A Muse in Herself Hersh

Kristin Hersh has always been the glowing centre of the Throwing Muses. The Muses were a vehicle for her songs, her energies and her ambitions. But the Hips and Makers CD was her first truly solo album and the tour, which reaches New Zealand later this month, is her first time out without a band. And this time she's playing theaters like Mercury and Paramount.

"It's such a different show, it's really quiet, it's just me and my guitar. And for the sake of those people that have to listen to every note to get it, I want it to be quiet. I've played a few rock clubs but I've made them put chair out, just because it demands another atmosphere. Not to be all hoity-toity about it, you just have to listen to it or you don't get your money's worth."

One way to get around the stage diving hasies, I guess.

"Well it takes so damn long to get out of their seats that the bouncers just push 'em right back." she laughs.

Is Hips and Makers a one off?

"No, I should be able to do another one while the Muses are working the next record. It only took two weeks to make Hips and Makers - so it's not too much time out of my schedule."

Two weeks?

"Well there wasn't all that much else to do, I mean listen to it! But the response has been great, I mean it's done better than any Muses album ever. It's so bizarre. And I'm not gonna bitch about it or anything but you know ten years of work and then something that takes two weeks gets all the glory. It's not really fair."

Hips and Makers has received a lot of attention, that's for sure, but's it deserved. Bare acoustic and beautiful, the album takes all sorts of lyrical and emotional risks for its audience and delivers songs which sound at times troubled and brooding, at other times sexy and tempting. All of which are powered along by that voice.
Two of the tracks on the album, 'The Letter' and 'Close Your Eyes' were written ten years ago when Kristin was 16 and at the height of her battle with Bipolar disorder. She says her writing style is completely different these days and it was important to her to record them. The rest of the album was the result of falling in love with the acoustic guitar, combined with all these idle hours on the last Muses tour.

"I didn't think about the at all, I just wanted to get them down. So I paid foe me and Billy (O'Connel , Kristin's manager and husband ) to go into a studio at night when the kids were asleep. The studio we have here in Portsmith is like a big horse stable. It's got this great new-agey, jazzy studio inside but it's just kinda limited because there are a bunch of horses walking around."
"We just paid for it so we could have the songs for ourselves and we gave the tape to special people like the boys in the band and my other manager. Then it got into some other hands and labels wanted to release it! And I thought urghhh, like someone wanted to publish your diary. So then we made a real record out of it. And we went back to the horse stable studio so it could have a similar atmosphere and treatment."

Eight months later and her debut solo album has thrown her into the eyes and ears of squillions of new fans.

"I don't enjoy the limelight thing, just because I'm so retarded about it. But I don't think It's something you can act all whimpy about. You can't act all Eddie Vedder-ish and say 'Aw ouch they all look at me, they're buying too many of my records' and be all whiney. And I do disagree with all the fashion shoot things that go along with it."

It seems every magazine photo shoot has made you a pin-up this time around. Mind you, it's your own fault, putting that fantastic photo with the CD notes.

"For a while it was like, 'oh well whatever', " she laughs, "You can take a good picture of anybody. I did a lot of naked shots, 'cos like I'm naked at least once a day, so it's not like I'm lying or anything,, but what I'm against is how they make you wear the trendy outfits and make you look all young and skinny."

But you are young and skinny.

"Yeah I am, but not everybody is. And it's not really a pretty way to be or anything, it's just one way to be. And I really disagree with pushing those images."

The last time I talked to Kristin she said she was self-conscious about her voice, that she wasn't a good singer and that her song told her voice what to do. Yet here's an album which relies on the beauty and power of that voice.

"I was surprised by the fact that the character in my voice had to be perfect so the performance could carry the song. Meaning that there couldn't be so much where I sounded crazy, but there had to be enough so it didn't sound like I was singing, capital 'S'. The voice is such a weird instrument. I don't think of myself as a singer, I think of myself as a guitarist that's where the songs come out and then I think 'Oh well, singing now'."
"I do work at it and it is hard work but that doesn't mean it's my main job. I'm always surprised at what happens and what I can and can't do. I think the voice should come across naturally and completely honest. And honest is not the natural state, honest is so real that you can see everything and none of us want to see everything, most people don't hardly want to see anything at all. So I had to be, well, pretty drunk I guess."

Drunk?! You don't sound drunk!

"That's what Lenny's (Kaye, the album's producer) job was because the record sounds pretty much just like the demos. His job was just to supply me with my favorite beer the whole time and calculate so I could have exactly the right amount of alcohol in my bloodstream when it came to doing the particular tracks."

Kristin rarely puts other people on her songs since her half-sister Tanya Donnelly left Throwing Muses to form Belly. The two occasions that she has used other vocalists have been magical but it's always Kristin in control. Bob Mould appeared on the song 'Dio' on the last Muses album, replacing the sound of guitar. And on her first solo single, 'Your Ghost', REM's Michael Stipe donates his warbles.

"I didn't even know I was going to put Michael on 'Your Ghost'. He was one of the few people that got one of the original demos and he would just call and see how things were going. I had some problems miking the cello because the fake cello sounded so great on the demos and the real cello just sounded ... weird. And I couldn't walk in and say to Jane(Scarpantoni, the albums cellist) 'Boy, sure sounds funny don't it?' Michael was about the only person who'd worked with Jane and who knew the songs. I can't remember where he told me to mike it, but all I heard was Michael's voice in one ear and they were playing 'Your Ghost' in the control room, so that was in the other ear, and it just sounded so great. So I asked him to sing on it." "I wasn't going to release it as a single at first because I thought it would be really tacky. Because it's not just Michael to everyone else, he's this famous guy. But it's so representative of the album, so simple and I thought 'what the hell I'll use it anyway'. And plus(up bubbles that infectious laugh) I would do anything - I'll do naked photo shoots remember. It's not like I'm tricking people into buying a lousy record, I'm tricking them into buying a good one."

The recent import EP Strings is another essential addition to Kristin's solo collection. The four song CD has a version of 'A Loon' , 'Sundrops', 'Me and My Charms' and the mouthwatering 'Velvet Days' backed by, you guessed it, a string section.

"It was Chris at 4AD's idea. I think it had been a grander idea at first, like 'with the philharmonic' and I thought no, no noooo. So it's the work of some people that my cellist in England (Martin McCarrick from Siouxie and the Banshees) knew. I wasn't at the session, they just sent the tapes over to me and I sang over them and it was a really bizarre thing to do. It sounded beautiful but I couldn't figure out what they were playing, They were my notes alright, but my chords are so strange that if you mix them up in a different way or a different pattern they're really hard to follow. And string instruments are often played without much attack, in the guitar and drum sense, and attack is what is where the beat is for me so I wasn't too sure when to sing. I think it came out really beautiful though. I would've censored the whole thing if I thought it sounded goofy or melodramatic. But it's really touching and seems to make the angry parts seem gentle and a lot of happy parts sad."

Fans of the Throwing Muses needn't worry about the band splitting up. They haven't. In fact their new album, University, is waiting in the wings as we speak.

"The Muses went in immediately after I'd finished Hips and Makers. We were working down in New Orleans from July through Christmas day. Then the album got pushed back because Hips and Makers was being treated like a real record, which was a surprise for me." "It's so good," she laughs(Kristin laughs a lot), "I really love it. It's a power trio like Red Heaven, but it's sweetly produced in a very organic way. We had the time to stay in New Orleans and make up sounds and pay close attention to every song. They're very groovy songs and at the same time they're kooky when they wanna be..."

University should be released later on this year. But in the meantime Kristin is living her acoustic life quite comfortably. Is this the direction you're going to move towards in the future? Say ten years from now?

"When I'm old," she yells in this mock John Wayne voice, "is that what you're trying to say?"

Well old-er, you know, in the distant future.

"I would like to continue this, but the band feels like home to me. I would hate to see myself trying to rock out if that wasn't my bent anymore. But I don't think I would try that hard. The band really turns me on, so I don't see that stopping."

Written by John Taite for Rip It Up
Thanks to wall@physics.otago.ac.nz (Andrew Wall) for sending me the article.
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