The 'Puls' Kristin Hersh Interview

From Jon Kvebaek.

Note: This interview was published in the Norwegian music magazine 'Puls' #3 -- 21st Jan 1994, and I have (done my best) to translate it from Norwegian to English. It should be pointed out that both Kristin's grammar and English knowledge hopefully are far better than mine...let's just hope I did not make a total mess out of this ;)


London (Puls): Through the years many people have come to know the American band Throwing Muses and not to mention KRISTIN HERSH. The 30th of January she will release her first solo album, the acoustic 'Hips and Makers', an album you can look forward to! We are talking about a musical milestone. As a taster from the album the single 'Your Ghost' has been released, with Michael Stipe from REM doing background vocals.

'Hips and makers' is an acoustic album. Only the word acoustic will surely make many squirm, and Kristin was probably the one who least of all thought she would make an acoustic album.

it myself. Many years ago, Billy, my husband, talked about how important it was to be able to be on stage, alone, and manage to get the attention of the crowd, to create a moment and keep the intensity. I didn't think that I ever could, or for that sake _wanted_ that. I am too shy, I do not have enough ego. I really wish I had. I could need it.

record with only my name on, 'Kristin Hersh'! It was the same with an acoustic album. Whom, me? _Never_! But to make enough money to get married, I actually did an acoustic tour. I was surprised and impressed at how important the audience is. It's almost like comedy-club. A joke is not funny until the audience laughs. In the same way, an acoustic performance is never really 'present' until the audience give you response. It was fantastic to experience this response. Since then I have always respected acoustic music.

Acoustically inexact

'Hips And Makers' was recorded in an old, rebuilt stable on Rhode Island. This was the first time Kristin didn't have a particular 'working routine', so one of the difficulties was to find the right way to work.

beat, and this was the first time since I was 16 that I got 'The Red Button Syndrome'. When you are in studio and press the 'record' button, you increase the tempo more and more. I couldn't understand why, but it was clear that all my songs became faster towards the end. But as soon as I got rid of the unconscious search for the beat, the acoustic music gave me an incredibly beautiful and floating feeling. There is no sense of time, and there's this incredible _space_ in the music. Since the music is acoustic, it feels inexact, the voice is 'inexact', the cello is 'inexact'. Everything melts together in a kind of fragile state of balance.

Putting on vocals was an almost impossible task, she further explains. She had to stop all the time, start over again and try to learn the different counts to be able to get back in again at the right places.

things totally right, it did not matter. In a way it's like playing live. People know what 'acoustic' contains. They know that the voice belong to a person, and we tried to use as few buttons as possible.

It was not necessary to introduce 'artificial' sound effects either. The room was full of sounds, and they tried to use those rather than making new ones.

dogs in the studio, horses of course -- and everyone has contributed to the final result. It almost turned out as a 'farmhouse-sound effect' album. So the barn sounds you hear are real. In spite of that, I knew all the time that it would not sound like folk music. Actually, I never knew what it was going to sound like.

'Your Ghost' is a perfect introduction to the album. The refrain "I think last night/you were driving circles/around me" swirls and swirls in my head as I leave to meet Kristin. She's in London on a short visit before going back to New Orleans, at present Throwing Muses' base where they are working on their new album.

Makers'. It only took me two weeks, and I haven't taken the time to go back and actually listen to it. I love it, but I didn't know what I was doing. I do not even know now. I only knew that this was something I had to do. Without planning it, the album itself became a fantastic little planet, another world.

A large part of the atmosphere in Kristin's music; the passion, vulnerability, self-defiance and the earlier alienation of her own femininity, give associations to artists like Patti Smith. It's well-founded that it's Lenny Kaye from the former Patti Smith band that produced the album. But even though the album is dark, melancholic and burns into your skin, 'Hips And Makers' is not just a trip into paranoia. We find wonderful jewels like 'velvet Days' and the title track 'Hips And Makers'.

to keep me from drinking" (Hips And Makers)

"Cuckoo" is a strange old folk tune her father used to sing for her when she was a little girl. There's lots of warmth, emotions and love in the music, but also longing, exposure and vulnerability. It's an album about love, but not in the traditional romantic sense. The music is like a black hole, It eats into your soul where it swirls around and around and around..."I think last night/You were making circles/Around me"...Kristin's voice is touching lonely, bare and soar, but with the cello there is an incredible depth in the music.

a cello sounds like. You're used to hearing all these fake cellos with that beautiful, deep sound. I guess I thought that cellos were like an antique Italian cello that played high, screeching and rusty low tones that almost scared me to death the first time I heard it. It was just like my voice! All the cello sequences I had written were fighting against my voice all the time. Michael (Stipe) called me to check how things were the day the cello arrived. I just had to tell him the truth -- that I did not know what to do with it. It scared me to death. When he called we had just tried a low D. The tone just hung vibrating way down there. "DDDDDD!", she says and demonstrates.

scaring sound. I sat there, pulling my hair. Michael just said:"Oh, it's scaring you, the low D? That's my favorite note". And I shouted:"Yes, it scares me!" He suggested that I should move the microphone a bit back, and that really helped.

With or without cello, there is an icy scurrying in Kristin's voice that occasionally breaks through and creates bizarre pictures. At the end of 'Beestung', a song about the cold, frozen isolation of winter she sings with a childish voice: "It's not too late, it's not too late", and one critic imagined the picture where you hold your lover in your arms and caress him with one hand while holding a blood-stained knife in the other.

The pain in the songs is not put on, and occasionally you find yourself wondering exactly _how_ painful it is for Kristin to sing songs like 'The Letter'. The pain can be almost claustrophobic, and Polly Harvey is deeply in debt to Kristin when it comes to that. When Kristin sings "Stop! You ruined my memory" on "Close Your Eyes", and continues with "I can't breathe", her voice almost gives up. The frustration in the songs provides an even deeper meaning when you know that Kristin has been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder, a schizophrenic-like state. Kristin started her musical career 10 years ago, at the age of 16. It was during that time she wrote 'The Letter', a song about desperation, death, frustration and bitterness, a prayer for sanity. It's written like a letter, dated the 29th of September, 1984, and ends in a typical, naive teenage fashion:

take the guitar and strike the first chords, it brings back too many painful things. I really do not remember much from this period. You know what it's like when you are on the edge and use too much drugs. All the memories become blurred and everything seems distorted.

Kristin had never planned to involve Michael Stipe. She had not really planned to involve anyone at all.

paying attention to what Michael said at all. I just heard his voice in one of my ears, and "Your Ghost" being played in the studio in the other. Suddenly I knew what could save the song. "Michael, would you sing on this song? I think it would save it." He wanted to, and he really saved it. He has a unbelievably beautiful, deep voice at the same time as it whines in high tones. It flies around. I had already tried to save the depth in the song with a low thundering drum, a big marching drum that sometimes roars out below it all. It sounded very experimental - until Michael sang. His voice balanced all these fragments from the drum and the cello at the same time as it introduced a certain _character_ into the song. I've been singing with a lot of different people, and their voices turns into instruments. With Michael, it's like having a person walking into the studio. I do not know how he does it, but it sounds great.

Kristin has gotten the name 'Rock's greatest housewife'. When she performed at 4AD's 13 year itch, she told as many baby-stories as rock-stories, and it's this spontaneous and warm openness that makes the audience appreciate her so much.

The audience seemed sooo cool and reserved. They stood slightly leaned back and applauded controlled and measured to the bands that played before me. My God, I thought. How will this turn out? But I was greeted with a colossal warmth. It was as if we knew each other. It was like playing in someone's living room:"Hi, how are the kids?"

Kristin has two children, aged 2 and 7.

year old has another father, and lives with him. It's better that way, because he is at school. They're much more flexible when they're younger. You can bring them with you everywhere. Suddenly having kids at school and make lunch for them every day was the greatest change in my life. What a mom I am, Kristin laughs, and adds:

no idea what I should feed him. He cannot live on pizza and toast.

Throwing Muses are at present working on their new album in New Orleans. It was recorded this summer at Daniel Lanois's studio in Esplanade Avenue, where Dylan recorded his "Oh Mercy" album. After Tanya left Throwing Muses, they have stayed a trio.

years old. Since Belly is doing so well now, I'd half expected that the all the interviews would be about her and our relations as sisters, but luckily, they have not. But it's fantastically fun that they are doing so well.

Red heaven from 1992 was an experiment in stripping the music down, as much as the new album is an experiment on building it up again. Kristin says that the new album is more 'produced' than their earlier work. The album's working title is 'University'. Besides Kristin and David Narcizo, they have a newcomer in the band, bass player Bernard George. They are working on 30 different songs, but Kristin promises that it will not be a double album.

We really do not live anywhere, because we are traveling so much. We are used to having it that way, and we like to travel around. We always live in good places, and we use 'homely' studios.

Kristin is very enthusiastic before the new Throwing Muses album, and even though she is planning a solo tour in February, she assures that the solo album will not have any effect on the Muses.

meant for me only. They are not band songs. Acoustic songs are more delicate, and need a certain spontaneity or directness that you can't have in a band. A band will play on above this directness, and you would have to create it in other ways. The acoustic songs can be very incredibly sensitive and locked up, and the energy springs to life at once. I like it both ways. They fill each other out in a special way.

The studio they are using now is in the French part of New Orleans.

one week there for concerts. The summer in New Orleans is tough. The place is swarming with drunk tourists, and it's incredibly hot and moist. Everything melts. The clothes are always wet, you can't use make-up. But now around Xmas it's fantastic there, lots of lights, horse carriages and so on. New Orleans is a really scaring place too. I believe that New Orleans is more dangerous than the worst places in Los Angeles. Neither LA or New York feels dangerous, but New Orleans really does.

As protection they've just got a dog, Curl, even if he's not very good at protecting. He's just a puppy, 5 months old, but big already, almost like a small horse. Kristin proudly shows us. He looks like some sort of overgrown greyhound, she thinks, silver-colored and with deep blue eyes.

does not know of, he runs away. He's got a stainless steel bowl, but he doesn't dare drinking out of it, because he sees his reflection each time and becomes scared. And on the streets of New Orleans, where you could need some protection, he acts like a complete coward. If he sees a dog the size of a mouse, he whines and wants to go home. Kristin laughs helplessly.


Kristin Hersh was interviewed by Martha Strand.

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