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Photo Credit: Lisa Fletcher
Independent music icon Kristin Hersh needs no introduction, but nevertheless, to briefly sum up, Hersh is an American musician, singer-songwriter, and author who is celebrated not only for her musical and literary achievements, but for blazing a path for women in the indie rock genre and beyond.
Hersh is the founder and integral member of the long-running, world-renowned band Throwing Muses and is an acclaimed solo artist. She also formed the long-standing rock band 50FootWave which released its latest EP, Bath White, this past May.
Hersh is lauded for her vivid, emotionally disquieting lyrics, boldly fierce to delicately vulnerable vocals, multi-instrumental talents, and resolute independent vision. She has grappled with and channeled her past via her songs (lyrics and sounds) and is upfront about her psychological struggles, tackling complex personal issues through her riveting compositions.
Hi there, Kristin! It’s such a huge thrill to be interviewing you for The Big Takeover. Where are you at the moment and how are you doing?
KRISTIN: Hey… Nice to meet you! I’m currently on the island where I grew up, reading my latest book for Audible and recording Throwing Muses demos. Also trying to get my little boy in the ocean as much as possible before we’re on the road in the fall… I figure we can squeeze in enough sunshine to keep us healthy through a year of touring? That’s never been true before, but I keep hoping.
You recently released the Bath White EP as 50FootWave with bandmates Bernard Georges and Rob Ahlers. The songs on the EP roil mightily with psychological turmoil and sonic release. Why did you decide to reassemble the band instead of dropping a solo record that incorporates your lyrics?
KRISTIN: 50FootWave songs are written on my Les Paul or one of my SG’s. They can’t be solo or Muses material because the guitars dictate the project. I know how stupid that sounds, but it’s a system that has worked for me and I’m pretty stupid. I’m also too old to stop doing things once I start.
I didn’t need to reassemble the band, since we never stopped working. We started recording new material within a few months of working the last release.
You’ve said that 50FootWave is a “cathartic” and “celebratory” outlet for you (Salon interview, 2015) and not a dive into anger or anxiety. Is that still your view for the Bath White EP, despite its vividly bleak lyrics?
KRISTIN: 50FootWave is as happy as I get. It definitely feels like fireworks to me: noisy maybe, but with bright colors… a party celebrating the human condition. The lyrics are generally expressive and joyful, but not dumb-as-happy; more like, this is TOUGH, but look now amazing it all is.
What was it like rounding up Bernard and Rob again after 4 years away from 50FootWave? When you went into the studio, were you all on the same page from the start sonically?
KRISTIN: Bath White was recorded a few years ago. Its release was held back by Throwing Muses’ last record, Purgatory/Paradise, and my most recent book, Don’t Suck, Don’t Die. Every time I publish something, it has to be worked for a year or so. This drives 50FootWave’s producer, Mudrock, NUTS. He says there is a time when music must happen and if you miss that window, you miss the energy flow between musician and listener. A very good point, and hopefully someday I’ll have a few clones around to help out with the simultaneous release thing.
All of the songs on Bath White alternately seethe with a restless energy and breathe with a deceptively calm tension, mirroring the flux of your lyrics. How difficult, or easy, is it to marry the music to your lyrics?
KRISTIN: Music and lyrics come to me at the same time. Lyrics are a kind of percussive melody… Just one of the instruments I hear in my head when a song comes.
You all go full-on hardcore for segments of “Human” with its occasional breakneck tempo and your vehement proclamations. Who decided to galvanize this song with that type of ferocity?
KRISTIN: Songs determine approach of their own accord. If I got in the way and started pasting my ideas all over the material before it had a chance to develop itself, the songs would never be realized. Songwriting is really a process of listening. I hear the bass line behind the guitar, backing vocals or cello, then drums begin to play and I know that I’m hearing what the song wants.
In the studio, after the fact, it’s safe to then re-work the parts so that they fit everyone’s aesthetic; my rhythm section has to be happy with what they’re playing, and Mudrock needs to feel that it’s reflecting his aesthetic. This is surprisingly easy when you work without ego.
Why did you decide to name the band 50FootWave after the lowest audible tone audible to the human ear as opposed to the highest frequency, 20kHz (Hmmm, 20KilohertzWave, anyone?), that can be humanly heard?
KRISTIN: Haha! Good point. 50FootWave was named after a painting, actually. It just happens to be the lowest sound audible to human ears. Probably better than sounding like a mosquito.
What sparked the lyrical outpouring for the batch of Bath White songs and when were they written?
KRISTIN: The lyrics are just a kind of puking over the music. It’s the guitar part that is the song… Lyrics and overdubs pop into my head as the song plays itself. Not unlike getting any song stuck in your head, which works as a Rorschach ink blot. Your unconscious has plenty to say and not only in dreams. If you can step out of the way, it will talk from a common place, from bones and muscles rather than self-expression and personal baggage. That’s the sweet spot: idiosyncrasy meets universal.
When you write, is it a straightforward pen-to-paper (or fingertips-to-keyboard) deal or do you develop your original writing into song lyrics over time and much rumination and editing?
KRISTIN: I’m a musician first. A guitar player, really. Lyrics are something that fly out, like talking in my sleep. I don’t write them down because they’re an appendage, not a skeleton. They have to be real, they can’t lie… but if I “worked” on them, there would be no mystery at play.
I know that Bath White is spattered with New Orleans rain and LA flowers, with hospitals and hope and gripping the people who run alongside you. Sometimes into the ground, sometimes up in the air. It’s all true stories, all too moving for me to be comfortable talking about. But singing is yelling here… an eruption of hard story plus climbing out of holes. And really? Lyrics are none of my business, if that makes any sense.
You have said that creating music is “compartmentalized” for you; that you “…open Pandora’s box only when I have to…” (Guardian interview, 2015) and that writing a song gives you a high, but that you’re a spent force afterwards. Are you referring to writing lyrics only or is song composition also part of this endeavor?
KRISTIN: There’s no such thing as stand-alone lyrics for me. They come as an aspect of the song itself. The song is a person and lyrics are a fingertip.
How do you recover from, or cope with, this psychological struggle?
KRISTIN: The songwriting process used to be an aspect of dissociative disorder. I didn’t know this, but music was an alternate personality which was revealed when I was treated for PTSD. So I had no memory of writing or playing my songs. Which sounded metaphorical, I guess, when I spoke about it in interviews. You know, it’s a familiar story, that “art” is kind of crazy and makes you kind of crazy. But I would literally disappear – not be in my body – when I played. Those closest to me knew how freaky it was, but we were all used to it.
All the material I’m currently working with (50FootWave, Muses, and solo) was written before I was cured. My memories of writing songs have huge gaps of disappearing in them.
Your lyrics have a strong visual and tactile presence and sense of place, yet are still overwhelmingly ‘of the mind’. Focusing specifically on the psychological aspect, when you write song lyrics, are you capturing and reworking your past emotions or are you recording your current state of mind?
KRISTIN: It’s hard for me to put my finger on what role lyrics play, because it has always been tied to guitar for me. Almost an afterthought.
I know that if a song is stuck in me, it makes me sick. And yet, I have always heard songs outside of me. I don’t feel particularly responsible for them. No more than I feel like I write my own dreams, though I’m deeply connected to the experience. Collective unconscious is far more powerful than personal, but I also love the experiential… how our senses inform our belief systems, like a syringe of memory.
What appeals to you about the song lyrics format, which is linked to sound, as opposed to expressing yourself via a book or other text-based medium?
KRISTIN: I think for me, lyrics are music, not words. Books are communication, whether or not they read as prose-poetry. Song lyrics use the English language as a percussive, imagistic tool.
You’ve been releasing material on your own label, ThrowingMusic, for a while, but this time around you’re distributing through HHBTM Records. Why did you decide to hook up with this cool Athens, Georgia-based label?
KRISTIN: HHBTM has been doing vinyl for all my projects for years. Even when a record is published as a book (my solo record, Crooked or the Muses’ Purgatory/Paradise), a vinyl release is an important component. Vinyl is like the real listener’s dollar vote: it seems to mean I care. Like a not-so-secret club for those of us who want music to matter.
You published a memoir in 2010 titled Rat Girl which spotlights the early Throwing Muses era (I first heard “Pearl” on college radio and was stunned by it). Is there a ‘Part 2’ fizzing in your brain and waiting to be released?
KRISTIN: There is a sort of Rat Girl part two in the offing… but I don’t want make anyone miserable. Happiness is so kind and tough stories are a bitch to share. If I can keep it light and funny until the heavy comes in to help people feel less alone? I don’t know. I’m a little torn on that one.
Is it too soon to be asking if another 50FootWave record is planned – full-length or EP – and/or maybe more solo goodness?
KRISTIN: 50FootWave (we call us “Fippy” which is what my son Bodhi nicknamed us) has a buttload of songs to sort through! Our work ethic is strong, but studios cost a dollar a minute and we’re listener-supported. Don’t want take advantage…
When my solo record is dead and gone, then the Muses can finish theirs and THEN Fippy can party again.
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