Indie guitar whiz Marnie Stern has watched her guitar collection dwindle down from several fine instruments to one beloved model. “I used to have a bunch of guitars but I’ve had to sell them or they’ve broken,” she says with a sigh. “So, now I have just one — a Jazzmaster that has a really good sound.”
Though originally marketed to jazz musicians in the late ’50s, the Fender Jazzmaster proved more popular with rock acts: ’60s surf bands, 1970s punks like Elvis Costello, and later with noise bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
Stern doesn’t play it out of deference to her heroes. She likes that “the frets are really thin and close together, so it’s easy to slide up and down the neck.”
That’s important for Stern, who has developed a complicated finger-tapping technique that turns her Jazzmaster into a percussion instrument. Rather than fret with one hand and strum or pick with the other, she moves her hands manically around the neck to launch a volley of notes. It’s as musically distinctive as it is technically impressive.
Released in March, Stern’s fourth album, “The Chronicles of Marnia,” fuses that busy-fingers sound with chirpy vocals and sharp lyrics about creativity. Working with indie-rock producer Nicolas Vernhes, (Dirty Projectors, Deerhunter), Stern shows a new fluidity in her playing and a new inventiveness in her singing, which ranges from a soft croon to a flurry of whoops and cries.
“I don’t enjoy the recording process very much,” she admits. On the other hand, “I enjoy the moment when I’m writing the song and it connects for me. That’s my favorite part of everything.”
Songwriting begins with Stern and her Jazzmaster. “You want to come up with interesting guitar parts that are challenging, because it’s much more fun to play them,” she says. “But something technically complicated doesn’t necessarily complement the song.”
While many artists resent the grind of touring and playing the same songs night after night, Stern savors the opportunity to relive the moment of creation over and over. Live, “you get more comfortable with them,” she says. “The songs just take on a new life.”
Such a physical style of playing means Stern usually leaves the stage exhausted. “There’s definitely a high energy level,” she says. “My voice is gone from having to scream over bad sound systems, but as long as we’re energized and into it, the crowd really responds.”
“The Chronicles of Marnia” opens with the frantic “Year of the Glad,” which features Stern switching from finger-tapping to heavy riffing while delivering a chorus of staccato vowel sounds. It’s odd but deviously catchy, as she delivers a bracing purpose statement: “Got to make it great! On a mission!”