Maybe the secret to making great songs is to stop worrying about making great songs.
Kristin Hersh, the 1990s alternative icon of Throwing Muses, guitar roar proprietor of 50 Foot Wave, mother of four and owner of one of rock and roll music’s most ferocious growls, says it’s all about letting go. “I think to be wholly unselfconscious is about it,” she says when asked by PopMatters about what she values most in songwriting. “Because in ego-centric concerns like attention and money are extremely self-conscious. We become a social image when we expect anyone is looking.”
“I believe that I work in a vacuum. Which is not true. It’s a mind fuck,” she laughs. “This is probably my whole issue with the music business itself. It doesn’t engage real musicians or songwriters,” she continues. “It wants entertainers and performers. And that’s a very self-conscious discipline. You can call it shallow, and that’s probably true. I don’t want to sound judgmental but real music, real songs, are not about the people who play them, that’s all. You live hard, and then you let go of who did that. You have those muscles, but you don’t wear it,” she adds.
Hersh emerged on the alternative nation scene in the early 1980s, fronting Throwing Muses with her half-sister Tanya Donnelly and recording early MTV classics like The Real Ramona and University. Since Donnelly left the band in 1991, Hersh has recorded dozens of albums solo, with Throwing Muses and with 50 Foot Wave. Sun Racket is the first Throwing Muses album since 2013; before that, it had been a decade. But Hersh says she is always working. “We don’t publish everything.”
Hersh says that she knows which band she is writing for by the guitar she chooses, working out 50 Foot Wave songs on a Les Paul SG and Throwing Muses on Stratocasters and Telecasters. “The Teles and Strats make thinner, more detailed, angular sounds, and the 50 Foot Wave guitars are simply heavier and a little richer. I’ve often played baritone and dropped down to C-Sharp. So they literally have to sound heavy, and you can overplay if you’re not aware of the thickness of that sound, it gets more towards math rock and away from something I’m more attracted to, something more rolling and raw,” she explains.
Here’s the Beautiful
As she was writing the songs for Sun Racket, Hersh was going through a tough time. “My marriage of 25 years ended, you know, and I was with four kids and broke and no health insurance. It was dark,” she says. “I think the rolling nature of some of those heavier songs on this record and then these weird little music boxy ones, they sort of reflect that. I hate to color songs with dark vocabulary, but if you weren’t living music, you would experience those things as anxiety and depression. But music just makes it ‘music box’ and ‘rolling.’ You know, here’s the beautiful.” Hersh has gotten through to the other side of this difficult period. She’s engaged again and happy. “It’s a pretty fairy tale now.”
Hersh says she worked with layers of melody on Sun Racket, a process that is similar to her work in 50 Foot Wave. “With layers of melody, you don’t single one out. It becomes not a wall of sound, because it’s a trio, so you don’t get that ocean wave sensation, but you’re oriented towards the dynamics so that it becomes a wall of melody,” she says.
The sparer, quieter sounds, she claims, are a source of tension. “Oddly, the quieter songs are the more cacophonous,” she says. “On my last solo record, I learned to use out of time and out of tune to bring about a kind of jumpy energy. It sounds like a really bad idea. But it mimics the effect of a live performance.”
The goal for Hersh is a hypnotic quality that comes from loud, dense melodies and the twitchier, more eccentric quiet intervals she calls “the music-box-y sounds.” “I didn’t know how I was going to bring those two disparate sonic elements together. And then they just fit and because they both kind of make you just sit and listen,” she says.
Voices in the Air
Even in conversation, Hersh has a fascinating voice, its blurred sweetness tinged with a feral rasp and punctuated, fairly regularly, by a raucous laugh. It is even more riveting in performance, where she channels the energy that even she doesn’t fully understand. “I just came off a year and a half on the road, and I was touring with my fiancé who has been in Throwing Muses. We met 40 years ago in high school. He knows me really well. But he said, standing next to you on stage, I realized that you use a different voice for every single song. And I think he’s right,” she says.
“The voice is this very strange instrument that we play, that can’t be tuned, that can be affected by a hangover or hurt feelings or memories because you’re in a state where you grew up. It’s such an odd instrument, and I think that’s the only way to be facile with it, is to let the song use those things that we’d normally hide, that we’d associate with shame or not following the rules,” she says.
Hersh began writing songs as a teenager after a car accident left her with auditory hallucinations. “After that, I heard music, and that was the music that Throwing Muses played,” she tells us. “I didn’t understand that it was an alternate personality that was writing all the songs, and I just didn’t remember it.” As an adult, she has undergone Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which has helped her connect more with her memories. “I’m remembering more and more of the role that I actually do play in writing the songs,” she says. “I just wasn’t Kristen while it happened.”
Her therapy was successful, but Hersh still sometimes struggles. “I was on a music promo tour for the last record, and I called the EMDR practitioner, and I said, ‘No one can live with all the pain in their life at once. How do I make it stop?’ And she said, ‘That’s not me, that’s you. You’re the only one that can stop it.’ So yes, let’s make a rule. If you live, you don’t die. That’s everybody’s rule.”
Hersh used to dissociate from her music, not remembering the writing process at all. Since therapy, she has engaged with it more directly, an experience that is not always pleasant or easy. “You get used to it because of the clarifying nature of truth is alarming when you have a numbing agent. This is what every junkie goes through getting clean. So, it took away my numbing agent, my disappearing act, and gave me something very intense, which is life and music itself. Music is a lovely spin for that. I’m not down on life. It’s just intense,” she says.
What Part of You Wants to Live?
Most of the songs on Sun Racket are named after places. “Bo Diddley Bridge”, for instance, is about an actual, physical bridge named for Bo Diddley, and not the musical kind of bridge at all. Hersh went there not long ago with her youngest son, Bo, her last child still at home, and the story behind the song gets, in an important way, at the whole unconscious life force that permeates her music.
“Bo Diddley Bridge is on an island where I grew up and where my kids grew up,” she recalls. “Bo, my son, wanted to recapture some of his childhood, because his dad had left, and his brothers had left, and it’s just been so hard. So, he was fishing under Bo Diddley Bridge. I was, I was on something like Klonopin, something to calm me down, and fell asleep on the rocks, and the tide came in, and I didn’t wake up, so I was out in the water, and I was swimming, I just woke up swimming.”
She marvels at the idea even now that she was able to rouse herself to swim. “So, you just do that. What part of you wants to live? And I knew I had to be there for Bo, but the image in the song is that we were there on solid ground with our family and the bridge just collapsed under us, so what do you do? You’re in the water, and you find yourself swimming. Who the hell knew we could do that?”
The Sweet and the Raw
The single, “Dark Blue”, is among the new album’s highlights. Hersh says that the song “has that nice balance between sweet and raw and heavy and broken and healing.” The song has a lyric about Reykjavik that Hersh originally took out in editing, but eventually had to relent and put back in.
“The night I turned 40, I was in Reykjavik, and we had people over to our flat,” she remembers. “My birthday is in August, and if you know anything about planet Earth, it’s very bright there in August. So, everybody’s sitting out on the balcony drinking. We’re waiting to go out to dinner, waiting until it gets dark, and you just don’t know how important light cues are until you live without them, and so we said, well, it’s time to go to dinner now, and it was after midnight.”
“We were in the studio and the engineer, and I edited out that first, and Dave, who is the drummer, came in to hear this new edit and new mix, and I didn’t think he’d ever notice. That there was a line missing, and he whipped his head around and said, ‘Where’s Reykjavik and Arabella station?’ and I was like okay, that means we’ve got to put it back,” she finishes.
A Ladder in the Pit
Throwing Muses songs are cathartic, bringing together rage and sadness and hope and laughter in a heady mix. Hersh says that a lot of her fans relate to the darkness in her music and that she is not entirely comfortable with that. A young female listener in Portland committed suicide a few years ago, leaving Hersh’s lyrics in her final note. “That was rough. And I blame myself. I can’t help it. I thought this is not what we’re here to do. We don’t bring each other to this place and then leave each other there. I’ve got to do better,” she says. “So, I asked people why they listened, and they said, ‘Now I know I’m not alone.’ And after that, my records got… this is not a conscious thing, but there was some lift. There was a ladder in the pit.”