Kristin Hersh: Fluent in the language of music
For American alt rock icon Kristin Hersh, every note and word has to fascinate. Every song has to be alive, like a great person . . . full of colours and sweat and memories and potential.
A key figure in the alt rock movement and a prominent solo artist, Hersh visits Christchurch later this month for appearances at Word, the Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival. She will also perform in Wellington and Auckland.
If you care for indie rock you'll be familiar with her influential band, Throwing Muses, forerunners to bands like Nirvana. Hersh's life has been accompanied by a twangy guitar soundtrack.
In Christchurch to present Words + Music, she will read text that informs the songs and will play songs which inform the text.
"In other words, I do whatever I feel like," she says.
"Not everyone is fluent in the language of music. Telling a story first helps them into that song bubble where sound is communication on a visceral level rather than an intellectual one."
Her compelling 2010 memoir, Paradoxical Undressing tells the story of one year in her life. It was 1985 - she was just 18, but it was an extraordinary year by anyone's standards.
By that stage Throwing Muses, the band she started with her stepsister Tanya Donelly (Breeders/Belly), had already been gigging for four years and had gained cult status with their post-punk sound.
That year she moved to Boston, had a breakdown, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, became pregnant, recorded her first album and had a baby.
How did she survive?
"I laughed through it. And the painful parts caused me no pain."
Hersh's memoir was published under the title Rat Girl in the United States and she is currently writing a screenplay for a TV series.
For more than 30 years, she believed a separate personality - "rat girl" - created and played all her music.
In the past year she discovered that she had actually been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after an accident at 16. This later revealed dissociative disorder, which means another personality.
As part of her festival appearances in Christchurch, Hersh will discuss her songwriting process, joined on stage by feisty Lyttelton musician Aldous Harding.
"I've always just heard the songs and copied them down.
"The editing and production processes which follow are the craft part of what I do. I try not to control inspiration, as that just screws everything up. A song is smarter than you - or it should be, anyway. I guess a good song is smarter than you."
She was pregnant with her first child when Throwing Muses became the first American band to sign to British record label 4AD, which later signed the Pixies and the Breeders.
The Pixies started out supporting Throwing Muses.
"We had to make our first record here in the United States, even though we'd signed to a British label," she recalls, "as I wasn't allowed to fly. So they flew the producer here from England. For some reason, I guess because it's more humid in England, he kept getting shocked in the studio. That's about all I remember of our first recording session. That and the fact that Deep Purple kicked us out of the studio before we finished the record."
The band had a few minutes to pack up their instruments and race out.
"Before they caught sight of us yucky poor people. Basically old farts with money get to do whatever they want and they wanted to be in our studio, so they had us kicked out, requesting that none of their band members or entourage had to see us."
At a college radio station the band's drummer gave REM their demo tape and Hersh describes REM as "heroes".
"We gave it to them and they took it. Not that unusual, but then they actually listened to it. That's what makes them heroes."
It used to be "hell" for Hersh to be in a studio. She felt trapped.
"I was unable to tear the limbs off the song, sew them back on and make it walk. Now I view the studio as church. I would never leave if I could afford to stay. At a dollar a minute, that's not really possible, though."
A shy person, she prefers to "disappear" when she performs and says that when she is on stage she's not usually aware of what's going on around her.
"That disappearing is awfully satisfying, however."
Hersh has always wrestled with a dilemma. She shuns commercialism but wants her music to be heard.
To get out of a record contract with Warner Brothers in the mid 1990s, Hersh gave them her first solo record.
"I made it in two weeks for practically no money, so it was in the black and profitable the day it was released. When I left, though, Warner Brothers declared it in the red just to make sure I'd never make another penny off it. Which, at the very least, confirmed my decision to leave."
She felt uncomfortable about the record label's demands - from the "lame fashion shoots" to the mandatory schmoozing.
"But the real problem was that they wouldn't work our records. They actually called radio stations and told them to stop playing our single [Bright Yellow Gun] because ours wasn't the record they'd decided to push.
"Any success we had was due purely to our own efforts, and yet they kept the money we earned."
In 2008 she launched CASH Music, a kickstarter-funded, non-profit web platform allowing artists and small labels to share and promote music with fans.
Now, as a listener-supported artist, she enjoys the "circle of gratitude" such an arrangement affords. Hersh describes major record labels as poor business models.
"Most toothpaste companies know that toothpaste should prevent cavities; a major-label feels the opposite way about music: they only sell crap, fashion sound, that rots your teeth and your soul. I don't believe in the idea of a lowest common denominator and that's what their demographic is. Just dummies who don't like music. Seems insane to me."
Growing up, Hersh lived in a commune with her father, Dude, a philosophy professor, and her mother, Crane. Regular visitors to the commune included Allen Ginsberg.
While in Christchurch, Hersh will read from her children's book, Toby Snax. It came about when her youngest son, Bodhi, wanted to stop touring and just stay home.
"He was tired of adventures. So I drew him a rabbit who was also afraid of adventures until the rabbit's mother told him about everything Bodhi had done on tour. This got Bodhi back on the road, and me back on the road, too. Maybe kind of a dirty trick, but it worked."
As a mother of four, Hersh, 47, says she and her children have all grown up on the road.
"We don't know much else. We get used to the view changing every day and wonder why it stops when we get home."
It isn't all a glossy dream. One rainy night in Texas, confused, "super high or drunk" zombie teenagers with glittery painted faces stormed the stage and carried all of the band's equipment outside into the rain.
"Then they rocked the bus, chanting my name and scaring my children. When we tried to drive away, they threw themselves in front of the bus. That night just wouldn't end."
Another time, at Glastonbury, somebody threw a roll of toilet paper at Hersh.
"It's not supposed to be an insult - more like punk rock streamers, I guess. Anyway, it knocked all the lyrics out of my head, really. We played our entire set as instrumentals."
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of influential album Hips and Makers. If she could go back in time, would she do anything differently?
"Yeah . . . I know more about mic placement regarding acoustic instruments now. I was a babe in the woods back then; only comfortable recording electric guitar, bass and drums. Hips is what it is, but I think it's too sparkly and the cello rumbles like a horse whinnying. Oddly, there are also horses whinnying on that record, as I recorded it in a stable."
She mostly records at Stable Sound in New England. It's adjacent to a working stable.
"The Muses' new one, Purgatory/Paradise sounds like a nature film sometimes. Or a cowboy one, anyway."
For Hersh, an average day sees her rise at 4am to write - "books, scripts, essays . . . not songs". By 8am she's "fussing" with the kids and the family pets.
"Fifteen reptiles, plus the dogs and rabbits and ducks and whatever else my son Bo has brought into the house as his latest project."
The rest of the day involves music - "studio, rehearsal, pre-production, whatever is in the works."
She also does a lot of housework, but she's not complaining about it. I sense Hersh isn't one to complain.
"I love it. Housework is an honour when it's done for your children; it can be very therapeutic."
Alongside her upcoming appearances in Christchurch and tour commitments with the Throwing Muses, her "to do" list is lengthy.
"I'm wrapping up a book about Vic Chesnutt commissioned by a musicians-on-musicians series, mixing a solo record called Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, readying a 50FootWave EP for release, writing scripts for a Rat Girl TV series and finishing a novel, my first work of fiction. "We'll see how that goes. Me and fiction don't usually get along."
For this intellectual, funny, shy, fierce woman, her muses have always been sisters, mothers, friends. Artistically, the idea has always been to leave a big, fancy present on the table and tiptoe out of the room.
Expect no less from her Christchurch visit.
At Word, Christchurch's Writers & Readers Festival, Kristin Hersh is at: The Stars Are Out Tonight, August 29; Rock & Roll Lives, August 30; Read it Again! Picture Book Readings, August 30; Words + Music, August 30; Lyrical Writing, August 31.
She also performs a solo show at the Bodega, Wellington, on August 28 and at Q Theatre, Auckland, on August 31.
- The Press