❉ We hang out with the self-described “musician, writer, and mother of four boys” on the London leg of her UK tour.
Kristin Hersh has already wept in an interview today. “I’ve only ever cried three times in public,” she admits, backstage at London’s Bush Hall – the other two times being at a funeral and, once, during a live performance of Your Ghost, her 1994 debut solo single. Someone, somewhere, therefore has a rare recording of one of alt-rock’s most doughty and transcendent performers breaking down in tears. Expect to hear that on a podcast near you soon.
We, on the other hand, are hoping to give the Throwing Muses frontwoman an easier ride. In fact, we’ve shuffled our quick-fire, ice-breaking questions into two categories labelled ‘light’ and ‘dark’, in order to offer her something of a tonal choice. “It looks like you’ve written ‘dork’,” she points out, not inaccurately, before making her selection from the pile. Dork it is, then.
What scared you as a child?
“Everything. All the stuff that y’all think is normal. I found people very frightening, just their bodies being around. To me, zombies make total sense. All of our long-standing fears are about people losing their soul, and what intelligence really is. I’ve seen it happen to people; they don’t make it, and yet they live. I think that’s why we’re afraid of zombies.”
What’s the worst place you’ve ever worked?
“A health food store. People would come in and they tell you what was wrong with them and you were supposed to fix it. They’d describe the ulcers on them and, if you didn’t understand or blanked like I did, they’d show them to you. So my approach was, ‘Eat this and go’.”
Have you ever seen something freaky or paranormal?
“We had bigfoot prints in our yard, in Rhode Island. We have pictures of them in the snow, just last week. On my last record, I used field recordings and I had a woman tell me about how a bigfoot broke into her house and she described the whole process, what he did to the screen door, etc. I didn’t quite get what evidence there was.”
Who were your heroes growing up?
“Natalie Angier, the science writer. She wrote for the New York Times. She was full of colour and clarity at the same time, straddling two worlds. I wanted to be a herpetologist, working with reptiles. I was a biology major. I started college really young. But I was pregnant and signed [to ultra-cool, if somewhat esoteric, UK record label 4AD] before I graduated. I didn’t have any patience for anything but biology. There’s still time…”
Our chat is briefly interrupted by an engineer’s request for a sound check, during which Hersh road-tests the three or four guitars she will play as part of tonight’s billed ‘electric trio’ (along with drummer Rob Ahlers and bassist Fred Abong). The instruments, she explains, are not her own, but “borrowed from kind friends”. What happened to her own gear? “I had to pay for studio time to finish this record and I was on tour. To do me a favour, my engineer drove all the way back to Providence, broke into my apartment in the snow, and sold all my guitars for me.” Hersh is not, shall we say, particularly beholden to any artefacts of the past. Even her set-list is largely a selection of album tracks from relatively recent albums, including the latest, Possible Dust Clouds, and the soon to be re-released (on orange vinyl for Record Store Day 2019) Crooked.
Those familiar with Hersh’s career will already know that these records, and tours like the current one, are financed in part by a selection of volunteer fans known as Strange Angels. For years, she released music online, for free, without the backing of a label. And she was a pioneer of the crowdfunding model – before even the birth of Kickstarter or IndieGogo – as a means to escape the shackles of an industry she clearly holds in contempt. It’s safe to say Kristin Hersh is not in it for the money.
“Lately my theory is there aren’t any musicians in the music business, and even fewer songwriters,” she explains. “Even the ones that have more strength in their songs than weakness in themselves tend to wander off or literally die because they can’t remember where it comes from.” It sounds like a scene from The Walking Dead. “Exactly. The zombie gene. The music business fools so many people that way, because people resonate with sound. But it’s not music. We have very few who are musically literate in the populace because of what the industry has done to people. It’s not a secret that they want music to be lousy.”
“I would walk down the street in New Orleans and hear music coming out of living rooms, practice spaces, front porches, bars, churches… and I’d think, ‘There’s something wrong with this. We’re trying to capture something that’s not supposed to be measured and restrained’. So what I do is not the endgame.”
Naturally shy, Hersh is distrustful of what she sees as pop music’s show-offs. “Anyone who doesn’t seek attention or money – the egoic rewards – all they’ve got is the music. But if I even tweet something that gets too much attention, I think, ‘What did I do wrong?’”
All this is in stark contrast to the first few years of Throwing Muses’ life. Indeed, three decades ago, Hersh’s band were breaking into the growing indie rock scene in the US and the UK and sharing a tour bus with the likes of The Pixies and The Sundays. Under pressure from parent company Warner Bros back home, Throwing Muses released a couple of singles, Dizzy (1989) and Not Too Soon (1991) that were unashamedly targeted at the pop charts, and both of which it turns out were written by another member of the family. “They were my father’s,” she claims. “We took his songs and made terrible things out of them. He had good songs, we just made them awful. I regret that to this day. I was responsible for the poor dude’s songs being turned into monstrous events and I should have said, ‘Stop right now’.”
Would she say that now? “We’re not afraid of the industry any longer. We’re not afraid of stepping into that world and never coming back. We’re on some really solid footing with this stuff and our material is stronger for it.”
There’s no arguing that Hersh’s newer tracks pack more punch on stage than the more acoustic outings of late. When the engineer remarks during the rehearsal that the guitars might be mixed a little too high, her answer is a swift “good”. Perhaps this return to a louder, more emotionally lusty sound explains the tears earlier in the day? Or maybe it’s just the unglued world of touring?
“There are muscles that you build. I just did a tour with Grant Lee Phillips and it took us a minute to realise no one had booked any travel or hotels. So it was like a game – ‘Let’s GO and get there’. And our first thought was ‘We’re too old for this,’ and our second was ‘We’re just experienced enough for this’. There was a lot of running with guitars, getting trains. There were no rental cars except this douchebag sports car that nobody else wanted. Planes, sleeping on couches. They were going to shave my eyebrows. Craziness.”
“LIVE AND LOUD” TOUR 2019:
8th Mar: Engine Rooms, Southhampton, UK
9th Mar: West End Centre, Aldershot, UK
10th Mar: Bush Hall, London, UK
12th Mar: Bush Hall, London UK
13th Mar: Sub89, Reading, UK
15th Mar: Holywell Music Room, Oxford UK
16th Mar: Philharmonic, Liverpool, UK
17th Mar: Cluny, Newcastle, UK
18th Mar: Perth Theatre, Perth, UK
19th Mar: Mono, Glasgow, UK
20th Mar: Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, UK
21st Mar: Left Bank, Leeds, UK
22nd Mar: St Phillips Church, Salford, UK
23rd Mar: Hare & Hounds, Birmingham, UK
24th Mar: Glee Club, Nottingham, UK
26th Mar: Tramshed, Cardiff, UK
27th Mar: Phoenix, Exeter, UK
28th Mar: The Fleece, Bristol, UK
29th Mar: Arts Centre, Colchester, UK
30th Mar: St Paul’s, Worthing, UK
31st Mar: Quarterhouse, Folkestone, UK
1st April: Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich, UK
❉ Show and ticket info for all shows can be found at www.kristinhersh.com/
❉ Steve Berry is a writer and broadcaster for TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and the internet. You may have seen him talking about his specialist retro subjects (advertising, television, toys, sweets and crisps) on Channel Five’s Greatest Moments series, UK Gold’s Porridge and Doctor Who weekends, BBC Two’s Inside The Factory or Channel 4’s Top Ten TV and 100 Greatest Toys. He lives in Hertfordshire with a wife (his own), two children (also his own) and some cats (their own).