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Driving Circles: Hips And Makers By Kristin Hersh 25 Years On
John Freeman , January 16th, 2014 07:52

25 years after falling for its translucent charm, John Freeman looks back at the career-defining debut solo album from the Throwing Muses’ frontwoman

“I think last night you were driving circles around me.”

In 1994, these spectral words formed the chorus of ‘Your Ghost’, perhaps Kristin Hersh’s best-known song. Sung in tandem with Michael Stipe of REM, they encase the cryptic beauty of her debut solo album, Hips And Makers.

Released 25 years ago this month, Hips And Makers was a huge step-change from her work with Throwing Muses, the seminal Boston band she founded as a teenager. While the Muses were wonderfully gnarly, deceptively noisy and eschewed conventional song structures, Hips And Makers was a stripped back set of acoustic tracks that pushed Hersh’s voice and words to the fore.

The resultant record was magical. Hauntingly sad, Hips And Makers conjured up dark memories like a soundtrack to a séance. And, like many great artists, as Hersh bared her soul she crafted a veil of opacity, with lyrics providing fleeting glimpses into the depths of her psychological turmoil.

But first, a disclaimer: quite simply, Kristin Hersh is my favourite person in the world of music. From first seeing her front Throwing Muses at a ‘legendary’ 1988 Manchester International gig (legend has it that support from a band called Pixies upstaged the Muses – they didn’t), through to her illuminating solo career and adrenalin-surged power-punk trio 50 Foot Wave or via her poems, essays and autobiography-of-a-year (2010’s Paradoxical Undressing), I’ve become enthralled with Hersh as an artist.

However, the bond goes deeper. Several years ago my son fell seriously ill after a series of brain haemorrhages. As he lay in an Intensive Care Unit, my wife would read him his favourite book at that time – Hersh's first foray into children’s literature, Toby Snax. One night, with my heart broken and brain shredded, I wrote an email to Kristin to let her know that even as my son lay close to death, he still loved Toby Snax.

Kristin replied – immediately - and provided an outpouring of support. We exchanged photos and gifts and a few months later, Kristin met my son before a gig she was due to play in a library in Burnley. It was a beautiful and cherished afternoon. Two years later, Kristin dedicated her 2010 solo album, Crooked, to “the mighty Finlay Freeman,” thus enshrining her acts of compassion and kindness forever.

But before things became personal, and as much as I had loved Throwing Muses’ early canon of left-field indie rock, it was Hips And Makers that revealed Kristin Hersh as an artist who would become indelibly etched onto my psyche. I immediately connected to its simplicity and focus. While Throwing Muses were brilliant (I’d first swooned over 1988’s densely-layered House Tornado), they were never the easiest of listens (admittedly, a huge part of their charm) due to their refusal to bend to indie rock norms. Hips And Makers seemed to present Kristin Hersh in a brighter light. It was just, for the most part, her and a guitar and nowhere to hide. The songs seemed purer and less tangled and allowed Hersh’s considerable lyrical prowess to shine through.

The album was recorded in late 1993, after Hersh had finished work on Throwing Muses’ sixth album, University. “Hips And Makers was originally recorded just for Billy [O’Connell],” Hersh told me during my first interview with her, a momentous two-and-a-half-hour phone call. “I wrote a bunch of acoustic songs thinking of him as my husband and not my manager. He sent the songs to Warner Brothers and I ended up with a solo acoustic career, for which I am very grateful.”

The first release of this new solo career was the aforementioned ‘Your Ghost’, which became Hersh’s ‘gateway song’. Its brilliance was instantly apparent - from the opening couplet of “If I walk down this hallway tonight it’s too quiet/ So I pad through the dark and call you on the phone” to the gorgeous dovetail of Michael Stipe’s backing harmonies. It’s worth noting that at the time of ‘Your Ghost’, REM were at the height of their powers. I always felt Stipe’s willingness to participate on Hips And Makers was a testimony to Hersh’s reputation, while his inclusion opened up her career to a new glut of fans, perhaps helping Hips And Makers to peak at number seven on the UK album chart - easily Hersh’s highest placing at that point.

At the time I’d been intrigued at how she knew that the songs that made up Hips And Makers weren’t suitable for Throwing Muses. This was especially fascinating when taking into account Hersh's unusual songwriting methods, after a childhood head injury courtesy of a road traffic accident left her with an extraordinary side effect. “I’ve never really written a song on purpose,” she told me. “I’ll hear snatches of a new song at four o’clock in the morning and then pick it up over the next few days. It’s nearly always at four o’clock in the morning and it’s the whole thing, even the production. It sounds like a record of mine playing outside of my head.”

“When I hear a song, it makes a sonic impression and that makes me reach for a certain guitar, as I know that to create that sonic impression I’m going to have to play it in a certain way,” Hersh said when I asked how she allocated the songs she heard in her head to each of her projects. “My rule is that a Muses song is written on my [Fender] Strat[ocaster] or Tele[caster], a 50 Foot Wave song is written on a Les Paul and a solo song is written on a Collings.”

So, the Collings must have taken quite a hammering during the back end of 1993. Almost all of Hips And Makers is based around the acoustic guitar, save the piano-led ‘Bee Stung’ – a lullaby on which Hersh suggests, “Tie me up with the twine in your eyelight” whilst sounding both saccharine sweet and faintly unsettling.

This tension between the understated simplicity of the music on Hips And Makers and its unnerving subject matter lies at the very core of the album’s two-decade long appeal. “It was a very naïve record,” Hersh explained to me. “At the time I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I see that it was sweet.”

The quality of the songs is uniformly high, right through to the closing stutter of the hypnotic title track. ‘Teeth’ is a minimalist masterpiece comprising Hersh’s vocal, the faintest of backing guitars and a heavy dose of her unyielding self-deprecation – “This hairdo’s truly evil/ I’m not sure it’s mine” – while ‘Houdini Blues’ was a fire-and-brimstone tale of redemption, on which Hersh bristled with righteous brouhaha (“I’ve scaled the mountains/ Skied the valleys/ I’ve done the highs and the lows”). And on both ‘A Loon’ and ‘Me And My Charms’ the eternal wrestling match between Hersh and her inner demons was placed front and centre, with the latter, in particular, snarling with sorrow and regret (“You can’t leave me now/ I haven’t left you yet.”)

But Hersh is a multi-dimensional thinker and despite its unyielding darker side, Hips And Makers is full of light and charm. Jane Scarpantoni’s cello on ‘Velvet Days’ added blush tones to her tender love hymn, while ‘Sundrops’ radiated giddiness glimmers of happiness despite a typically opaque lyric.

However, Hips And Makers contained one of Hersh’s most notoriously personal songs. ‘The Letter’ was two minutes and 48 seconds of emotional torment. The lyrics were taken from a letter written by Hersh (seemingly dated September 29 1984, when she would have just turned 18) and contained an outpouring of grief. Over a far-off guitar melody, Hersh’s voice seemed fraught and twisted. “Gather me up because I’m lost,” she intones to the recipient (a “Dear so and so”), before pleading “Forgive me/ Comfort me/ I’m crawling on the floor.” Even without the slightest insight into Hersh’s back story ‘The Letter’ was a pretty harrowing listen, and one that I believe is still incredibly difficult to perform live.

Hips And Makers was the start of a beguiling solo career, which has become the cornerstone of Hersh’s musical output. She has since released a further seven albums including 2001’s brilliant career high, Sunny Border Blue , and Crooked, an album forever engraved onto my family’s hearts. Since 1994 Throwing Muses have released four albums (including last year’s magnificent 32-track leviathan Purgatory/Paradise), while 50 Foot Wave have pour out a steady stream of new music over the last decade. This prodigious output and commitment to quality is pretty staggering, but then Kristin Hersh is a very, very special musician.