The Throwing Muses icon on the ‘trippiness’ of new 50 Foot Wave release Black Pearl, the dynamics of her different musical outlets, label experiences and the frustration of being misrepresented
It seems incredible to think that Kristin Hersh is into her fifth decade as a musician. She may still be primarily associated by many with Thowing Muses, the band she started with her stepsister Tanya Donelly in the early 1980s, but since then she has steadily released albums either under the Throwing Muses name or as a solo artist (2016’s Wyatt At The Coyote Palace and 2018’s Possible Dust Clouds being two fine, recent examples of that).
She’s also formed a second band in this time, namely 50 Foot Wave, and their second album Black Pearl was released on Fire Records earlier this year. What’s clear is that even after all these years she’s still pursuing a defiantly singular path, refining and expanding her sound while also upholding some classic Kristin Hersh musical hallmarks along the way.
We catch up with her backstage at the Garage in London before she plays a show under the Kristin Hersh Electric Trio name. It’s a show where she dips into several periods of her musical career with thrilling effect, and comes towards the start of an epic UK tour that takes in several locations not on the traditional touring circuit. “We have a very industrious booking agent in the UK. We go to other countries and just play a few shows but in the UK we play everywhere!” she laughs (something she’ll do throughout our conversation). The fact that she is returning to play some acoustic solo shows this month just goes to prove the extent to which she’s an energetic, versatile performer still clearly driven by the creative possibilities afforded by music (the last time she was in London was for a show as part of Robert Smith’s Meltdown in 2018).
“50 Foot Wave was supposed to be our party band. Throwing Muses is a name for whatever we want it to be” – Kristin Hersh
Black Pearl is named after the neighbourhood in New Orleans where Hersh has lived for the last decade and where she wrote the songs that appear on the album. “I wrote it during the pandemic. We actually toured with the Pixies right up until the pandemic hit. We played in Chicago on Valentine’s Day 2020 and I’m sure I actually had covid then, but no one knew what it really was at that point.
“I ended up getting long covid. I’m a very hardy person, I never usually catch anything but there were times when I had it where I couldn’t walk. But I eventually got to work on this album, that was one positive to come out of it. New Orleans is a very rich place, not as in wealthy but rich in experience, beauty and culture. It’s an island in America so it doesn’t feel like America. If you get music I think you get New Orleans.”
She goes on to describe the album. “It’s such a trippy piece of music,” she begins. Hearing her describe the album in this way comes as something of a surprise. I say that I found it an enjoyably intense, heavy and abrasive listen. “Good!” she responds enthusiastically. “For me it’s a very ‘low’ sounding album. It was written on baritone guitar. There’s a peacefulness to it that I was having trouble associating with 50 Foot Wave songs. The vocals just wouldn’t work loud. As an album it’s not so fast and that made me question what is power when it’s not loud or fast? It was something else. I know it’s got heavy guitar, I’m familiar with that, and I knew what Rob (Ahlers) would be doing on drums. It sounds somehow edited and there’s these different pieces to it that are all over the place. When I tried to lay the vocals down it felt like my 50 Foot Wave voice wasn’t working. What I realised was I wanted it to sound like you’re waking up on someone’s floor. And that’s something I’ve done a lot as a DIY musician! Maybe not always on the actual floor but definitely on couches! I felt it needed to almost have the power of weakness. It’s not without power, I mean it’s not simmering, it’s not tired, it just has this quiet power. The whole album has this new voice that had to be reflected in every track.”
As part of Throwing Muses her albums were released on labels like 4AD and Sire (an offshoot of Warners) but she was soon to grow dissatisfied of life on a major label and embraced releasing albums herself, occasionally via crowdfunded means. “I’ve never actually put out a 50 Foot Wave record on vinyl before. It’s always been more of a DIY project in the past, we made CDs to just sell on the road. It was an experiment on what a working cooperative of artists could be, from the musicians to the videographers to the engineers. We were all volunteering our time and seeing what would happen if you took the dollar sign out of music. That meant no record companies. Becoming listener-supported changed that, so we could pay the engineers and we didn’t have to live on the road anymore. We can now earmark funds for production, distribution and promotion. However, if someone as cool as Fire Records come along and want to facilitate stuff that is not manipulative then that’s obviously great.”
How has her journey from labels like 4AD and Sire to a crowdfunded model, then back to a label like Fire been? It feels like she has still been able to retain independence/control. Is she happy where she’s landed? “I was waiting for the paradigm to shift. I did it DIY for all that time to try to parse the elements of this problem which I think is very damaging. A culture without music because they only have the facsimile is like a culture dying through eating only at McDonald’s because they don’t know what an apple tree is. That sounds very pure and pretentious but it’s also pretty simple. Things will change again, hopefully the landscape will open up a bit.”
Hearing Hersh talk of being a DIY musician leads on to further discussions about the music industry, a topic about which she clearly still holds strong views (and also something she elaborated on when we interviewed her in 2010). “I always say the same thing – everybody should play their own music. When we misapprehend musical literacy as image, the image of the person playing, which I think shouldn’t have anything to do with it, we begin to monetise that. Popular culture is a pseudo culture which is actually an economy. Major labels are looking to monetise this idea that someone would play music that could work for others, so you start with this flat plain where everyone plays their own music but maybe someone is exceptionally qualified to create a soundtrack that others can relate to then you would turn attention to that person. So they have bought this idea of image, they have taken that and turned it into fashion and manipulation. Payola is just the beginning. Back in the ’90s, our record company took our single off the radio because the payola was for another band. The DJs would call us and say ‘do you know what Warner Brothers are doing’? That’s when you start to try to take it apart. Why do they all assume I’m a lesbian? I’m married with four children.” Later she reveals how they’re all supportive of her music, and how she played with her eldest son at SXSW earlier this year.
She becomes more animated as she continues. “Why do they call me crazy? Why are they preventing me from working. At that point, I start to see a lot of sexism. My political views have remained exactly the same. You see it elaborately played out as the ego clasping at its last hope. I honestly think it’s so inflammatory right now. People are realising that being shallow isn’t going to carry them anywhere. It might give them money and attention but then some day you’ll die and you won’t be able to take it with you.”
“I always say the same thing – everybody should play their own music” – Kristin Hersh
The press release spoke about how 50 Foot Wave is “an outlet for the material deemed too weird or wild for Throwing Muses”. Is there a different dynamic at play with 50 Foot Wave to her other bands? “I think of Throwing Muses as pretty weird but in a different way maybe,” she suggests. “50 Foot Wave was supposed to be our party band. Throwing Muses is a name for whatever we want it to be. My initial confusion about Black Pearl was that I had compartmentalised music. I had ideas on each format – so solo records would mean a certain thing and Throwing Muses would mean something else as would 50 Foot Wave. If you only have one band you have to let it do anything it wants. But things are always changing so now my solo records are louder than the 50 Foot Wave albums!” she laughs.
She has been prolific over recent years. Is she always working on music? Does she ever take time off? “I have to stop focusing on music sometimes and write books instead,” she counters. Sshe has already had seven published, and reveals she has three more in progress right now. “They are all memoirs to a degree, so I get up at two in the morning and that helps me remember everything I need to. It is life that informs music and life is the ultimate art form. They say write about what you know, but if you don’t know anything then don’t fucking write! Songs are like that to the nth degree. If you find yourself getting overly into self expression, write a diary and throw it away and then the songs will come.”
And come, they still do. The new 50 Foot Wave album has many of these that show her to be still full of ideas and energy. As the interview ends, we leave to allow her to prepare for the gig, secure in the knowledge that Kristin Hersh remains a principled, idealistic, experienced and humorous voice succeeding on her own terms in a changing, challenging world.
Kristin Hersh performs at 2.30pm at the London Indie Label Market on 16 July 2022, and will be signing some records at the Fire Records stall. She plays an acoustic set at London’s Lexington on 19 July. 50 Foot Wave’s album Black Pearl is out now through Fire. Tour dates and further information can be found at kristinhersh.com