Interview: Corin Tucker
The former lead wailer for riot-grrrl staples Sleater-Kinney dishes on her fierce new solo album and what it's like to live in real-life Portlandia.
Photograph: John Clark
Sleater-Kinney fans swooned en masse last September when Wild Flag—a new group featuring S-K's Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss—issued its self-titled debut. Strong as that effort was, it was easy to long for the presence of Corin Tucker, whose superhuman lung power elevated her old band's best work from the merely intense to the truly sublime.
Now, a year after Wild Flag's release, Tucker returns with her own sophomore solo album, Kill My Blues: a brash, dance-friendly effort—crafted in close collaboration with bandmates Sara Lund, Seth Lorinczi and Mike Clark—that should thrill listeners underwhelmed by 1,000 Years, Tucker's folky 2010 debut under her own name. We recently reached the singer-songwriter via phone at a tour stop in Minneapolis to discuss her love of a strong beat, the troubling state of feminism worldwide, what it's like to live in the real-life Portlandia and more. The Corin Tucker Band plays Mercury Lounge September 27 and the Bell House September 29.
Time Out New York: Kill My Blues has a much more energetic sound than your last solo record, 1,000 Years. Can you talk about that shift?
Corin Tucker: We consciously wanted to do something different on this record. When we went out on the road with the last record, we did a couple of dance numbers; we did some covers. We had added Mike Clark as a bass player to the group, and we just kind of felt a click for the whole group, with him playing with Sara Lund, our drummer. There was just this rhythm section that came out full-on with some of the dance songs, and we really had fun with those numbers. And people at the shows obviously really wanted to move around and loved those energetic songs. So I think the idea was like, "Wow, wouldn't it be fun if we wrote a dance record together?" So it really moved into a really collaborative process for this record where we were all in our practice space: everybody writing and coming up with ideas and working together to make some really fun songs for people to dance to.
Time Out New York: Is dance music something you listen to on a regular basis?
Corin Tucker: I do love dance music. I love Daft Punk. I mean, I was a child in the ’80s, so bands like the Eurythmics and just so many great ’80s bands were dance bands, but they had the whole soul thing happening, too. And that's such a fun thing to do as a singer, to have something going on underneath and then really being able to to play with your voice on top of it. I really enjoy that.
Time Out New York: That was something I was going to ask you about. You're doing some unbelievable stuff with your voice on this record, specifically on songs like "Neskowin." That track seems like an experiment in what's possible with your voice. Can you tell me specifically what might've inspired that?
Corin Tucker: That one kind of started out as more of a straight-ahead rock song for the verse and chorus. But as I said, we were just experimenting in the practice space, and then this whole disco part came up on the bridge of that song, and it was just so super fun. It just all kind of took off. You know, I'm pretty straightforward as a performer, but I do have a bit of a diva in me. [Laughs] And I think it's fun to just unleash that a little bit in that song—you know, with the whole bass thing thumping underneath me, it's easy to have a little Donna Summer moment.
Time Out New York: Are there other singers you would point to in terms of that diva thing?
Corin Tucker: Oh, there are so many. Aretha Franklin, she's just the most amazing singer ever. But I think there are so many singers that I just loved and sang along to on the radio. I guess I just enjoy trying out different styles along the way. I think Annie Lennox is another example of someone who's really daring with her voice, and she's [sang in] a lot of different styles over the years. She just has an incredible ear for soul singing and for gorgeous melodies as well.
Time Out New York: How do you prepare to record a song like "Neskowin"—even physically, just in terms of your vocal cords? What do you have to do to get ready to really unleash like that?
Corin Tucker: Jump around a lot. [Laughs] Seth [Lorinczi]'s studio is freezing. You could literally have a turkey in there, and it would be fine for a week. His basement is just, like, deep in winter, and the actual studio where I was supposed to sing was just ice cold, so I made him put a space heater in there before I sang. Because you have to be warm. You have to be physically warm, and you have to warm up your voice a lot, and then you really have to get into the song. So it takes some work. It's a physical thing. Like anything, you have to warm up to it; you have to sing around it, sing under it, and then hopefully you can get there at some point.
Time Out New York: I wanted to talk about some of the lyrics on the new record. There's definitely a running theme going through, where you're talking about being a mom and starting a family. And you're looking at that from both sides: On one hand, there's a positive, uplifting love song like "Kill My Blues," but there are some other moments when it seems like you're focusing on the sacrifices, the things you've had to give up in order to start a family. Do you think that's accurate?
Corin Tucker: Yeah, I mean, I think that there is a lot of sacrifice in being a parent, and I think that's part of it. I think that, for me, it's been an amazing thing that I'm really grateful for in my life, but at the same time, it definitely has been challenging to not play music. And to live without that for a while, it's sometimes tough. And so I think this record is all about getting to do this thing that I love. And I feel really grateful to be able to do that and be a mom. That's the dream. It's really hard to do both, but I can visualize it. [Laughs] I am doing it right now, but, as I said, it's hard. Because we don't have the kind of tours where we have a giant tour bus, and I have my kids with me. But I have a super-amazing, wonderful, supportive husband who, you know, he's completely [helped me to] go for it.
Time Out New York: I was also curious about the song "Groundhog Day." It has a message, but it's obviously a funny song—were you going for a comedic effect?
Corin Tucker: [Laughs] I don't know if comedic is the right word. I would say that it's meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. It's meant to be a saucy attitude. It was that whole idea of that movie Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis. Just waking up being like, "What? Really?!? Is this really still happening?" Twenty years later, twenty years after I joined the women's movement we're still talking about the same issues. We're still talking about reproductive rights for women, and we're still talking about getting equal pay for women. And that's just frustrating. So much else in women's lives has changed, but some of the same frustrations that women have been fighting for since the ’70s, we're still fighting for those things.
Time Out New York: Was there a specific moment—seeing something on TV or something—where that outrage became really clear for you?
Corin Tucker: Yeah, I think that when the law student was talking about getting insurance coverage for birth control, and Rush Limbaugh was like, "That slut." [Laughs] That was pretty crystal clear, like, Wow—women can still not talk about having sex. It's still culturally unacceptable for us to be sexual beings, and to say, "This is something that women do, and that we want to have control over. And we want women's health care to reflect our sexuality." And still, to speak about that publicly causes a huge uproar. And that is just unacceptable. And I feel like the science has come a long way since I was younger, and we have all of these new technologies now. And I'm sure they're going to change things for women in the next 20 years, but we need to give women better access to birth control and have it be a part of women's health coverage. And having women's health coverage is something that's a mandated right for everyone.
Time Out New York: Just tying into all of these themes, do you remember when you first heard about the Pussy Riot situation? What were your initial reactions?
Corin Tucker: I definitely got the messages through Facebook, like, "Pussy Riot—they're in jail!" And I was just kind of bewildered by the whole thing. But as I read what people have written, their story was really fascinating to me and really moving—and kind of surprising, that they were so inspired by riot grrrl, and that this thing that I was a part of over 20 years ago now had this meaning for people in this totally unique, new, reinvented way. I mean, that's so great.
Time Out New York: I wanted to get your opinion on Wild Flag. Did seeing your old bandmates return to playing this brash rock music have any influence on the shift in your solo work?
Corin Tucker: It's possible. I mean, I think that Wild Flag is great, and I think their record is really good. I think, for me, it's kind of a different thing, what works for me. It's definitely different because I definitely put my voice kind of front-and-center in my songs; I try and write something that I will really have fun singing. It's less about a guitar thing and more about a story that I'm telling with my voice or putting things together in a way that gives me a moment where I can [Mock-diva voice] shine a little bit. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: That goal is definitely achieved on the new record. Just speaking personally as a fan of your voice, it's nice to hear it so foregrounded and emphasized on the record. I don't want to harp on the White Flag thing, but before you had put this new record out, was there ever a moment of feeling left out of that?
Corin Tucker: Well, you know, I really have so much respect for Carrie and Janet. They're such great musicians, and I'm really happy for them, actually. But I'm also really happy with the accomplishment of making this record and trying something different, and going for it and just saying like, "For this moment, right now, for me, this is what I want to do. This is my idea." And I've kind of managed it. I'm collaborating with some amazing musicians, but it's really my brainchild and my moment. And I'm really proud of that, I guess.
Time Out New York: Can you pinpoint what it is you're able to do with this current group of musicians that you couldn't do with your past projects?
Corin Tucker: Well, I think that being able to vamp a little bit on a vocal moment like "Neskowin," that's a really easy thing to do [with this band], because everyone is really comfortable with having this musical dance happening underneath things. There's a groove that can happen on a certain musical part where everyone can just get locked in that groove and is super comfortable getting there, and then, like, milking it [Laughs] and letting the vocal thing just happen. There's that groove that is really a fun thing about this particular group.
Time Out New York: It's almost like a James Brown idea, with the backing band just sort of looping constantly and building the tension, letting the singer explore that rhythm.
Corin Tucker: Yeah, I mean, you know, not to say that I'm James Brown [Laughs], but there is that rhythm section that happens that's really fun, and they are obviously having a blast. There is a letting-go that's really nice.
Time Out New York: Do you feel that same sense of liberation in terms of your guitar playing? I wasn't quite sure who's playing which guitar part, but on the last track on the record, "Tiptoe," there are some pretty intense, almost classic-rock guitar solos. Is that you taking those solos?
Corin Tucker: Yeah. It's both Seth and I, actually, and there's almost like dueling stuff happening there. Yeah, I think that for me, for guitar, I'm much more of a guitar player that wants to work on melody, but it's definitely not my greatest musical strength, by any means.
Time Out New York: Is there a part of you that enjoys just kind of like soloing in the classic mode, just cranking up and letting go?
Corin Tucker: Yeah, definitely. At the end of "No Bad News Tonight," there's this loud, one-or-two-note solo happening at the end—that's all me. [Laughs] And that's really fun; that's kind of my forte: "Don't overthink it—in fact, don't think at all." It's just [Imitates wailing guitar solo] That's kind of where I live in terms of playing guitar.
Time Out New York: Is Neil Young—
Corin Tucker: Yes. Of course, absolutely. Total… Total mentor. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: I wanted to ask you quickly about Portlandia. I know you had one cameo; have you watched most of the episodes?
Corin Tucker: Yeah, definitely—I love the show.
Time Out New York: As a resident of Portland, do you think the satire is pretty dead-on?
Corin Tucker: [Laughs] I do. I mean, there are moments where you're like, "Oh God, Portlandia right now!" Like you're in the coffeeshop, or just everyday ridiculousness there. There is an overachievement in progressiveness that gets silly at times.
Time Out New York: Is there one moment you could point to when you thought that to yourself?
Corin Tucker: God, now, of course, it's hard to remember. Hmmm… I think, like, every time you go to the grocery store… I mean, the whole food-buying thing is really crazy—if you don't take your bags to the grocery store. [Laughs] If you forget your bags, it is a really big deal. The grocer really will… They don't use plastic bags anymore, so to get the paper bag, you really will feel horrible. "My God, it's an entire tree I just killed—I'm sorry!"
Time Out New York: So there's a lot of grocery shame there?
Corin Tucker: There's a lot of grocery shame, yes. [Laughs]