What inspired you to first pick up a guitar?
My family is fairly musical and my dad is a pretty good guitarist. He performed when he was younger as a folk musician, and he actually opened for Pete Seeger once.
He had a lot of [acoustic] guitars around the house and I was always picking them up…and putting them down because I found it a hard instrument on the fingers. But finally when I went to college and saw other female musicians—bands like Bikini Kill and Mecca Normal—I was like, “Oh I wanna do that!” That’s when I really started trying to learn.
What was your first guitar?
A guitar my dad built. He had taken [parts] from this weird Swedish guitar, maybe a Hagstrom, and then he made a body for it by hand and painted it. I thought it was really cool so he gave it to me. I played that in my first band, took it all over on tour and recorded several albums with it. I didn’t buy my own guitar until we made Dig Me Out. I finally bought an Ibanez in Olympia, but that wasn’t until like 1995. So I played my dad’s guitar for years, until he eventually repossessed it. [laughs] But it’s still in the family.
What do you remember about the first gig you ever played?
Well, the first thing I ever did was tell people I was in a band. [laughs] Michelle Noel was organizing [1991’s] International Pop Underground Convention and she called me and said, “Hey, we want your band to play this show.” So I wrote three or four songs for that show, which was the first show I ever played and first thing I ever did on guitar…all in front of everyone I looked up to.
All the other bands, like Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and Fugazi, were in the audience. We were very nervous but we just powered through it. But we had something to say and a story to tell, and that was more important than the musicianship of it. That’s still true for me today: it’s more about using music as a tool to get something across.
Sleater-Kinney’s Live in Paris record just came out, which showcases a 2015 performance at La Cigale. What’s your favorite piece of gear in your live rig?
I have this Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer pedal and I absolutely love it. It’s the sound I use on the song “Price Tag.” I’m basically playing a bass line even though I’m playing a guitar, and [that pedal] makes it sound really scary, weird…and unsettling. [laughs] It provides a really nice sonic landscape for the song that’s about how unsettled we are as a country right now.
What advice would you give to young guitarists?
I was like 17 when I played my first show, and I didn’t really feel encouraged until I saw other women playing the guitar, like Erin Smith from Bratmobile who’s my age and a great guitarist. Showcasing different women and people playing the guitar is important. Celebrating that can bring other young women into music and guitar, [so they can] share their own stories and ideas. Because it’s not time to be quiet right now! [laughs] Your voice might be scratchy and it might be awkward and you might be super nervous like I was at my first show but it’s really time to speak up.