“I honestly just needed to hear Corin sing.”
Carrie Brownstein was headed into a studio in Los Angeles last fall when her friend and longtime Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker called to give her the name and number of someone at the U.S. Embassy in Italy. The embassy had been urgently trying to contact Brownstein and her sister for a few days, but neither had current phone numbers attached to their passports, and since Tucker is listed as Brownstein’s emergency contact, the embassy got ahold of her. Tucker suspected some kind of scam or prank, but just in case it wasn’t, she made the call.
Brownstein gave her sister the info and headed in to work. About two hours later, when she took a break from the session, she saw a missed call from her sister. When she phoned back, she received devastating news: Their mother and stepfather had been killed in a car crash four days earlier while vacationing in Italy.
Brownstein and Tucker had been working on a new Sleater-Kinney album before the accident; many of the songs had been written. But the sudden, shocking tragedy shook up the pair’s usual process, honed over many years, where they’d share vocal responsibilities from song to song.
“The last many, many albums, we tossed the singing back and forth,” Brownstein says. “We passed that baton.” After her mom’s death, she continues, “I felt like I needed to play guitar. I didn’t really have the strength to sing.”
A year later, Brownstein and Tucker are telling the story of Little Rope — the band’s 11th album, out Jan. 19 — over Zoom. It is a late-autumn afternoon in Portland, Oregon, and they are each in their own homes, with dogs snoozing just off-camera.
“The whole tone of the album changed when the accident happened,” Tucker says. “It was a real experience of loss. And I think that touched all of the songs.”
Navigating loneliness and grief, and the vulnerability that comes from realizing how much you need the people you love, are familiar to anyone who’s lived through the past three-plus years. Those messy feelings forged Little Rope, animating choices from a twist of melody to a reworking of an already-written song. But it’s far from a bummer of an album. There’s an excitement and an urgency, a feeling of teetering on the edge of something.
Sleater-Kinney have always been one of the most ferocious bands in rock, ever since they burst from the Pacific Northwest riot-grrrl scene in the mid-Nineties: pounding lyrics sharp and strong, demanding respect and wrapping together the personal and political. Tucker’s unmistakable wail and Brownstein’s wild shredding inspired a passionate fandom, especially among women who felt they had a rock band that was really speaking to them.
Brownstein and Tucker put out seven albums in 10 years before going on hiatus in 2006. The band’s second act — which has now lasted almost as many years as its first one — began in 2015 with the triumphant LP No Cities to Love. But this new era has also marked big changes: Drummer Janet Weiss, who’d been with the band since their breakthrough third album in 1997, left four years ago, saying her role in Sleater-Kinney had shifted and she “didn’t fit” anymore. (“I said, ‘Am I just the drummer now?’ They said yes,” Weiss explained on a podcast. “And I said, ‘Can you tell me if I am still a creative equal in the band?’ And they said no. So, I left.”)
Though there were some hurt feelings at the time, the three women have stayed in touch. “We text on birthdays,” Brownstein says. “It’s like family. I think that is a dynamic that transcends personnel and band changes.”
“She’ll always be a part of Sleater-Kinney and a part of our story,” Tucker adds. “And we’ll always care about her and want her to be well.”
After nearly three decades together in what Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield has called the “best American punk rock band ever,” Tucker and Brownstein could probably finish each other’s sentences — but they don’t, and you get the feeling it’s because they genuinely enjoy hearing each other talk. This creative partnership has been hard-fought, and they are fiercely protective of it.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF Little Rope‘s creation led to even more of a spotlight than usual on Tucker’s vocals. “I personally love that and I really needed that,” Brownstein says.
But for Tucker, the process of coaxing her voice to match the intensity surrounding the album could be uncomfortable. Tracks like “Untidy Creatures” and “Say It Like You Mean It,” the second single off Little Rope — songs that give you chills when Tucker really lets it rip — were particularly hard for the singer to warm up to.
She recalls struggling to finish “Say It Like You Mean It,” but Brownstein and producer John Congleton, himself a longtime Sleater-Kinney fan, urged Tucker to keep at it.
“One of the things that always attracted me to the band was the sheer, searing evocativeness of Corin’s vocals,” Congleton says. “I was like, ‘Just fucking go for it. Don’t be concerned with sounding pretty.’”
That night, Tucker woke up and sang a version of “Say It Like You Mean It” into her phone, finding “this other melody that had a sense of urgency and a sense of real connection to the idea of loss,” she says.
“I really think this is some of her best singing,” Brownstein says. “This album has a real control, a real mastery of singing that is exhilarating as a listener and as her bandmate.” (“I’ll just basically be Corin’s personal hype machine,” she concludes with a laugh.)
At 49 and 50 years old, respectively, Brownstein and Tucker both see it as important to keep pushing themselves creatively. “That being said, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel every time we make a record,” Brownstein says. “We’re not radically shifting genres. We’re not putting out free jazz or country. We know what works about the band. It’s just trying to push against those parameters, see how elastic they are.”
To illustrate this point, they both mention some of the new artists they’ve been listening to lately — Rosalía, Palehound, Blondshell, Olivia Rodrigo — but also some of the older favorites they look up to, like Lucinda Williams and Nick Cave. “I need both,” Brownstein says. “You need a Lucinda Williams as much as you need an Olivia Rodrigo.”
“I feel like the younger generation especially doesn’t care about age as much, and I think that’s great,” Tucker says. “It’s good for us. I mean, I think we want to keep going.”
“This album, to me, signals the next era of Sleater-Kinney,” Brownstein adds. “It feels like a reclamation of all that I love about playing music with Corin. And so, I’m going to be very careful with that and try to enjoy it, because you don’t know when it could end.”