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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Carrie Brownstein, Musician

“The song was called ‘You Annoy Me.’ ”

Carrie Brownstein performing, 1999.  

When I was in high school, I had a band that … well, I guess I didn’t really have a band, but I was playing music with a group of friends. And we played a show. We would basically wait for our friends’ parents to go out of town and host shows in each other’s homes, much to the detriment of the house, because they often ended up with holes in the plaster or broken glass in the basement. We were putting on rock shows in suburban living rooms, which is not always a good idea.

One weekend, I performed a song that I had written, and I just remember looking around, feeling this strange sense of belonging and a sense of certainty that I was supposed to be doing that. And my best friend brought me flowers. At the time, it was like this tacit agreement between the two of us, since we had been friends for many, many years, and I would always talk to her about wanting to play music and wanting to perform in front of people. Bringing me flowers was such a small gesture, but it felt very grand, and it felt like my choice had been acknowledged by the one person for whom it mattered to me that they cared. And so, just that moment when she presented me flowers after I played the song, I thought, “Okay, I can go forth with this, and I might actually succeed.” I often think it’s those small gestures of encouragement that operate as motivation, and those come before any critical success or fan base. It’s knowing that people who love you feel a sense of certainty, or that you feel supported by them. Those gestures come first.

The song was called “You Annoy Me,” which in some ways was like so many iterations of my songwriting later on in Sleater-Kinney, even if they took on a more sophisticated vernacular or dip further into the figurative or metaphorical. I feel like that sentiment of dissatisfaction or that caustic undertone still exists. I often feel like I’ve been seeking a version of “You Annoy Me” throughout my entire career in Sleater-Kinney, just with eventually a more subtle approach. It was sort of my high-school teenage-angsty view of the world at the time. I had sort of a thorny disposition, or at least felt I had to put on a sort of thorny disposition, in order to feel the dissatisfaction of my teenage high-school years. So it was definitely a bratty three-chord song with a solo in the bridge. The song structure was there, and I remember thinking that it was fairly catchy. People tell you if it is. People said that they had that song in their head for days after the show, so I thought, “Okay, I’ve left an impression upon a group of people.” And it was a positive impression.

I had worked on the melody in my bedroom in my parents’ house, but I only knew about five guitar chords at the time. I think another realization I had was that even with rudimentary tools, I could enhance my world. Like suddenly I had a language to communicate my feelings, and that was also very powerful. I just remember hearing the guitar chords with the vocal melodies and having it sound like a semblance of something I’d heard, so it felt like I was joining a realm. Like I had been invited into a realm that had been very mysterious to me. Because I think when you’re a fan of something, or merely endeavoring to do something, and then you unlock your potential, or you finally get the ability where you feel like you’re on the other side of the door, that’s the sort of aha moment. I think when I got to the chorus, and it felt like it was something I could sing over and over again, I realized, “This is a structure. I have a song.” It encompassed … it sounded like it belonged to the world of music. And I felt like, “Okay, now I can explore everything on the inside of this world. I don’t have to feel outside of it anymore.”

It’s the first song I ever put on a cassette, and it felt like the first thing I held on to, sort of the arc of the lineage of my songwriting. I can still pinpoint this song as a jumping-off point. It wasn’t something to completely discard and bury. But that transition — from craft, creation, deliberation, completion, to performance — is a crucial trajectory if you what you want to do involves an audience. Because up until then, their validation isn’t necessary, it’s just realizing that you have something that translates. And so I think that component of actually sensing the perception of what you’re doing is crucial to that realization that it’s something you can do, because ultimately, it’s about communicating, and communicating requires an interlocutor.