There’s a masochistic game for musicians that you might call “How Young Were They?” It involves looking back on your heroes and — just for laughs — figuring out how old they were when they hit different benchmarks. Marnie Stern likes to look to the Boss.
“Bruce Springsteen was 26 when he put out ‘Born to Run,’ ” she says. “And that is so nauseating to me.”
Stern turned 37 this year and is still looking for a means to a stable career. She was a late bloomer, first breaking onto the scene in 2007 after years spent sending her demos to record labels to no avail (“The Rolling Stones were doing reunion tours by this point in their careers,” she says). Her first record was the impossibly dense air-raid-siren wail of “In Advance of the Broken Arm.” She’s a bona fide guitar wizard, with a mix of relentless shredding and caterwauling layers of vocals that made that first visceral impression hard to ignore. But the fine-tuned detail also seemed like the embodiment of a long-term work ethic. She wasn’t taking any shortcuts.
After seven years in the indie-rock hype machine without finding much job security, Stern’s perspective is changing. “I used to say it was about work, especially when I first got the record deal,” she says. “I’d say, ‘See? See? You just have to stay in it and work.’ As I continued and wasn't making any money, I started to think I was headed downward and I started to wonder.”
Stern is coming to Boston Sunday for a show at Great Scott to support her fourth record, “The Chronicles of Marnia” (Kill Rock Stars). “Chronicles” marks a new direction for her. Where she’d previously composed by stacking and weaving, this one feels like a therapeutic untangling. “All my life is based on fantasy,” goes a repeated line in the slow, piano-anchored “Proof of Life.”
“The cycle for these bands is so quick now,” she says over the phone from New York, taking a brisk walk down the street for Starbucks in her pajamas one afternoon. “You’re hot, then you’re done, and it’s the next wave. You see these bands because they all play the same shows and festivals and become friends and move up together. I was one of them and would think, ‘Surely this means some kind of longevity.’ . . . I started focusing on the things that I have instead of the things that I don’t have.”
Stern says she composed this record at home on a busted copy of Pro Tools that wouldn’t allow more than four tracks before crashing the computer (she couldn’t afford the full version). The songs are loud and full of rhythmic left turns as always, but things are simpler this time around. Stern’s trademark finger-tapping guitar work — a busy style of two-handed fretwork that Eddie Van Halen turned into a pop-metal staple — is more subdued. Her vocals are often pared down to just one or two overdubs, easily making it the most human-sounding record she’s made.
A percussion change was a big factor, too. Stern’s go-to drums collaborator Zach Hill, whose machine-gun style has been a perfectly jittery counterpart, was busy with noise-rap project Death Grips. So Stern sought out the experimental powerhouse Kid Millions, known for his longtime role in the pummeling indie rock band Oneida. Kid Millions (his given name is John Colpitts) approached the music with the same busy-bee bent, but he has a smoother sense of groove, like a transplant from some darkly-lighted ’70s arena.
“It was a huge challenge, let’s put it that way,” Colpitts says over the phone from Seattle, on tour with Spiritualized. Stern and producer Nicolas Vernhes already had all of the guitars and scratch vocals recorded by the time he got to the studio, and he was left to basically fend for himself. “Honestly, there was a moment during the session where there was one song left. This was the last of three 12-hour days and I went into the live room and got down on my knees behind the drum baffle, saying, ‘I’ll just be a minute, guys!’ and I was sitting there praying, just trying to get through this last song.
“I mean, it worked out.”
It’s still the work that seems to really remain important to Stern. Look no further than her pep-talk opening to the album’s “Nothing Is Easy.” “There are no coincidences!”
It may be that Stern just can’t bring herself to back down from a fight. Asked if the whole rigamarole is sometimes too much to bother with, she answers, “At my age, 50 percent of me says yes. But the other half of me is still that underdog from all the sports movies that I love, like ‘Rudy.’ ”
The idea immediately brightens her up. “Oh yeah? You think I’m done? I'll show you ‘done.’ I'll make an amazing record.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version had incorrect ages for Bruce Springsteen and Marine Stern. Springsteen was 26 when “Born to Run” came out and Stern is 37.