Life & Culture

Antisemitism is troubling me now more than ever, says rockstar Marnie Stern

As she releases her first album for ten years, the New York based singer muses on the raging Jew hate on her social media feeds


A rock star releasing their first album in ten years is a big deal. Famed for her indie-rock guitar shredding, Marnie Stern is back after rearing two young boys and playing as a session musician on the American Late Night with Seth Meyers show.

And yet, we are no more than five minutes into our interview before the singer-songwriter leans into the Zoom screen from her home in New York, and asks, her face etched with concern: “Isn’t it wild, with everything going on right now? You realise that all of your natural anxiety and paranoia is baked in for a reason?”

It didn’t take long to get to the topic of antisemitism.

“It’s really…” she fumbles for words. “I’m not sleeping well. Are you?” I tell her about my bad dreams.

Stern leans in closer. She wants to know about social media, how bad it really is. “I’m seeing so much antisemitism on my feed that it almost seems like it can’t really be but… is it? Is it?”

Her voice is getting higher pitched. “I just saw a post that said ‘Hitler was right’ hashtagged 20,000 times. How could that possibly be?”

The urgency to the conversation mirrors the panic felt by Jews around the world as they have watched the rise of antisemitism since Israel began its battle against Hamas, after the worst atrocities the Jewish people have experienced in a single day since the Holocaust.

“It just seems like everyone is so angry, young people especially, and it’s terrible,” Stern says. “What’s going on with these schools?”

She’s just seen video footage of a Harvard University student being aggressively mobbed by pro-Palestinians shouting “shame”, during a demonstration called “Stop the genocide in Gaza” that took place last month.

There have been other similarly chilling incidents, at Cornell University, for example, where students and staff were advised to avoid the kosher dining hall for their safety, and also at the Cooper Union, where students hid in a locked library as the baying mob banged on the walls.

“That’s horrible. I can’t believe it. It looks like the 1930s.”

Stern recalls wanting to advocate for change and revolution in her youth, and remembers being optimistic about the possibilities. But she doesn’t recall hate or this level of anger. “It’s very sad and upsetting.”

Stern lives on the “very Jewish” Upper East Side, a neighbourhood in Manhattan, New York City, where, she says, she’s surrounded by “older dudes” who acknowledge the awfulness of what’s going on but in a purposefully dismissive way that suggests both helplessness and self-preservation. “Kind of ignoring it,” Stern sums up.

It feels as though this is the discussion Stern would be having with her neighbours, were they not ignoring it in a probably futile bid to protect their mental health.

Last year, she watched the three-part The US and the Holocaust documentary, directed by Ken Burns, which explored the problem of antisemitism in America.

“What if the tide turns and some really bad stuff happens? But hopefully social media is just a small percentage and the rest of the world and country is… but then Trump might get re-elected and then World War Three could feasibly happen...”

But while she spirals into this catastrophic projection of what might happen, she admits to thinking that the Covid pandemic was the “end of days”. “So I just need to calm down a little bit.”

We return to the music. The Comeback Kid is Stern’s first album since 2013’s The Chronicles of Marnia.

In the intervening years and throughout her sickness-plagued pregnancies, Stern had settled into her 9 to 5: she kept a trash can behind her amplifier just in case, and, when the whole room was spinning, she would stare at the stage monitor as her horizon.

At first, performing on the show was a “hit” to her ego, because having become accustomed to headlining her own shows she was merely there to “prop up the host” in the background. But then she got used to it and after many years on the road, she was quite happy to stay put.

It took about eight years for her to feel the urge to travel, go on tour and play again. And it was when she found herself listening to the “really good and rocking” Ex Hex album by Mary Timony that she felt she wanted “to get back out there in a good kind of competitive way. I wanted to make a kickass record.”

However, when she did start working on her own music once again, this time with two small sons (now aged five and six) in tow, she felt guilty, “even though there was absolutely no reason to and it was such fun. But the guilt stems from the Jewishness.”

Featuring Arcade Fire’s drummer Jeremy Gara, The Comeback Kid is bold, exciting, and resplendent with the tapping guitar technique that saw Stern included on Spin magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time. It hurtles along joyously with pure zest for life.
I wonder how she has so much energy.

“My natural inclination is to get in bed and knit and watch TV,” she says. I think she’s joking, until I remember that Americans don’t generally go in for sarcasm. “No kidding,” she affirms. “The music is me trying to be someone that I’m not, and talking to myself to try and do it. That’s where that’s from.”

For the delight of long-time fans, the album retains her oddball charm. She’s proudest of math-rock-fuelled and “weird ” Believing is Seeing, to which she playfully adds instrumental layers as she takes the role of an eccentric rock-music conductor.

On the lead single Plain Speak, her frenzied fingers tap the fretboard as the song lurches at full speed to her insistent mantra: “I can’t keep on moving backwards.” It feels like a positive anthem in the face of difficulty.

“In life you constantly feel like things are pushing against you and you want to make progress and move forward,” she says. “Moving backwards is like the laziness of wanting to go into bed and knit and read a book. I know that’s not good for me. It’s better to go take a walk outside.”

The album is also a step into new musical dimensions. Stern had been listening to Elliott Smith when she wrote Til It’s Over, which she had thought too “pop” to put on the record, and she also included a cover of Ennio Morricone’s Il Girotondo Della Notte.

She was impressed by songs from the new Sleater Kinney record, not out until January, which sound “very relevant”, lamenting the many bands that release a record after a long period of time, only for it to not be any good. “I wanted to not do that, specifically,” she explains.

Was she nervous about putting out another album after ten years?
“I’m torn about older musicians putting out music and touring,” the 47-year-old says.

“When the Rolling Stones first went back, everyone was like ‘they’re 40, what are they doing?’ And now they’re 80. As you get older you change your mind.

“It’s more about when you’re wearing ridiculous young outfits, like Johnny Depp with his ridiculous floppy hat and all his jewellery everywhere.

“It’s not the music part, it’s the seeming like you want to stay young part I’m not so crazy about. I always hated the image part anyway — I just wore jeans and a T-shirt.”

What she’s excited about now is the shows, where everyone is there to see her, rather than the million watching Seth Meyers.

“In a weird way, that takes the pressure off,” she says.

“Like, let’s have fun. The first show I played was so much fun, a tiny place with 250 people and it was packed and sweaty. I’m excited to do more.”

The knitting might just have to wait.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive