With one foot in punkish indie rock and the other in off-kilter comedy, Carrie Brownstein has always considered herself an artist operating outside the mainstream. But her latest activities may be moving her gradually from “out” to “in.”
Brownstein is riding the wave of accolades surrounding “Portlandia,” IFC’s quirky comedy in which she and co-lead Fred Armisen poke twisted but gentle fun at the residents of Portland, Ore. The two seemed a bit stunned when they received a rock-star-worthy reception from a crowd of celebrities and fans attending a premiere of the show’s fifth season last week at downtown L.A.'s Ace Hotel theater.
Of course, Brownstein first achieved fame as a rock star. Music fans have been ecstatic for months about the reunion of Sleater-Kinney, the Portland band Brownstein co-founded. The three-piece group, which went on hiatus in 2006, was the symbol of the riot grrrl scene that ran counter to male-dominated grunge. Considered one of the premier punk bands of the last 20 years, the re-formed group is about to release a new album and is embarking on an extensive tour, which sold out instantly.
With “Portlandia” and Sleater-Kinney simultaneously booming, Brownstein is straddling two potentially incompatible parallel universes. But despite the relentless schedule, the actress-musician is maintaining her characteristic calm.
“I do feel like I’m in the eye of the storm,” Brownstein says. “It’s much more of a whirlwind than usual, and, yes, both require a lot of attention. But I can’t allow the size or the impact to get to me. If I think about that, I’ll just curl up into a ball.”
She credits Armisen and her bandmates (“my nurturing partners”) with keeping her centered and creatively energized: “I just feel I’m very lucky. And at the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself.”
Living in Portland and maintaining a routine schedule of exercise and play with her two dogs also helps. “I’m on the periphery of things,” she says. “It’s not all about me.”
Still, avoiding the trappings of becoming famous can be hard. During a recent photo shoot on the Sunset Strip, several cars slowed down as passengers gazed at Brownstein. “We love you, Carrie!” yelled one female passenger. Brownstein awkwardly smiled and waved back.
Despite appearances with Armisen on late-night shows and features in glossy magazines, the suggestion to Brownstein that she is becoming more mainstream draws a quick counter-argument.
“Feeling like an outsider is more about intent and how I feel and point of view,” Brownstein says. “Neither ‘Portlandia’ or Sleater-Kinney speak to convention or normalcy.”
Sitting on the patio of the Chateau Marmont during a brief stop in Los Angeles, Brownstein is unassuming and low key, her quiet prettiness worlds away from the raging guitarist of Sleater-Kinney and her chameleon-like appearances on “Portlandia,” on which she and Armisen take on all sorts of wacky characters — both male and female.
She is particularly pleased with the new focus of “Portlandia,” which usually is made up of several sketches within a half-hour. This season, the show is featuring single narratives that fill up an entire episode.
“There are so many sketch shows like ‘Key and Peele’ that are being done well, so we felt like we should keep pushing ourselves because we have the license and the ambition to do so,” Brownstein says. “We can expand on the world we’ve been developing for years.”
Last week’s premiere features an origin story on the partnership between the show’s best known-characters, Toni and Candace, the bohemian feminist owners of a Women and Women First bookstore. The two met in 1991 as rivals in the New York “chick lit” publishing world. “People have always wanted to know where they came from,” Brownstein says.
The change in format has made writing “Portlandia” more difficult — which couldn’t make Brownstein happier.
“It’s that moment of discomfort that comes from growth and challenge that allows me to be a better performer,” she says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being settled in a show or in a creative environment is something I’m very wary of.”
She blushes slightly, however, when thinking back on the episode’s highlight — a fierce dance-off in a New York disco between Toni (Brownstein in a wig) and Candace (Armisen in drag). The scene required Brownstein to get her boogie on.
“Even under the umbrella of comedy, that’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. It was way outside my comfort zone, dancing in a room full of extras and background players. But the scene was not about being awkward. You have to sell a certain confidence, which I wasn’t feeling as a performer.”
Even as they pursue other projects outside “Portlandia” (Armisen is the band leader for Seth Meyer’s late-night NBC show), Brownstein and Armisen, who were friends for several years before the launch of the series, seem to have grown even closer, both personally and professionally.
“Fred and I are always protective of our relationship and creative partnership. We’ve always felt like we are outsiders. There’s a feeling of acceptance and home that we have with each other. It’s like finding a fellow weirdo and being able to feel normal.”
Armisen says he was an instant fan of Brownstein when they first met and started collaborating on comedy projects: “All I know is that I didn’t want it to end. She makes me laugh and is so convincing. The thing about Carrie is that she is funny without trying hard to be funny. Her approach is always pitch perfect. And we have this chemistry that always makes it into the show.”
Chemistry was also key in getting back with her Sleater-Kinney bandmates, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss.
“Yes, it is weird to immerse myself back into the world of Sleater-Kinney,” she says. “I sort of took for granted how special it was. Being in Sleater-Kinney made me the feel the way I felt when I found Fred. It was the conduit that gave me a growing sense of confidence. It was a way to get out of my shell and makes me who I am. This and ‘Portlandia’ are all part of the same world that I’m so proud of.”
Still, when Sleater-Kinney takes the stage this time around, there are likely to be “Portlandia” fans in the audience who may not be as familiar with the band’s take-no-prisoners material.
“One of my worst fears is that people will think I’m joking,” Brownstein says. “I may wear a T-shirt that says, ‘Do not laugh.’”