A prolific writer, Kristin Hersh has never shied away from documenting her darkest moments through song. Pioneering college rock and laying the foundations for grunge, her band Throwing Muses rose from Boston’s late ’80s alt-rock scene and became the first American act signed by 4AD.
Funded by a deeply loyal fan base, the first Throwing Muses material for 10 years took intimacy to new extremes. Expanding 32 tracks into intricate prose, the 2013 album/book, ‘Purgatory/Paradise’, revealed more about Hersh than ever before.
How would someone so intense, so affected, respond to an interview? The night before we meet I watched fans sway with hypnotic reverence to her gnarled cries at the first of two sold-out shows at Islington Assembly Hall. Small, frail and wide-eyed, Hersh was exceptionally polite. Our time ran significantly over and as it did she spoke with growing fervour, intent on dissecting every question to its core.
The result, much like her songs, was a dark and deeply honest portrayal of a mind resolute on the power of music. For better or for worse.
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Kristen Hersh, ‘Your Ghost’, from the album ‘Hips And Makers’ (1994)
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The show last night was hypnotic. You barely broke your gaze with the audience. Where does that intensity come from?
I’m not a performer, I’m a very shy person. I’m ill suited to every aspect of what I do, except hiding to write the songs and record them. Still they don’t feel finished until they resonate with others. ‘Purgatory/Paradise’ is the first record where we’ve left the studio and been completely at ease. We had record companies in the way before and I’m embarrassed to admit that we let that interfere.
Do you not see your time with Warner Brothers as a learning curve? If anything, they taught you how not to do it…
No! I feel sick about it! But that’s a better attitude. I wonder if I could feel okay about it? I feel just so ashamed and wish it never happened. It’s awful. You shouldn’t make any mistakes ever! Not with music. When it’s so obvious what needs to be done. But, you know. At least we came through.
What needs to be done?
We decided a long time ago that less is more. We want to create something timeless and you can only do that if you present something in its purest form. And you’re just that bit more self-conscious than you outta be when there’s a middle man there with his ear towards the marketability of the product. That should not happen.
You’ve been writing songs non-stop since you were 14 years old. You describe them as having their own life, their own rules. Has that always been the case?
Absolutely. It’s like a kid. You don't wanna tell your kid what to say or wear. You wanna see what he turns into when he walks around, and you make him healthy and kind. When songs are healthy and kind they can speak to other people. You have to listen to how the song needs to be presented, even if it’s spindly and fragile and that makes you feel like you don’t have balls. You can’t care more about yourself than the song or the listener.
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The songs are sorta like friends. So they walk in the room and you know they have the potential to change the filter you see things through...
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How do you know if a song is healthy and kind?
I know if it gets stuck in my throat then I stood in the way and either wouldn’t let it say something or tried to make it say something. A truthful line will be like melodic percussion that uses syllables as its instrument.
You’ve explained in the past how your songs act as mirrors. You listen back and realise something completely new about yourself. In the ‘Purgatory/Paradise’ commentary you note that ‘Quick’ was one of those songs and is incredibly painful to re-visit. What's that like?
The songs are sorta like friends. So they walk in the room and you know they have the potential to change the filter you see things through. If they’re stuck in time, if they’re trendy, if they have a moral, if they have a hook, if they have something that drags them down, then they won’t offer you any insight. But real songs, the songs that fly, it’s through them that we learn how to view our life. They give us these new filters, they’re three dimensional. But sometimes even when they’re three dimensional, their story is just so heavy. Like ‘Quick’. It’s just got weights all over it and I don’t play it because I don’t wanna go there. I don’t want that filter.
When did you first realise your songs could do that to you?
I think when I was 14. And other people’s songs do that, too. ‘Cos they just are. The good ones. There aren’t many good songs in this world. There are way more bad ones. I guess I just wouldn’t call them songs.
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Kristin Hersh, ‘A Loon’, from the EP ‘Strings’ (1994)
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You treat your music with such reverence. ‘Purgatory/Paradise’ reflects that. I wonder why more musicians aren’t drawn to that type of release?
Oh, I think all musicians are. But performers aren’t. Musicians mostly work in bedrooms and garages, basements, sometimes bars or churches, street corners. Music is mostly ephemeral. It’s very unusual for real music to be in the music business, because it doesn’t suit the musician. Every now and then a Nick Drake will slip through or the Violent Femmes will make a record that just pops, but generally speaking, music and the music business are mutually exclusive. In my opinion.
For so many of your listeners, you articulate their thoughts and feelings in a way that has gained you an exceptionally loyal following. How has that changed you as a writer? Does that knowledge change what you’re willing to release, to present to them?
I have a real problem with music leading or becoming emotionally manipulative. It’s played out well in some hands but not mine. My harshness in music was the result of difficult life experiences that I should not have published. Those songs caused so much pain in listeners and I regret that. In fact (long pause). A girl just killed herself and left my lyrics as her suicide note, she carved them into her arms. I tried to keep her alive for her last day on earth just writing to her and the whole day... (cries)
You’ve just found this out?
It happened last year. She’s a homeless junkie who couldn’t get into my shows so would sit outside and listen. She never told me. She would have been on the guest list and I couldn’t keep her alive. I was part of killing her and I will never ever let that happen again. So it was... at least she’s out of her pain. She showed me I’m not allowed to hurt people just because I’ve been in pain. The song has gotta go somewhere else. It can’t just go down and drop you there.
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I should have listened and realised this isn’t a gift, this is like holding out a razor blade. But I dropped the ball…
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But you didn’t write the song with that purpose. It came from an honest place, you weren’t to know.
But it was a mistake. Sorry. I keep crying. It was a really hard lesson to learn this late in my career. There are people who have died to my music because they wanted to and cancer was killing them and that’s like being part of hospice care, it’s something I have no attachment to because it was their song. But this, I knew that song was a mistake. It was on my last solo record and I knew it was just too, too dark. I should have listened and realised this isn’t a gift, this is like holding out a razor blade. But I dropped the ball. It didn’t lift her up beyond her pain and it didn’t do that for me either. The vocal take ends in a choking sob, I couldn’t do it again so they used that one and that shoulda told me don’t put it on the freakin’ record, get it out. It won’t happen again, that’s all.
Knowing how deeply music can affect you, who do you listen to? Who do you trust?
Nick Drake was a fairly recent discovery for me. Ivo (Watts-Russell, of 4AD) gave me a Nick Drake record when I was a teenager and I didn’t get it. It took me years. Now my son Wyatt and I call him our Team Mate, which makes me sound as retarded as I am. I sold off all my vinyl last time I moved to New Orleans ‘cos I needed the money and…
Oh no, really? How much did you sell?
My dad’s entire collection! The guy who sold my vinyl for me, Todd, is here tonight. He gave me back the Nick Drake collection. Calling him your Team Mate means he has the right to play your soundtrack. I trust him. And he makes lots of mistakes! But anyone who is a genius makes tons of mistakes. It’s proof they’re a genius because when they don’t use the genius they’re faking it real obviously.
Have you ever worked with or known any musicians you would consider to be a genius?
Vic Chesnutt. He was one of my dearest friends. He was addicted to songwriting, to the high of it, but you can’t control it and he tried. Joe Henry says music is on a conveyor belt: you just jump up and grab it as it’s going by. Vic kept trying to jump. But you can’t trigger a song like that. It falls on you and you just grab onto it and parachute down. You can’t keep jumping off cliffs expecting it to go with you.
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Throwing Muses, ‘Bright Yellow Gun’, from ‘University’ (1995)
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Do you trust yourself not to jump?
I don’t know. I trust myself up to a point. I just found out that music was an alternate personality for me. Music was my vocabulary for trauma. I was treated for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which rather than confirming a bi-polar disorder refuted it. I’d always said I’m not bi-polar, my illness is music, but nobody really listened because that’s not an illness.
I told so many journalists, ‘I have no memory of writing songs or playing them. You just watched a show that I don’t remember. I disappear.’ But they kept thinking it was a metaphor. My PTSD treatment integrated the two, so I’m not disappearing anymore when music happens. It’s a strange process called EMDR. The integration isn’t complete and I still disappear a lot. My eyes glaze over, I stop blinking. But the music is getting better and better. The first time I had to play after integration my music was so very intense because it was her. This is why I cry now. I didn’t know anything about these feelings as they were all expressed in music.
Just your own music?
No, that was another thing I was incapable of before this integration. Someone would put a record on and I had no memory of it playing. So everybody knew, you don’t play music around Kris. She can’t handle it. Like, that’s f*cked up. So now I’m getting to the point where I can play cards with my kids and put a record on. That’s why it was so easy for me to sell all my vinyl! So now my son and I are trying to replace all my vinyl! (Laughs) And I’m trying to not get lost just because they played a D minor. And my kids know, they’ll be.... (Todd walks in to the room) Oh! Hey Todd! I was just talking about you! About my vinyl…
Todd: Oh yeah. Which you can reclaim any time you want.
What, you didn’t sell it yet?
Todd: No. I kept it. It’s still sitting in my hall.
What! But I needed the money! (Laughs)
Sorry… Wait, is this the most perfect ending to any interview, ever?
Right! (Laughs) Oh wow. And now I get to listen to it all without falling apart.
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Interview: Kim Hillyard
‘Purgatory/Paradise’ is available now – details here.