Kristin Hersh – Interview 2016

A bona-fide cult indie legend, since the age of 14 Kristin Hersh has spent her life making music, following her ’accidental’ creative calling. She started her first band, Throwing Muses, soon after sustaining injuries in a bicycle accident, at the age of 16, an accident that saw her possessed by sounds she heard in her head. Sounds that she was able to turn into song at a prolific rate. Sounds that she can’t actually do anything about. They came to her and she seemed to have no other option but to put them down as songs. This continued right up to only a couple of years ago when she was finally properly diagnosed and a treatment was found. Whilst she was able to channel these sounds into a career as a songwriter and musician, she was also periodically suffering from this ‘malaise’, that had alternately enabled and inhibited her. “It’s a blessing,” she says whilst on the road for another tour of the UK. “It’s very quiet now.”

In her recent memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, she described the sound in her head as, "a metallic whining, like industrial noise, layered with humming tones and wind chimes.” There were shapes, too. "I watched and listened," she wrote, "bewildered and enthralled as sound and colour filled my empty hospital room.” She’s also described her songwriting method as, “Lyrics puke themselves out, for me. I hear them as an instrument, of phonetic melody. When I try and sing lyrics that are wrong they stick in my throat. I feel that I am lying and it’s not until they spill out that I know they are telling the truth.”

She also says she has no memory of having written any song. “I had no memories of any of the traumas in my life. I had no emotional attachment to any of them. I didn’t know what my songs were about. So what it released was a barrage of trauma. Your whole psyche is geared towards avoiding those traumas. I thought it would kill me. I thought the pain would kill me.

“I was a very nice lady who would scream and yell for a living. I am a little frustrated that there isn’t a single professional in all these audiences for thirty years that could see me shifting personalities, where I would start to shiver and freeze and go glassy-eyed and not be present. In-between songs I would be me. It was classic dissociative (behaviour). My drummer said he knew. Journalists, I think, must have thought I was speaking metaphorically when I said I had no idea what was going on when I play. I’m not there, I disappear.”

Such is the extraordinary conditions that Kristin Hersh has had to endure since that childhood accident, conditions that have had her diagnosed as bi-polar, and schizophrenic. Not that it was all bad. She’s survived, and she’s had plenty of fun and good times on the way. But her peculiar condition was one she had to learn very hard to cope with along the way. “The dissociative issue is one of those terrible secrets,” she says. “Your form, your psychology, your physiology. I don’t want to say it ruined my life, but my goodness! When I went through EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitisation, Reproducing), I lost about 100 pounds of history.”

EMDR is a relatively recent form of treatment for dissociative issues. “They use it on Vietnam vets that are victims of shell shock essentially: PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). And it’s extremely intense. You can have a heart attack, because your whole system is engaged in trying to avoid what it makes you re-live. But when you’ve done this it moves the experience – the traumatic experience – back in time. And then you can at least have a life where you don’t think about what’s happening.”

Along with a successful course of acupuncture, it looks like she is finally free of these traumas. Traumas that were buried deep within her psyche for so many years. “I was hit by a car as a teenager,” she explains, “and I lost a leg (metaphorically speaking), and my face was gone (ditto). But the double concussion that I sustained, that no one seemed to care about, essentially caused auditorial hallucinations. I don’t hear them anymore, but I still give in to their import. They were arranged in a fashion that was not chaotic and was not limited to my personality. It seemed to resonate with others. If it was just self-expression, pages from the diary, I don’t think I would be a musician right now.

“’Butterfly breathing’ they used to tell us pregnant women preparing for labour. The songs are the contractions, the stories are butterfly breathing and the record is a new baby,” she has said about the ways these songs of hers come out.

From the beginnings of Throwing Muses to the present, Hersh has consistently found ways to channel her noise revelations into melodious if often ferocious and primal indie-rock songs, enough to get her a deal with 4AD, with whom Throwing Muses released a string of acclaimed albums. They shared a label with the equally ferocious Pixies, another east coast band who helped prepare the ground for Nirvana and the alt-rock explosion of the late 80s and early 90s. Indeed, Pixies were the support band to Throwing Muses on their first foray into the UK back in ’87.

In all, Throwing Muses have released nine studio albums, including 2013’s Purgatory/Paradise, an album that also featured an accompanying book. As a solo artist, beginning with 1994’s Hips and Makers, she’s got ten albums under her belt, and with 50FOOTWAVE, her alt-rock side project, she’s released one studio album as well as a number of EPs and mini-albums, including this years’ Bath White.

Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is the third release in the ground-breaking book-CD format that Hersh began with her previous solo album Crooked and the Muses’ Purgatory/Paradise. It’s all coinciding with her new career as a writer. As well as sharing essays and tour diaries on her website, she has published Paradoxical Undressing in the UK (released as Rat Girl in the USA), a children’s book Toby Snax, and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, a personal account of her long friendship with the late Vic Chesnutt.

Wyatt at The Coyote Palace is a collection of autobiographical songs she wrote before being ‘cured’, reflections upon youthful indiscretions, drug use, a knife fight she had as a child, grief at the dissolution of a 25-year marriage, her four children, and mini-vignettes and anecdotes a-plenty. The album's title describes the time her son, Wyatt, spent at an abandoned building near the Rhode Island studio where Hersh often records, which had been overtaken by coyotes.

The companion book was in fact the springboard for the double CD. “It’s essentially a transcript of a conversation I had with a friend, starting at the beach and extended through New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles. It lasted for a few months. A friend pointed out that my friends and I never stop telling stories about narrowly escaping death and we think that’s hilarious. I didn’t believe him, and he started to repeat back to me my stories,” she laughs, one of many ironic laughs that punctuates the interview. “And, it’s true! We do almost always die in the stories. They are funny. But when I started writing them down what I came away with was ‘never take yourself seriously, and take life very seriously’. That sounds like a sobering thing to write a book about, but it isn’t at all. It’s just the idea of an outline, something finite.”

I guess we have this useful mechanism that can help us laugh in the face of death, I venture. “Yes, you’re right. Laughing in the face of death. Anything that makes you fleeting and small is a good reminder that you’re both fleeting and small,” she philosophises.

Does she encounter these kinds of things more than most? “I wouldn’t think so, but I was allowed to pay attention. I could be stupider than the average person. I might fall off things more often. I guess a musician’s life is a little iffy. You’re never on stable ground.”

Indeed, for 30-plus years, Hersh has been on the road with her band Throwing Muses but also as the frontwoman for her occasional 50FOOTWAVE project, as a solo artist and writer. She’s even been on the literary circuit of late, promoting her works such as Rat Girl, which is based on a diary she wrote when she was 18, touring with Throwing Muses, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and pregnant with her first child. “It’s just a month, and then I do America,” she says of the current tour. “Then maybe Australia, Asia, Europe, US again. You have to be prepared not to go home. But, I haven’t really been home since I was a teenager.”

The mother of four children, Hersh took four years to make Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, crowdfunding the project (a trailblazer in this respect, she has been doing this for nearly a decade now, operating a fan-funded business model via the Cash Music organisation she helped set up in 2007) and recording all the instrument tracks herself, and assisted by engineer Steve Rizzo. The sound is grounded in her rapidly gliding voice and acoustic 12-string guitar, but also includes electric guitar and bass, horns, cello and various ambient recordings she collected whilst on her last tour with Throwing Muses. “It’s called Wyatt at the Coyote Palace because my son Wyatt was enchanted by the abandoned building behind my studio, that coyotes moved in to after people left. The coyotes lived with discarded mattresses and teapots and old books people left behind when they moved out. They hunt in the woods and then come home at the end of the day, like they're coming home from work. Wyatt was fascinated by this process and this place: he filmed it in the snow, in the summer heat and spring mists while I recorded these songs.

“I wanted his obsession with it to be mirrored in my recording. Until one day he said ‘no more coyotes. I’m not going to film it anymore. I’m not going to explore it anymore, talk about it anymore’. I was heartbroken. I told my drummer (Dave Narcizo, Throwing Muses drummer, and whom she has been friends with since childhood) ‘the whole premise of this record I’ve been working on for five years is gone’. Wyatt’s shining eyes and his being flushed with excitement, his obsession. David said it has to be encapsulated. It has to be finite, as a sensory experience or you can’t know it. Like bottling a memory. David thinks we'll see it again, and Wyatt's love of the place will come back, when the images have been filtered through Wyatt's intense and fascinating psychology.”

From the opening arpeggios of ‘Bright’, and the unexpected hallucinatory Hendrix-style explosion of guitar within, and to the fingerpicked banjo beginning of ‘Bubble Net’ that turns into an elegantly repetitive country-rock number, the album’s stuffed full of inventiveness. For instance, there’s the raw and folksy ‘In Stitches’, which in turn switches very suddenly into a dreamily plodding number for the remainder of the song. Hersch’s songs take unexpected turns and twists, her voice as husky as ever, but still imbibed with that babydoll-meets-turbulent vigour, as she describes the unravelling and the unpredictable motion from grace to disaster and back again, that may happen in an instant, or may creep up on you almost imperceptibly. There are 24 tracks here. It’s an epic, but rarely does it feel too long, despite the half-song nature of much of the material here. As always with Hersh, her songs and delivery are a mixture of the stark, evocative, propulsive, melancholic, skittish, challenging, but also comforting. Moreover, Hersh’s ear for a guitar and vocal melody, combined with her unique imagination, her lurching rhythms and dynamic shifts, and the endlessly interesting nature of Hersh herself, carries you through right to the end of the album.

“It’s all true stories,” she says about Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, the book version. Even the one about the tour bus catching fire? “I can’t make things up. I don’t have that facility. It wouldn’t have been on the news. Nobody would care. It was just our bus. We cared, because it was our only home. We weren’t living anywhere. I had my dogs, kids, jar of goldfish in the sink. I had a string section and my 50FOOTWAVE rhythm section, so I was responsible for a lot of beings.

“My husband was driving the tour bus and lost control. There was smoke coming into the front lounge. And he was yelling at me and my bass player to not come back to where the smoke was coming in. There were flames back there. He didn’t know there was one of our kids back there. It was dramatic at the time. We were on a mountain road and he lost his power steering, and we ended up crashing into the woods and getting stranded there for a few days. I told my family that ‘I will borrow money and get you out of it, get you home. This is the end. Our home is gone, my career is over’. And, they just said ’no, we’re gonna finish the tour even if we have to walk’!”

Help came pouring into the motel where they were stranded; fans apparently sent letters, money, rescue remedies. They fixed the bus. “So, when people do that you think ‘I can’t be a wimp’. I guess that is the point of these stories. You can’t be a wimp. That’s just stupid.” Recalling that incident Hersh quotes something her teenage son Wyatt likes to say, "When the unthinkable happens, we die: we cross a threshold and start a new life."

24 tracks. There’s a lot of music here! “There’s many more than that, I am embarrassed to admit,” she laughs. “It’s not that there is anything terribly wrong with those tracks. It’s just that there were far too many. Not every song is going to work as a sentence and a paragraph. There needs to be a release. You have to make some kind of point. It can’t be all this music! So, I have to make this finite. Then it becomes something you’re feeding off. I’m not eating anything more now. It has to be something I give. That’s assuming that people want it. Which I would never do,” she laughs. “But I did have to walk away. From the recording.”

I venture to ask her how many songs she has written over her life. “Wow, I don’t think I want to know! It would be an awful number. I always wanted it to stop,” she says about how the songs came to her, without asking, as it were. “It stopped once when I was younger, and I moved out to the desert. It stopped for about two years and started up again on tour in New Mexico. And that story is a ridiculous one,” she laughs. “I’m not sure if I should tell it!” But she does anyway, “I was ordering coffee on my way out of town after doing a show in Santa Fe. I thought I could see the music coming out of the speakers and I suddenly remembered how huge music had been for me and when I stopped hearing songs, it was like losing a sense. I know people have lost their sense of smell, and they don’t miss it because they don’t know what they’re missing. And that is what it was like when I stopped hearing songs. I was moved to tears. My husband looks at me and started looking around to see who had made me cry. There were these two old Native American guys and a young one holding a guitar, burning herbs over it. He ran over to them and said ‘my wife is crying about music! Did you do that!? And they said, ‘oh yeah, we’re doing a music blessing. We must have taken the guitar and hit your wife over the back of her head’. I swear to god, this is true! And I started hearing songs again. It just stopped again two years ago, when I was treated for (the aforementioned) PTSD. But I didn’t lose music. I just stopped hearing the songs. I still have that sense, I just don’t hear the songs as hallucinations any more.”

The conversation turns to her children, and what happens when she is touring. “The kids come sometimes, but nobody is on this leg. They work! I don’t have a job,” she dryly intones. “My little baby (her 13-year-old son), he barely comes up to my shoulder, he has three jobs.” That’s the American way, isn’t it, I ask. “I suppose. I thought that was the Japanese way! I thought we (Americans) were lazy, but he’s not. Good for him. I guess!” She laughs again.

I say he must be paying his way. “Well, you’re not allowed to pay children because of child labour laws. But slave labour is legal when it concerns children,” she laughs. “He gets a stipend. He gets paid for his work at a pet store in frozen rodents, which we use to feed our fifty reptiles. ‘Have you ever worked for frozen rats?’ she asks rhetorically, knowing full well I have not. “We’ve forty snakes, ten lizards. Some of them are really, really large ones. We had a seven foot one living in the bath tub for a long time. That was actually amazing. I love that tub. But she was so lovely, she was special. Hence his three jobs. He’s got kids to feed!”

Back on the road, as she has been on and off for over 30 years now, this tour features a combination of her songs, performed solo, a mixture of Wyatt at the Coyote Palace and songs from her incredibly deep repertoire, as well as some readings from the …Coyote Palace book. "I feel like music is real and bipolar disorder is not any longer," she says. "I hated the connection between mental illness and art. I was never sure if the music was disease or therapy anyway. I couldn't stand that you had to be sick in order to create beauty, or confused to create truth. It made no sense. It was a huge relief to be essentially cured."

"Work is a moment," she writes in the book's conclusion. "Its forever is in the sharing."
Jeff Hemmings