Kristin Hersh Interview: “It’s like a circle of gratitude”

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kristin hersh interview

Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is out now.

Kristin Hersh has never been one to shy away from the raw and personal. From her work with pioneering alternative rock band Throwing Muses, through her solo career, and more recent work with power trio 50FOOTWAVE, she has consistently crafted songs that are aural equivalent of blood letting. Her latest effort, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, is no exception. Funded by her extremely loyal fan base, the album is a hardcover book of essays combined with a 24 track double album that gets its name from the abandoned apartment building behind Kristin’s studio that her son Wyatt spent exploring during the recording sessions.

Ahead of her upcoming tour of the UK and Ireland, we got on the phone with Kristin to discuss her enduring audience, her love of field recordings, and how vulnerability is freeing.

O: Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is the third book/record combination that you’ve released. What attracts you to this format?

KH: A long time ago I realised that CDs were no longer valuable to myself or anyone else, regardless of the life changing potential of what was on them. The object itself was worthless. Even the upsurge of vinyl gave you something to hold in your hands, liner notes to read. People value that. I like the idea of it being a gift, either from the musician to the listener or from the listener to another listener.

Yet not everyone has a vinyl player. Book are still appreciated as a gift. Even if you hand someone a record, it’s kind of like saying, “adopt my religion”. It seems sleazy. It’s hard to make someone enthusiastic. It has to be their own discovery. A book is something someone can dive into and I can easily shove some CDs in there and hope they adopt my religion (laughs).

O: People expect to get music for free these days so the repackaging of music in a unique manner makes it more agreeable for people to invest in it both financially and with their time.

KH: It’s the time investment that I’m in it for. I started giving music away about ten years ago. I wanted to divest the process of the almighty dollar. So my band, 50FOOTWAVE, has always given its music away for free just in case there are people without money who need a soundtrack.

We find other ways to keep the product going. Which is often people buying ten CDs at a time. People who already own it. We’d say, “We don’t like CDs. What are you doing?” And they would say, “Oh well, Christmas is coming.” And we’d say, “No it’s April. Why are you doing this?”. To which they’d say, “You need gas money and I’m afraid you’re going to stop playing and I won’t have a soundtrack anymore!” That’s when I became listener supported. I am still humbled by the process, but that’s not a bad place to be. It’s like a circle of gratitude. They thank me for the music. I thank them for the opportunity to make it. It’s a closed, humble circle.

O: Is that where the CASH Music idea came from?

KH: Becoming listener supported means that not only am I never asked to suck anymore by a record company that wants easy radio play, I am actually asked not to suck. That’s so freeing for a musician. Imagine being a firefighter and your boss keeps coming in saying, “You’re putting out a lot of fires. Could you quit that?” Musicians love music and they want to honour it and they want to keep learning and to get better and take more chances. I was on Warner Bros. and it was not an implicit message it was an explicit message: “Dumb it down. Do fashion shoots. Give us a radio song.” I don’t have to do that anymore. That’s win/win.

O: I imagine they would not have been to happy about a 24 track double album that is attached to a book?

KH: No shit! That took five years to make (laughs)! Their bigger problem was that I made too much music. I can take five years to make a record, but I can also put out five records in a year. They kept saying I was saturating the market. But they weren’t really selling my records anyway. They told me I was a musician’s musician. So, they could say to bands whose records they did want to work, “We’ve Throwing Muses, you should sign with us. We have Kristin Hersh, so you should sign with us.”

They never lifted a finger to sell our records, so we were starving anyway. Radio would play our songs and Warner Bros. would ring the radio station and say, “Take that record off. We’re not working that one” (laughs). Then the DJs would call us and complain. So I bought myself off of Warner Bros. because I didn’t want to play any of that game. I thought maybe there’s an untapped market of people who actually do like music that we could find if we weren’t stuck with our hands tied.

O: I think that for bands to survive in the future it’s their core audience that will allow them to do that. If you have 100 people people who listen to you, you might have 10 mega fans. They’re the ones who will keep you going.

KH: Exactly. When we had radio songs, the audiences would change and ruin it for the real listeners. Some were just there to hear the single. They were frat boys and their dates. Those are not music listeners and they’re not going to be around next time. I mean, I sold a million records, it just took me a million years to do it. It means I can keep playing. If I had ever been ‘in’, I would be ‘out’ the next year. I wouldn’t want either of those things.

O: I saw on the album you use a lot of field recordings. What do use to record them? And where do you record them?

KH: My phone! I haven’t really left the touring cycle for years so I was in Australia recently and that’s where a lot of the striking sounds come from. I also live in New Orleans where you can hear accents and music and these screaming ducks called ‘Whistler Ducks’ from Texas. They would land in the park next to my house and start screaming for a season (laughs). They’re all over the record. It’s not whistling they do, it’s shrieking.

Then in the farmhouse in New England, where I lived just up the street from my studio, had geese flying overhead and a lot of feet crunching in the snow. Ocean sounds because it’s an island. My little boy holding a Coke bottle out the window, it had to be a Mexican Coke bottle or it doesn’t make the right sound (laughs). Holding it out the car window and driving it around until we get the rights notes. Oh, and the kid living next door practicing trumpet in his barn.

It was so beautiful and so necessary when I could no longer build the instruments I wanted to hear. I’d heard it all before and wanted to hear something new.You have to open the window, I guess. And start listening.

O: When you’re in Ireland you should do some recording. You’ll pick up some very interesting accents.

KH: (laughs) My island was settled by the Irish so it feels like home when I am there.

O: You played all the instruments on the album. Is that the way you normally operate when recording solo albums?

KH: It’s the sound of having no friends (laughs). It means I don’t have to boss anyone around. If you have a sound in your head it seems rude to push it into somebody else’s ears and expect it to come out right. I’m the one who gets all the shit in the studio.

O: You recorded the album with Steve Rizzo. What’s his role in the recording process?

KH: He’s my robot arms. I can’t do everything. We’ve been working together so long that I barely have to explain anything to him. The only time it gets complex is trying to score one of the pieces and talking through all of the changes because he’s not going to know all of the music. That’s the only time you’ll see him start to go nuts. He’s like, “Wait! Wait! Start over!”

O: Is it good to have some voice of reason there to say, “Wait a second”?

KH: No. I don’t want that. I just argue with him. When he tries to be reasonable I talk him out of it. It’s a wonderful studio. It’s an old ballroom, a Vanderbilt ballroom in a horse stable. You can hear horses on everything, although my field recordings might have blotted them out on this one. On almost all my records you can hear horses kicking the walls.

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O: Sounds like an interesting place. When you play in Cork, you’ll be playing in a former church.

KH: I love that. A lot of good music happens in churches and bars.

O: The video for ‘Soma Gone Slapstick’ was directed by Orrin Anderson. Where did the concept for the video come from?

KH: Orrin Anderson (laughs). I’m not real video centric. I can barely see I’m so interested in sound. I don’t even know what my friends look like. I’ll know where they work and how they are and memories we have together. But sometimes I’ll have to say, “Are you Mark?” (laughs). I had a friend lose 200 pounds and I didn’t notice. I’d like to think I’m not superficial, but I think I’m just stupid.

Anyway, I put it all in Orrin’s hands for the video. I stopped making videos when MTV was no longer anything I had to care about. Now I can make them again because of YouTube and I can make them good. I trust him. He made such a perfect balance of interesting visual elements and textures and yet hypnotic. He didn’t try to make a video, he just made something to play while the songs shown. I’m such a boring presence I may as well be typing. But you don’t want to do too much where you can’t even hear the song anymore.

O: What can people expect from the upcoming UK and Ireland tour?

KH: I think people have to go for the full production or the skeletal structure. Just your muscles and voice and the wood. It took me a little while to realise that it isn’t a dollars to decibels equation. Not everyone wants the bright colours of a painting that is a band. I’ve gone out with string sections and 50FOOTWAVE just made a ton of noise at people but it’s the songs they want to hear. I can appreciate that. That’s why I was born. I can’t do anything else so I might as well try to pull it out of a piece of wood.

O: Do you find it more vulnerable by yourself?

KH: Oh God yes! I’m so shy. I’d spent my whole life hiding behind my friends and my best friend: noise. Then I had a solo career thrust on me completely by accident. I had to learn to play with my contacts in and that stool they give if you are a female with an acoustic guitar. I’m supposed to climb on top of this and not fall down? And if you bump into the mic the audience can all hear it because it goes, “Boom!”

I did come to appreciate what it’s like to truly get lost without having to carry your band through the cues and making sure your solos are seventeen measures long. I can do anything I want. I can play anything I feel like. I can lose myself in the material without losing my band mates in the process.

O: More vulnerable but more freeing.

KH: Yep. There’s probably a good life lesson in there.

Kristin Hersh tour dates:

1 November 2016 – Dundalk, Ireland – Spirit Store – tickets
2 November 2016 – Dublin, Ireland – Pavillion Theatre – tickets
3 November 2016 – Cork, Ireland – Triskel Christchurch – tickets
4 November 2016 – Galway, Ireland – Roisin Dubh – tickets
5 November 2016 – Limerick, Ireland – Dolans Warehouse – tickets
7 November 2016 – Portsmouth, UK – Wedgewood Room – tickets
8 November 2016 – Bristol, UK – Lantern Theatre – SOLD OUT
9 November 2016 – Exeter, UK – Phoenix – tickets
10 November 2016 – Cardiff, UK – Clwb Ifor Bach – SOLD OUT
11 November 2016 – Aldershot, UK – West End Centre – SOLD OUT
12 November 2016 – Manchester, UK – Louder Than Words Festival – promo videotickets
13 November 2016 – Manchester, UK – Gorilla – SOLD OUT
14 November 2016 – Leeds, UK – Brudenell Social Club – tickets (added!)
15 November 2016 – Birmingham, UK – Glee Club – tickets (added!)
16 November 2016 – York, UK – Crescent – SOLD OUT
17 November 2016 – Edinburgh, UK – Summerhall
18 November 2016 – Glasgow, UK – Mackintosh Church – tickets (moved from Mono, all tickets will be honoured)
19 November 2016 – Liverpool, UK – Philharmonic Music Room – tickets
20 November 2016 – Hebden Bridge, UK – Trades Club – SOLD OUT
21 November 2016 – Norwich, UK – Norwich Arts Center – tickets
22 November 2016 – Brighton, UK – Komedia – tickets
23 November 2016 – London, UK – St John on Bethnal Green – tickets (added!)
24 November 2016 – London, UK – St John on Bethnal Green – SOLD OUT
25 November 2016 – Folkestone – Literary Festival – SOLD OUT

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