But then a funny thing happened: As she became more and more adept at songwriting and guitar playing, her songs evolved into the kind of loud, raucous and intense music found on her newest album, In Advance of the Broken Arm (Kill Rock Stars). Her fingers tap the fretboard Eddie Van Halen-style as drummer Zach Hill (also of Hella) somehow makes his drums match the speed and intensity of Stern's guitar, and as bassist Robby Moncreiff (also of The Advantage) glues it all together. Headbanging is not optional.
So the question remains: How did Stern turn into the kind of guitar player The New York Times has referred to as a "shredder" and a "guitar heroine"?
"I never thought I'd be thought of as a shredder," said Stern, who lives in New York City. "I knew I wanted to become a better guitar player, so I just continued to practice a lot. I think of myself as a songwriter before I think of myself as a guitar player, though. My focus has always been to write good songs. The guitar playing has just happened to evolve at the same time."
One listen to a song like "Every Single Line Means Something," and it's clear that Stern's guitar-playing evolution is a direct result of her increasingly complex songwriting. Her guitar follows and flourishes with the vocal melody, which gives the song its grinding bawdiness; a song like this needs the kind of bending and shaking Stern gets from her guitar. In Advance of the Broken Arm is not completely metal; it's not necessarily pop--and it sure isn't like anything you've heard before.
Take, for instance, a song like "Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!" It starts with a singsongy guitar riff that gets gradually enhanced by Stern's vocals and a slower pop guitar melody. In another life, it could be a Bikini Kill song, Japanese bubblegum pop, speed metal or something from Chicago circa 1992--all in less than three minutes. "Grapefruit" could be Fugazi or Cibo Matto--all of these varying comparisons make In Defense of the Broken Arm deliciously puzzling.
And just as the instruments create friction against each other, the lyrics are equally surreal: "Think like the light rail train. Draw from that side of the brain," Stern sings on "Healer."
"The symbolism is about trying to create sounds that you wouldn't automatically associate with the language that is coupled with it," explained Stern. "I wanted to see if my interpretation of a word could be relatable to others even if it wasn't the typical association."
Strange associations abound: In Defense of the Broken Arm goes from goofy (the beginning of "Letters From Rimbaud") to ironically angst-ridden ("Plato's Fucked Up Cave") to spoken-word experimental ("Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling"). "This American Life" has Stern singing: "I'll draw a pyramid. Now I'm in the American Revolution."
"I think it reflects my personality in a lot of ways," said Stern about In Defense of the Broken Arm. "The denseness especially ... but I am also a big fan of creating interesting space within songs, and I hope some of the songs reflect that. The album is really a trip inside my life and my mind ... an extension of myself."
And Stern's mind is a fascinating place to be inside--on "Absorb Those Numbers," Stern starts out singing: "As your breath catches up from where you began, the memory's the sum of hey, now," and then her guitar starts percolating. Hill's drums start clashing around; every once in a while, Moncreiff's organ spits. Even toward the end, when most of the instruments fade out for a moment, it still sounds like all kinds of things are going on. It's messy, noisy and chaotic--but the kind of chaos that wouldn't be right any other way.