Kristin Hersh is still tied up with a photo shoot. She appears, apologetic and covered in make-up, and announces: “I hate photoshoots, they’re so uncomfortable.”
We find ourselves a table near her hotel’s restaurant. Trying our best to ignore the easy-listening background music, we set to chatting about Kristin’s new album-book – the phenomenal Crooked – and forthcoming memoir. These, plus the live album Cats & Mice, see the light of day this year. And, as ever, she’s on tour. Kristin Hersh, always a busy lady, has rarely been busier.
The tour itself has been rather unusual, culminating in tonight’s Giant Sand Anniversary show at the Barbican. “It’s a summer tour so it’s festivals and tour dates, and the between days is promo. It’s not a normal tour; I like the rhythm of different city, different show every night. I can’t bear days off, because you start to wonder where you are on planet Earth, and question the validity of your existence. Being in the same place for three days, doing photo shoots and talking is not necessarily my forte. If you’re an actual musician, the selling part doesn’t come naturally, although I like talking to people about music. I don’t always say the right thing, I can’t come up with soundbites, and then photoshoots are really uncomfortable. Other than that…” she laughs. “The music has been great.”
Adding to the strangeness of this tour is tonight’s one-off event celebrating 25 years of Giant Sand – Howe Gelb’s off-kilter, country-fried rock band. According to the show notes Kristin is involved somehow, but it’s not entirely clear how. “Giant Sand are playing behind me while I do some readings from my book (the forthcoming Rat Girl, in the USA, or Paradoxical Undressing over here, and not to be confused with the album-book Crooked) and then they’re playing some of my songs with me as well. And then I do my own set, and they do their set. With Giant Sand it’s always a question mark, and then it always ends up turning into an exclamation point. It always works.”
Giant Sand is not the main focus of this tour for her. The album Crooked, derived in the main from tracks freely distributed through Kristin’s relationship with Cashmusic, is also being released as a book, so essentially this is a tour promoting two books, one of which happens to be an album as well. Crooked breaks from the traditional LP-on-a-CD format which, it turns out, is a format she doesn’t have much time for.
“I definitely appreciate the LP format, I think it works really well to have songs play the role of sentences in the paragraph that was the LP. Moving away from that to CDs I think coincided with a time in the industry when they were putting a lot of crap on little plastic discs, that were not inherently valuable anyway. I knew that, I knew where the money was going, and it wasn’t to the artists. So I wanted to remove music from that piece of plastic.”As she delves into her feelings about the music industry, the tone of the interview has shifted considerably, and the chirpy bubbly Kristin that greeted us not five minutes ago has all but gone, for the time being at least. “I disagree with the recording industry when they say that music has been devalued because it’s free. I think that money has been devalued in that equation, and music will always have impact, and it should be available to people without money. The disc? It was about time for that to go. So to give someone a product that is inherently valuable, that is a tangible object that you can hold, share and value is, I think, the statement I’m trying to make. And yet at the same time, you can burn a little plastic disc if you want one! I just didn’t include one because I wanted people to know that music is essentially in the ether, where it always belonged, before the advent of the business itself.”
Crooked would appear to represent another step away from the music industry, back towards a time when music couldn’t be recorded. “There was a time when a song couldn’t be owned and I would like to go back to that. Honestly. I know this is shooting myself in the foot, but I’m not sure that musicians should be making a lot of money – if any money. I like the passing the hat. I like the idea that we could survive by playing music – but I’m a little more attracted to the idea of people who have a day job and do honest work, and their passion is music. There’s a lot of honour in that. Right now those people are the heroes, because music is moving back to a time when it couldn’t be owned.”
“Music is essentially in the ether, where it always belonged, before the advent of the business itself.” – Kristin Hersh
Kristin was one of the first artists to shift away from the accepted music business model. Although the idea of giving music away for free, or for a fee of the listener’s choice, is now described as “doing a Radiohead“, the truth is Kristin and other like-minded musicians have been employing such a practice for years.
“I work with Creative Commons, licensers with a different kind of copyright that allows you to share music if you want to – with people who are not going to make money from it,” she explains. “I really question the validity of having the dollar sign in the equation in the first place. 50 Foot Wave, my newest band, has always given music away, and that’s why I continue to give music away. There are many people who deserve music who don’t have money. That philosophy has attracted my subscribers – what I call my Strange Angels – who now pay all of my recording costs. People are essentially very giving and want the music to continue, but they shouldn’t be forced to give conglomerates like Warner Brothers their hard earned money.”
Does she think it is possible for a new artist to exist using such a system, without the impact of a previous career or a well known name behind it? “50 Foot Wave didn’t have my name attached to it at first because I wanted to try that experiment, and I thought my name would bring it down. I wanted it to be a brand new musical event, but it doesn’t take long for people to figure it out. So I couldn’t really do that, but I don’t think my name has a lot of clout.”
This last comment produces a slight outburst of incredulity, but Kristin is adamant. “At shows where Throwing Muses are headlining and 50 Foot Wave are supporting, the 50 Foot fans have absolutely no idea who I am or who Throwing Muses is. They watch 50 Foot and then leave because they don’t care who they’re opening for. And Throwing Muses fans don’t care who’s opening for them so they don’t show up for the opening band. It’s ridiculous, we trade out a drummer and people think we’re different people. It’s like not power to the people, but power to the music.” continued…