No stranger to mixed media releases, iconic Throwing Muses and 50FOOTWAVE songwriter Kristin Hersh has returned with her new solo album and accompanying book, Wyatt At The Coyote Palace. Louder Than War editor Sarah Lay chatted with the musician, currently on UK tour including a date at Louder Than Words Festival in Manchester this Saturday, 12 November.
“My bands are like sailboats: it may be the wind taking us, but we can safely assume we’re headed where we’re going. Solo is like jumping off a cliff. I lose all sense of direction and time. And really, shouldn’t be working any other way. I walk into the studio on the first day knowing exactly which mics I want to use, what textures and effects I need, where to place the amps and drum kit in the room and what direction the mix should take at the end of the session. I’m always completely wrong. Like, laughably off-base. I love that.”
Kristin Hersh is a musician who will need very little introduction to many; an art-rock pioneer she formed Throwing Muses with step-sister Tanya Donelly as teenagers and has since gone on to record as a solo artist and with power rock trio 50FOOTWAVE. Alongside this she has authored memoirs, candidly revealing how her inner world and her mental health have influenced and been intrinsically entwined with her creative work. She has told her story with simple honesty, sharing her own fascination with the mind without being self-indulgently introspective. From being knocked off her bike by a car when she was sixteen leading to the double-concussion that changed the way she experienced sound and the way music arrived with her through to a trail of misdiagnosis, and the natural if sometimes dizzying turns in life.
Latest solo album Wyatt At The Coyote Palace lyrically reflects a turbulent time in the songwriter’s life, that stark honesty set to a heady mix of potent guitars, looping melodies and intriguing field recordings. In the past she has spoken of being a conduit for music that came from her muse, a personality she called Rat Girl, but in this latest solo work she seems ever present and connected. The sounds she channelled then were unfettered by convention, caustic and tormented, uncompromising in subject and delivery; her relationship with music mirrored the turbulence, the dirt and splendour of everyday survival making an often uneasy irresistible listen. That sound is little changed if somewhat tempered, more curiosity in the exploration than conduit these days. But thinking too deeply before the creation is something Hersh tries to avoid. She said, “I hope I don’t bring too much intellect to this process of songwriting; it would be a mistake to be that self-conscious. I don’t mind reflecting after the fact, as any work should hold up to analysis, but an important aspect of what I do is a kind of self-hypnosis. Mind can interfere with visceral expression, I find.”
There is plenty of reflection, and captured moments, across both the double album and the accompanying book of the same name. The title refers to an abandoned apartment building close to the studio where Hersh was recording the album. It was inhabited by coyote’s and her son, Wyatt, began fascinated with them and their lives but just as quickly as it had begun his interest ended. She said, “My son, Wyatt, who’s on the autism spectrum, spent most of my recording sessions for this record behind the studio, exploring an abandoned apartment building. Abandoned by humans, that is; coyotes had moved in in their absence. This is why it’s called the coyote palace.
“The coyotes live with discarded mattresses and teapots and old books people left behind when they moved out. They hunt in the woods and then come home at the end of the day, like they’re coming home from work. Wyatt was fascinated by this process and this place: he filmed it in the snow, in the summer heat and spring mists while I recorded these songs.
“It was easy to revel in his appreciation of the place and stomp through the snow with him taking movies, etc. But when it came time to let go of his obsession – which he did easily – I learned the really important lessons. When an influence becomes finite, like a psychological weather front moving through, your sense memories work like a syringe of a story. Shoot that into your veins and you relive the experience. And oddly, so do others.”
In the early days of Throwing Muses Hersh would talk of not writing songs but of the songs writing her, and while songwriting may be less visceral it is no less personal. The end of Wyatt’s interest with the coyote palace came three years into the making of the album. She said, “The songs were recorded, not in order, but as basics and overdubs. So the idea of a finite process influenced the closing overdubs and mixing process, like dressing a scarecrow and walking away, leaving it for the crows. I’m very aware that this music isn’t for everyone. Only some crows like straw people.”
For Hersh the melodies arrive first and the words follow and, not for the first time, she captured something of the record in another format too; a book. She said, “The music comes first and inspires the stories. Which are all true, so I guess the songs trigger memories, really. Music on its own works for me because it is the only language I speak fluently but not everyone does. Speaking English to people is shockingly effective after years of confusing them with sound. I thought it might cheapen the effect of songs to ‘explain’ them or freeze them in images or time, but I like how text can inform songs and vice-versa.”
This is not the first time Hersh has made a mixed-media release where a book has arrived alongside the album. “A book is still a valuable object, whereas a CD really isn’t. We all know they’re just little pieces of plastic. Vinyl is still lovely, of course. But insisting that someone else adopt your soundtrack can be a little presumptuous, while a book is still viewed as a gift. I sneak my soundtrack into books because I’m sleazy.”
It’s a means of which Hersh can capture more of her creative process and explore a theme further, but also drops her audience into a highly sensory experience. In a Q&A about the new album she said of mixed media releases, “Throwing Muses’ last record, Purgatory/Paradise, was published as a book with a CD included as well and some listeners told me it actually made them dizzy to the point of nausea to listen and read at the same time. Admittedly, these could have been very sensitive people – I think I could do it without throwing up – but I was impressed by their investment. Hopefully the visual and aural aspects of this release can stand alone as well as they hold together. Without making anybody puke.”
Sound and vision are intrinsically linked for Hersh, who has a form of synaesthesia, essentially allowing her to see the colour of sound. It’s something which she says informs her playing but which she’s also sought to represent in the presentation of releases. She said, “I can’t imagine playing without synesthesia. I’d never be able to remember all those chords if they didn’t come colour-coded. Throwing Muses’ drummer, Dave, does all my packaging and tries to recreate my experience of sound, which is so overwhelmingly visual.”
A prolific musician Hersh is active in Throwing Muses, 50FOOTWAVE and her solo work, saying she knows which outlet the songs are destined for by the guitar she uses to write. But the quantity of songs for solo projects not only means a selection process but also a shoulder-to-the-wheel approach in the studio. She said, “I had 40 songs I needed to knock down to 24 if they’d let me release a double album (they did). So it was more like a ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves’ sigh. A recording studio is a farm: seasons and muscles both facilitate and limit what you can do. When it’s time to work, it’s time to WORK. Eating, sleeping, thinking about anything else…all that becomes impossible!”
And part of that studio work is not only in playing all the instruments but building new ones, she describes them as ‘Frankenstein crimes against nature’ that she created in a quest for a sound no-one had heard before. Alongside these the album is full of not just her regular instruments but cello and horns, and field recordings she captured on the last Throwing Muses tour. Of these she said, “When there’s a sound in your head you need to find, it seems to jump up in the air, into your field of vision. Luckily, the Coke bottle in the dune buggy at the beach, the protest march in Koreatown in LA, Australian birds, European buskers and redneck Yeti fans all crowded up to my phone while I held it out around the world.”
There was a time when the intensity of music, the act of creation, was a battle which Hersh seemed to have little choice but to fight over and over. The turmoil it created makes it unsurprising that as a listener Hersh is also easily overwhelmed, Tanya Donelly said of her that she doesn’t even like music and Hersh herself has been open that music is unbearable – good music too intense and bad music too offensive.
So too has she been blunt about the romantic notion of the tortured artist; that somehow individual struggle and torment is justified by the creation of art. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian she summed up her view, “The disease is far more dangerous than the music is valuable.”. But Hersh seems to have found a way to walk the line between the brutality of creation and the magic of making music. While never having shied from either the music only she could hear or the songs she’s shared with us, there seems now softness in her approach to the craft as much as there is still visceral beauty in what she produces. She says of the process of making music, “I love every moment of this discipline. I used to hate the studio; couldn’t figure out how to kill music then bring it back to life. Now I know there’s inherent life in every brush stroke and it’s up to me to rise to that occasion. Which is, of course, an honour.”
Wyatt At The Coyote Palace album and book are out now via Omnibus Press. See Kristin Hersh on UK tour:
- 11 November – West End Centre, Aldershot
- 12 November – Louder Than Words Festival, Manchester
- 13 November – Gorilla, Manchester
- 14 November – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
- 15 November – Glee Club, Birmingham
- 16 November – Crescent, York
- 17 November – Summerhall, Edinburgh
- 18 November -The Mackintosh Church, Glasgow
- 19 November – Philharmonic Music Hall, Liverpool
- 20 November – Trades Club, Hebden Bridge
- 21 November – Arts Centre, Norwich
- 22 November – Komedia, Brighton
- 23 and 24 November -St John in Bethnal Green, London
- 25 November – Literary Festival, Folkstone.
A USA tour follows.
Interview and all words by Sarah Lay. Sarah is editor of Louder Than War, you can find her on Twitter and read more from her in her author archive. She is executive producer of The Rumble on Radio Andra and provides Louder Than War’s recommended track of the week on the show. Tune in Tuesdays from 8pm or listen again to the podcast.