Music Interviews

Kristin Hersh: “I’m not sure that musicians should be making a lot of money” – Interview

Kristin Hersh

Kristin Hersh

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.”

Kristin’s keen to hammer home the point now, and does so with the charm and the articulation of a well oiled stand-up comedian. “When there’s a second support band, they don’t realise that essentially the band members are all the same, so they treat 50 Foot Wave as an opener. They say (she adopts a supremely goofy voice) ‘Go out there and play your hearts out, we’ll be out there listening, don’t be nervous!’ – I swear to God! Then they’ll come back in and say (she changes her voice to something like a serving wench) ‘Yes ma’am, whatever you want, shall we leave the dressing room?’ because they think I’m the Throwing Muses lady. It’s a strange psychological schism. It’s not that I change outfits or anything, they just think that the girl in 50 Foot Wave is a big Throwing Muses fan and so she dresses up like her or something.”

Is she maybe slowly subdividing? She leans in and laughs in a conspiratorial manner, “Y’know, as the guitar player in 50 Foot Wave I actually had to borrow money from Kristin Hersh to buy a new amp once… the schism exists in me! Kristin Hersh had money in a publishing account, but the guitar player in 50 Foot Wave didn’t have crap!” The music industry it seems a very strange place, with too many obstacles between the artist and their music. “It certainly is. I’ve never belonged there, and I’m finally extricating myself.”

Of course, to extricate oneself from the machinery of the industry, help is required. For Crooked, as with previous work released since her split with 4AD, Kristin has received help from fans and others in order to keep the music coming. So although this may well be a solo album, it is a collaborative effort. “When 50 Foot Wave started we decided not to make any of the mistakes that Throwing Muses made,” she explains. “Part of that, and it sounds pathetic, was to work on a volunteer basis. It’s just another psychological shift. You see your work as a giving thing, rather than a getting thing. We had to rely on a cooperative of people who are also about giving rather than getting – nearly having enough, in other words.”

This approach extended to all aspects of putting together the finished work. “So photographers, videographers, producers, managers, booking agents, promoters – people were donating their time to encourage a musical event to happen. That kind of encouraging can’t go on for ever, it’s more like an investment. In that investment you have to not count on anything coming back except the music. It’s like a bunch of sculptors standing around a lump of clay all chipping away at different aspect of the statue. You’re in it for the statue, you’re not in it for anything else.”

“As the guitar player in 50 Foot Wave I actually had to borrow money from Kristin Hersh to buy a new amp once… the schism exists in me!” – Kristin Hersh

Yet the music still needs to be presented. “When it was time for Crooked to come out, I realised that that without those accompanying visuals (such as the packshot and the book’s artwork) it would make for a reduced effect. Music in itself is impactful, but those organic portraits of flowers bought home for me the idea of perfection and imperfection and organic and short lived lives. There’s a lot in that, and yet, it’s sort of lovely… it’s not trying to be edgy – flowers are goddamn pretty, you know? L Fletcher (the photographer who provides the images for Crooked) uses natural light, which reflects my production technique on this particular record. Everything sounds like soundcheck, not even a live show. A little small or loose… almost pathetic, because fragility is important to remember.”

This natural feel runs throughout Crooked, giving it a live atmosphere that is not dissimilar to old blues records – albums where the emotion and feel were more important that the production. “I couldn’t find the right sounds, the songs were sounding too polished, or too ‘in your face’. Both of those things are sounds that people go for but it wasn’t serving the songs. What it wanted was to be across the room, and loose. The only word for it is ‘room’. You hear that it happens in a real place, whereas that digital immediacy sounds false. These songs needed to be played emotionally. I played the drums over them, so there’s this Velvet Underground looseness to it that I didn’t have on Learn To Sing Like A Star. These songs wouldn’t take to that production, they just faltered under it.”

As a performer, Kristin has spoken often of being a conduit for songs, and as such she recognises the need to remove herself from them, or at least “make herself small”. When she describes exactly why she uses this approach, it makes total sense. “If you think about life, if you have a small world perspective… if you begin with yourself and family, with home and nature and soundtrack everything personal, then you’ve achieved the universal right there. If you start to think outside of that and try to incorporate a bigger picture version of success you’re going to lose sight of what’s timeless. You’re going to be trapped in the now, and then your now is not going to continue. The lessons are all learned from sensuality and immediacy and adoring a time, a person, or a place. They’re not going to be found trying to be bigger than you are. You hate to use words like important, but that’s really the only important thing. People think that being big is important, politics, business and success and money. Y’know” – she adopts that goofy voice again – “‘As long as they’re a lot of people watching then it must be important’. Whereas people should be tuning into their small lives to figure out what’s important.”

There are of course big moments in any life, and the song Crooked itself deals with the acupuncture treatment that Kristin had to treat bi-polar disorder, a condition that almost claimed her life. When she speaks about the song, her eyes become remarkably intense and focused, but the overwhelming sense is one of honesty and relief.

“I’m not good at the ‘this song is about’ stuff,” she says, “but I came very close to writing about acupuncture with the song Crooked but only because it was a valid place to do that. I definitely know how I got to that song, and it was this nutso experience with acupuncture where if I closed my eyes I knew my body was over here in a different position. Then I’d open my eyes and the meatbag I’m familiar with would be lying there, but I knew it wasn’t me anymore. Now they’ve moved together, so I’m in my outline. But when I was really suffering from bi-polar disorder I just wasn’t in here, I was next to it.”

“If you begin with yourself and family, with home and nature and soundtrack everything personal, then you’ve achieved the universal right there.”
– Kristin Hersh

Some bi-polar sufferers fear that in achieving a cure, or by seeking some kind of respite from the condition, all creativity might be lost. When Kristin speaks about her condition it seems such concerns were never given much thought. “I never believed that the creativity was behind it. I’ve been having this argument for 20 years. I just didn’t want to believe there was any validity to the idea that a mind would have to be broken in order to make sense. Beauty has to make sense, and it has to make sense to other people. And those people should be healthy, and you should be healthy… but I definitely had to learn to separate the music from the bi-polar disorder. Bi-polar introduces glaring light and dark shadows, and now I think that was getting in the way of the music. I think there were plenty of songs that could have spoken their piece with out the glaring light or the dark shadow – depending on where I was. I was pretty good at only writing songs when I wasn’t at either end of the spectrum, but still I was always somewhere out of balance. Now I think, for example the Crooked songs say exactly what they want to say. I didn’t colour them emotionally, I didn’t colour them psychologically and didn’t colour them with my producer hat trying to make up for anything. I got nothing to do with it – which is just perfect.”

Despite feeling better, and filling her outline for the first time in years, the music still comes to Kristin freely. When it comes to writing however, it would appear that words are a different matter entirely. The memoir, released as Rat Girl in the USA but to be titled Paradoxical Undressing here, was a much more arduous task. “It did not come straight through me. It took four years – and essentially it was already written because it was my diary,” Kristin explains in a voice pitched somewhere between frustration and relief. “I’d put the kids to bed and then write from 1am till dawn. It’s definitely a spacey place for your brain and in that sense, it was a little impressionistic – but nothing like songs. It worked for me; I was trying to remember some dead people’s voices and details that were lost. Trying to remember exactly what something was like 25 years ago, I kind of had to be up in the middle of the night. I loved it; I got really addicted to it.” She thinks for a moment, then laughs. “Now I wake up in the middle of the night and I think ‘Oh great! I can write the book! Oh shit, it’s done…'”

There is however, the possibility of another book, although Kristin accepts that it’ll be a while yet. She is, it seems, a little conflicted on the subject. “The first time I turned it in to Penguin my agent said ‘What’s the next book?'” She adopts an exasperated tone and continues, “That just took four years! I did like it, but still, it was very stressful. Every sentence has to be perfect, at least in my mind. The idea of another book just seems impossible. But yeah I’d love to write one. It’s been a lovely experience working with people who are highbrow; they don’t ask me to dumb it down like they do in the music business.”

As for the tour it is, as Kristin puts it, “not a normal tour”. Part of the reason for this is the book readings she’s been doing alongside the music. There is, it would seem, a distinct difference between the performances, not just in terms of delivery, but on an emotional level too.

“Fragility is important to remember.”
– Kristin Hersh

“The book doesn’t seem like me anymore because it happened 25 years ago. But whereas music lifts me up, the book pushes me down a little bit. It’s unfortunate for me to have to admit, but I did a month of readings at the Sydney Festival and at the Fringe, and it got harder and harder every night. I would just think ‘I don’t want to go there today, I already went – it’s done'”.

She thinks for a while and then continues, “I don’t know what to think about that; maybe I’m not really a writer, but I’m a songwriter… or maybe the book just went places I don’t need to go anymore and the next book won’t do that. I mean it is my teenage diary – you’re not supposed to read it in public! But it was good for me because I was ashamed of it until I wrote the book, and by writing it I realised ‘none of that was her fault really’. I thought it was this person that I had to hate, like a dark secret. This person that lived through that year was a shameful secret for me.”

And yet, despite being a secret, Kristin talks about her past with a honesty that is remarkable. If there’s any hate or shame involved, then it would appear to be long gone. “We were adorable, we were just goofballs,” she says of her formative years. “Everything had to be funny, and that’s OK. And then all this dark shit happened, and yet I never felt sorry for myself, because kids don’t. It was just ‘this is now’ and I actually thought ‘I should go now’. But I never thought ‘Oh woe is me, I have to kill myself’. It was like, ‘Oh alright, that’s the end of the story – time to go’. I had no problem with it. It’s a strange book that way and I didn’t realise it until reviews started talking about it. In fact my editor at Penguin kept saying ‘But how did you feel about it? You have to say how you felt’. I said ‘I did, I didn’t feel anything.’ That’s how I felt about it. It’s kind of sad I had to write a book in order to feel better about it. But it helped.”

And with that the taxi driver turns up to take Kristin across to the Barbican for tonight’s show. Later on, she’ll run through classic songs such as Your Ghost and new material like the heartbreaking Flooding. Although the Kristin that wrote both those songs has changed dramatically over the years, there is still the same honesty and emotion to her performance. There’s nothing there but the music, and Kristin herself is utterly lost in it.

Stream Kristin Hersh’s Crooked in its entirety – and buy it – at The live album Cats & Mice, recorded in San Fransisco, is also available here along with her back catalogue. Kristin Hersh’s memoir Rat Girl/Paradoxical Undressing is published in August through Penguin.

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