented in the punk scene. As a community, it championed intersectionality, anti-oppression, and DIY ethos. Tucker and Brownstein’s riot grrrl bands, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, respectively, were among the first associated with the movement. Sleater-Kinney, whose early records could be considered post-riot grrrl and whose later releases have drifted into alt-rock and indie territories, maintains the values and urgency of the revolution that was riot grrrl.

It might be due to this auspicious beginning to her career that Brownstein seems attuned to the responsibility of an artist to poke holes and offer questions. She sees it as her job “to pose a query and not necessarily come back with a definitive answer, but to bask in the mystery and the ineffable and the questions of life.” If the lyrics ask the questions, maybe the answer is in the music, she muses. 

“Sleater-Kinney, in its best form, is a conduit and a vessel for solidarity,” she says. “And, you know, feeling seen and having license to express multitudes along the spectrum of emotion.”