Throwing Muses Founder Talks The Theory & Mystery of Music

Saturday, August 25, 2012 15:43

An Interview with Kristin Hersh

By Casey Pukl

I’ll admit, I’ve been pouring over this particular interview for over a week. There are some interviews that I can try to edit to make them better, shorter, more cohesive, but at the end of the day, you just have to let them go because what was originally written on the page truly is the best representation of the flow of conversation. It makes such a difference and really gives you a glimpse into who the musician is  you’re talking to.

Hersh is best known as the singer of 90’s rock band Throwing Muses, but she has done oh-so-much more over the last 20 years. On paper, she’s now a singer, songwriter, guitarist, published author, band founder, and musical pioneer. In person, she’s an all-around super genuine, honest, and reflective badass— at least that’s what I gathered from 43 minutes on the phone.

With that being said, I’ll let her speak for herself. Meet my new bestie (if you haven’t been obsessed with her songwriting already), Kristin Hersh as she talks about being 100% listener supported, what it’s like to transition from songwriting to writing a memoir, and just how she hears the songs in her head. 

CP: I’m really looking forward to what you’ve been up to. I know from following your Twitter account that you have a lot of projects going on!

KH: I’ve started a few things lately! [laughs]

CP: I heard that you just got the new Throwing Muses record funded by listeners and you have your solo acoustic tour, and then there’s 50 Foot Wave, and they all seem really active!

KH: Yeah, it’s funny you know, because I am and all of my projects are listener-supported, I can work and have various entities that are waiting to work, so I have a problem organizing all of that sometimes! I have 50 Foot Wave and then another band out west called Outros, and we’ve all been waiting to work since the industry started to collapse a few years ago, and now that we have the opportunity, nobody wants to sleep! It’s time to get back in the studio and then back on the road, and this time it’s for the right reasons. It sort of adds to the flame that’s been keeping us up for 23 hours a day.

CP: Yeah, you need more hours in your day!

KH: And then, I’m writing a book, and you can’t just sign a one book deal, the best I could do was a two book deal, and I only had the one book, so I have to write another one. So that means getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning when it’s quiet, before the kids are up. I actually do have more hours in the day than most people, but I think I’m gonna die real soon. [Laughs]

CP: Well let’s hope not! I just want to go back, you touched on it before, but you’ve been in this industry long enough to have seen it build up to a massive giant, and then so suddenly collapse, but I feel like artists such as yourself have found a way to make it work in this new environment. Can you talk about what that was like for you?

KH: I definitely thought of it as an opportunity, because it wouldn’t have been helpful to think of it as anything else, but also I had known about the sucktastic equation that the traditional recording industry was run with since I was 14 and started Throwing Muses. I knew if we were unwilling to suck we would die as soon as all our crappy equipment died, which was soon because we were poor! It was still a struggle, because I found myself playing along with it. Warner Brothers would hand us some single to give to radio to sell our record instead of some other one. And then I’d do photo shoots that were thinly veiled fashion shoots, and the whole time I’m thinking, “This is for music right?” The music was suffering, and when the first soldiers began to fall in the collapse of the industry, and subsequent revolution, meaning musicians and bands rather than corporate [labels], I realized there was no option but to reach out to directly to listeners and extricate myself from my recording contracts, politely, you know. My record labels were intrigued by this experiment, and said that I was welcome back if I ever decided, so there’s a lot of sweetness out there, and a lot of people that care about music, but the industry can’t be maintained by evil or goodness any longer. So, we needed to find alternate solutions, and mine was to become listener supported. I started a non-profit called CashMusic that offers free software tools to musicians so they reach listeners directly. It’s not going to create any rock stars, but maybe that shouldn’t have been the case to start, and maybe we won’t lose any more soldiers. It’s difficult to be hungry and passionate about music if you have sell records and don’t;  it makes you feel like a failure. But my definition of success is working, and that’s what I’m doing.

CP: So you’re also writing books now. Can you tell me about the process of transitioning from songwriting to writing something like your memoir “Rat Girl”?

KH: That… was an accident! [Laughs] I know that’s not a good answer, but I had a number of publishers approach me about ghostwriting a memoir, and I have no idea why they did this. I guess there might’ve been a story published about me that made my life seem more interesting that I never saw. But I’m so doormat nice that I just said “Sure!” I didn’t realize what they meant was months and months of interviews. One guy even threatened to move in with me! So I stopped returning their calls. Then management noticed that there was no longer a book and said if you’re unwilling to speak to anyone but yourself, than you have to write the book yourself!

The only book I had written was a old diary and I didn’t even do that on purpose. I had that because these painters, who I considered grown-ups when I was 18, told me that music was a low art, and painting was a high art. So I should become a painter because I was smart enough, but I didn’t get it; it was just too quiet. I always loved noise. So they said in the interim, while you learn to sublimate, and transfer from low art to high art, you should keep a journal. So I was just doing my homework for these kids, really. They thought they were helping me, but I didn’t how to keep a diary, so I wrote it like a book. Then when I went to write a book, I didn’t know how to do that, so I wrote it like my diary. And it ended up being attached to this feeling of time-tripping, like I would put the kids to bed, sleep a couple of hours, and then go back to 1985-86 and hear people’s voices in my head who are dead now, spend time with younger versions of people I haven’t seen in a long time. You actually remember a lot more than you think. It made me realize how even in real life there’s foreshadowing and story arc and characters that need to be celebrated like Betty Hutton and Ivo Watts Russell, who changed my life. It didn’t feel like any self-expression or catharsis, but I felt like if anyone’s going through something similar, bi-polar disorder, teenage pregnancy, even struggling with creativity, then it’s worth publishing if it can resonate with one person. You just have to let yourself be embarassed.

CP: Sure, I feel like that’s a huge part of it, just putting it on the page is intense enough. To write down all these think you think you know about yourself, and then to look at it as a whole must be different.

KH: It was, and it was a pretty piece. I had always thought of it as “The Mess”, but if you leave out the boring and the horrifying, you’re left with a story, as idiosyncratic as it is, it’s fairly universal, it didn’t need to be about me and it didn’t feel like it was about me, it was all 25 years ago. Although people would say “You captured an 18-year old’s voice so perfectly”, and then they met me and say, “Oh, you never grew up”! [laughs]

CP: Was your process writing the book similar to your songwriting process?

KH: No. Songs come to me fully formed pretty much, and writing makes me aware of how dumb I really am! [laughs] I write all the way through once, and then I have to alter it structurally, melodically, or rhythmically, and then I arrange it, so I start over again and the same goes for each paragraph. I write so slowly, my poor editor.

CP: So when you say a song comes to you fully formed, what exactly do you mean? Do you hear the whole arrangement in your head?

KH: I was in a car accident and sustained a double concussion, and since then I started hearing voices and instruments, and they were noise for a while, but they refined themselves into what I could make out as songs, and I still hear them as if I’m playing next door.

CP: Wow.

KH: In fact, my husband can tell there’s a song “around” before I start hearing it, because he says there’s an sort of electricity or energy associated with it. I’m not being metaphorical when I say they come fully formed. Certainly over last 20 years or so I’ve come to appreciate artful production, so once I’ve copied the song down, I work on giving an artful presentation, but I don’t feel like I work on songs at all. If I make a mistake, it’s because I’m getting in the way of what the song’s trying to say. I want it to make sense or fit structurally, or have a moral, or be attractive in some way. So I’ve learned to just listen and stay out of the way.

CP: On the production end, do you find it difficult to communicate to others what you hear?

KH: That’s a good question. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that. I find it frustrating when I can’t recreate it. So on my solo records I play all the instruments because it’s easier than trying to describe what I’ve heard. But sometimes there’s an orchestra in your head. So what you end up putting out is never going to measure up. It’s like trying to recreate a dream. But I do my best, it’s always an approximation.

I do a lot of erasing, I guess. Unfortunately, it’s not a situation that you can rely on happy accidents, which I think my personality is more cut out for that. But I try to articulate exactly what I need, and if I can’t bring it out, then it gets cut. Now that listeners are working through the process of making a record with me, they see everything that goes away, and they get really mad! So I’m saying a lot “it’s nothing against the song, it’s that I’m not bringing about in the right way.” One of the troubles was when I knew something wasn’t working because we had to stop at the top of our game, since we couldn’t afford to be in the studio or on the road, and songs continued to come, which would have been perfect for Throwing Muses to play, and just sat around. So I would try to put them on solo records, and they were being cheated by that production. And now, I’ve finally been able to get the Muses back in the studio, and this record has 33 songs on it, knocked down from about 50, because there no one to say you can’t put that many songs on a record! [laughs] It’s been amazing getting rescue all these songs that should have been played by the band in the first place.

CP: And what’s the dynamic in the studio after being away for so long?

KH: We’re all really close, there is only three of us but we lived on a bus together pretty much for the last 20 years, we just haven’t been recording. It just feels like I got my life back. Like, oh ok. These are my best friends in the world, they’re uncles to my children. I miss them every day I don’t see them. And the music is finally not subject to a sponsor with a vested interest in its marketability so we’re free to make the music what we think is good. So this is the record that we could die after making, everyone should be able to say they have one of those! [laughs]

CP: That’s good but please don’t!

KH: I’ll try!

CP: I’m still honestly wrapping my mind around the fact that you hear your songs fully formed and then have to copy them down and create a sound-alike for what’s in your head. I’m sure you found yourself needing to learn more theoretical and technical musical skills to make this happen.

KH: Absolutely.

CP: But I guess if you really get the song fully formed, it’s not as difficult for you to keep the theory at bay and balance the technical desire to use what you know with what you know as a listener sounds right.

KH: There’s a struggle in every musician. I took classical guitar for so many years that it started to kill my impression of the music I would’ve played had I grown up on a desert island. I started to follow rules, and I had to work hard to shake that off to make sure the songs were coming across as intended.

Music is an enigma, and any tools that we as musicians have, is in service to that… mystery or strangeness. I wish there was a word that wasn’t so lame! [laughs] I thought it was weird that at one time, everyone thought we were from another planet, I mean, but isn’t a band supposed to be?

Songs, a lot like the memoir, are just idiosyncratic takes on universal truths, so you’re just lucky to hang out with it. Just like kids, you can’t tell it what to say.

I’d like to send out a very special “thank you” to Kristin for this gem of a chat. There are some that just leave me feeling inspired, and this was certainly one of those! Be sure to come down and check out her show this Friday! In the mean time, head to Spotify and listen to one of my personal favorites, “Coals”.

Kristin Hersh on Spotify

WHAT: Kristin Hersh
WHEN: Friday, August 31, 7:30pm
TICKETS: $10-$26 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile