Strange Angels: Kristin Hersh On Music & Motherhood

Kristin Hersh's new memoir reflects on thirty years of playing in bands and raising four boys. She talks to Duncan Seaman about resisting the corporate major label machine

In the brief biography on her Twitter account, Kristin Hersh describes herself as “musician, writer, mother of four boys”. For the last thirty years the Atlanta-born singer and guitarist, known for her solo work as well as with the bands Throwing Muses and 50ft Wave, has seen music and motherhood as intrinsically linked. “One informs the other,” she smiles as she settles down for a lively conversation via Zoom.

“Because I had my first child as a teenager, I don’t know much else. I even raised my little brother. We had hippie parents, so we had no parents, he needed me to eat and stuff. I learned that was the closest route to nature because your life just happened like that. If you’re lucky enough to let that resonate early on it’s sort of an unshakeable spine that you walk around with.

“When it comes to music, that was so solidified in my orientation that it must be nature, it must be life speaking, which sounds lofty but I don’t mean it that way, I mean very grounded, very basic, fundamental. And you expect that of every song – if it doesn’t flourish you don’t share it, it’s not publishable. Whereas in the music industry, publishable means the opposite – the zombie, the bimbo, the marketed fashion.

“If I didn’t have these ongoing babies reminding me life begets life begets life, I might have fallen prey to what most of the industry does, which is try to impress with shallow. And I’m not impressed with shallow, I don’t do that to people, it’s an insult and it’s selfish. I can’t do that, I’d rather live in my truck.”

Her new book, Seeing Sideways, recounts the story of a complex life via four chapters named after her sons, Doony, Ryder, Wyatt and Bodhi. Interwoven are details of her custody battle for Doony, struggles with her record label, post-traumatic stress disorder, writer’s block and a series of crises from which she is saved by what she calls ‘strange angels’.

What’s immediately noticeable is the complete absence of rock & roll anecdotes and name-dropping. As we talk, it’s apparent that industry back-slapping is anathema to Hersh. “The term ‘big name’ is so ludicrous, it’s like the pyramids,” she says. “Why don’t we call them on that? ‘How long is my identity going to last?’ You know what, it could go away right now if you would just admit it is not real, don’t try to make it bigger. So no names except my babies, because that’s my bridge to life. I’ve got a life because I have no idea that I’m even visible. It wasn’t really working for me; I have this strong attachment to being invisible.”

Her alienation from the corporate marketing of the music world was not, however, immediate, she recalls. “I had no idea they would call us ‘women’ or ‘girls’, I thought that we were people, and I was shocked; I even got shit for not being female,” she says, remembering how she was once accused of ‘chickening out’ for including a male drummer in Throwing Muses’ otherwise all-women original line-up. “I was like, ‘well, Dave [Narcizo] is not female, and I didn’t hire him, we all volunteered, this is not a money-making venture’.

“I thought being part of [an indie] subculture we knew already, at least my country had already been through this bullshit [when] they’d take Black music and make it ‘clean’ and call it white and they could sell it.

“When I first started it didn’t take long for me to see a lot of people in my subculture were trying to be rock stars. I didn’t really help anyone by removing myself from the industry, but I didn’t become part of the problem, and that’s OK.”

In the book’s opening chapter, Hersh is simultaneously fighting a custody battle for Doony while struggling with her record company. Talking about it now, she says her difficulties lay with “the monstrous CEOs, the real hedonistic faces of corporate greed, they are lost causes”.

“But they’re not unintelligent and they’re not heartless,” she says. “They knew what I was, and they would say, ‘We signed you because you had integrity’. I was like, ‘Well, now let me go because I have integrity’ and they would go, ‘You’re how we sign people without integrity, those who are willing to kiss up to white male corporate’.

“The industry itself is a faceless beehive but each bee is a human, they work for the beast and so did I, and I was responsible for a couple of lousy songs going out so that we could survive and I will regret that forever because that’s not music, but they eventually let me go. I never made a penny off the record I traded for freedom, the Muses’ record University, which is our top seller. But they’re about money, not me. I take to the road and I make an honest living that way until this year.”

Touring became a way of life not only for Hersh, but for her family too. She notes in the book that each of her sons gave up ten years of their lives to the road. Today she cheerfully likens herself to the character June Cleaver in the 1950s US sitcom Leave It To Beaver. “I’m so shy and I’m so domestic, I just have my boys and I never stop baking,” she laughs. “Music is what that sounds like. Putting them in a car or a van or a bus and making them live through what I lived through was sort of akin to child abuse but I had this mission and the only way to do it honestly, to not pander to MTV and radio, whatever excuse they use for lowest common denominator product, was to be Robert Johnson walking from town to town and playing songs that aren’t supposed to impress or manipulate.

“I did shows where the soundman would say, ‘If I were you, I’d shoot myself’, but you know, I would shoot myself if I were doing fashion magazines, if I were changing my voice so that it sounds like [adopts a mewling tone] ‘hi boys’ and writing ‘songs’ that are nah-nah-ne-nah-nah. I can’t believe what they do to win. How is that a win? I sleep with a clean soul in a little bed of ‘oh dear Lord, I can’t do it again’, but I got music. If you don’t have music, I guess you have to have ambition or something instead.

“Music is just a spontaneous impulse, it’s not a product unless you make it so. It’s something like circular breathing, like we do at a show. You expect the audience to breathe with you.

“I expect my musicians to breathe with me and we get better at listening, we get very clean. You shake off your personal baggage and you keep the music going until it becomes apparent that it’s shareable, and then you’ve got to try and solve that marketing problem – how do we engage in information rather than selling – and by information, I mean sound. It’s a matter of troubleshooting, but the road is part of that practice.”

Hersh tells me she never had any option but to resist corporate values throughout her career. “They shouldn’t use that word [music] for what they sell, it’s a fashion industry and fashion by definition is ephemeral and shallow, literally superficial. Music is spirituality. You can take that and call it religion and end up with televangelism and that’s what we’ve done, for the most part.”

As she recollects, the arguments she used to have with Warner Bros were “very succinct”. “I would ask why do you sell crap? They would say ‘crap sells’. Well, crap sells because you sell crap. If you really think there is a lowest common denominator and people don’t know the difference, sell something good – and in music it doesn’t cost any more. Artisanal costs more, organic costs more, but music? Just play good sounds instead of bad.

“But we’ve created this musically illiterate populace that only responds to fashion, so we have that to plough through now. When I’m looking for my audience, I have to find people that can’t be marketed to, who know the lie, and it’s difficult. There’s a lot of noisy fashion out there to plough through for the listener and the musician.”

In Seeing Sideways, Hersh makes a distinction between fans and listeners – people she describes as “the ones who take off after shows, they have better things to do than hang out with us”. She sees listeners as the people who have helped sustain her through the last thirty-five years. “Those are my Strange Angel listener supporters,” she says. “I’m not sure we had quite realised we had won that battle until the Muses’ last tour a couple of years ago.

“On the Purgatory Paradise tour, we were having a lot of trouble with fans, the whole audience would just stay after the show. We were trying to pack up our gear and they’d rush the stage and then we had to pose for pictures for hours. My drummer, who’s the nicest person in the world, just laughed at it and said, ‘This can’t happen, you have to get rid of the audience after the set’. It’s just coping that engenders this kind of response. We still can’t afford bodyguards.

“The club would be cleared and when we left there would be half a dozen people in the parking lot and they were just talking to each other. We would walk past and they would wave, they don’t want autographs or anything. We eventually realised these are the Strange Angels, they just want to meet each other not us because they know that we’re electricians, we’re just facilitating our current through their home and their car. We already made our money and they don’t want us to write our names down.”

She also describes in the book her experiences with synaesthesia. Now she says she didn’t realise others did not think in the same terms as her. “I thought chords came in colours,” she says, recalling when she first showed an interest in her father’s guitar aged nine. “My father told me not to touch his guitar, he said it was too valuable for a kid to play, so I would come home from school and look at it and finally he said, ‘OK, I’ll show you a few chords’, but he was just a hippie, he showed me Neil Young and Bob Dylan chords, just primary colours. I was bored so I said, ‘I’m already over red, I want to know burgundy or ochre, and I want to know blue, I want to know aqua’. He just looked at me like ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’ He handed me the guitar and said, ‘It’s yours, play colours’, but it took me a while before I realised he really truly didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Now she knows other musicians who are synaesthetic, including a violinist “who can smell chords.”

She credits her son Wyatt – who was obsessed with drawing when young – with helping her to regain her creativity when she suffered a period of writer’s block and post-traumatic stress disorder. “He helps me every day,” she says. “I argued against the concept of art for so many years because I believed that it’s life, that’s the highest art form, but when we create something out of life that resonates it’s not in a reductive sense, it’s because art would be what’s infusing this place with its light so it’s even greater than this plane, without zombifying it, without calling this plane a dead place which is what leads to those ego responses that I bitch about.

“I ended up arguing against the occurrence of art, which is obviously not true and dishonest, which is what I realised when I met Wyatt. He texts me every day something clarifying that helps me move forward. Sometimes I just need five minutes to fight this goddam fight that I’ve been on since I was fourteen, forty years ago, and he makes it seem possible and worthwhile.

“He keeps me fighting,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “And he’s very funny.”

Seeing Sideways by Kristin Hersh is published by Jawbone Press

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