In January I spent a week in London. While I was there I was lucky enough to see Kristin Hersh perform her gorgeous new album Learn To Sing Like A Star in its entirety at a small theatre in London’s Soho District. I was luckier still to get to interview Kristin the following day. While the article itself is now online (there’s also an interview with Tanya Donelly), I thought I’d post the transcript of our conversation here.
It’s always tough to have to cut favorite snippets of conversation, or to truncate lively digressions (which can be as wonderful or as illuminating as getting to the point itself). But sometimes we have to “kill our l’il darlings” (as a friend wryly put it the other day when I was whining about having to cut a favorite phrase from a pitch). I left lots of good stuff out of the article, however reluctantly, because print articles must be shaped into a tidy narrative. An actual conversation, though, doesn’t have to follow any rules.
As for Kristin’s London show, it was a bit slow to catch fire. But when it did, the new songs came off bright and messy and beautiful (all sparks and shards) in the buttoned-down space. After the hushed, tamped-down nature of her last solo album The Grotto (a lovely album, but a quiet one), I welcome the sparks and shards.
January 12, 2007
KH: You still jet-lagged?
AF: No. How are you doing?
KH: Today’s the first okay day. We went right to work. You’re supposed to take a day off, and we didn’t!
AF: Thank god those chords are like body memory by now!
KH: Exactly! Although, not a lot of autopilot on a new record, you know? It is fun, I got my friends to play with. I got to bring 50 Foot and the McCarricks… Bernie I’ve known for almost 20 years!
AF: Did you meet him in Boston?
KH: Yeah, he roadied for the Muses, along with my booking agent.
AF: How did you meet the McCarricks? Was 4AD a match-maker?
Billy: Ivo. Martin had just done This Mortal Coil.
KH: He did my first acoustic tour. And thank god, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Vic and Martin and I were on tour.
AF: It must have been like having family around.
KH: And SO necessary for a shy person who didn’t want to play alone!
AF: Did they have to push you onstage, like “Go! Go! GO!!”
KH: Yeah. Narcizo and I used to take our contacts out so we didn’t have to see the audience. And that was great, because we were in this sensory deprivation swirl of sound. And it was really important to us to do that. But you can’t really do that as a solo artist. I would go out there and the stages were enormous, quiet. And they’re theatres. Oh, it was awful! I would go out and bump into the mic and fall off my stool and knock the guitar over. So I had to start wearing contacts. [So I could] see them all staring at me: Which is worse —falling down, or seeing their faces?
AF: You could start performing behind a screen to really accentuate that mystery!
KH: That’s when I started wearing makeup. Makeup is like a mask. It’s something to do before you play [K mimes putting makeup on with a glazed-over expression] and it’s not YOU anymore. It’s like, “Nobody can see ME!” [hearty laugh]
AF: War paint!
KH: Exactly. I’d get really bored so I’d put more and more on and go out [onstage] all Broadway.
AF: The Eyes of Tammy Faye!
KH: That’s a GREAT name for a record! “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
AF: Let’s talk about the new record. Here’s where I inspect my notes.
KH: [ peering] Impressive single-spaced notes!
AF: I know! That’s why I highlighted stuff –I knew I’d get here and lose track! The Grotto whispered its secrets to you, and it felt so lush, quiet and Southern Gothic. By contrast, LTSLAS just JUMPS out of the speakers at you —it’s so bright. It sounds SO different. How did that happen? When in the process do you start to KNOW that it’s a song set?
KH: That’s a good question. I don’t think there’s a moment. Writing the songs is still the same, because it is still hearing them and trying to just copy them down without getting in the way and saying too much.
AF: You don’t want your ego to get in the way.
KH: Yeah, I need to say EXACTLY what the song wants me to say, and not erase things because I find them embarrassing or telling. Because they often are telling and yet, that’s not the point of the song. Which is a very fine line to write. So many times I’ve thought, ‘You can’t say that! Billy will be upset or the band will be upset or my MOTHER might hear it, or I’m going to have to TALK about it…’ Those things are all true, and yet the song isn’t saying it because there’s catharsis in that expression, the song is using it to make its own point. And that’s a big deal: if the song isn’t allowed to do that, [then] it’s a half-assed song and it won’t be timeless and it won’t survive as long.
AF: Then what IS it saying?
KH: It’s just not beautiful —it doesn’t get a chance to be ugly and beautiful at the same time. Or that special thing that a great song is.
AF: It’s so complicated!
KH: Thank god, or I’d be bored by now! But, um, the process as soon as the song is done is just one of production FOREVER. Making the very first tweaks of the guitar part, of the studio itself, of the overdubs, of the musicians I hire (or don’t hire), the instruments I play (or don’t play), the reverbs I choose, how it’s recorded, the desk, whether it’s digital… All those decisions need to be made to reflect exactly what the most beautiful version of the song is. But the song itself never changes. So, after you’ve made all those decisions, sometimes you’ll end up with The Grotto, and sometimes you’ll end up with 50 Foot Wave! And I’ve completely lost myself in the process by then and have no idea what happened. All I know is that, The Grotto itself stands alone, whether I want to listen to it or not! And I just started listening to it this year. Four years went by and I never really got it. I thought, “It is what it is, it’s not mine.” This year, it spoke to me in such a huge way that I couldn’t stop listening to it. And I don’t listen to my records —why would I, except to learn the lyrics?! But I was just all over The Grotto . And I’ve talked to other people who said, “2006 was the year of The Grotto for me!” That’s when it kicked in stylistically, the textures and the instruments and the way the songs would just GO forever before even a vocal came in. And the way the lyrics were SO dreamy, even dreamier than I’m used to being! That’s after Sunny Border Blue, which was just …pure pissed-off sunshine! And then this thing happened where…The Grotto was all fluid timing; this [LTSLAS] was completely CLICK. Everything clicked, everything regimented, everything CLEAN.
AF: So sharp. Especially opening with “In Shock,” which just zings out of the speakers at you. You’re in it, right there, it’s so vivid.
KH: A lot of it… I think it could have created a different impression if Trina Shoemaker hadn’t mixed it. She came out of her New Orleans phase and entered her Nashville one and created this big, clean sound out of something that was more idiosyncratic, more mashed-up than that. You can hear the original sound on “The Thin Man”, the last song, and “Winter.” Those are original mixes. But the others have the Trina BIG approach, which just took me completely by surprise. And yet, I admit that’s why I got her. [laughs] So I don’t know! Say whatever you want to about it, because I haven’t caught up with you yet. I’m not objective enough.
AF: Right. It must be hard. You have to let them go and be… It’s like having a toddler. You have to let them walk on their own for a little while, fall down, get back up. And then they come back to you.
KH: And then you realize, “Oh, they’re grown-ups! They drive. They go to other people’s houses now.” That’s what the songs do!
AF: They become autonomous after awhile. And then you realize, “Oh! That’s what I was saying with that one!”
KH: Right, and that’s when they gain the most momentum, oddly enough, is when I’m done with them. That’s when they go out into the world and become other people’s soundtracks and then come back to me changed. And I can learn from them then. I can then be a listener because by then objectivity is a safe way to approach them. When you have a baby, you can’t do anything but be passionately obsessed with them —it’s life or death. But when you have an adult child, you listen to them talk. It’s interesting, what they have to say!
AF: There’s an elemental quality. Water and fire imagery is everywhere. But the traditional way of seeing them (as tropes) is seemingly reversed —water is seen as the destructive force, and fire as the calming one.
KH: That’s the way I relate to those elements, actually. That’s amazing, that’s a really cool thing to say. I grew up by a very scary ocean —well, you know!
AF: I do! [We both hail from Rhode Island. We talk for a little while about the hurricane of ’38 and destructive forces —the ferris wheel floating off First Beach, the tsunami that almost killed my grandmother, etc.]
KH: Other people think of the beach as lying around. I think of the beach as frightening hurricanes.
I mention New Orleans, where I used to live.
KH: The Quarter is still the same. The spray-painting on the houses —that just killed me. The houses that we knew so well. Dead bodies inside.
We both pause, not wanting our sadness about New Orleans to intrude on the conversation. After a moment, Kristin continues.
KH: A fire to me is a cozy fireplace. At the same time, I was addicted to swimming. Swimming in an icy, cold ocean every day was my heroin. All of Throwing Muses’ tour managers knew… They always know what the lead singers’ vice is, and it’s part of their job to get it. And for me it was pools! And they were serious about it, because no-one wanted to be around me when I wasn’t on my crack. They knew. I heard people sit them down and say, ‘Kristin needs a pool. You may find yourself breaking into a pool at four o’clock in the morning! Kristin needs to swim two hours every day or you don’t want her sitting in your van!’
I find water very, very destructive in my life anyway. And then with all that happened —50 Foot Wave and New Orleans and our house and…TWO FLOORS flooded. And the ceiling collapsed. I lost all my instruments. We lost 2000 books. Our furniture. And it looked like… everything’s wet and the house fell down. Then the mold sets in. People in New Orleans know. And even stuff we couldn’t throw away, because we couldn’t bear it… it’s still covered in mold. We smell like mold, all of us. We lived in Portland in our rental for almost a year and we still smell like mold! Mold everywhere.
AF: You’re not living in Portland anymore?
AF: You’re tour nomads?
KH: There was no point in paying rent. We’re touring through the summer and maybe to Australia after that. Where are you now?
AF: Providence. Near Hope High.
KH: Are you really? You’re so lucky! Oh, I love that neighborhood. I swear Providence is where all my songs come from. I don’t understand that, but…! Billy argues with me all the time, like… “You’re a world traveler. You don’t even LIVE in Providence anymore!” It’s not like they’re ABOUT Providence, I don’t write ABOUT it.
AF: It’s your history, your family…
KH: It’s like a filter or something. I’m just SET there and I can let the songs come through. I don’t know. Confusing!
AF: I was going to ask you about recording at Stable Sound in Portsmouth. It’s seems like a home base.
KH: It’s a passionate hideout. It’s where I last felt magic. It’s ALWAYS where I last felt magic. It’s the safest place too be, and Rizzo is the only unconditional love I’ve ever had. He’s so wonderful. He was going to come to the show but he was too busy. I didn’t want to pressure him. He went down to Nashville while Trina was mixing. He’s a lovely man. I would give anything for that to be my job —going to Stable Sound every day to make music would just be so wonderful.
AF: But it’s so nice that you get to record there whenever you want. And you got to record with Dave again!
KH: We just played with Dave, and 50 Foot opened.
AF: In SF?
KH: Yes. It’s always so lovely. It’s a little bittersweet, because there’s an end to the set, and it’s THE END every time. It’s a true end. At least we pull it together when we can. And I’d like to make another Throwing Muses record, and then have a reason to play [together] again —it’d be great.
AF: So it’s definitely in the cards?
KH: Oh, absolutely! It’s a certain kind of song, I just need to wait there to be like a dozen of them. Which is what happened the last time. I didn’t recognize it at first… I kept trying to make them work as solo acoustic songs, and they weren’t. Billy was listening on the bus one day and he said, “You know what’s wrong with all these songs? They’re Throwing Muses songs!”
AF: So it takes you a little while sometimes —it’s a hit-or-miss process. Like, ‘Where would this song belong? Where is it’s home?’
KH: I have an Appalachian record three-quarters of the way done now, and the next solo record is halfway-done and the 50 Foot record is halfway done… But no Throwing Muses songs. I’m dying to make a Throwing Muses record and all I can do is just wait. I can’t just sit down and… I mean, what would you do to write a Throwing Muses song? I don’t even know what that is!
AF: Ha! Don’t ask me!
KH: It would be such a big mistake have them play 50 Foot songs. You’d NOTICE. [laughs]
AF: [indignant] ‘Hey, these are FAKE!’
KH: MAYBE this could have been a TM record, you know what I mean? But I doubt that it’s quirky enough. It sounds more like Sky Motel and Sunny Border Blue to me, not really like a TM record. TM has this way of pulling off spindly, rhythmic parts. Dave and I play the same part on different instruments, that’s part of it. Real snare-oriented. Not a chord but a cluster of three notes, that are rolling rhythmically. As soon as I hear those again I’ll know that Throwing Muses are going to be able to pull it off. [laughs]
AF: [dorkily going through notes] Have you grown more comfortable with the idea of being out there, alone?
KH: Oh, absolutely. I always knew I was lucky to have it as an option, because TM did run out of money and there’s such a huge overhead for touring bands. 50 Foot solved a lot of those problems, but Vic Chesnutt taught me how to orient myself musically to the whole process. I’m not really a performer anyway, it’s just that, in order to be a working musician you have to sell YOU as what you do. You have to perform, you have to take the pictures… You can do it without being a bimbo or a liar, but you can’t be so painfully shy. It would be a lot more comfortable for me to be allowed to be as shy as I really am, which is really scared to go to the grocery store, for example! But instead —somebody like Vic, who’s a dyed-in-the-wool solo acoustic performer, uses fluid timing to bring his songs across. He uses bass lines, rhythmic textures, and leads in the same song to get the song across. He uses the texture of his voice, he rides the mic —it’s a full performance in this tiny little sound-sphere that he is. Which is what I failed to appreciate about what we do. I thought there was a dollars-to-the-decibel equation going on, where a third of Throwing Muses should be less than. And no-one really wanted to hear Throwing Muses, so… I did not get the math! [laughs]
AF: It’s not mathematical, that’s why!
KH: Yeah, it’s a SONG! They want to hear a song! And sometimes the bright loud colors I paint over the pencil sketch confuse the listener enough that they don’t hear the song underneath. So there’s a certain kind of listener that prefers the less-than treatment. And it allows me to play without a set-list —I just stop after an hour of playing whatever the HELL I would play in my bedroom! Which is such a gift! I’d KILL for that time in my bedroom. Here I get PAID for it! And the fluid timing that you’re capable of if there’s no rhythm section to carry can be very emotional —it can really help the song come across. I can get loud and quiet without confusing anybody, I can make shit up if I want, I can play a song twice as long as anybody ever felt like listening to it —there’s so much musical freedom in that. I was pretty much taking my lenses out at that time —I was so lost in sound that I didn’t even realize that there was no real volume to the sound. And that I had no friends! Which is the other aspect of playing in a band!
AF: There must be a nice dynamic to the room. All these people love your music. They’re all family, in a weird way.
KH: Yeah, and I’m not famous, so they feel that they can talk and I can talk back and… They know how grateful I am for the support. They may be confused into thinking that I’m a performer, which I’m not. I’m just trying to pull something off musically, you know. And it’s a little different, because we’ve incorporated our faces and lives into, say, the website for example, and into stories about us. There’s a little bit of personal confusion with some fans. But for the most part they seem to be music listeners who just want people to not suck so that they can listen without being offended. So they are real easy to talk to. And I’m so grateful to them because they’re the ones who will buy everything and still want to come to the show always ready to support what we do. It would be easier if I had a big ego and was a shining star and I am never gonna wish that that weren’t the case, but I do know the necessary evil of putting myself out there is easier to take when people know what’s going on.
AF: I was going to ask you too about the title of the album and the cheekily —well, I interpret it as cheekily glam artwork. It’s just over the top enough that’s it’s winking at you…
KH: It’s filmic. Dave Narcizo did it, so I’m just like, ‘Whatever you want!’ You went to art school, you understand…
AF: The raised dots remind me of the last Muses album. Like they’re a pair…
KH: I know!
AF: Both the title and the art… Is it a wink at people who thought you couldn’t build a pop career on your own terms, because you really have…
KH: It’s just Dave doing whatever he thinks looks good, honestly! Thank you for the extra credit. I just let Dave do whatever he wants unless I’m wildly opposed to it, and I never really have been. He has a million ideas, and I end up just going, “Suuure, I like the pink one, I don’t know!” He knows I’m retarded, so… he and Billy kinda work it out together. He wanted it to be like an old movie poster.
[Dave later told me that the artwork was also heavily influenced by Reid Miles' classic cover designs for Blue Note. "The dots were intended to put a contemporary spin on it." ]
And the only picture from that photo shoot that looks anything like me is the one where I’m lying down. In the other ones I literally look like a dead body —like I’m not in my eyes or something. I had this very serious liver infection that spread to my kidneys. I was seriously this close to renal and liver failure. And it was right when they wouldn’t let you carry liquids on an airplane. [laughs] I wouldn’t be talking about it, but I was in fetal position for WEEKS and as a musician I don’t have insurance. And I was on tour so you don’t have time to go to the emergency room. And so Billy was putting me onstage. And when I play, gradually all pain goes away —I don’t feel anything. So I kept thinking I was getting better. Then I’d come offstage and BOMM! [mimics falling over] And finally Mudrock, the 50 Foot Wave producer, got his doctor on the case without seeing me. He explained what a musician’s life is like, and the guy said, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this but…I’m going to give you the strongest antibiotics known to mankind because I think you’re going to die, or end up in a coma.’ So I was just shaking pain pills and antibiotics. But it didn’t kick in until AFTER the photo shoot unfortunately. So Dave was like, “Um, really, the only picture that looks like you is the one where they let you lie down.” So it’s only my mouth in one picture and then… They let me lie down and it was like, ‘Oh my god, everything’s okay now!’ and my face just relaxed. There’s one where I literally look like a dead body and it’s fascinating to me —‘That’s what I’m going to look like when I’m dead!’ [laughs] So he was kinda limited.
AF: ‘OK, those two! Let’s go with ‘em!’
KH: ‘…and only the lips! Don’t show her dead eyes!’
AF: ‘Great, the art direction’s already been done for me!’
KH: Yeah, the decision’s been made.
AF: You were once quoted as saying that you barely show up on film. This was from a long time ago, Red Heaven-era, when it was just you and Dave. Have you grown more comfortable being a visual as well as musical presence?
KH: You know what it is? It’s people feeling sorry for me. They saw the photos from Red Heaven-era and went, ‘Awww.’ So, Billy knew I needed rescue from photo shoots. They last days and they have wardrobe and makeup people and I just feel like I’m disappointing everyone, and —you know— it’s stupid. Unless you’re a showoff, it’s really not fun!
AF: Unless you’re a show pony!
KH: Yeah, like “Helloooo!” You want pictures of ME in the world? I know I don’t look BAD but I just don’t see why they’re necessary. Anyway. So Billy took my pictures for SBB and The Grotto. And then Dina came along and she takes the photos for nothing and books the studios for nothing and the makeup people… She knows and we know that if you have a flashy picture like that you get more press, so more people will write about the record if they can show a picture that LOOKS like the other pictures in their magazine. So we’re trying to meet them halfway. I don’t think I look like an idiot or a bimbo —I wasn’t trying THAT hard, like I was overly stylized with my clothes and stuff. But, um, some of the fans have made good points about wondering how we’re supposed to keep fighting that battle if even I play along. But I don’t sell records if they don’t write about them. I don’t really know what to do about that.
AF: It’s frustrating to see women like Gwen Stefani who are as much models as they are —well, I don’t want to say “musicians” but—
KH: They’re products. They’re PRODUCTS of the music business.
AF: With a little Trademark stamp after their name.
KH: Right. And maybe there’s some sound associated with it but it’s not music…
AF: It’s all Autotune or something…
KH: Do we continue to try and infiltrate that world that mostly sells products, or do we stay underground and indie and only play for people who know how to look for us, and maybe don’t survive like Throwing Muses didn’t survive…? I don’t know what to say about it.
AF: It seems to me that —since the difficulties with TM— that you’ve built your own comfortable level of success. And, looking in, it seems like you’ve played the game to the extent that you’re WILLING to play the game. It’s necessary to play the game. But it seems that you’ve reached a happy medium.
KH: That’s a really nice thing to say. That’s what we’ve hoped to achieve and NO MORE. There’s NO WAY that I would REALLY want to get my foot into that world because it’s the kiss of Death and you don’t survive until the next record.
AF: It’s like a giant maw that just wants more and more.
KH: And if you’re IN, you’re going to be OUT though. Unless you’re truly BIMBO PASTE, which I will never be mistaken for! [laughter] Well, you can be Gwen Stefani and LAST because there’s nothing there. If I did anything like that I’d alienate half my fans and they wouldn’t want to listen to the next record. And any fans I got from being an idiot, I wouldn’t want at my shows, and they certainly wouldn’t stick around for the next record. It would kill my career. I also don’t want to die the death of TM —I want to keep working.
AF: Do you feel that keeping yourself accessible to the extent that you can —in the TM forums and the Powell’s blog and elsewhere— helps?
KH: Yeah. Because there are plenty of people who are so turned off by the tendency of the music business to want to be accepted by the lowest common denominator that they DUMB absolutely everything down— Doesn’t that make YOU stop listening?
AF: Yeah, absolutely! But I don’t even listen to the radio!
KH: But that’s not because you’re a music journalist —it’s because you’re an intelligent person. Any intelligent person is going to not want to be continually offended and disappointed, or sold to. And so to reach those people you need to look for different outlets. They’re never going to be listening to the radio. They’re probably not going to be surfing the bins in music stores either —unless they have a great indie store in their town that hasn’t been killed by the chains. Corporatization is making it so that those people are BARELY reachable. I hate to say it, but thank god for the internet, or we wouldn’t find each other. We wouldn’t have that community.
AF: Thanks to blogs I have found SO MANY amazing bands I never would have heard otherwise. I’ve bought MORE music, not less, thanks to the internet!
KH: That’s what the band was saying last night. I haven’t heard them talk about LOVING music in a long time. But to be able to pick and choose without waiting for someone to PROGRAM it for you…
At this point, Kristin had to run, so we said our goodbyes. I caught up with her again for a tiny in-store in Boston, at Newbury Comics (a place SO not set up for in-stores it's not even funny). In a nice bit of symmetry, Kristin sang “Winter” just as big flakes started falling outside.
Buy Learn to Sing Like A Star | Buy KH merchandise, live bootlegs, and Works-In-Progress series. | “Hysterical Bending” is Kristin’s contribution to Sire’s Just Say Roe compilation. While it is out-of-print, you can probably find it online at ebay or Gemm.com.
KRISTIN PHOTO BY DINA DOUGLASS
Kristin Hersh, “In Shock”
Kristin Hersh, “Same Sun” [Live at Noe Valley Ministry]
Kristin Hersh, “Hysterical Bending”