Monday, January 05, 2009
Self-described goofball and Throwing Muses front-woman KRISTIN HERSH explains how she is an involuntary disciple to the religion of songwriting and how songs are like syringes. ANDY HAZEL pulls up a pew and finds a vein.
With decades at the helm of one of America’s most consistently surprising and edgy indie-rock bands Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh has had more twists and turns to her career than most. Now in Australia for the first time in over a decade the woman who in 1997 said her band couldn’t tour due to the costs involved has, amidst economic turmoil, travelled to our distant shores…“Because someone asked us to and paid for it,” says Hersh before a peal of infectious laughter chortles down the line from outside a New York venue, subway rattling in the distance. “We’re always willing to tour and since I extricated myself from my record companies I can take opportunities like this when they come, including the opportunity to give music away, which we’ve been doing via cashmusic.org. It’s very liberating, it’s actually embarrassing how different it feels to not have to talk to someone else in the company or wait for someone else to talk to someone else in the company or in radio and all that garbage that makes you so self-conscious as a musician and that really never belonged in the music industry. We’re not asking for the world, we’re just asking for enough, and so far we’ve gotten it. The music industry is only a few decades old and again music is just in the ether for the taking.”
Clearly a woman of no small drive, Hersh is still perhaps most famous for her 1994 Michael Stipe collaboration Your Ghost but there is much more to this lady. Much much more.
Besides her role as a mother of four and a Throwing Muse Hersh also fronts side project 50 Foot Wave who recorded and released five albums in two years, and continues to release solo albums at a rate that would sober Mark E Smith. When looking for a cause for this level of output that Hersh herself admits is unusually high, the answers are neither easy to come by nor digest.
“I feel wholly unresponsible for the music I play and am often very confused by it,” she says thoughtfully. “But that’s what makes it my religion; it’s mysterious and it’s horrible and it’s enchanting and it’s confusing. I have to get into this state to write and I think that’s why the songs are so complicated. I have to be fully engaged in order to lose myself and I think as a nice person I shouldn’t have to be doing this at all. Singing engages me, my hand and my gut and my throat are all busting their collective ass and they make me disappear and I have to disappear or the song isn’t there.” While admitting that ‘there’s no way to say that without sounding like a goofball,’ this does seem to be her only way of writing in order to lead a functional life, a battle few other musicians seem to have to face.
“I think this is how you write good songs – is it obnoxious to say that?” she laughs heartily. “I think you can write a bad song to get your feelings out as a catharsis with psycho-garbage or vitriol and then you feel better and that’s valid as an exercise, but that’s not going to create a song that people who aren’t like you can relate to. I might write songs for white women if I did that and that would be a crime. You have to go beyond your personality - beneath your personality. I should be writing songs that anyone of any gender, size, shape, race, age or persuasion can relate to. A basic human connection is a perfect way to bury your soul, because you can’t be embarrassed; it’s a soul, it’s what we all share.”
Commonly to be found on tour Hersh has amassed around her a family and entourage she admits is ‘one big love in’. At the core of her nomadic lifestyle are the songs that started it all – many older songs that will feature in the Melbourne concert, and some newer ones will be surfacing on a forthcoming album to be recorded early this year.
Is it hard being so creative and prolific then? “It’s not hard, it’s just disturbing,” Hersh quietly intones. “All I have to do is copy a song down, but it’s unsettling to say the least. It’s been happening for 20-odd years and I still think it’s the neighbours playing records. It’s heartbreaking when my husband says ‘no babe, you gotta get up.’ Because I’m so sure that this time I’m gonna be like everybody else; not hearing things that they don’t hear. It’s also my religion so I have no right to bitch about it actually; it’s magic that’s all. I just didn’t want any magic,” she says laughing.
Live Hersh balances these compulsions with her lightness of touch and ability to act as a conduit for the song, and it’s live that Hersh seems most at ease with her songs. “What a song does is it works as a hypodermic syringe,” she explains carefully. “It injects the chemistry of a certain point in your life and you have to bounce around with the song and all of its syringes and react as you did in that first moment. The song will make it’s point using that collage of experience and feeling so that you’re right there for every single moment, every sweaty action that the song sends you into, every thrall and tragedy until you are completely wrung out.”
“I feel like what I do is more like science than art,” she says brightening. “I’m in my lab experimenting. If you have a sponsor they are interested in the results turning out one way or another. If you have people who are interested in hearing the truth, they don’t even care about the costs involved, they just want to hear the work. I was always amazed that anybody would come to a show, and I’m still amazed. It’s hard – you gotta get out of work, come to the show, find a parking space, pay a lot of money for overpriced beer, it’s hot or it’s cold - I’m still impressed that even after all of that graft people will stand there and do their work. It’s easy for me, I know where the songs are and what need it’s doing, they have to trust me and take the ride or they’re not getting their money’s worth. You can feel it in the room when everyone is doing their work.” Who’s in?