By Juan Toledo
She is, without doubt, a genuine doyenne of the alternative rock scene on both sides of the Atlantic. An uncompromising song writer, poet, critically acclaimed author and mother. She is a truly renaissance artist in more sense than one. Soon she will be touring the UK with a new album under her belt and very kindly has agreed to give an exclusive interview to Perro Negro
Right now you are releasing a new album -Black Pearl- with one of your bands, 50 Foot Wave, touring the US and in April and May you will be in the UK and then in continental Europe. You are busy and it is a fairly extensive tour. Are you always this busy and does the tour’s length have something to do with being the first «post-Pandemic-tour»? How does it feel to be playing to live audiences in times of Omicron?
I played in Chicago on Valentines Day, moments before the lockdown, so I pushed it as far as I could! After that, I was in the studio with 50 Foot Wave, recording Black Pearl, which was named after the neighborhood in New Orleans where I spent the pandemic and wrote these songs. Throwing Muses released Sun Racket in the interim, and had three tours canceled, so, as you say: touring with a vengeance now. After the UK and European runs, we do US runs again. A little daunting and pretty exhausting, but it’s the only source of income for musicians who work outside of the industry. And it’s lovely to be tasked with making a hover-body of music in a room with listeners who show up with their bodies and hold it up together with us.
In the futile attempt of trying to describe you as an artist, How fair is to say that you are a nomadic rock goddess and poet? How much would you accept that definition knowing that you also have two other important «jobs» as a well known writer and as a mother?
Hahaha…you’re very kind. I actually majored in immunology and had to choose between a recording contract and a scholarship to study medicine when I was a teenager. I have often wondered if I made the wrong choice, but I think music allowed me to be more about health and nature than medicine would have, ironically. I like to break rules! Music helps me keep a healthy and natural orientation, as do the children. Kids are like little Buddhist bells of focus, reminding you that we’re a part of nature, that we aren’t here to control it.
When songs are written with this orientation, they are as visceral and enthusiastic as children. I’ll always love pure science as much as I love pure music, but I may have more to offer in the musical sphere. Finding that this aesthetic impulse drives me to maintain my humility, I felt it was OK to venture into books.
Wasn’t my idea, but Penguin wanted a memoir and that was a nice learning experience in artful values: the effort to clear a work of cleverness and ego and leave the storyline clean, in the hope that it could help others.
You are one of the most iconic figures of alt-rock on both sides of the Atlantic but you are also one of the most prolific and most longevous without almost any hiatus as a performer or recording artist. I would like to put it to you that your longevity is in great part the result of remaining fiercely independent all these years. Bands personally close to you like Pixies and REM are already gone or have had long periods of inactivity. Would you associate your own longevity and prolificity with your struggle and stubbornness against being manipulated by the music industry?
What a lovely idea, I like that. At fourteen, I knew that the recording industry was not for me, so my band played and recorded locally and was about invention. Our sonic vocabulary was only our own, like a musical language, and I felt no pull to an industry which was clearly about fashion instead of substance and musical invention. But I had bandmates to support and the record labels presented us with opportunities like recording and touring that I felt obligated to take them up on.
It is so very clear that a musical failure is the successful product they’re looking for and fashion serves to inject planned obsolescence into the equation to make more money: what is in now will be out tomorrow.
The message, though, was clear: women who don’t play the game receive no promotion and their records aren’t sent to stores, their songs are not worked to radio and magazine articles and covers aren’t bought for them. “Playing the game” is similar to a child pornography ring: you must be underweight and made up, you must fashion and flirt, you must play product instead of actual music, etc. They want you to dress up like a musician and play “commercial music” which isn’t music; it’s just a commercial.
I refused to do that to women and I refused to do that to music, so I was held personally responsible for the band’s debt to Warner Brothers when our records didn’t sell enough to cover the cost of making them. When I asked Warner Brothers to please sell our records, they refused unless I gave them “something to work with” meaning the sexist ugliness I just described, but they wouldn’t let me out of my contract.
I fought for years and finally they agreed to take my first solo record in exchange for my freedom. I have never made a penny from this (or any other) record. Of course there are thousands of women willing to objectify themselves for this fame and money “win” and I don’t know that I helped anyone by standing up for what I believed, but at least I wasn’t part of the problem, and my four sons are beautiful feminist thinkers who respect me.
In a world where authenticity is constantly manufactured and fake, what is the biggest obstacle for you and other musicians to be truly authentic. And what is the price? One has the impression that Kurt Cobain achieved it but didn’t know how to disassociate it from global stardom.
Wow, excellent question. We’d have to reinstate our original musical impulses to understand the problem, I think; meaning, the visceral response to sound we are all born with, which is twisted by marketing. Songs were not intended to be a business or to attract attention to those who played them unless the audience was actively listening.
A song wasn’t something anyone owned until fairly recently; it was a spiritual endeavor, a human connection. We hear moments of those inspired “pieces” (we catch pieces of that musical river as it flows by) in people like Kurt, but big money believes that prayer should be televangelism and that muddies the water. A true songwriter feels the disconnect, whether they work in the business or not, whether they succeed or fail. It is so very clear that a musical failure is the successful product they’re looking for and fashion serves to inject planned obsolescence into the equation to make more money: what is in now will be out tomorrow.
It takes guts to strive for musical quality in a sphere which denigrates it. The industry knows that if it faced a musically literate population, marketing could no longer tell people what moves them. Listeners would know what moves them: depth and quality, not fashion and flirting. This removes status (fame) and evens the playing field with humanity. Imagine trying to disappear the concept of rock star. It’s all I’ve ever fought for and they hate that idea.
You have mentioned on various occasions how songs come to you fully formed or almost fully formed. You have also referred to that middle sonic ground where your songs incorporate the white noise of existence. As a listener I can hear it and I appreciate that very much in your music but what about the lyrics? They remain cryptic, intimate, candid but also raw and defiant. Would you care to describe your own personal process for writing lyrics? Where do they come from and how much do you labour or not when writing them?
Thank you so much for listening so carefully. I’m on a plane right now, flying back from LA where I’m working on my second lyric book with a small team of bookmakers and artists. It might sound precious, but having experienced lyrics as the aspect of a song I have the least say in, it’s fascinating to see them on the page working as poetry. I know that a lie will stick in your throat, so I’m familiar with the sound of vocalists who are trying to fool you or impress you, and I know the words they use to lie are not lyrics, but I wasn’t sure how the visual component would play out. I hear lyrics as one of the instruments in the band: phonetic melody. I like to be a little blind to their power, a little deaf to their meaning. They look pretty on the page when they’re true, and when they sound good spilling out of your mouth, as it turns out!
I have to tell the truth or I shouldn’t be working, and it should be a truth I have lived that isn’t specific to me: seems impossible! Until you let go and spew words that don’t reduce experience to conversational English, but bring their own dream magnitude to what communication is.
Lyrics bypass the reductive quality of egoic words to limit and look away from what is here. Lyrics are a dog, a bottle of gin, a stab wound and a bouquet of flowers; they’re what happens when the material plane fights back. And honestly?
They should make you happy. Happy isn’t dumb; not the real kind of happiness. Even darker or melancholy stories can lend you the peace of knowing you aren’t alone.
You are one of the very few musicians capable of balancing a critically acclaimed prose with a very distinctive songwriting style. In fact the two seem to have become more and more entangled as time goes by. Is it easier nowadays for you to write books? How do the two processes -writing songs and books- differ from one to another?
I think they’re the same! But prose is more difficult, because you can’t step back and let the whole work hit you at once the way you can with your hands pressed against wood, playing a guitar, or standing in front of the speakers in the control room of a recording studio. But aesthetics are aesthetics are aesthetics, you know? And while I can be linguistically facile, I’d rather explore the potential of this new language which is every page and every song: using the sweaty vibrations of words, turning every syllable into an experience, sort of a combination modifier verb.
Hahaha. Sounds so pretentious when I put it that way. Until you let go and spew words that don’t reduce experience to conversational English, but bring their own dream magnitude to what communication is.
Talking about books and their intersection with music there is your celebrated biography of the late Vic Chesnutt –Don’t Suck, Don’t Die– and it occurs to me that your music could also be seen as an attempt to map out stories associated with individuals who are somewhat left behind by the system. Those who are marginalised by illness or poverty or both, particularly in a country like America where success is repeated as a religious mantra. Would you care to comment on that?
It’s all about the character actors, isn’t it? If any ego thinks it’s a leading man or lady, they’re headed for a fall. No soul would incorporate just to try to attract attention. Bodies have unique fingerprints and souls are here to make the most of that. When you are dealing with an economy instead of a culture, though, all we have are the money-making facsimiles of body plus soul and what’s rewarded is usually ego. What’s marginalized is the special: the unique, the “broken,” the poor, the child, the animal, the low status, the feminine, the dark, the true.
I have no interest in the gloss that gets the benefit of the bought-and-paid-for spotlight because it’s exceedingly boring and goofy. It’d be embarrassing if they were embarrassed, but the emperor’s usually proud of his new clothes! It’s so much funnier down here with the real, so sensuously engaging. Full of cool people and dreamy moments. Hard, I guess? Meaning not comfortable. But who the hell would trade real life for anything else?
I hear lyrics as one of the instruments in the band: phonetic melody. I like to be a little blind to their power, a little deaf to their meaning.
The hippie movement – a sort of twentieth century American Romantic movement- always emphasised the value of subjective experience. Rock music ran along with that idea and turned the ego into the essential source of musical creativity. Your work seems to be the negation of that idea. A sort of egoless melody where the work of art subordinates the individual and not the other way round. How much does the music you produce «belongs» to you or do you see yourself more as conduit for it?
If you begin with the system you’re custodian of, the best you can do is see how porous we all are. Music doesn’t happen unless you’re shot through with holes but safe enough to turn all your senses on. And, of course, we’re just spinning atoms with space between them, so you are shot through with holes. I sound like a hippie already, hahahaha.
My point being that there’s an opportunity in there—in the individual orientation—to sock away some valuable stories and share. A performance then wouldn’t be showing off but ripping off your skin and getting down to the bones and heart and guts we all share. I like shame for this reason; it kills the ego with an instant fail and then the shame disappears when the ego leaves the room. So I’ve lived all of these stories but I also gather moments of conversation and ideation that aren’t only mine. The world is out there and we’re experiencing it, in other words. Cerebral wouldn’t play well in a song unless it’s breathing…you know, truly inspired. And small world/big picture is a nice place for a life or a song to end up.
Your music has always presented the contrast between acoustic tunes and howling, dirty electric guitar riffs not too dissimilar from heavy metal bands, right from Hook in Her Head from The Real Ramona album. In fact the Staring Into the Sun intro, from your forthcoming album, sounds very much like the heaviest Black Sabbath. This contrast is almost a form of circularity in your music, a constant light and shadow mix. Are you the vicar’s daughter in the village who ran away with the Hell Angels’ biker carrying your acoustic guitar on your back? How do you explain those perennial contrasts?
Hahahaha…that’s awesome. I think I’m the snake handler auto mechanic who’s never gonna leave the village. For some reason, I haven’t ever been able to stomach a partial truth in a song. Musical relativism, I guess, but harsh needs sweet and clouds need sun.
Could you explain to our readers the financial model you have adopted which has allowed you to be a truly independent recording artist?
I knew what I was giving up when I left the industry but I had no choice: I couldn’t put a personal win over my own convictions. I didn’t yet have a plan though, which would have been a much better way to go about it!
DIY was a fascinating experiment in removing the dollar sign from the musician/listener relationship. Giving recorded music away and living on the road, working with the cooperative that is 50 Foot Wave. And also the look and feel of a band like Throwing Muses, who only records some of the material we play, only releasing some of that. Meaning that it isn’t about attention but…this may sound goofy, but practice, process, prayer, I dunno. Music, I guess.
Becoming listener-supported through the Strange Angels program begun with an Art vs. Commerce essay years ago has meant that my output is not diminished by releasing it. The industry will not allow quality but the listeners demand it. I’m crying just talking about it; you have no idea what it means to me to know that the human heart is alive and well; that some people don’t want a prostitute to come on to them while her pimp steals their wallet; that some people don’t want to be lied to. Imagine how many kids could learn instruments and bring us true beauty if we allowed it. What a world that’d be.
Do you realise you are now immortal? Your music and your books will be listened to, read and commented on well after you are gone. And maybe, just maybe, you are The Goya of rock music, whose best work and final recognition is still to come later in life. Did you envisage immortality back in the mid 1980s when you started? What advice would you give to the 18-year old Kristin who just had a baby, an accident and started a rock band?
Awwwww…I haven’t changed much. I’m still just trying to jump in an ocean, any ocean. Hiding underwater is the definition of art, of love, of being to me. Don’t think I’m here for much else.
Kristin Hersh new album, with 50 Feet Wave, Black Pearl is out On Fire Records on 15th April. To pre-order the album click here. And from 20th April she will be touring the UK and mainland Europe. For dates, tickets and how to support Kristin’ musical projects visit her website
All images courtesy of Kristin Hersh. Main image: Kristin Hersh at Reading Festival. Second image 50th Foot Wave: Bernard Georges (bass guitar), Kristin Hersh (guitar & vocals) and Robe Ahlers (percussion).