posted on August 18, 2011 09:38
Kristin Hersh is reminiscing about her early tours with the Throwing Muses, the influential art-rock band she formed as a teenager in the early eighties with her stepsister Tanya Donnelly. The Pixies were their opening act.
‘Yeah, they were always our support act when we went out on tour’ she tells me, down the line from her home in Laguna Beach, California. ‘We brought them with us because we didn’t want to be alone. We brought them to 4AD too because we didn’t want to alone on the label there either with all those English bands that were so pretty, gauzy and ethereal and we knew we were nothing like that!’ she remembers, laughing ‘The Pixies just kept us from being lonely’.
Throwing Muses, along with Sonic Youth and the aforementioned Pixies, were key figures in the alternative rock scene in the US in the eighties and nineties, and paved the way for Nirvana and the alt-rock explosion that followed. Yet, Hersh is not one for looking back or resting on her laurels, in fact Throwing Muses never officially split up and are hoping to release a new album soon. The mother of four has written and recorded almost twenty albums in her career to date, with Throwing Muses, as a solo-artist and with her loud, art-punk side-project 50 Foot Wave. To say Hersh is prolific sounds like an understatement.
‘Well, I’m just riddled with songs! I could make a record a week!’ she declares, bursting into that wonderful laugh once again that peppers the conversation. Hersh is a delightful interviewee; she’s articulate, light-hearted and down-to earth, at odds with the haunting intensity of her songs and their sometimes stark lyrical observations. She has spoken openly of her bipolar disorder and has described in the past her singular creative process whereby, rather that hearing a melody, or a snippet of a melody, that is then worked on laboriously until a full song is constructed, she can ‘hear’ songs already composed in her head, complete with somewhat incoherent lyrics. This would go some way to explain the huge body of work she has already accumulated in her career to date.
‘I don’t really know whether that was the bipolar disorder or the bad car accident I was in when I was teenager’ she says ‘I had a double-concussion, I was in a wheelchair for a long time and I started hearing songs then but I had written songs before that. I already had the craft down but there was no real magic to the material so now it’s a combination of hearing the songs but not bringing any of my personal baggage into it’ she explains ‘The songs are about my life - they’re my life stories and my pictures - but they don’t seem to be coming from me. They’re not really what I would choose to say, that can cause problems, it can be awfully embarrassing’ admits Hersh. ‘I sort of have to remain true to what they want to get said but at the same time keeping myself out of the process’.
So the songs are fully formed already, simply leaving you with the task of recording them? ‘Yes, but there is a certain amount of wrestling I must do to make sure I’m playing them right and hearing the lyrics right’ reveals Hersh ‘I can’t always understand the words. The lyrics are always the part I wrestle with but the music has always been very clear. I can play it; I never heard a song I couldn’t play. But words are tricky; you don’t want to ever lie. You just have to careful about them. In writing about it, in the book last year ('Paradoxical Undressing', a memoir she wrote which details the early years of Throwing Muses), I started to analyse it more than I ever wanted to. Perhaps to reduce it to a concussion seems minimising but I really believe that they are there, that they are real but I choose not to think of it as an illness’.
Hersh plays a solo show in Dublin this month and, at the time of writing, a Throwing Muses tour has just been announced, which will see Kristin return to Dublin with her old band in November. With so much music, and the tours to promote it, Hersh unsurprisingly spends a lot of time on the road. But she’s never been comfortable as a performer ‘I’m very shy so performance doesn’t really come naturally to me' she admits 'When I’m playing, it doesn’t really feel like I’m there at all and that’s okay but the whole idea of putting yourself in front of a bunch of people and making them look at you? I just don’t have that gene, that type of drive. Yet I know the type of high, that energy coming back to you (from the audience) and I’m sort of addicted to that. I also like the simplicity of the lifestyle. It teaches you what you need as opposed to what you want. It’s like a religion and I get to practice my religion for a few hours every day’.
Almost inevitably, Dublin is one her favourite places to play but Hersh offers a refreshingly cerebral explanation as to why that is. ‘You know, it’s just never disappointing. It has this…focused intelligence. Dublin is a city that is very musically aware, psychologically vibrant and very alive’ she says ‘It implies a musical fluency, music is a language and not everyone is fluent in it and in Ireland a lot of people are. It’s something you’re born with, I guess.’ I put it to her that this innate musicality may be born of our turbulent historical past, a post-colonial inferiority complex and the inclement weather ‘Absolutely but then it’s not like Russia because there is a sense of humour that infuses every conversation, every response. That’s hugely important as it means you have grasped drama and not melodrama’.
As if Hersh wasn’t busy enough releasing a new album almost on a yearly basis, she also co-founded the CASH project as an alternative method for up-and-coming musicians to distribute their music and finance themselves. According the site, the ‘goal is to help artists find sustainability and to encourage innovation in the music industry’. An earlier version of the project saw Hersh upload an EP of her side-project 50 Foot Wave and then allowed fans to download it for free, a few years before Radiohead were lauded (and castigated) for doing the same thing ‘I started CASH (Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders) project as a non-profit with some friends a few years ago to provide software tools which would allow musicians to circumvent the traditional recording industry’ she says ‘Which means that musicians no longer have to have a middleman to judge the marketability of their product. It’s a problem I’ve been trying to solve in my life since I was 14 years old. CASH has allowed me to be listener-supported which means my sponsors are actually my audience. Finally, after all these years, I can be in this industry and nobody is asking me to dumb down what I do’.
An interesting facet of CASH is that fans can, not only support the artist in monetary terms, but can also gain an insight into the creative process by joining Hersh or one of the other artists involved in the studio ‘Yeah, the initial subscription was 30 dollars a month for access to any of my shows and you get the record for nothing. Eventually we realised people just wanted the music to happen and we introduced different platforms’ she says ‘That was a successful one but I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable. I’m sort of lost in that world when I’m working so I thought it would be uncomfortable but they add an energy to the room that I didn’t expect. It’s like a keyhole-view into our world' she continues 'Sometimes, they even seem to have ideas for songs!! I’m honoured that anyone would want to do that. To see them re-mixing the music on the site, downloading new songs every month, helping to name the new record, buying the last album ‘Crooked’ even though it was in book-form – I’m just honoured’.
Hersh is returning to her rock roots with a new Throwing Muses album but a release-date is yet to be confirmed. ‘I’m still trying to raise money to mix it. Recording is done and we’d just like to be able to mix it. I can’t wait for you to hear this record as I swear it’s the best one we ever made!’ she says, with genuine enthusiasm. ‘A lot of the songs are really short but it’s a really cool piece. I’m really excited about it; we’re just hoping to mix it, as it’s very special in my opinion. The Muses are just very special me’.
Interview by Ken Fallon
Kristin Hersh plays a solo acoustic show at Dublin’s Workman’s Club on 24 August 2011.