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Feminism, Lilith Fair, and “Rock Star Mom”: A Conversation with Rock Pioneer Kristin Hersh


Kristin Hersh stares. With a look of concentrated terror, clutching her guitar to her body and swaying to her own haunting and melodic music, one wonders if she is trying to look outward or inward, trying to protect or expose herself. For Kristin Hersh, it’s probably both.


Hersh started exploring her compulsive musical talents in 1982, when she formed the critically-hailed Throwing Muses, a band featuring her step-sister Tanya Donelly, who went on to do a stint with The Breeders before forming the Grammy-nominated Belly. Throwing Muses set the standards for independent rock in an era of big-hair Jersey bands and British glam-romance dance music. It was one of those bands that never received the chart success, fame, or money that serves to validate artistic power in the major label system, but every “alternative”/indie act from Nirvana to Ani DiFranco owe Hersh a musical and political debt. The truth is that if it wasn’t for the influence of Throwing Muses — and Kristin Hersh herself — the women of the Lilith Fair would still be singing in the shower.


Madly in love with the guitar, Hersh makes music that is sometimes loud, often gentle, and always indescribable. She writes about children, marriage, and the post-nuclear family, about schizophrenia, survival, and letting the songs speak their minds through her. Outwardly poised and peaceful, Hersh’s performances also often seethe with a confused rage that makes the old, pre-Versace Courtney Love sound like a pimple-faced cheerleader who couldn’t get a date to the prom. Hersh’s anger is more subtle, more complicated, and more intangible than that of the early-mid 1990s Riot Grrrl bands or the latest Alanis Morissette wannabe, and it is tempered with an eerie calmness that is as intense as it is spooky. It’s a mistake to lump Kristin Hersh with so-called “Angry Women” In fact, it’s a mistake to lump her with anyone else at all.


As one might expect, talking with Kristin Hersh is a bit like walking into Alice’s Wonderland, furry, confusing, and charming distractions not withstanding. Even on the telephone, she is animated and funny, thoughtful and intelligent, subtle and strong-willed. And delightfully strange. Kristin took the time to talk with me — just a few days before launching her latest tour, a joint venture with singer/songwriter Vic Chestnutt — about feminism, motherhood, Lilith Fair, and the politics of blonde hair.



Susan Glen:

How did your tour with Vic come about, and what is your hope for it?



Kristin Hersh:

Vic and I have been friends for years. We met through Bob Mould [formerly of Husker Du], and we had toured together in Europe when I did my first solo tour. And he made it good. I really wasn’t looking forward to it. My feelings about Europe approach the phobic. I just had to spend so much time there, and it’s so goddamn boring. I really wasn’t looking forward to playing without my band for the first time ever. I had to spend all my time in cities, and their cities are extremely polluted. I’m a picky eater and there’s nothing for me to eat there, and they don’t give me time to eat anyway. So I just go on the coffee and beer diet. Anyway, Vic befriended my then-toddler Ryder. During the shows, he and Ryder would go off in these symphony halls we were playing and, like, put thumbtacks on the piano keys so it sounded like a little honky-tonk piano, and break stuff and play trumpet! And I realized that Vic was my hero. The more I listened to his set I realized he was my favorite songwriter. And he continues to be to this day. He’s the only songwriter that I am jealous of.



SG:

So how did the idea come about for you to do this tour jointly?



KH:

Because it’s boring to just go out and do your set. Or at least my set. We have done shows where we were both on stage together before. But I’m kind of a retard and I just listen while he plays. But he — he sings these incredible leads. He has very limited use of his hands. I have to back away — I, like, forget to sing — because they’re so beautiful and I can’t believe he can play them. His passion rules his music, and it becomes very obvious when you realize how hard he has to work to make music. But, you know, he can sing. I can’t really sing. He sings amazing backup. That’s really what I want to happen — I want to sound better. We enjoy each other’s company and each other’s music. We have a lot to talk about.



SG:

Tell me about the Gut Pageant that’s planned for May. [The Gut Pageant is an outdoor lunch and performance scheduled in Boston. Kristin and her family will eat with the fans and then allow them access to exclusive performances, which fans are encouraged to record.] You’re really willing to make yourself available to your fans in a way that no other artist I know of does.



KH:

I have a lot of respect for the people that buy this stuff, because it has never been pushed down anyone’s throat like other music has. And it requires a lot of work on their part. I can’t believe people go to shows, not because [the shows] are bad, but because they have to pay money! They have to get off their asses, leave their house, park their car, hang out in clubs for hours, and while they’re there, they have to do more work than we do! I mean, they don’t know where the next note is coming from. They have to play their part, too. They have to be very giving or the music doesn’t come into the room. The tree falling in the forest doesn’t really work for music. I like the idea of people playing in garages and attics and bedrooms, but sometimes songs are not for the writer. They’re for the listener. And the listener really has to bust their ass when it comes to music like mine and Vic’s.



SG:

So you see your shows as more of an interaction than a performance?



KH:

Yeah. And they deserve whatever they want. It wouldn’t occur to me to have a picnic with them. But if that’s what they want, well, I like picnics.



SG:

Whose idea was the picnic?



KH:

That was my husband’s. He was a label manager at Sire Records, which was my label at Warner Bros. I mean, it was also Madonna’s label — it wasn’t my personal label. He left to manage the Muses and the Pixies, and when we split with our manager, that manager got the Pixies and Billy got the Muses. So he continues to manage me. Billy does all of the tours and all the interpersonal communication. And he’s the idea man. I don’t have any ideas at all! [laughs] I wouldn’t have made an acoustic record if it weren’t for his, um, prompting. “Prompting” is a nice word for what he does.



SG:

How important is it to you to be on an independent label, as opposed to a big label turning out hits and cranking out videos?



KH:

I don’t have anything against majors, and I’m not one of those artists that think we’re slaves. I feel like, if you want to be a musician, then you should feel lucky to play music. If somebody’s gonna be your sugar-daddy and allow you to make records, then you should go for it. I mean, supposedly you’re not in it to be a millionaire, although it certainly is a way to make millions if that’s what you’re in it for. So I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with majors. I just thought that the Muses didn’t belong on a major. Because it cost a lot of money to run a company like Warner Bros., and we were never worth the risk of using up the promotional dollars. I think if we had been playing along then it might have been different. But Warner Bros. just said, “Throwing Muses should be making records, and you’re our artistic integrity, so here’s some money to make another record.” And that was great, but we thought we could have sold something. Warner Bros. was too busy pushing more obvious bands. So, I thought an indie was a more appropriate place for us to be. We’re never going to be able to use the outlets of Top 40, MTV, and Rolling Stone. They pay attention to us, you know, way more than they should! But like I said, we weren’t playing that game, and it was obvious to everyone.



SG:

MTV’s 120 Minutes made a very big deal of playing the video for “Echo,” giving it a big lead-up throughout the show. This seemed so strange, since MTV is really concerned with Britney Spears right now.



KH:

Well, there are also people who work for MTV because they like music, believe it or not. And they usually work on something like 120 Minutes, and so they push stuff like me. And you know, I’m in a good group of people. We were a band like Big Star, so none of us were going to be big stars. And that’s the way it should be. I just continue to be a working musician, because once they make you a star, they don’t want to see you the next year. That’s a very old story, and it’s absolutely true. I would hate it if when I was 23, we had had a hit, and now I would have just been considered a failure, [after] all these records I’ve made. This way people just see so much integrity, because I obviously have no good reason to be doing what I’m doing. And I get away with anything!



SG:

So not having the commercial success leaves you free from the stress of producing “hits”?



KH:

Yeah, exactly. No matter what you do, in that situation, you’re not going to be hip. It’s just a given. But in this situation, I’m never gonna be “in.” But it’s always considered kinda hip to be “out” all the time.



SG:

Sounds like a punk ethic.



KH:

It’s very much like a punk ethic, where energy forces your hand and nobody is allowed to get in your way.



SG:

Your solo stuff seems to be getting so much more attention — and selling so much more — than the Throwing Muses stuff did. Do you have any ideas on that? Is it part of this “Women In Rock” thing that is constantly being pitched? Certainly that’s not new.



KH:

I released my first record in 1986. And I’m sure it happened before then. But at that time they would say Exene Cervenka and Patti Smith. And then they would say Natalie Merchant and Sinead O’Connor. And then it was Bjork and Indigo Girls. There’s just always somebody else to say. I think it will be really good when that’s boring, and people will stop pointing gender fingers. I pride myself on not being particularly female, as far as music is concerned…



SG:

Can you explain what you mean by that?



KH:

Over the past 10 or 15 years, when I meet with publishers, they will say, ‘Well, what’s your target demographic? What publications does your audience read?’ And I just shrug my shoulders — I couldn’t really put my fingers on those people. You know, I can look out, at a show, and for a while I just ought we had teenage boy fans, because those are the people who go to shows, or who are at least in the front row, with all the chicks in the back. And then, at in-stores, it just seemed to be anyone! There was a preview in the Village Voice for a New York show that said, “You should go just to check out the bizarre cross-section of humanity that will attend a Kristin Hersh show.” [laughs] And for the first time, I thought, “Well, that’s great.” I’m proud that they are black and white and young and old and male and female and gay and straight. I don’t want to pitch myself as particularly white or particularly female or particularly anything else that I am, because the songs tend not to reflect that. They seem to be able to speak for anyone who adopts them, and I hate to put a wall between myself and that beautiful process.



SG:

In the book Grrrls [Amy Raphael, editor, from St. Martin’s, 1995], you are lumped in with Courtney Love and Huggy Bear and a lot of female artists who seem to have such an overt way of defining themselves and their feminism. But your approach seems more subtle.



KH:

I think I’m more of a feminist, though. I’m sick of the “men are people and women are women” thing. The women I know are funny and hard-working. And that is never expressed. The only real schism there is that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the traditional female role. I have a hard time with feminism’s “manning” of women. I think there are plenty of wonderful manly women and plenty of wonderful womanly men. So, stop saying some of you are one gender and some of you are the other. I think that we need to respect all the roles women have played forever, in other words, and we need to do that before we can respect women at all. We shouldn’t respect women who do men’s jobs, because “they’re more like men.” They’re not. There are lots of men that are not like that.



SG:

Since you don’t want to pitch yourself as an “I am a female musician and therefore I speak to women” kind of performer, would you ever consider playing something like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where admission is restricted to women?



KH:

I even turned down Lilith Fair three years in a row, because I feel very strongly about the fact that women can do anything — and so can men — and I just haven’t found enough consistent differences, other than anatomy, between men and women to justify becoming more divisive than we already are.



SG:

So Lilith Fair wasn’t so much about getting together women playing great music as it was about ghettoizing women?



KH:

Well, at the risk of being rude, if they had all been playing great music, it would have been fine. Then it would have been a bunch of musicians who happened to be female, and the point would have been music. But they weren’t playing great music, or many of them weren’t. I wouldn’t have fit in, for one, but I do disagree with that. I love men. I love women, too, and I expect a lot of women. And they weren’t really coming up with a lot.



SG:

Do you think that people give you flack for placing so much importance on spending time with your children and being a part of a traditional family unit?



KH:

Well, not to my face. I’m not particularly traditional in other ways, so they forgive me that. It’s punky when I do. Like, I got married — that’s so weird! It was weird for me, too. I didn’t want to get married, but he talked me into it! I realized, 10 years down the line, that’s so cool! And it’s not calm, it’s nothing anyone said it was. Like, my parents weren’t married, I didn’t know anyone who was married. I knew the Cleavers were married, but that was it. So we defined it for ourselves. And it ended up being really kinda violent and hard and passionate. And all the stuff people were looking for elsewhere, I got to find in a marriage, of all places. And children? That’s not peaceful — that’s not peaceful at all! It’s loud here! It’s so passionate. It’s hard to get sick. You think they’re gonna die and you think you’re gonna die. My 3-year-old just, his imagination just kicked in. He’s so entertaining. He doesn’t call me Mom anymore — he calls me Wondergirl: we have these long conversations between Batboy and Wondergirl. I’d rather hang out with him than anybody else right now. And not because it’s peaceful and sweet, but because it’s more exciting. It’s literally re-cognition. But at the same time, he’s so much better than me. My favorite thing about music is that its magic and science. And that’s my favorite thing about kids, too.



SG:

Do the kids go on tour with you?



KH:

Yeah, they do. My oldest doesn’t, because he’s in school. Although he did over the summer. I took a full band out over in Europe, and he roadied for us. He’s a real skate-punk guy. He’s going, “My friends are all wearing hair-nets this summer!” We were playing festivals, so he got to see all these bands. And he wouldn’t let me touch my equipment. He’s like, “Hey, put that down!” And he was still trying to prove himself by picking up the heaviest shit. Or he’d carry stuff that looks big, but it’s not heavy, like guitars. He was dragging these amps and transformers and stuff around.



SG:

So what does he think of “Rock Star Mom”?



KH:

That comes and goes. When he was about 7 or 8, he came home from school and threw his backpack down on the kitchen counter. I was like, “Dylan, what’s wrong?” And he goes, “Are you a rock star?” I said, “No, of course not. Nobody knows who the fuck I am! And if that changes, I’ll let you know.” Like, some kids were giving him shit about it. I must have been in the local paper or something. But, I mean, who would give somebody shit about that? Like, “Your dad’s a fireman!”



SG:

There’s been a lot of fan discussion on the message board of your web page [www.throwingmusic.com] about the release of “A Cleaner Light,” with people talking about the possibility of making the song a “breakthrough” single. Someone wrote in and asked if anyone thought you really wanted to be a big star.



KH:

Well, we kinda go back and forth with them on that issue. Because, they’ll often say things like, “It’s so good that you’re just for us.” And then we’ll come back with, “Do you know that we can’t afford to pay rent?” I mean, my whole band left me for that reason! And then it goes the other way, and they say, like, “You should be huge!” And then we say, “No, it’s never gonna happen, it’s not like that’s a big danger.” At the same time, it’s awesome that we have this little mom and pop storefront and they are so loyal. Thank God for them, or I would be a basket case.



SG:

The loyalty of your fans is almost scary. They seem to know more about you than you do!



KH:

They do. Sometimes we ask them questions, because we forgot. But they’re not weird. They used to be: when I was a teenager, our fans were weird. But I think they all killed themselves off. They were so suicidal. And they would meet me and be really disappointed. They were poetic-depressive. And they thought that I should be, too, and that I should be tall and smart. And I was this goofy little kid, and I’d be really disappointed. I don’t think that made them kill themselves, but I haven’t seen them since.



SG:

So they wanted you to be wearing a black beret, chain smoking, and drinking too much coffee?



KH:

Yeah, and wanting to hear their problems, which I obviously really didn’t. That’s what they would do. And I was tired, I just played a show, I had a kid.



SG:

I saw a Throwing Music web page that a fan had created, and there was a lengthy discussion about you dyeing your hair. There was a whole list of female musicians who had dyed their hair from darker to lighter, and then from lighter to darker. And the discussion was about how blonde musicians get so much less respect. What is your perception of that?



KH:

I hear about it a lot. I had to watch it — my sister and I both have the same color hair. We’re both blonde, but she bleaches her hair platinum, and I dye mine black. And she’s definitely considered the pretty, stupid one, and I’m considered the smart, ugly one. We look very similar, the same size and everything. So we talk about that a lot. But I got sick of living the lie, and shaved my head. So I’m blonde again. But I have yet to hear if that impacts politically on anyone. It’s funny because the last time I went from blonde to black, the reviews all said, “She’s back to her natural color, she’s not bleaching her hair anymore. It’s so nice to see.” I know what they mean, you know. But you can’t go around saying that people who wear lipstick are stupid, because drag queens wear lipstick too.



SG:

Why do you think people seem to want to make a rivalry between you and Tanya, when there doesn’t seem to really be one there?



KH:

I don’t think there was ever a story with our band, so they had to make them up. Not really make them up, but make something out of nothing, I suppose. So the fact that we both grew up on communes was their first story. And then it turned into my being crazy. And then it turned into a rivalry. We’re obviously different, but that doesn’t mean we think there’s something wrong with that. Everybody’s different, aren’t they? I wouldn’t hold it against someone that they weren’t in my band — most people aren’t in my band!



SG:

You’d only have like two friends.



KH:

[laughs] Yeah, and now I’d have none!



SG:

So the rivalry was just something that was pulled out to make a good story?



KH:

Yeah, I don’t blame them for doing stuff like that. They have to. And it seems obvious, because it looks like Warner Bros. took the cute chick and tried to get her a Grammy. But, it was my band and she needed her own band. She had enough songs, and she had ambition. Like, I didn’t really have ambition. And for someone be ambition in a band like Throwing Muses is just like… pain.



SG:

She’s a great song-writer.



KH:

I’m so proud of that. It would be embarrassing to me if she weren’t, so why would I make it look like she wasn’t? Why would I have her in my band if she wasn’t a good musician? It doesn’t really follow through. Plus, we’re sisters! We, like, spend our holidays together. It wouldn’t be smart to keep a rivalry going even if there was one.



SG:

How much of the stuff that’s written about you do you think is actually true?



KH:

Probably about half-and-half. Some writers make me look really good, and a lot smarter than I am. Some people get things awfully wrong. I was talking to a journalist about how everyone has their passion and how they’re all really the same — basketball is babies is music is ducks. I was talking about this guy who was the first scientist to imprint a duck, meaning that when the duck hatched, it thought that he was the mother and followed him around. And he just adored ducks, and said, “Ducks are perfect. I’ve learned everything I know from ducks.” And the journalist had me saying that it was the first scientist to implant a duck, like [the scientist] actually had a duck implanted in his body. It just makes me look like an idiot. That happens a lot.



SG:

It seems like the foreign press seems to have a better grip on you than the American press.



KH:

They think I’m more famous than Americans do. They put me on their magazines. But they like me for odd reasons: they like the drama, and I’m not really attracted to that. So it’s hard for me to appreciate their appreciation of me. But it’s nothing to complain about either.



SG:

You’ve talked a bit about what you don’t like about feminism, about what’s wrong with feminism. Can you tell me what you think is right about it, or where you see feminism as a whole right now?



KH:

I don’t know if I know the answer to that. I don’t know if I’d be the one to know that. All you can hope is that young girls stay healthy. They’re born healthy. Because “healthy” allows you to be smart enough to love other people. And there’s a lot that can get in the way of that. I definitely appreciate the fact that it’s easier for young men to stay healthy. But once you reach adulthood, we all have enough integrity to get over our injuries. And adolescent girls have a particularly hard time. I don’t see a lot of sexism or racism in my life; I don’t spend a lot of time with people who are geared toward that way of thinking. And yet, that doesn’t make me want to go down to the level of people who say, “Look what women can do.” I’d rather get beyond the basics of impressing people. When we first started, I think we would have impressed a lot of people if we had sounded like Journey. We were like, “We’re not doing this by accident. We basically know how to play as badly [as Journey].” But it didn’t make me want to go back and play Journey songs. We’re going forward.

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