Kristin Hersh has a very definite memory of Galway, not the year, but of an experience of the city. “I played a festival here,” she recalls. “There were Japanese drummers, I was watching them at the Spanish Arch, with the sun setting. They were like trapeze artists, but without the trapeze. That’s my Galway.”
It’s a good memory, as life for a touring musician often means, “usually you remember the food you had, ‘We had Thai food here!’”. Kristin also appreciates Irish audiences: “We love it here. People are so literate, funny, and warm.”
In a more than 30 year career, Kristin Hersh has won acclaim, admiration, and a devoted following as leader of the iconic US indie/alternative-rock band Throwing Muses, a solo artist of note, leader of alt.rock trio 50FOOTWAVE, and the author of a number of books, including the 2010 autobiography Rat Girl and last year’s Vic Chestnutt memoir, Don’t Suck Don’t Die.
Kristin was in Galway last week, where she played spellbinding show at the Róisín Dubh, and ahead of that magical performance, took time to talk to me about her life and latest projects.
Although Kristin grew up in the Southern States - she recalls listening to folk music during her childhood (“All those songs are about killing and drinking” ) - she is most associated with Boston. “It’s where Throwing Muses were signed,” she says, “but we were only there about six months.” Today, the mother of four sons lives on Aquidneck Island, off Rhode Island. “I don’t really like cities,” she says. “I have to get away from them sometimes. It’s also a good place to bring up the kids. They can surf there, and do loads of stuff.”
Rabbitts, coyotes, and a floating soul
Family and music are the twin pillars of Kristin’s life, and both heavily inform her roles as parent and creative. Before our interview proper beings, she shows me a YouTube trailer for her new children’s book, Toby Snax. A story about a little rabbit and his mother, it was inspired by her youngest son Bo, who missed her when she was away on tour. “It’s a book about learning not to be afraid, learning to be brave. It’s about trying new things," Kristin says.
The book was self-published in 2007 (“I drew myself as a much sexier rabbit then I am,” she jokes ) but became popular in nursery schools and will be republished by the University of Texas Press. “Parents said it had an amazing effect on kids,” Kristin tells me. “UTP heard about it and decided to pick it up.”
In what has already been a prolific year for a prolific artist (a new 50FOOTWAVE EP came out during the summer ), October saw the release of her 10th solo album, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace. A double album of 24 songs, it was written over a five year period, during which her son Wyatt (now 19 ), became fascinated by an abandoned building that was home to a pack of coyotes.
“I bring the kids to the studio, but usually they get bored or fall asleep, especially when I play my distorted guitar - it was the first thing they heard in utero, because when I was pregnant and recording I’d be standing next to my amp,” Kristin recalls, “but Wyatt wandered instead, and found the ‘coyote palace’. The coyotes were living among teapots, sleeping on mattresses. Coyote’s don’t usually live in such style.”
Wyatt visited the building often and sometimes filmed the animals there. His mother recalls how he was “flushed with excitement, his eyes would be shining” every time he went there. However, Wyatt’s interest came to an abrupt end. “He just stopped going,” Kristin says, “and the thing is, a week later, the roof of the building caved in.”
Wyatt is autistic, and I ask Kristin about the challenges and the rewards of raising a child on the autism spectrum. “I don’t feel I have been challenged as I have watched Wyatt work so hard,” she says. “I’m privileged to be in the presence of a mind like that, a floating soul with a huge heart. He struggles, and so of course I do to, but I won’t admit it, as I know how much humanity is in that one little boy.”
Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is not just an album, it is also a book of song lyrics, prose pieces and memoir. As well as being an outstanding songwriter, Kristin is a natural author, blessed with a lyrical, poetic, prose. While the album had a long gestation, the book was written quickly.
“It was inspired by a conversation that took place between New Orleans and New York. A friend noticed how all the stories involved some form of almost dying," she says. "In the song ‘Bubble Net’ I say, ‘there is no tomorrow’. I don’t think that’s a downer, what if there is no pressure anymore? I am here and here is amazing. I’ve been hospitalised twice and kept death back both times. You can’t take yourself seriously, but you have to take life seriously. It tends to need more respect than we give it.”
With digital consumption and streaming so dominant, does Kristin believe artists have to be more imaginative on how they present albums to the public, and is the album/book combination her response to this?
“I’ve two opposing things I think about that,” she says. “The first is, yes, we need to be more imaginative. The second is, music is made in garages and basements. It’s ephemeral and disappears in a moment, which makes that moment mean so much more. It’s the stuff in the middle I don’t like, the people making the money off the plastic.”
Kristin has long experience of dealing with record industry types, from her days on the Warner Brothers label. “People think they can file off other people’s rough edges,” she says, “but listeners are more idiosyncratic in their leanings than they are given credit for. Throwing Muses had a song out but we were told it was ‘shelf space’. It was not the one they were going to be promoting. We were getting calls from radio stations saying people loved the song, but the label told them to take it off the playlists as that wasn’t the one they were trying to break.”
That track was 1994’s ‘Bright Yellow Gun’ - one her most famous and acclaimed songs.
That experience did, however, lead to Kristin’s debut solo album, Hips and Makers. “I bought us out of our contract by doing my first solo album,” she said. It seems a strange origin for an album so deeply cherished by alternative music fans. “It wasn’t about that for me,” she says. “It was only about that for them, the record company. I still love that album and I loved touring it.”
'It’s neo-natal right now'
While Kristin is open about Wyatt’s autism, she is equally open about her own struggles. Following a cycling accident in her teens she suffered from double concussion, but was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, then bipolar disorder. Later, her eldest son was kidnapped when he was only three years old leading to post traumatic stress.
“It wasn’t actually mental illness,” she says. “It was a coping mechanism. I relied on an alternative reality and that was music. I felt like it was another person who was actually writing my songs. When you listen to the music, you can hear what she has a been through. I remember when I was on tour with Howe Gelb I had a liver infection and I couldn’t take stuff without crying out. I had to be lifted onto the stage, and as soon as I got there, the pain went and I could play, but as soon as the show was over the pain returned and I had to be carried off stage again."
Happily, Kristin recently underwent Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, which has allowed her to be cured - she uses the term “integration” to explain how she now feels. She understands now that what she now went through was a dissociative disorder. She admits she has no idea how this will impact on her songwriting, but says “when I pick up a guitar I’ll know how the song goes”.
Proof of this is the latest music project she is currently at work on. Given that 2016 has already seen the new 50FOOTWAVE EP, and the new solo album, can we take it a new Throwing Muses album is in the works? “Yes,” Kristin declares, “we’re in the studio right now. I don’t think it is the insanity I have been releasing lately. It’s neo-natal right now. The music is hypnotic and deconstructed, a balance of diochotomy. Dave Narcizo, our drummer, calls it neo-surf. I think it’s the best thing we have done - I don’t always say that.”