Interviews

The Very full life of Kristin Hersh


It’s a joy when a person whose  work you appreciate turns out, at least within the context of whatever exposure you have to them, to be congruent to the highest ideals and possibilities of that work. The following interview with Kristin Hersh has borne out the aforementioned expectation. The artist’s life in her instance turns out to be…. just life. Family, work, artistic pursuits, creating community, this has all become part of a somewhat seamless process of living a very full and “observed life”, truly the only kind worth living, in a mindful, creative and inclusive manner. Kristin candidly shares her views on performing, the music industry, and motherhood with me, as well as a bit of the story of “Throwing Muses”, and their very positive 20 year relationship with Ivo Watts Russell and 4AD. Kristin continues to juggle family life and music, with her ongoing solo career, Throwing Muses, and power pop trio 50 Foot Wave all going strong, not to mention spoken word performances in support of her “non-memoir” “Rat Girl”.

PH Kristin, first off, let’s talks about…motherhood. You seem to have
struck a balance in life that allows for you to exercise your need for
creative expression, while focusing the energy, time, love, and
relationship building with your children. How does this work?

KH Well…I don’t actually have a job. Which frees up a lot of time. If I were taking them to school and going to an office 9 to 5, my life would be very different, obviously. Being musician costs money, both being on the road and in the studio (a good rate at a recording studio is $1/minute). So I try to work as little as possible and still get the job done. I like giving music away; I think it’s important and I don’t like charging high ticket prices for shows, so I have to balance my budget carefully.

I also think a full life leads to 3 dimensional music that’s bigger than you rather than mere self-expression-y whining. When your life is empty, you can get pretty self-involved, but when you spend all your time caring for others, you tend to, I don’t know, *marvel* more, I guess.

PH You have always impressed me as an artist that has avoided a
bifurcated existence. You don’t seem to spend much time buried in a
persona. When I first heard Throwing muses, it was exhilarating, and
frightening, and shook my core a little bit, because of the sort of
crazed honesty in your voice. What are your thoughts on this? Do you
ever see yourself as a “performer”?

KH I’m not much of a performer, no. I lack the show-off gene that is so necessary in this business. I can, however, disappear and let music play itself. My only real talent, actually. Which is definitely honest, as you say, it just doesn’t always sound nice.

I have an unending appreciation for the listener which would not work well with a persona. It’s important for me to be small in this picture. The music is big and the listener plays an active role in it…I’m somewhere in the background.

PH You have managed to be a very transparent songwriter without dipping
into the endless well of stereotypical female confessional angst. I say
this without a trace of misogynist intent, believe me. Has your
avoidance of this process been a careful and purposeful one?

KH *I* can get a little misogynistic, to tell you the truth. Women bug me when they insist on being women to the exclusion of everything else they could be, while rejecting June Cleaver (who was actually a remarkable character: hardworking and funny) and calling Bimbo-ism pro-active sexuality. It’s selling themselves short.

I refuse to play Lillith Fair time and again for this reason. Gender segregation is not valuable to me and being female is not a plot, nor is it a problem or an excuse, it just is. Being *human* is interesting and kind. I truly believe that gender itself is just a spectrum anyway, nothing you could divide down the middle.

That said, I don’t do anything consciously ’cause I’m sort of vague; I just notice tendencies as they come up.

PH I recently interviewed an old acquaintance, Simon Raymonde of Cocteau
Twins, a former label mate of yours on 4AD. Simon indicated that Cocteau
Twin’s deal on 4AD was a fairly typical slave arrangement that mirrored
the industry standard. What was your experience on 4AD? Due to the
iconic status and strong aesthetic consistency of the label, my tendency
was to assume that the label worked from a more egalitarian ethical
construct concerning the way it treated its artists. What was your
experience like at 4AD?

KH We had the opposite experience. 4AD was amazing for us (for 20 years!) until they were absorbed by Beggar’s Banquet. Whereas all the American majors and indies offered us nothing but entrapment, 4AD did only one-record-at-a-time deals with us and they worked those records hard. Ivo cared so much that he would sit in my living room and write backing vocals with me. He was incredible.

President of 4AD, Chris Sharp, did his best to continue the 4AD aesthetic and work ethic after Ivo left, but with dwindling resources, there was only so much he could do. When he finally left, it was time for me to try the CASH model as an alternative to the recording industry, which I did with 4AD’s blessing.

PH I’m very interested in the progression of an artist or band from
being veritable unknowns to having some stature, to being able to make a
living playing music. Can you tell me the story of your journey?

KH We started playing live and recording when we were 14 years old, so we felt experienced when we made our first album at 19. We were technically supporting ourselves with music then, but really that just means that we were willing to be very poor in order to stay on the road and in the studio. It’s a difficult lifestyle if you aren’t willing to play the game (suck).

The individual members of Throwing Muses made paltry sums, but we were still able to work those records, which is what really matters. Any money we made went into touring, recording costs and equipment; it’s an expensive job. But we knew how lucky we were to be working at all.

My first solo record was in the black (recouped) the day it was released, so it made me money until I left Warner Brothers, when they declared it in the red again and I never made another penny.

PH How did throwing muses come to be?

KH No idea. Boredom?

PH What are your early memories concerning growing towards being a
songwriter, a singer, a storyteller?

KH My dad, “Dude,” taught me to play guitar when I was little, so I started writing songs when I was about 9 years old. I have no idea what it means for a 9 year old to be writing songs, but I can sort of imagine.

By the time I was 14, I was writing better songs and Throwing Muses was something kind of real, but I didn’t start *hearing* songs until I was hit by a car and sustained a double concussion at age 16.

PH I know it may sound a bit wacky, but I never related to you or
Throwing Muses as being “pop” musicians. There is always some crazy
element of the blues that latches on to my spleen and won’t let go. If
I were going to create the perfect duet partner for Kristin Hersh, it
would be Howlin Wolf. The comparison for me is not so much the direct
aesthetic and stylistic elements, but the directness, the lack of
filtering in the songwriting. I’d love to hear you do /Smokestack
Lightning/! What forms of music, in general and particular artists
specifically, do you see as influential in helping you create your voice?

KH I love that song! And I love Howlin’ Wolf! You’re so kind…

I wanted to be influenced more than I actually was. I wanted to sound more like the bands I loved, but I always ended up sounding like me instead.

PH Part of the discussion I am having with artists is their relation to
the business of their art, whatever it is. Please tell us about CASH
music and the reason you have gone to this system of commerce as
concerns your recorded work?

KH CASH is the solution to a problem I’ve been wrestling with since I first started recording. I knew I didn’t belong in the industry and yet I had to play music. I tried to quit many times, but the songs didn’t care; they would pile up on my 4 track and haunt me.

Throwing Muses the trio (from “Red Heaven” on) helped me be a musician who didn’t play the game and, ironically, those records were our most successful, but we knew it couldn’t last forever. Eventually we could no longer fund a recording session or a tour.

CASH put the listener in charge of the recording session for me, which is as it should be. Subscribers pay my recording costs and I give them the music I make. There is no middle man, no one holding the key to money or marketing or radio, just a lab for me to perform my experiments in and then people who want to hear the truth. Listeners have no interest in bullshit or looks or salability, they just want the lab results.

PH The music industry as business is in complete decline, and I feel
artists contribute to the decline, the panic, by pursuing musical
success as some sort of contest, some sort of adversarial process,
instead of seeing the decline as a way for musicians to build stronger,
more collaborative coalitions. How do you see the state of the industry
today and the artist’s position in it?

KH That panic has always been palpable, but it’s vivid right now. Musicians with more style than substance have always played the game with scary abandon. The “blind ambitious” as we called them are competitive when it comes to other musicians and grabby with their fans.

Real musicians love it when someone else is great because it helps us all fight the good fight. And real music makes us happy. It kills us that we have to charge fans *anything* because we’re so honored by their presence.

You can tell the fake kind of musician right off: they’re “performers,” “larger than life,” outfitted and gussied-up…”cool” is very important to them. If you look at someone and think “junior high!” it’s a good indication that they suck.

Real musicians are usually dorks.

This is one of the many reasons that this industry *should* nose dive the way it’s doing. It was an unhealthy place for art.

PH What are your literary or film interests? What was the last book
that you read that was truly resonant for you and why?

KH Honestly, I see most of my movies on airplanes, but, that said, “Team America” was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And I was lucky enough to be invited to play at Jonathan Couette’s screening of “Harold and Maude” in New York a couple weeks ago. That’s gotta be my favorite movie ever. I couldn’t stop watching it when Vic Chesnutt died. I think homemade, loose, unpretentious, big ideas in a small world are all key when it comes to beauty right now. To see a movie made in 1971 fill all these requirements was awfully moving.

I read mostly science books, but I enjoyed “The Soul’s Code” by James Hillman, whom I used to see lecture with my father when I was a kid.

PH I saw on your site that you have written a children’s book. What was
the impetus for this? Do you have plans to do more?

KH I wrote that for my youngest son, Bodhi, who was having trouble leaving on tour. He wasn’t much of an explorer and wanted to stay home and “be normal.” So I drew him as a scared bunny and made him a little more brave by the end of the book. It actually helped, too. He’s quite the little adventurer now.

I didn’t mean to publish it, really, we just had a few thousand made and fans with kids bought them. It was nice to hear people’s stories about their kids getting brave, too. Planet earth can be off-putting at times when you’re short and confused.

PH How do you and your husband make agreements concerning the intense
levels of collaboration it must take to maintain the infrastructure of
your life together, not to mention friendship, desire, and recreation?
You have to really be together in this thing, no?

KH Yeah. We’ve tried rules like, “No business in bed,” etc., but mostly we’re just best friends, so we’re nice to each other. Which isn’t hard. There is a lot to discuss and even more to get done, but none of it is bullshit; it’s all very exciting. Children and music are more important to us than our own lives; as far as taskmasters go, they’re pretty easy to work for. We feel exceedingly lucky.

We also play very different roles in our business, so we care about each other’s work day without stepping on toes.

PH What is your primary musical focus now? Is 50 Ft. Wave the priority,
or are things much more fluid concerning where you place your attention?

KH 50FootWave is often the priority. I think that band is so important. We just recorded in LA with Mudrock again and that EP will be released by the end of the summer, I believe. Again, though, a band is so expensive that it just can’t remain the focus for very long. Fewer people attend shows and no one buys CD’s, so we jump at every opportunity we get to work, but 50Foot can’t support its musicians.

My new solo record, “Crooked” which was just released as a book in the UK, and my memoir (“Rat Girl” in the U.S., “Paradoxical Undressing” everywhere else) are commanding most of my attention right now. I leave in a couple days to promote “Crooked” in the UK and do readings from “Rat Girl.” It’s not really a memoir, by the way (I hope I’m not old enough to write one of those yet), it’s just my teenage diary from 1985, so it reads more like a non-fiction novel.

Those spoken word shows have been great. I did a few weeks at the Edinburgh Festival and a few weeks at the Sydney Festival, I’ve done it in London and in the Netherlands. I get to play music that relates to the book and read passages that relate to the music which is very freeing. I’m used to trying to speak only music to people; a language very few people are fluent in, but speaking English is very different! I’m not used to people getting what I’m on about…this is something new.

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3 thoughts on “The Very full life of Kristin Hersh

  1. Loved this. Thanks a lot! I have listened to Kristin since Real Ramona, and I am loving the new album. I love getting a little glimpse into her life.

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