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Words & pictures by Adam Hammond

“I’m not a creative person,” protests Kristin Hersh. It’s a mantra she repeats as she chats to journalist and Membranes’ frontman John Robb at the Louder Than Words Literary Festival on 12th November.

It’s a statement that raises some eyebrows. As an artist with nineteen albums behind her (not forgetting numerous mini albums and EPs, two books, a children’s book, three CD/book combinations and a recent dip into the world of scriptwriting) it could be considered an arch attempt at self deprecation. Indeed, from any other artist of her stature the comment would be laughable.
Yet, for Kristin Hersh this is a simple statement of truth; her career is something that has just happened to her as she has battled through life, often struggling to stay upright, and much of it has come about painfully against her will. The singer has no memory of writing a large portion of her songs and though the listener can have no doubt these works have originated from the soul of an outrageously talented individual, Kristin has not the slightest realisation she is one of the supreme artists of the age, responsible for one of the most astonishing and impressive bodies of work any musician has produced.
Her story is a startling one and it grips an audience who, in the main, are unaware of her traumatic past. She is at Manchester’s Principal Hotel to promote her new CD/book Wyatt At The Coyote Palace, but begins at the beginning, explaining how a car accident in her early teenage years led to a double concussion and the beginning of “auditory hallucinations” where she would hear songs that would torment her until she was forced to learn them and give them life. It is why she has no memory of her writing and why she feels she cannot take any credit for being creative.

“It’s not in my head. It sounds like someone’s playing some of my records outside. They would play louder and louder until I learned them and they made me really sick. They would sometimes tumble over each other. It wasn’t a neat process. They would give me breaks but I never knew when they were coming. I have no romance for what I did. I thought it was a punishment. I don’t think I wrote a single song on purpose.

“My job was always to disappear. I heard lyrics as well as music, yeah, but not as communication but as phonetic melody. If I tried to write it down they are all misspelled. The songs take my life pictures and arrange them. I would never have arranged my stories that way. I did believe in the songs, though. They seemed substantive and they did seem to resonate with a certain kind of person. They weren’t for everyone but I thought if they were for those people then I had to publish them.”
It has taken many years, but now Kristin has been integrated with her songs, coming to the realisation that she had “an alternate personality which was music, every song I’d ever written.” For the last two years she has been able to present both sides of her personality at the same time, leaving her largely in control. The twenty-four songs on Wyatt At The Coyote Palace date back some five years, a traumatic period in her life, and though she may not have had a grip on all of the songs she certainly had control of the accompanying book. “I hope it’s me writing the book. Now I’ve been integrated, everything should be me. You can’t really write a book by mistake. I am more visceral, the books are more like the songs. There is a certain amount of communication in a book that you can’t avoid.”
It’s a pretty thing, laid out by old mate and fellow-Muse David Narcizo, and containing the lyrics of the songs, a smattering of Kristin’s photographs and snippets of text, largely tales dwelling on how the singer has narrowly managed to avoid death for another day, tales which are absolutely true and not a little worrying. The songs that accompany it fill two CDs and range from relatively straightforward, touching ballads to more powerful protests, chopping and changing in classic Hersh style, many decorated with experimental layers of sound which are a complete delight. Kristin has worked this album completely, playing every instrument and creating every sound. “I play all the instruments because it’s the sound of having no friends, I guess. I don’t wanna have to boss anybody around in the studio. I know what I want to hear.”
She concludes the interview by playing three songs. Strangely none of these are from the new album but there are fierce versions of ‘Krait’ and ‘Mississippi Kate’ from 2010’s Crooked and ‘Sunray Venus’ from 2013’s Throwing Muses album Purgatory/Paradise. Before she starts the last song Kristin utters the immortal words, “Is there toilet paper on my books?” the story of which is far less interesting than the exclamation itself.
Job done and John introduces me to Kristin backstage. It’s the first time I’ve met the person who has been such an almighty presence in my life and she is utterly charming. We have a photo taken before Kristin heads off to sign copies of her book downstairs. She has time for everybody, smiles and chats, poses for pictures, and I talk with her publishers who are delighted with how the tour is going and how it is driving sales of the CD and book. The first pressing of 6,500 (2,000 of which went to the USA) has been almost exhausted and a repressing has been ordered. It’s brilliant to hear; Kristin has a loyal audience but her music is reaching beyond their boundaries. Just maybe there is hope for the world.
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Kristin Hersh barged into my life on 6th September 1986. A music obsessive and compulsive record buyer since the age of eight, I had become a devotee of 4AD in the early eighties and was worrying the label was falling from the untouchable heights it had reached in 1983. At that time I was still buying all of the label’s releases as soon as they appeared in the shops and Throwing Muses was no exception. (It will never be Untitled to me.) I played it once and it immediately became my favourite album of all time. It still is my favourite album of all time.
If a record could have been fashioned from the essence of my soul it would have sounded exactly like Throwing Muses. The music instantly ripped me open, played with my insides, pushed them back in and sewed me up crooked. It didn’t even take the whole album. ‘Call Me’, ‘Green’, ‘Hate My Way’…. I was lost. The contrast between Tanya’s tarnished optimism and Kristin’s exposed nerves only served to illuminate the desperate beauty trying to hide away in the dense shadows of these songs. Power and weakness, flickers of fire in blackened embers, raging torrents of pain, confusion and despair crashing over a tremulous, faint hope. Naked humanity.
“Are you serious? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who liked the first album instantly. That’s amazing. Maybe you should talk me through it. I’m so impressed.”
I meet Kristin backstage on Sunday a couple of hours before she is due to play a sold out show at Gorilla in Manchester. She looks great, and it’s clear that though the intense tour she is halfway through is tiring it doesn’t appear to be wearing her down. We are talking about audiences, a subject she touched upon more than once at Louder Than Words.
“Some people really connect and the people who do really deeply connect. They are as obsessed with this stuff as I am. I think it says more about them than me or the music. There are people who are willing to let someone else’s soundtrack resonate in their lives. It says so much about the listener. I feel I’m not as sharp as the listeners. They know how to be tuning forks. I can’t help what I do but a tuning fork has such a clarity to it, such an expertise.
“I had to listen to the first album because Tea and I did some shows together and we were doing some old songs. It was the first time I could listen to it and I thought that I wasn’t flirting and I wasn’t lying. I’m not sure what I was doing. Those two things are basically what most people do in music: they flirt and they lie. At least I wasn’t doing that. It’s manipulative and dumbass, so I assume their music attracts manipulative dumbasses.”
Of course, it is the honesty that counts. It is the honesty that intensifies the emotion that bleeds from every note and every word. It underscores the empathy with a human soul battling against the horrors of a confusing world. Kristin understands the importance of honesty of expression, but at that time the songs left her blank.
“I never understood the songs. I had no memory of performing them. I know what they are about now because I have my memories back. Until two years ago I didn’t know what any of my songs were about. My husband would ask me what they were about. He couldn’t stop asking and I used to just guess because I was tired of saying I didn’t know. But I shouldn’t have said anything because I was wrong. I see them now as snapshots of my life and a lot of them told the future.”
How did it feel to be an artist, a performer, who had no knowledge of her songs? How did it feel to be a composer who had no control over her compositions? To live life as a conduit and not an instigator?
“Oh, I didn’t care. I didn’t know anything about it. I really had no memory of performing, playing, writing. I remember between songs I would be there, checking out my pedals, looking at the set list and my bandmates, but while I was playing the songs I wasn’t really there. But now I do because I have the personalities ongoing, now I definitely know what the songs are about. But I wouldn’t reduce them to that. So many conversations went into them, snapshots, stories…”
Of course the songs are more than lyrics and more than music. In poetry words gain greater meaning than written words usually attain. Music has the same context but adds expression and texture and, done properly, unfathomable depth. Music resonates more than the written word ever could, so why add a book to an album?
“Yeah, the book is a complement. The piece is the music. The book is just …. here’s some of the gaps filled in. I just wrote because I was asked to. I don’t know that all of our records will come out as books. I feel the same way. I’m not a crier but music just shatters me. Music and kindness actually. They are the only two things that can make me cry.”
Coming back to Wyatt At The Coyote Palace, I’ve lived with these songs for three years as Spark Meets Gasoline (a work in progress collection of demos sent out to Kristin’s ‘Strange Angel’ backers). What I really loved about the finished record is that you’ve added textures to the music. You’ve experimented with sound in a way you don’t normally do.
“I do experiment with sound but in such subtle ways, by slowing instruments, by layering them, by breaking them and bringing them together. Using different Frankenstein instruments – anything that I haven’t heard before. But it’s subtle to other people. They listen to a song and they don’t really hear what I’ve done. If you have an ear I guess you would know. For most listeners a song just comes on. Which is fine.”
Which is not fine, of course. The experimentation in WATCP is enchanting and exciting. Do you think you could go further along this route with the next record and really deconstruct the sound? In the past, you’ve made a mockery of song structure but never the depth of sound. You’re quite traditional in your sound.
“That’s true, yeah. This next Muses record is more experimental with sound. It’s still guitars, but some of it sounds pretty crazy. We have a melted guitar that sounds great.”
Melted guitars, broken guitars, cracked amps … it’s all good.
“That’s what my son Wyatt says. It’s like it’s time to really deconstruct.”
The mere thought of it leaves me breathless.
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Kristin heads downstairs for her soundcheck. Gorilla is a proper old venue, grubbily familiar, the sort of place you have visited a hundred times and forgotten as many. Before the stage seats are manually wheeled out and set up. There’s two hundred and fifty of them and the gig sold out in an instant. Above our heads air conditioning units are strapped to scaffolding which is also interlaced with the occasional ancient fan which would serve little purpose in the heat of battle. Two incongruous silver glitter balls herald party time. They look lost.
Soundcheck over and Purgatory/Paradise begins to play over the PA as the seats fill up. Kristin takes to the stage which is largely bare and opens proceedings with ‘Bright’, the first track on the new album. “That’s a new song,” she states at its conclusion. “Right before I left home all my friends said ‘Just don’t play any new songs. People hate new songs.’ So if you are seething right now, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
Kristin must have paid some attention to her friends as she plays very little from Wyatt At The Coyote Hotel which is a shame as there is a wealth of treasure there. ‘Detox’ is her third number, ‘Between Piety And Desire’ her thirteenth. The only other time she touches base is to play ‘Shaky Blue Can’, the album’s saddest moment, where she even manages to play sad along to the heart-wrenching lyrics. It’s a song Kristin has struggled with. “I couldn’t even listen to that in the studio. I used to just have to leave when we were working on it. It was just too fucking miserable.” She manages to get through it this time, though she breaks a down a little at the beginning of ‘Mississippi Kite’ and it’s inspiring to see a singer so touched by her work and the memories it now inspires.
There are three Muses moments in the set: ‘Sunray Venus’, ‘You Cage’ (first encore) from 1987’s Fat Skier, and ‘City Of The Dead’, a track included on one of 1992’s Firepile EPs. It’s stripped down, stark and evocative and one of the evening’s most memorable moments. 50 Foot Wave get a look in with ‘Broke’, while familiar solo tracks include Sunny Border Blue‘s ‘Your Dirty Answer’ and ‘Summer Salt’; The Grotto’s ‘Sno Cat’; and Crooked’s ‘Krait’ and ‘Flooding’ which is the set’s closer. ‘Your Ghost’ and ‘The Cuckoo’ (second encore) from Hips and Makers, and two covers complete the programme. In between songs Kristin reads from the books that accompanied her last three albums and there are smiles as well as tears through the seventy-eight minutes she is on stage.
It’s always mesmerising to watch Kristin at work. When she gets lost in the music and begins her snake-charmer sway it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Members of the audience at Louder Than Words admitted to me they had not realised what a great guitarist she is, and I just nodded knowingly. She is a great player, yet again tonight it’s her voice that cuts through me, the voice that has sung to me for thirty years. When she stretches her vocals I fall to pieces inside. And I know I always will. And I know this is how music should be.
As I leave the venue, people are pulling on gloves and gathering their coats and hoods around them. It always rains in Manchester and it’s winter. Not for me. Believe it or not, in my short-sleeved shirt I don’t feel the cold or the rain as I have music playing in my head. I feel …. well, you know the rest.
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With thanks to Adam Hammond (on Twitter @adthedoor & Isolation Records