My Left Shin: Kristin Hersh On Art, Inspiration & Vic Chestnutt

Petra Davis talks to Kristin Hersh about her solo record _Crooked_, a new Throwing Muses album and the death of the music industry. All photographs by Maria Jefferis of

With her roots in gothic folk, blues and psych, and more than 25 years spent recording and performing, Kristin Hersh might be forgiven for being cynical about the current state of the music market: few musicians working in traditions so steeped in history and private experience have found the innovation necessary to survive the gradual dissipation of the record-label model. But Hersh has chosen to follow her instincts and find new ways of working and relating to those who support her music, those she calls her Strange Angels. Her not-for-profit organisation, CASH Music, offers fans at least one demo song per month, plus hands-on experience of Hersh’s means of production, tracks for remix, guest list spots and access to a content-rich online archive, for a quarterly fee. Additional sponsorship buys a visit to the studios to observe recordings, or even an executive producer credit. Hersh has managed to marry this high level of fan interactivity with her own idiosyncratic writing process: she still speaks of songs ‘coming to [her] whole, fully formed, at 4am,’ perhaps not the most accessible of systems, but still one the Strange Angels can benefit from.

The CASH model is successfully supporting Hersh’s solo production and touring schedule, and has generated enough additional revenue that she has been able to revive her long-dormant original project, Throwing Muses. Meanwhile, the innovation Hersh has applied to her means of production has also found its way into her process: she has written and illustrated a children’s book, Toby Snax, she toured internationally with a spoken-word show, Paradoxical Undressing, she has a memoir of the same name due out early in 2011, and her current solo record, Crooked, is a multi-media project that works in layers: rather than buying a CD, the buyer receives a high-quality book of elliptical essays written by Hersh, along with a password for more web-based content, including the album mp3s, various demos and extra tracks, and a commentary by Hersh and her manager and husband, Billy O’Connell. Both book and website are lavishly illustrated with photographs of flowers by Lisa Fletcher. The image is apposite: the work unfurls for you, revealing itself gradually both imagistically and sensorily. It rewards thought and repeated listening, reveals meaning by casting light on the songs via the extra content. Hersh herself seems more content than in a long time, having taken a long course of acupuncture which is relieving the worst of her bipolar symptoms, but the recent suicide of her close friend and collaborator Vic Chestnutt has been very tough on her. True to form, however, she is working hard and constantly: in addition to Crooked, her hardcore project, 50 Foot Wave, has an EP due out later this year, and Throwing Muses are currently recording their first album since 2003.

What was the thinking behind the Crooked book?

Kristin Hersh: Well. I disagreed with the recording industry when they said that music being available for nothing was devaluing music. I think it’s devaluing money, which is probably a good thing. But I do think people still desire a valuable object, and a CD is not an inherently valuable object. Crooked is full of essays that increase the impact of the record. The value of music is in its impact, not in units sold. Every essay in the book says something to that effect.

What is the relationship between essays and images and music?

KH: Music isn’t something you can explain. The essays work at something of a remove. It’s hard for me to take songs apart or analyse them, but I can write around the event of the song and draw in the emotional colouring, and that’s really all these essays do, they’re fairly oblique. Lisa’s work is organic, naturally lit, imperfect, and perfect in that, simple. Lisa is someone I love, and I know that her idea of beauty is close to mine. A flower can’t make any mistakes.

It’s interesting you say that, because I noticed a bigger role than usual for the urban environment on this record. In your commentary, you mention that ‘Mississippi Kite’ has Los Angeles as one of its characters, and that ‘Coals’ is in some way ‘about’ Portland; and you’ve also written a great deal [on the Strange Angels site] about living in New Orleans. Are these cities in your mind the same as the real cities?

KH: I used to think all my songs came from Providence, Rhode Island, because that’s where music first hit me really hard. But now I move around a lot, and I’m realising that cities are really the only thing that I can have a crush on, so it’s the crush version of the city that comes through. I don’t think I’m alone in that, though, I think that’s pretty normal now that the world is so small. Very few people end up in places, they are actually drawn to places. Now everybody has a reason for where they are, it’s actually getting to the point once again where there’s some form of regionalism. When I used to travel around the country there would be regional accents, cuisine, architecture, and land. All those things disappeared over the last 20 years, everybody had the same stores, and the land was just mostly obliterated. But we seem to becoming back to the idea of a city’s identity, and with that comes feeling.

So cities are a form of emotional vocabulary for you.

KH: I guess so, yes.

Your idea of vocabulary stretches beyond the verbal – generally, I’ve noticed when you use the term ‘vocabulary’ you’re not talking about language, you’re talking about the musical anatomy of a song, or its dream anatomy, and you refuse to discuss lyrics or analyse your own use of language. Yet you are lyrically so precise and idiosyncratic. How do you marry that precision with your reluctance to think about language?

KH: If I thought about the lyrics, they would die. If I got in the way they would stop coming. And I’ve done that many times before: when I was younger, when my bipolar disorder was kicking in, I would colour songs emotionally with darkness or light that was inappropriate for them, or I would step in and be clever if I thought I was sounding too nuts. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. So I choose now to let the lyrics be a sonic event, like any another percussive overdub. They have to be a visceral response to sound, or it would just me my brain talking, and my brain isn’t smarter than anybody else’s. So it would reduce the song to something smaller than what it is. That would be unfortunate and dishonest.

Forgive me if this is inept – I’m thinky by nature – but I’m wondering where that visceral response comes from, if not your mind. You’ve spoken many times about the experience of being hit by songs, of being overcome by them, and having to wrangle them back out of yourself. I’m wondering where, exactly, you feel that in your body.

KH: My left shin. [laughter] It’s true! It was broken in half in an accident – my foot came off, and it was underneath my leg. While I was still in shock I stuck my foot back on my leg. I also sustained a double concussion in the accident which caused me to start hearing songs in the first place – but I was always clear where they were coming from. It was my left shin. And when I played, it would lift up and just mangle itself again in order to get the songs out. And I got self conscious about that, so I learned to keep it still, but it’s not really still. It’s twisting and tworking and trying to get the song out of itself, whenever I play. [More laughter]

Do you feel like something entered that shouldn’t be there? Or that wanted to be there, when you were hurt that way… or do you feel like something keeps coming?

KH: I don’t know why the things happened to me that did, but they made it so that I can play this particular music – the concussion and the bipolar disorder and having my foot broken off – whatever it was, it seems to allow me to hear things that other people can’t hear, that are easy for me to pick up, write down and play. And I also find it very moving, there are subtle shifts in my spine whenever I play, and it’s not a comfortable thing but I have come to rely on it. I need to do it, really hard, often.

Has that need ever gone away?

KH: There was only one period of my life when I didn’t write songs, which was right after the Muses ended. We just ran out of money to be on the road or in the studio, and it was a real tragedy for all of us, but particularly for me, because I had relied on that band since I was 14. [Not writing songs] sort of made me feel like a ghost, in an awful way. I always thought it would be great to not have to write songs. But I was living in the desert on 40 acres at the time – and that can make you feel like a ghost in itself [laughter], but it was awful: I felt like I should have been dead, but I didn’t die. And so I associate not writing songs with being almost dead.

I can see the CASH project is more than just a business model for you, since it’s meant that you could revive the Muses.

KH: Well, being a non profit is so lovely. It’s what I was looking for all along. I was disenchanted with the recording industry before I was even in it. Because as a young musician, you want to push the envelope, you want the music you make to challenge you and others, and to keep moving. The industry says: dumb it down, down some more, down some more. And we tried, but we listened when we should not have listened. And we dumbed it down and everything went wrong and the band ultimately ended because of that logic. And I thought I had lost my whole reason to be here – to be living – just because of that garbage that they tell you.

But garbage doesn’t attract good people. Garbage attracts losers who don’t care. There’s an untapped audience of discerning listeners that don’t buy the bullshit. Finally, we’re reaching them. CASH has meant that not only could I extricate myself from my recording contract nicely – everybody said, ‘we’re excited to see how the experiment turns out, you can come back anytime’ – it allowed me to redraw and in fact reinforce the relationship between myself and my supporters, because the music is for the people who already paid for it.

And nobody knows what you want better than you. Not marketing people, not label heads that don’t come to shows…

ABSOLUTELY! And they didn’t want what I wanted anyway! They were ready to argue with me about stuff. I became known as difficult. Vic [Chestnutt] and I were both called difficult, and we are the nicest people you could ever meet! ‘Difficult’ is just [a term] for people who know what they want. [Labels] want people who don’t know how to play.

Who don’t understand their live sound, who don’t understand their recorded sound…

KH: Exactly. They want people to just write, and that’s it. But now it’s like: I am allowed to be the scientist I always was. I was never an entertainer; I just wanted to be let loose in a lab, and I didn’t want the people who funded my lab to have a vested interest in the outcome of my experiments’ marketability. It doesn’t make any sense! How are you supposed to get to the truth? So now my lab is funded by people who only want the truth. It’s simple: I go in, the songs tell me what to do, I give it back to the people who paid for it all in the first place.

How would you characterise your relationship with listeners, and how has it changed over time?

KH: It used to be that we were kept from them. They were someone else’s concern. You live in the studio and then you go on the road, and it’s dressing room, stage, dressing room, bus. And the only time we ever saw the people we were playing for was at instores, where we would sign records. And they were incredible, many of them. And we would think, I wanna keep talking to this person, and I wanna know this person. And then there were a bunch of assholes, too, who were there because our song was on radio, the ones that Warner Brothers had managed to attract for us.

You mean University time? ‘Bright Yellow Gun’?

KH: No, real early, The Real Ramona.

Oh, ‘Dizzy’? Really?!

KH: Oh, yeah. Poor Warner Brothers. We had this meeting where Warner Brothers were gonna try and really SELL a record for us, and so we decided, OK, we’ll give them a terrible song, and they will use it to sell our record. And the rest of the record will not be terrible. And that’s all we can do.

‘Dizzy’ isn’t SO bad…

KH: That’s what we said! [laughter] But we hated it before it was even released. It was my father’s song, and I sort of ruined it on purpose, knowing that Warner Brothers would dig it. And they did. I will never ever do that again, and now I don’t have to. The Real Ramona was a nightmare. We were being convinced to like, do fashion shoots. I mean, who’s gonna buy the record because I look like a bimbo, and do I wanna know somebody like that? But now, the people we met at those in-stores back in the day have remained with us, and the people whom Warner Bros convinced to listen to our records are the ones who say to me, [pompous hipster voice] ‘you fell off my radar.’ Which ACTUALLY means, ‘I stopped caring when it wasn’t shoved down my throat.’ Sure, OK. I can understand that, but I watched Vic turn rock clubs into churches. I want that. I don’t want anything but that – in fact, I need that. I’m willing to live a really small life and do small work if I can have a really big impact, and you can only impact to that extent with people who are willing to rise to the occasion and be discerning listener. It’s hard work to be a listener! You have to be educated, musically, psychologically and emotionally. You have to live a big hard life, you have to do SOMETHING that somehow helps you stay with a song from start to finish, even if it is gruelling or even if that song is so giant. And there are people that so get off on that that it makes them HAPPY at a deep level to do that, and those are the people I want to hang out with.

But you don’t shy away from putting those people through it! The first half of the Crooked commentary is all you and Billy saying the record is sad and scary. So… how sad and scary is the record?

KH: [Laughter] I thought it was really nice! I thought this was my nice record. Maybe I always think that [laughter]. I was so happy to have come upon the right kind of performances and sounds for what I needed, that the record sounds really right to me, and I get happy whenever I hear it.

But is that your scientist’s satisfaction, or happiness?

KH: Well, it’s weird to me that even someone as close to the project [as Billy] could think ‘eep!’ about it.

There are some scary moments, though. I’m thinking of ‘Flooding’ in particular. You said of that song, ‘I think it was trying to tell me something bad was gonna happen.’ And you’ve told me that you thought that was about Vic’s suicide, but was written before it happened.

KH: Yeah. I should have listened, because Vic… I could have done something. Maybe not to stop it, but just to be there, or just anything.

How often does that happen, and how trustworthy are the songs when they speak to you that way?

KH: The songs are extremely trustworthy, but my response is not. I know better, and yet what are you gonna do? You can’t prepare. My last words to him were ‘sorry you’re so cold.’ Those are not good last words. His last words to me were ‘I love you’. And I couldn’t manage that?

But he knew what was going to happen, Kristin.

KH: I should have known. ‘Flooding’… if I’d just listened, I could have done something. But that’s everybody’s story.

It seems like that knowledge and your not acting on it, or not internalising it, has weighed pretty heavily. You’ve been writing quite a bit about it.

KH: Yeah, actually we just got through recording a new 50Ft Wave record in LA, sorta a requiem for Vic. I needed it so much. I called everybody and said ‘please can we make this happen? ‘Cause these songs are gonna eat me alive if it doesn’t.’ And they all came, like dropped everything and showed up. [Producer Andrew] Mudrock gave us the studio, and… it’s the most broken record. I was so broken, and the songs were so broken, Mudrock just decided, ‘right, the whole record’s gonna be broken. We’re gonna play toys and broken instruments.’ [50Ft Wave drummer] Rob [Ahlers] literally played a toy drumkit. He’s huge, his nickname is Moose. He dwarfed this tiny little drumkit and he just killed it. My guitar was actually melted, literally burned. 5 strings were left on it. I don’t know when it’s gonna be released, it’s just an EP.

It’s interesting that you can produce such incredible work out of these kinds of difficulties. I’m thinking of the time I saw you play Glastonbury, was it 1998? You played most of Strange Angels, and it was really unlike any show I had seen you play before. It was pouring down, the whole site was a medieval disaster, the stages all had constant water pouring on to them. You played the acoustic tent. I was around 3 rows from the front. And you turned that tent into a church. Without question. It was very different from any time I had seen you play before; you weren’t engaging with the audience – you weren’t really there, you were completely with the songs, not with us at all, you barely spoke except to say thank you. You looked genuinely distraught and alone. It was emotionally wrenching, but there was a very deep level of exchange going on that was nothing to do with talking to people.

KH: Right, right. That was during that period that I could no longer write songs, because I had lost the Muses. Strange Angels was recorded – not written, but recorded, and toured – in a fog. I was – I thought I was dead. I thought I was a ghost. I’m sorry if that hurt your feelings.

Not at ALL.

KH: Well, it should have, you deserved better.

OK, then tell me everything about the new Muses record, and I’ll forgive you.

KH: [Laughter] Being able to do this is… I can’t even describe it. Me and [Throwing Muses drummer David] Narcizo are like, [pulls South Park face of little-kid joy]. I still can’t afford to be in the studio that much, like once a week. So far there are 40 songs, and their writing dates back from the time when we weren’t allowed to record anymore. I don’t even think it can be [a] vinyl [release], because it’s so long. I’m paring it down, gradually, though. But the way it’s working, which hasn’t happened before, stuff from one song will show up in others. A bridge or a chorus will come back, but will say something different, come to a different conclusion. It’s as though the work has hindsight.

Hindsight seems like a theme at the moment. You’re about to publish a book of your diaries, is that right? Paradoxical Undressing, or Rat Girl – which one is the UK title again?

KH: The long one, because you guys know how to talk. The spoken word show, before I had the book deal, was called Paradoxical Undressing. But apparently that’s not immediate enough for Americans, so in the US it’s called Rat Girl. And it’s a very appropriate title.

It’s set in 1985. What happened then that made hindsight important?

KH: It’s actually the only diary I ever kept. I stopped keeping it the day my son was born, and it’s literally a diary up until that day – I haven’t slept since [laughter]. It was a year when I was particularly enchanted by everything, yet there were some dark moments too. It was the year I was diagnosed, first schizophrenic, and then bipolar – because I had mania for so long it looked like schizophrenia to them. But I was non judgmental, like all 18 year olds. Anything can happen to you, and you’re just like, ‘oh, this is happening.’ So I could write about the car accident, and read it back and everything was real light. And the mania, it was bad, but I didn’t know how to feel sorry for myself yet. It was just like, this is now. And yeah, I gotta get outta here, but so what? So I’m outta here! And everything else that happens is really good. That was the year the Muses got signed to 4ad, that was the year I had my son, but it’s all just beginning. A whole bunch of things that would later tell the story of my life, that’s how they began.


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