Halfway through a UK tour and with a vinyl / cassette release of last year’s exceedingly well-received book (of lyrics/essay/artwork) and accompanying CD (read our 9 / 10 review) release due out in October, Kristin Hersh took time out to talk to Louder Than War’s Melz Durston.
Fractured, like shards of crushed, green glass — scattered across the road. Hidden from view until the sunlight catches them, throwing them out of their own obscurity. Forcing them into the spotlight.
Our existence so fleeting, we do all we can to hold those moments — carry them carefully across the road, like the box, pouring sugar in the road. People: we’re full of holes — waiting to be filled up. Sweet, shattered shards of glass. Like the fragments that explode and collide, before settling into the cracks of the pavements.
Dulled from the footprints ever moving forward. Shining only when we think to glance down at the green shimmer, again apparent, in the liquorice night.
Two steps behind the rest, the stars shine the brightest when hidden from view.
Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly grew up together in Aquidneck Island, now known as Rhode Island. As fifteen year olds, they established what would become their lifelong pursuit — in its various guises. Music spilled over, listening to noone but its gut — that instinct, that thing that threads through your veins, and worms inside your head. A burning honesty you cannot ignore.
Throwing Muses came in quietly, felt through the dark, and lodged themselves beneath porous skin — like brutal, shards of glass. Yet, they are anything but brutal.
Initially, it was always Kristin who drove the music forward – albeit in a form that was quite void of all ego. Most of the songs written during her teenage years were of a spirit, often disconnected from Kristin herself. Images, stories and voices that seemingly came from out of the deep blue.
As teenagers, Throwing Muses were shipping their gear across the Pelham bridge from Newport to Providence, in parental, borrowed trucks:
“We had The Silver Bullet to drive around – our home away from home – and oddly that made us feel safe wherever we were, even New York City, which scared us back then. Also, we weren’t very bright and that can make you brave.” Kristin explains.
A thriving college town, known for its live venues and open scene – including Lupos, a rock club venue which still stands strong today. Kristin and Tanya would play these clubs, alongside bassist Elaine Adamedes and Becca Blumen, then to be superseded by the ever-constant, brilliant Dave Narcizo on drums and Bernard Georges on bass..
“I would never go through the traumas of playing disgusting rock clubs as young girls again, but all I could see in front of me back then was music and I knew where it had to be played: in the jungles of cities, in the worst parts of town, late at night.” Kristin recalls.
What happened next, was unexpected. Throwing Muses’ demo cassette somehow made its way from Fort Apache manager Gary Smith, to British independent record label co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who established his anti-mainstream label 4AD. On listening to their demo, he called the band up from the UK. Throwing Muses released their self-titled debut LP not long after this.
House Tornado was released in 1988, preceded by EPs Chains Changed and The Fat Skier. Featuring the band in front of a timber-slatted cottage on the back cover — it conjured up a life lived on the periphery — this music, these people who came from a small town and brought the one true thing they knew out into the world — Throwing Muses.
“If we start up a conversation, if a song plays itself, then we pay attention, but we are never in charge, we are never stable, we’re just…falling, together.”
Hunkpapa followed in 1989, produced by Gary Smith and engineered by Steve Heigler. This record included single Dizzy (written by Kristin’s Dad) which was largely marketed as a pop song with a frenetic music video to accompany it. Yet something seemed a bit forced — perhaps they were temporarily losing sight of their own truth.
1991s The Real Ramona was released — including Honeychain written by Tanya Donelly, and Counting Backwards, Not Too Soon and final track, Two Step. Speaking about the opening intro to Say Goodbye, Kristin explains:
“Dave recorded it on Hollywood Blvd.; it was a tourist talking about Betty Grable’s hands, I think. Funny, that’s been the catch phrase of this whole tour, for some reason.”
It was after the recording of The Real Ramona, that Tanya said goodbye to the band, to start up The Breeders with Kim Deal and then her own band, Belly.
Kristin always stayed true to the band who got under her skin as a teenager and never left her. And a good thing, too. In 1992, Red Heaven was released, with Bob Mould of Husker Du providing supporting vocals to Kristin on Dio. Kristin found an outlet for her solo voice in the guise of her first released album in 1994 – Hips and Makers, which featured Michael Stipe on the single Your Ghost. The band went on to release University in 1995 (having first being recorded in 1993) – their sixth studio album. Limbo came out in 1996. And whilst Tanya was working on her own solo material, with the release of Lovesongs for Underdogs in 1997, Kristin found new ways for her work. 2003 saw the next release from Throwing Muses, and now, over a decade later, Kristin, Dave and Bernie are back, with their latest, fragmented cohort of songs — Purgatory / Paradise — as Kristin explains in the book (not unlike the essays within her previous solo work Crooked — released in book format) to accompany the new songs:
“Our favourite beach is nestled between Purgatory and Paradise roads. One road named for a chasm which, legend has it, inspired purgatory-bound suicides, the other for a particularly lovely stretch of green that turns a crusty brown in the fall and a mushy silver in winter: a pearly paradise. This beach is where we go to recharge when we’ve driven songs around all day and into the night and are starting to drive them into the ground. We salt ourselves up for the songs, but also for the listeners, that we might serve them another day.”
Melz talked with Kristin about the past few decades of her life, and the music that will always matter — in all its contradiction, in all its messy beauty. Because after all, life is only a fleeting moment — in the blink of an eye, we’re gone. How privileged we are, if only we can follow our own way of life — and leave a gift on the table, before tiptoeing out of the room.
Kristin: “Songs are sonic bodies and therefore present as full-spectrum sensory input. I would say “overload” – I find good music overwhelming emotionally, visually, everything-y.”
“When it works, it reflects the musician’s experience filtered through the energy that is the song itself. So it can’t really be termed self-expression, as that would limit its potential to resonate with the listener. A song should be bigger than the songwriter, bigger than the listener, but an amalgam of their union that hints at a future.”
Related to the above — out of all your music videos made over the span of your career with Throwing Muses, solo and 50FootWave — are there any that felt more ‘real’ than others — or does the whole concept of making a visual representation of a song (for, I guess originally, commercial purposes) seem a bit empty to you?
“All media have the potential to suck or fly, of course; MTV convinced us that videos have to suck, which is goofy. Nothing has to suck.”
“I thought “Your Ghost” was a nice video, which works particularly well with 50FootWave’s version. Maybe because it captures a texture and its mood is so dark. As dark as that distortion and feedback that resulted from my having left my amp on in the studio overnight by mistake. “Bright Yellow Gun” (the chimp one) is also pretty great and I love “Pneuma” by L Fletcher.”
To me, you’re someone who might look back on their lifetime career and say that they stuck to one path, the one that felt to be the truest — I wondered how tough it has been to stick to this — to retain your own voice and convictions to push through the masses?
“I just never had the vocabulary to move beyond my sphere … I wouldn’t have known how to make shit up or try or fake it. Music is powerful, but also a kind of sordid puking to me; I was always amazed that anyone else wanted to listen to what I did. ”
“Being signed to Warner Brothers was a weird shift in our perspective. They made it clear that we should have been hot and dumb not badly dressed and smart. Ugh. I traded my first solo record for our freedom. Just couldn’t bear that we weren’t supposed to be musicians but dumbass bimbos.”
Stuart Bousel in San Francisco recently adapted your memoir, Rat Girl, for the stage. He mentioned how he wanted the play to not just appeal to listeners of Throwing Muses specifically but by having a more generic undercurrent. Has publishing your memoir, Rat Girl, shifted your own perspective on your life journey as well as how it has resonated with readers and your listeners?
“My excuse for publishing a memoir was that it happened twenty-five years ago, so that book didn’t seem to be about *me* anymore. Oddly, the story came complete with foreshadowing and character development and all kinds of things I thought movies invented. I found that interesting, and thought that if it could help a kid in a similar situation, I should let that story out.”
Your essays are moving and real and approachable — they are life in all its messy, confused states. I wondered — you’re a really great teller of stories — do you feel that your prose and your songs are two very different and separate entities or parts of who you are?
“Actually, they are quite literally two parts of who I am. I was recently treated for PTSD, which was cured, but the treatment revealed an alternate personality, which manifested as music. This is why I had no memory of writing or performing my material. So I was never bipolar, just dissociative (split personality). I wrote prose as Kristin and music as Rat Girl, the other personality.”
“Now that the two are integrated, I’ll have to wait and see what writing and music are like for me. So far, so good…I can still perform my songs, as it turns out. I really had no idea what would happen the first time I tried to play without “disappearing.””
What book are you reading at the moment? And when you wrote Rat Girl was it a natural process in finding your own narrative voice, or was this a struggle until it sounded like you?
“I’m reading a book called “Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing” by Ian Bogost, because I’m interested in the soul of objects. You know, how we can relate to a flower or a dolphin but not to a chair or a computer chip.”
“Rat Girl sucked for about two years. It was clever and annoying, it had been done before, etc. Then I started writing in the night instead of the day. I’d put my kids to bed and write from one in the morning until my kids got up again. I found that it was so quiet then that I could remember details like how my old car smelled, the sound of dead friends’ voices, my bandmates’ teenage quirks … I got lost in time tripping and lost in the story. That’s when the book found its voice.”
How was it, to grow up (for the most part) in Rhode Island, in this small community, and in what ways do you look back on it? I know that you have travelled and lived in so many places, and wondered whether you think you will ever hit on ‘home’ or whether this is more just a constant search, a transient state of moving through our lives, with our wants and needs changing as we grow?
“Good question, Melz! I wish I knew. That sweet little island is also the poorest county in the state; it gets real grim in parts. A drizzly March in the projects is not the beach town tourists know. But I imagine that it’s my real home. So much music seeped out of the ground, so much life happened, my babies were born there.”
In 2003 you and Tanya played in Bellows Falls, Vermont, as part of a music weekend organised by Gary Smith. Your solo record The Grotto had been released in the spring of that same year, and Andrew Bird added violin to this record. I wondered, since you have collaborated with other musicians including Michael Stipe and Bob Mould — how does this alter the nature of your music from the moments that it is just yourself writing, playing and recording?
“I am by nature very, very nice and very, very shy; HUGE contradictions in a personality and I have to keep both in check professionally. I disappear, become invisible when other people are around. On a record that could mess up the production approach. On the other hand, I have a tendency to crawl inside the studio as if it’s a body and just work its limbs as if they were my own. Not engaging other musicians EVER would limit your vocabulary and the material. It’s definitely a balancing act.”
You covered Fly by Nick Drake for a recent Wes Anderson tribute on American Laundromat — just wanted to say that I love this so much, as much as I love your Cat Stevens cover from your album Sunny Border Blue. It’s as though you get inside the author of the song, inhabit their emotions, their perceptions — and can literally create this perfect, yet flawed (because we’re all imperfect, flawed human beings in every way) image, within that one song. It’s the way you make us feel with your music, that is what we are haunted by. And I wonder who haunts you, in that same beautiful way, do you know?
“My son Wyatt and I call them “our teammates” – those souls who are on the same page. Nick Drake is one, for sure, but they don’t always play music. Or they do, I guess, but I’m not sure music is necessarily sound, if that makes any sense. But you’re right, it’s a haunting and a saving. It helps when you don’t feel like you were meant to be born on this planet. I guess we all feel like that sometimes. Wyatt and I feel like that most of the time.”
Finally — Purgatory / Paradise is your first new Throwing Muses record in over a decade. You’ve probably been through a lot as a band and as individuals, but what would you say is the thing that has kept you moving, kept you growing, and respecting one another, over these years? I remember reading the liner notes on In a Doghouse, as a teenager, something about you (as a band) leaving a gift on the table and quietly tiptoeing out of the room… This sticks in my mind and I suppose, goes to show, that where the need is so strong to make music and to keep these connections going, that even in despair and sometimes when it seems like the end of the road, musically, there is always space for new growth…
“We love what we do and we love the people who share it with us. Other than love, though, we have no control over who listens, what happens to a record after we make it, where we go to play it and who shows up when we do … the gift concept doesn’t work if you stay attached, so while it sounds cold to keep saying, “I don’t care,” I guess what I mean is, “no matter what happens, I will always care.””
Kristin will be playing at The Trinity in Bristol, tonight, with her band Throwing Muses, and her sister Tanya Donelly opening with her new music including work taken from 2013s release Swan Song Series. Throwing Muses will continue their UK tour of Purgatory/Paradise, playing Brighton and London before heading homeward.
Purgatory/Paradise by The Throwing Muses (The Friday Project, £11.99) is available now. More details and links to purchase can be found here: kristinhersh.com/purgatory-paradise.
Tour dates as follows:
- Tuesday 23rd September – The Trinity Arts Centre: Bristol
- Wednesday 24th September – Concorde 2: Brighton
- Thursday 25th September – Islington Assembly Hall: London
- Friday 26th September – Islington Assembly Hall: London
All words by Melz Durston. More writing by Melz on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive.