One evening in February 1994, I sat on the floor of the hall of my family home, shushing my parents and brothers while I awaited a call from Kristin Hersh in Chicago. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. I was new to interviewing. I was nearly a year in Hot Press by then but they don’t just unleash you. I’d met a fine young band called Swampshack, who supported A House in the SFX and evolved into Turn. I’d phoned Craig Walker of Power of Dreams, whose Immigrants, Emigrants and Me was a huge album in adolescence. I’d asked The Voodoo Queens whether you could have one song bemoaning supermodels and another venerating Keanu Reeves. That was about it.
Now Kristin was calling and I would hear the voice that I had been hearing non-stop for weeks as I’d absorbed her astonishing Hips and Makers. In my December 1994 review of the year, I would write that in the April Olympia show flagged here, she was “as entrancing as several very proficient hypnotists. Hips and Makers, too, is as gorgeous and graceful a record as there is. ‘Close your eyes’, she sings, and you do, with dreamy contentment.”
Having read this interview today for the first time in decades, I wasn’t sure whether to post it. The wafflings of one’s nineteen-year-old self are something you don’t necessarily want people, including possibly the interviewee, to see. I’m not keen on my obvious misunderstanding of the difference and overlap between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But when I re-read the piece, I remembered that this is where Kristin said a few things that I never forgot that were important to my musical development. They’re down below in her voice but essentially there were three.
She taught me about the physicality of acoustic music and the visceral connection that there can be between the musician’s instruments and the listener’s gut and heart. That drama and melodrama in music were and are different and critically important to distinguish between. And to be careful about twinning mental illness with art, or, as Kristin said, twinning madness and creativity, in a way that music writers and all kinds of psychiatric and cultural commentators had done and continue to do, mostly in error if well-intentioned.
Addendum: the headline of this piece in HP was Hersh Words. I wanted the above. Finally.
IT’S A chilly yet picturesque snowy February afternoon in Chicago, Illinois, and Kristin Hersh is, to very nearly cop a phrase from Nirvana, bored and cold. “I thought Chicago people would be used to it,” she sighs. “I thought it snowed all the time here, but no-one’s going to work and all my promo stuff got cancelled (laughs). It’s beautiful, I wanna be out in it, but they’re all hiding. So I gotta stay here and talk to you.”
Thank you Kristin, I’m touched. Actually, I am—if not touched, then more than a tad awestruck and quite, quite unable to eat—because, as you can imagine, it’s not every Friday evening (GMT) that the brains and heart behind some of America’s most singular rock music ever, and she who in creating the essential album of early 1994 (faint praise indeed) has possibly perfected the art of transferring words and music of paralysing beauty onto little round shiny things, rings you in your own home to shoot the breeze for half an hour. Even if she’d rather be pegging snowballs at buses.
Hips and Makers is an acoustic, organic epic, and it is Kristin Hersh’s first solo album. (For the benefit of Mr R.V. Winkle of Sleepy Hollow, who just rang in to ask, she has spent the last decade as the linchpin of Throwing Muses, the Boston band whose records, from Throwing Muses in 1986 to Red Heaven in 1992, have all, in their time, led many among us to believe that we had just taken up residence in Superlative City, Arizona, and whose next album has already been recorded in Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio, home to Dylan’s Oh Mercy among others, for release in early ‘95).
Throwing Muses have always been Kristin’s baby alone; even when her half-sister Tanya Donelly was guitarist, she only had one or two songs per album. Now that Tanya has loped off to give it some welly with Belly, the word ‘autocracy’ is possibly understating the case. Kristin Hersh is Throwing Muses. So the obvious opener is: why isn’t Hips and Makers a Muses album?
Kristin laughs, a little mysteriously. “It’s the acoustic sound itself, the sound of the guitar, the cello, the piano, no percussion. I like all of the dimensions that acoustic sounds have, that you can hear the pieces of the instrument because of the muscles playing them and the air the sound needs to travel; you can hear the shape of the room—I recorded in a stable, so it had natural reverb—and those kinds of sounds, I think, invite these intimate kind of songs.”
Consequently, the temporary break with the band is the result of a search for musical, rather than lyrical freedom. “I came to respect the sound,” she affirms. “I thought acoustic music was real wimpy, that it was for people who couldn’t play guitars, who just had, like, poetry and politics. I didn’t think I would ever find myself doing anything more than token acoustic songs on Muses records.
“But as soon as I came to really respect the physicality of the instruments, all these songs just happened, and I didn’t control what they sounded like, I just let them come, pretty much out of the guitar itself. There was no real thought process,” she insists, “I just never really found myself hearing a rhythm section on Hips and Makers material.”
While this is all well, good and perfectly reasonable, it sometimes seems that the themes of the songs are such that only an album recorded alone could ever have done them real, uncompromising justice. So, it could be said that Hips and Makers is the Anti-’Side Project’. While most extracurricular activities by members of acclaimed bands with long, illustrious track records are an excuse to get rat-arsed in a studio with some celeb chums and foist the fruits off on a gormlessly trusting public without lowering the tone of the all-hallowed back catalogue (see: Hindu Love Gods), this album seems to have been done solo because only Kristin has any kind of access to the obsessive, volatile, deeply loving side of herself that is brought out so forcefully on it.
The track that perhaps most arrestingly backs this up is ‘The Letter’, written ten years ago, when she was approaching her late teens and was what you might call a wreck. Many teenagers are miserable and a fair whack of them write narcissistic, self-pitying Smiths pastiches about how time-consuming the Leaving Cert is or how rarely it happens that beautiful people they’ve never had the guts to talk to swear solemn oaths to be theirs eternally, but ‘The Letter’ is different. It’s not difficult to see why she couldn’t give it a home till now. It’s real. It hurts. It’s fucking hard going.
“It is,” Kristin concurs. “I almost didn’t put it on the record for that reason, because I thought all the other songs were so . . . so sweet and positive and mystifying to me. That song is not actually written very well; it’s honest, that’s where its charm lies. And it’s also very beautiful, and very scary as well! (“Gather me up because I’m lost / Or I’m back where I started from / Crawling on the floor, rolling on the ground / I’m gonna cry / You look for me / Love Kristin, PS keep them coming.”)
“At the time,” she continues, “I had been told that I was schizophrenic, and I was on heavy duty drugs, and I’m living in an apartment called ‘The Doghouse’. It was a letter to someone, I’m sure, but I don’t remember who. It was reality to me, it wasn’t a metaphor at all. I never would have done that song again except for the song ‘Hips and Makers’ which says that you’re supposed to take the ride, you know, over the course of a lifetime or an album or a thought. You’re supposed to go everywhere and you only see how high the highs are because you know how low the lows are.”
Her reputation as some kind of wild-eyed prophetess of doom has been garnered by the writing of songs such as this. That and the publicity photos, which almost invariably show her gliding to victory in a do-or-die battle to out-frozen-stare the camera lens, and the common knowledge that she suffers with bipolar disorder, a disease resembling schizophrenia, which, while it takes her to emotional extremes that most other people can’t imagine and most definitely can’t sing about, hasn’t, she says, helped her creatively: “I don’t like the idea that madness and creativity are connected, because my experience with it is that it’s a sickness, that it’s ugly, it’s humiliating and it’s not where your body’s supposed to be. I don’t write well when I’m losing it, I write well when I’m clean and healthy enough not to be self-involved.”
It’s a misconception that can easily be cleared up by even the most cursory listen to ‘Beestung’, ‘Hips and Makers’ or the gentle, jaunty coda to ‘A Loon’, with its swoonful sentiments, “Never thought I’d see that silly grin / Never thought I’d see that fool again / Never thought I’d love that lunatic”, sung like someone on a top secret divine mission to charm the birds, or quite possibly the wood, from the trees.
And it’s not an image she’s entirely happy with: “I have a lot of respect for those dark places, but I don’t like to be identified with them because I’m not limited to them, and there’s a lot of melodrama in music today that colours the real drama in a bad way. But it would be hypocritical of me to say what I say in Hips and Makers and then only show the perky pictures.”
Kristin Hersh songs are, their composer readily agrees, more intense than yer average ditty: “But they’re not negative,” she stresses, drawing a distinction between seriousness and mournfulness that rarely, if ever, occurs to most songwriters or critics. “Everything that you feel is hot, and hard! (laughs) Whether it feels good or not, it’s still the truth and it comes from feeling, which is a good thing. I don’t think any of these feelings are negative; to be spitting angry at somebody, it’s telling them that they have the power to draw all of your force out of you! And to be serious, and serious about something like love, which deserves gravity—it’s not sad, certainly, it’s not even that serious, it’s just being real with it.”
In ‘Your Ghost’, the first single taken from Hips and Makers, Kristin rings a dead friend so as to ‘let (his/her) house ring’, then slides down the telephone wire until she reaches his/her number and they have some form of spectral rendezvous; it’s fairly oblique and, ooh, seventeen shades of wonderful. It’s the one Michael Stipe sings on. So, with the sole purpose of transforming my esteemed colleague Lorraine Freeney from her normal state as a generally mild-mannered (and of course immensely talented) staff writer to her alter ego, the most insanely jealous (but still talented) person in the whole universe, I asked Kristin to reveal a little about her good friend Mike, the man who will one day (oh yes!) father the next generation of startlingly attractive Freeneys, tee hee hee, evil cackle. (you’re gonna regret this—L.F.)
So, Kristin, was he fun to work with? “Yeah,” comes the inevitable prelude to the genuinely affectionate masterclass in gushing that follows. “He’s great. He’s an angel. He’s just… Good. Capital G. He’s the rock star that we need, I think. He’s real open to everything. I’m not, I hate everything (laughs). But Michael is really trusting and he loves all these different artistic mediums, he’s a little modern Renaissance rock star! He’s actually doing a movie right now. He’s all over the place, he’s real busy and he knows everybody. It makes me tired to think about it!”
Admiring and all as she is of Mr Fucking Perfect (as I like to call him), she doesn’t aspire to his level of success, at least not for its own sake. As she quite sensibly explains, “I’m happy the way I am, definitely, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me really. I want people to listen to good music instead of bad music. If it’s other people’s good music then that’s fine with me too, but there just isn’t very much good music around. So I am driven to sell this stuff, because it’s good. So far, I’m not very good at being famous so it doesn’t, you know, ring true with me. I don’t understand that drive. But I do want to sell this record, so if that’s what I have to do…”
One of the many remarkable things about Hips and Makers is that it is selling, having reached No.7 in Britain in its week of release, to the delight of both Kristin and 4AD: “Yeah, it’s doing well. I didn’t know if anyone would ever listen to it. I thought it was too little for that. It’s like distilled crystal or something.”
Even the bar-dwellers in the Olympia will be silenced when she plays her first Irish concert on April 2nd. (Tanya Donelly, of course, lit up Sunstroke for forty-five minutes or so last June.) It’s purely acoustic, featuring only Kristin and her cellist friend, Martin McCarrick (not Jane Scarpantoni, the REM collaborator who handled string section duties on the album). Although she has done acoustic showcases in New York, London and Los Angeles and has performed many a live set for many a hopeless DJ on many a piddling American local radio station, this is the first full tour without the comforting crutch of a rhythm section and some easily accessible swathes of bloody loud guitar.
The set will chill, it will move, it will split the audience fifty-fifty into gleeful grinners and stock-still sobbers. We will enjoy the experience, Kristin Hersh won’t. “It’s hard,” she says. “I’m shy, I’m not a performer. I still have to take my contacts out so that I don’t see anyone!” The thought of a thousand pairs of eyes and ears transfixed upon her and her slightest uttering doesn’t do anything for the obviously undernourished Hersh ego. It’s a job, a chore, she says: “I’m resigned to it, actually. If I thought about it anymore it might bug me so DON’T TALK ABOUT IT ANYMORE!” she laughs.
Suitably chastened, I ask whether, after Belly’s cleaning up in the outdoor arena last summer, Féile or any other festival is likely to be graced by her presence this coming silly season: “I’m thinking not,” she replies. “It’s not really a festival set! But the band might, we’ll see.”
And at first that makes perfect sense. Festivals are for the anthems of loud, uncouth youth, not the fragile hymns of Kristin Hersh. But dig, if you will, this picture; Sunday night, the Final Féile, the headliners are off to bed, all is quiet. Except, that is, for a quiet, shy woman nearing thirty and her considerably younger acoustic guitar, a single bright white spotlight, and the delicately pealing songs of innocence and experience that make up Hips and Makers leaking out of the speakers to send The Kids off to sleep in a slightly more serene stoned stupor. I, for one, would pay to see that.
For now, though, we’ll have to settle for the album and the show in the Olympia, which I can confidently predict will not be forgotten. I, for one, am counting the hours.