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Interview: Sleater-Kinney Speak Out About Their New Album 'The Center Won't Hold'

Interview: Sleater-Kinney Speak Out About Their New Album 'The Center Won't Hold'

Millie Lovelock / Friday 16th August, 2019 9:30AM

Millie Lovelock of Repulsive Woman and Astro Children spoke with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker over the phone about their new album 'The Center Won't Hold', recorded in collaboration with art-pop superstar St Vincent and out today via Milk! Records / Rhythmethod!

“I cry every time, every time I see Patti Smith, I cry in that same way,” Corin Tucker tells me when I confess to her that when she stepped out on stage as part of Sleater-Kinney at their 2016 Powerstation show I cried and cried and cried. Talking vulnerability in these terms with Tucker is a balm. She is a burning light, a strident force to be reckoned with, connecting punk ligament with unflinching rock muscle, her work in Sleater-Kinney constantly circling the deeply personal with such an extraordinary breadth of perspective that it’s impossible not to feel, at least sometimes, like she’s plucking the thoughts right out of you. So, she leaves you in floods of tears on a grimy theatre floor, and you’re grateful for it.

Tucker has said before that she has to force herself to write, a fact she laughingly confirms to me, however, she emphasises, she does have a compulsion to write. She reflects on character and narrative voice, a subject that comes up a number of times during our short conversation. In 'The Future Is Here', a synth heavy single with compelling, tremulously close vocals, Tucker sings a series of near conversational lyrics, essentially two parts back to herself. “I think that is a real success as a songwriter,” she says, “to be able to have these different voices, different characters joined together to try and express something.” Perhaps her skill at weaving character is in part due to the nature of Sleater-Kinney, with Tucker and bandmate Carrie Brownstein having had an intimate and fruitful writing partnership for the best part of twenty-five years, their vocals and guitar lines interlocking, slipping out, finding notches. More-so now, though, it seems Tucker’s songwriting is shaped by the current cultural climate. It was especially important on this record to “have these different voices,” she tells me, because “the time we live in is I think really complicated and feels difficult to navigate and, giving ourselves complexity in our art, I think that helps us, you know, it expands the conversation that we’re having about this cultural moment and how we go forward.”

The future appears to be of primary concern to Sleater-Kinney who, unlike countless others, leapt back from hiatus and refused to settle on legacy. Tucker briefly glances backwards when I ask her to talk me through the choice to have her irrepressibly soaring vocals produced in such a brittle, up-close manner on The Future Is Here. After each question, Tucker lets the line go dead while she thinks. I’m continually nervous we’ve lost the connection, but after a breath she comes back, carefully delineating the agony of the tough / tender dichotomy. “We were at times concerned with being seen as a really tough rock band because it was just really necessary to survive the music industry,” she says, “When we were young, we didn’t wanna be seen as vulnerable, you know, because we were struggling so hard to be taken seriously and to, you know, play big shows and you know, be seen as a force to be reckoned with.” Then, swiftly, Tucker lets the past lie, moving ever-onwards. “I think, you know, at the time it was important to us, but I also feel like having an inflexible identity can also be a real burden, especially when the main thing you wanna express is grief.”

What do we have to do but grieve? Tucker admits that she does sometimes “feel the need to force optimism” into Sleater-Kinney songs, but I get the impression that this optimism is difficult to hang on to. Our conversation keeps coming back to the absolute state of things in the United States, with Tucker explaining that working on the new album had a sense of “deeper urgency to it after the election and after the cultural humiliation of women.” We are living in a time, she says, of “massive turmoil” and the “incredible catastrophic failure of all our systems.” And this, this chaos, which is so difficult to emotionally reconcile over and over again every day when we unlock our mobile phones and tap in, is the “world this album is in.”

With the spectre of the collapse of the United States looming over them, and the crushing weight of our collective fear and hideous inaction regarding climate change, it is understandable, then, that in making this record, Sleater-Kinney set out to be as big as they could be, to take up as much space as they could. Space on Tucker’s terms is more than getting in the studio and layering up some synths; from the way she talks about the record it is quite clear that Sleater-Kinney aim to achieve spread as much through vulnerability, emotion, performance, and narrative voice as through sonic depth. On the subject of the record’s production, Tucker says: “working with Annie [Clark – St. Vincent] on this album, she really encouraged us to express the full range of our feeling, and to make the lyrics as personal as possible and to also do a vocal performance that was as revealing as possible.” The intended effect here, she explains, was to create something that would resonate with their listeners, a conceptually critical factor in usefully taking up space. I am always impressed by the scope of Sleater-Kinney songs, and so I ask if Tucker has intentionally positioned herself as an observer. I frame what I’m asking her through the lens of gender, because I can’t help myself, and Tucker sits on it, though she humours me by telling me it is an interesting question. Carefully, she says that she thinks she is naturally an observer, and that the observer’s “narrative voice gives oneself, as a writer, the most freedom to comment on any situation.” “I’m an introvert,” she says, “but I try and really embrace experience and try to communicate that so that all the feelings go with it in the song.” Feeling is inescapably the driving force behind Tucker’s songwriting, even when she channels it into biting social commentary, and it’s how she manages to fill up her songs until they are fit to burst.

Rapidly, we course towards the final two minutes of our prepaid call. I am anxious that Tucker will be cut off during a particularly enlightening spiel, but she is blessed with a perfectly proportioned road-map for conversation and pulls in to stop without a moment to spare. Music, she tells me, “is such a powerful identity.” I am nodding furiously on the other end of the phone. “I think we ran to it as almost like a refuge, you know, like how can we get back in this fort and build it up as large as we can?” To stop myself from getting a bit weepy, I take my remaining eye off the clock, bite my fist. “And I think we tried to do that with the music,” she says, “in a way that connects power with community, in a way that lifts everyone up, hopefully.”

Millie Lovelock's debut solo album as Repulsive Woman 'Relief' is out now, read her conversation with Brooke Singer about the record here.


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