Throwing Muses front woman Kirstin Hersh speaks with Cormac Duffy about the “cringe” of nostalgia, writing her memoir and art for art’s sake.
Kristin Hersh is as much a true elder stateswoman of alternative rock music as she is one of its unsung heroes. Having now led the iconic Throwing Muses for twenty-five years, the band have been through it all, but undeservedly never achieved the canonisation of their peers. They were the first US act signed to 4AD, releasing some of the best, and first, records that one could dub alternative rock (see 1991’s The Real Ramona for a sample). Originally a four piece containing Hersh’s half-sister Tanya Donnelly (later a member of the Breeders and Belly), the band fell into its current ‘power trio’ line-up upon Donnelly’s exit after the release of The Real Ramona. They ploughed on, even coming close to a crossover with 1995’s University and its almost hit single, ‘Bright Yellow Gun’. With Hersh herself releasing a slew of acclaimed solo albums since the mid-nineties, fronting her own side-project 50 Foot Wave, penning a successful memoir and founding the independent music promotion group Cash Music, her reputation truly precedes her. So much so that Otwo are surprised when calling her at her US home, we catch her at a very down to earth, un-rockstar moment. “I’m baking muffins, so I might run away for a second in case something burns. I’m not a strong muffin baker.” This moment of domesticity comes as Hersh spends time at home between a tour of the US and an upcoming European tour, which features a stop in Dublin. The group are enthusiastic about being on the road again. “It’s a gift whenever we get to play together. We look forward to it every day we’re in the studio.”
The tour is in support of Anthology, a new compilation gathering the best of the Muses’ two and half decades together. Hersh chose to avoid the process of choosing which tracks made it in. “I’m not good at that. I cringe when I go back there. So I put the project in my drummer’s lap. It had been talked about for about a decade so he had plenty of time to plan. I guess I did too but I didn’t!” Hersh goes on to outline the roots of this cringing response. “I know we meant well. I know that we had to do what we did. But there are moments, as you can imagine, where I think ‘My god, why was that what we had to do?’”
While the band never really split up so to speak, merely being often on hiatus, the tour marks the biggest return since their 2003 self-titled album. With all the cache currently afforded to (mostly for-profit) reunions (Pulp, Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins et al), is there a worry the tour is merely nostalgic? “We were very careful to make sure the songs weren’t going to sound dated in any way, a real sound is timeless. A fake one will feel like going back in time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we didn’t really feel like looking down at our set lists and feeling like teenagers.”
Much of the Muses’ work is dark. Its angular, often disorienting style of post-punk is the accompaniment to Hersh’s reoccurring lyrical focus on themes of mental illness, heavily influenced by her own bipolar disorder. The condition has affected Hersh for her entire life, even causing much of her current retrograde embarrassment. “It’s just that I was so in the throes of my own process that I barely had a personality. That’s hard for me. I’m not a kooky person in anyway. But there was a lot of kookiness in my life and in my presentation. That’s where a lot of the cringe comes from.” The songwriting process Hersh has employed throughout her career has always been an almost stream of consciousness approach. She sees herself as more of a channel for the songs that she has always heard in her head than an active creator, something that she applies to all her projects, from the Muses to 50 Foot Wave. “I like for the songs to be in charge. I would like them to tell me what to say and what to do. It’s just that if I think about it for a minute I get embarrassed” she admits with a chuckle.
Hersh discusses her experiences in the mid-90s, when the Muses were on hiatus after releasing their seventh album Limbo. Relocating herself to the desert, she suddenly stopped hearing the songs that had always been there. “It was like losing a sense. I don’t know if you know anyone who has lost their sense of smell, but they don’t miss it. If you can smell things, it’s horrible to think of, but they don’t miss it because they don’t have it. That’s what losing [my] songwriting sense was to me.” It came back to her later in life and still remains, but she is now able to cope. “I have no idea why. I’m not disturbed by the process any longer.”
Despite her pronounced aversion to looking back on her past, Hersh still managed to write a 2010 memoir Rat Girl, released here as Paradoxical Undressing. It tells the tale of all the ups and downs of her adolescence, dealing with the aftermath of her diagnosis with bipolar symptoms. Her approach to songwriting did not transfer to her prose. “It was very different, I’m not a writer. It was easy for me to pretend it was someone else and become attached to the story,” she explains. Approaching it as a “non-fiction novel” meant she even found aspects of foreshadowing in her own life, as she looked at the events of her life and thought “Wow, look at that, I should have known that was going to happen.” Recalling the past was not merely a distant reflection for her, but a powerfully vivid process. “I loved going back in time to hear people’s voices, some of whom are dead now. I remember their funny little idiosyncratic moments and their movements and gestures. I remember how my car smelled.” It made her realise that the past “is there, we just don’t need to recall it every day.”
Hersh describes getting so immersed in her writing that she never considered the idea of others reading the finished product. “I came home from a tour and there was a stack of Rat Girls on my porch and it was like a kick in the stomach. I thought ‘Oh no, what have I done?’” But the warm reception that greeted its release reassured the songstress. “There were a lot of people who could relate to it, without relating to what happened. For me that’s a successful book.”
Forever prolific, Hersh reveals that the Muses have finished a new record and are in the mixing stage now. “Well, I say that, but then I always write another song and make everybody learn it” she clarifies jokingly. Given her time away from recording with the band, it would be no stretch of the imagination to assume that it has been an awkward readjustment, but she maintains that it’s a comfortable return to what she knows, “more like going home and less like going onto another planet”.
Out on the road again, the band is seeing a new generation of young fans at their shows. “It’s been lovely. We used to count on musicians being our audience.” Being a band’s band in the mode of the Velvet Underground often reveals a level of intricacy to one’s style noticeable only to the musically aware, but Hersh sees it far more modestly, saying it was just nice to know that “people got what we were doing and didn’t think we were playing that way by accident!”
She puts much of this newfound interest in the band down to how the internet is changing fandom. “I like that people feel comfortable travelling around music now. I like that they’re in charge of their own musical education in that regard. They feel comfortable with music that is not divided in any way from themselves by race, gender, style or even time.” For an artist who began her career around the time the CD was taking off, Kristin has shown a remarkably sharp approach to the world of online music. In 2007, she cofounded Cash Music, a non-profit organisation that offers a range of services to musicians hoping to connect directly to their fan base. It has grown hugely since its conception, with a current clientele that includes the likes of Amanda Palmer, Iron & Wine and large independent labels such as Domino and Saddle Creek. “I think it’s very important to divorce the dollar sign from music. That’s the way you realise it’s a spontaneous human venture and not a business venture. When you’re talking about any art, it’s imperative that the art needs to be performed, not to serve anyone.”
As she puts it, the cornerstone of her experience as a musician has been making sure that her focus is always on the music, and never on the gain associated. It is something that is as much practice as principle, Hersh explains. “That’s why 50 Foot Wave has always given its music away. It might not seem like a smart thing to do, but it was a necessary thing to do.” Her almost Fugazi-esque dedication to the removal of profiteering from music caused issues for the band in the past. “Before we became a trio, there was some disagreement about how involved in the industry we should be. My sister wanted more industry and I wanted none. That was a good balance for a while, but it got worse and worse for me and I just had to say ‘no more of this’.” But twenty years later, her core beliefs are intact. “I have no patience for ambitious people who use sound to further their own ends” she says. With a defiant tone, she happily adds “If I have to be broke because I believe that, I’m willing to be broke. It’s sort of the way things have always been anyway.”
Throwing Muses play Dublin’s Academy of November 10th, tickets are priced €24.90. Anthology is out now.