Songwriter, musician, mother of four, and founder of the seminal art rock band Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh has pretty much been to hell and back and lived to tell the tale. Penguin publishes her memoir, Rat Girl, today, which details a pivotal year in her life - her eighteenth - based on a diary she kept at the time. During that year, Kristin attended college, squatted in various apartments in Providence, Rhode Island, and gigged endlessly with her band Throwing Muses who as a group moved to Boston, got a record deal and recorded their first album. Meanwhile Kristin, suffering from bipolar disorder, attempted suicide and slowly made her way back to some semblance of normal life, only to find that she was pregnant with her first child.
It's no surprise at all that the book, which is very personal and at times very painful, is extremely well written given that Hersh is such a gifted lyricist. In the introduction, she notes that one of her confidants that year provided a valuable lesson: "Betty taught me that you can't tell the whole truth, as not all of it is pertinent or lovely. You have to leave things out in order to tell the story...For what it's worth, this is my old diary's story, riddled with enormous holes and true."
On Throwing Muses, who were just in their infancy as a band at the time, Hersh writes: "I know a lot of bands who're candy. Or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good. For a minute. My band is...spinach, I guess. We're ragged and bitter. But I swear to god, we're good for you." Their aesthetic was still being formed at this point, but they knew this much: "The Muses' sound is something of a free-for-all: we can play whatever we want, as long as it doesn't remind the others of a beer commercial."
At the age of sixteen, Hersh had been struck by a hit and run driver while riding her bike. She was severely injured. It was during the long healing process that she first started to hear sounds which later softened into music which eventually she started to write down and fashion songs from. She referred to it as 'song noise' : "...every few weeks, song noise will begin again, and when its parts have arranged themselves, I'll copy them down and teach them to the band, making them hear what I hear. As soon as I give the song a body in the real world, it stops playing and I breathe a sigh of relief, in precious silence."
At the end of Rat Girl, Kristin is about to give birth to her son, who brings a new reality to everything, especially for a young girl diagnosed as bipolar: "Now I know I'll never be numb again. A mother is condemned to feel everything forever."
In 2007 Kristin helped to found the nonprofit Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders (CASHmusic), recording and releasing music without the aid of a record label. Her work is now entirely funded by listeners (known as her Strange Angels) and her music is available free of charge and free to be shared via a Creative Commons license. Throughout the first year of Rat Girl's publication, Kristin is making available a series of four session recordings in which Throwing Muses performs songs from the book. These sessions will be available through her website for download and released in four special edition CD's called The Season Sessions - Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer. These free digital downloads will be available on the first day of each season starting with Fall on September 21st. Buy the book for more information.
Kristin recently released Crooked, a multi-media project encompassing not only songs but also a collection of photographs, lyrics and essays which flesh out the work in much more detail. She also continues to work with her band 50FootWave and an EP is expected out later this year.
Your book concerns the year 1985 which was such a pivotal one for you. What's the effect on you personally to have this out in the world?
I didn't really prepare in advance for the book's release. 'Cause I'm an idiot, I guess, but also because I got so wrapped up in going back to 1985 and spending time with people who no longer exist that I sort of forgot anyone else was ever gonna read it. Even the people in the book who're still alive are different enough now that I had to time-trip back 25 years to see how they moved and hear how they spoke back then. In order to do this, I had to write at night. I'd put my kids to bed, sleep a few hours and then work from 1 a.m. until my children woke up wanting breakfast. I had spiral eyeballs by then, but I was also addicted to that time-tripping, that vacuum silence.
I make records the same way, imagining that no one will ever hear them. Working in a vacuum is good for me; it's as unselfconsciousness as you can get. Unfortunately, people DO listen to records, though, and they DO read books, as it turns out. So to actually answer your question: Charlie Brown stomach ache.
Many artists are realizing that the traditional music industry model is no longer viable. Terrestrial radio doesn't support independent artists and hasn't played new music in years and is in fact on its last legs. How did you come up with CASHmusic and the Strange Angels concept?
I've been struggling with the old recording industry model since I was 14 years old. We knew as young musicians that there was no hope for us unless we were willing to suck a little. And then a little more and then a little more, etc. I wanted to push my particular envelope, to be challenged by music, to rise to its occasions, but the recording industry asks you only to dumb it down. Oh yeah, and to do fashion shoots. Good people worked at record companies and in radio and in the press and the record stores, but no one could change the system.
So this equation without a solution floated around in my head all the years I was on Warner Brothers and working within the system and ultimately "failing" or being failed by it. It was clear to me that this was a doomed industry. You can't base an entire industry on style devoid of substance and expect people to remain loyal. Listeners with any sense stopped reading the music press/listening to the radio/buying Top 40 records and going to the "show of the week" a long time ago.
So CASHmusic was developed as a set of tools to help musicians circumvent the traditional music industry model and reach listeners directly. With the added benefit of doing away with the rock star/fan relationship. With CASH's help, musicians and listeners work together to make music happen. My Strange Angel subscribers pay all of my recording costs and receive the records (and shows) free of charge, so I no longer need a record company to pay me advances or to sell my records.
I understand that your subscribers span the world from 12 different countries and that your work is now funded entirely this way. I love that you've created a sustainable new business model for your music. Have you found that this subscriber-based system has changed the way you make music and art in general, and if so how?
I'm now free to be the scientist I always was rather than the entertainer I never wanted to be. I work in my lab (the recording studio) and perform my experiments (make my records) without any vested interest in the marketability of my results. Real listeners want to hear only...truth? And now that's all I have to give them.
So I no longer alter my song structures or production methods to reflect a record company's desire to have a song impress a radio programmer who wants to reach some vague idea of the lowest common denominator. I just have to do what the song tells me to do.
I read an interview with you recently where you talked about how your relationship with the public has changed now that you have the ability to interact with them - in effect, skip the record company middleman and go right to the consumer. Now that you're able to communicate through twitter and blogging and your website directly with those who care about your work, is it a better situation all around?
Absolutely. Throwing Muses used to meet the people we played for only at in-stores (record signings). These people seemed great and we wanted to continue our conversations with them, but they were always moved along and we were whisked away...our lives were spent going from tour bus to dressing room to stage to dressing room to tour bus, sometimes for years at a time. We had almost no contact with listeners.
With the advent of the internet, I can keep conversations going for months at a time with these people who are as invested in my output as I am, without any division between us. The work they do as listeners is as important as the work I do as a musician. I think of them as my coworkers.
I love the concept of your current record, Crooked, as a layered multi-media project. How did this idea come about?
Crooked was released as a series of free downloads; one song a month for 2 years, as I was building my Strange Angel subscription base. Ultimately, I re-recorded 15 of these tracks, playing all the instruments myself to keep costs down (and because I'm a spaz). Then 10 of these made it onto the record. CASH allowed people to follow this recording/editing process, re-mix the songs if they chose to, post their mixes and even to name the record.
It still had to be released, however, and I'm as frustrated with the flimsy CD as anyone else. We all know there is inherent value in music, but none in a little, plastic disc that costs a few cents to manufacture. I wanted to release something that reflected how valuable I feel music can be. So The Friday Project helped out by putting Crooked out as a book: a collection of lyrics, essays and photographs. This book is inherently valuable and it's an object one can hold. As much as I like the idea of music being available in the ether, sometimes you want to own something, share something, hold something.
The book allows people access to downloadable content: the full album in all formats (including lossless) and artwork, 2 bonus EP's, video and commentary.
I understand your acupuncture treatments inspired the title track of Crooked and this is the first time in many years you feel like you could in fact be cured.
It was my understanding that there is no cure for bipolar disorder and in fact, it may always be my Achilles heel (or Achilles hell - much more accurate!) but I have been living almost symptom free for 2 years now. I had assumed that acupuncture was a subtle treatment and for issues like, I don't know, bursitis...but I found it to be so effective that it was almost violent. It scared ME, anyway.
I had 2 treatments a week for a year, then 1 a week and now I see an acupuncturist once a month. I had gotten very good at keeping secrets, but I no longer have to hide the way I feel. I haven't felt this clean and stable since I was a child.
Can you tell me about the 50FootWave EP we'll be able to hear later this year?
Right after Vic Chesnutt's death last Christmas, a handful of 50FootWave songs spilled out and were not happy sitting around going unrecorded. So I called our bass player, Bernard Georges (also Throwing Muses' bass player), our drummer, Rob Ahlers and our producer, Mudrock and begged them to help me record. They dropped everything and met me in L.A. to make it happen. It was lovely.
Because I seemed broken and the songs sounded broken, Mudrock had us play broken instruments. Rob played a toy drum kit and I played a guitar that had been barbecued and was mostly melted, with only 5 strings left. Bernard sang all over it, and played psychedelic interludes that're so pretty, they hurt. I love this record.
It's called With Love from the Men's Room because one of my very-Vic memories of Vic is him finding methadone on the men's room floor and taking it before anybody could slap it out of his hand. I mean, you don't take floor methadone. You don't take floor ANYTHING. His whole self was a cry for help, but a bitchin' one, if that makes any sense. I couldn't go in the men's room with him...very similar to how it feels to be left behind. How can you help when you can't hear the cry for help? As bitchin' as it might have been...
I believe the EP comes out some time this fall.
It's very exciting that Throwing Muses have a new album due out, the first since 2003. How many band members are involved in this project? This is The Season Sessions, correct, as described in the back of the book?
The Season Sessions is a collection of songs from Rat Girl, released on the first day of each season, as Rat Girl is divided by seasons. But the as-yet-untitled (our last record was NEVER titled!) new Muses record is about 35 songs long (down from 45), and it's sort of nuts. I mean, in a good way. It's in little pieces that appear, disappear and the re-appear, for some reason. We're a little obsessed with it right now, so I know it won't be released until it's perfect, but I'm putting demos up for download at CASH, one a month, the way I did with Crooked, in the hopes of raising enough money to finish the record.
Making another Throwing Muses record is a dream come true. We never broke up, just ran out of funding to be in the studio or on the road, so we ceased to exist against our will. It happens. Especially when musicians don't play "the game." It wasn't ever worth sucking, though, so now we work whenever we're allowed to. I snuck them into the studio 7 years ago on a solo advance to make that untitled record, which I assumed would be our last and now we're back in the studio! Those Strange Angels are saving my life.
Do you listen to music and if so what are you listening to these days?
I find music very difficult to listen to. When it's good, it moves me too much, shakes my spine and messes with my brain. And when it's bad, well...it's bad. I can listen to music only if I give myself over to it, let it command all my attention and only if the music responds by not disappointing me. I mean, it can't lie even for a note or I become disillusioned--my feelings're hurt! So pathetic.
So, no, I don't listen to much music, as you can imagine. I can recommend the Moore Brothers, from California, though. Sweet music, well-versed in its own vocabulary, which is very rare. It takes balls to sing your own particular song.
Kristin's website is http://www.kristinhersh.com/ where you'll find regularly updated content, essays, new music, tour dates, a mailing list and more
Visit Strange Angels to support Kristin's work
For more about CASHMusic as well as to hear and purchase Crooked, Throwing Muses demos, and Kristin's work in general visit http://kristinhersh.cashmusic.org/
Rat Girl (published by Penguin) is available in bookstores and from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all other online retailers