The Paradox view
Published in The Sunday Business Post, Ireland, on 30 January 2011
By Nadine O’Regan
‘I love Father Ted,” Kristin Hersh remarks, as she stands with her husband in a Dublin hotel lobby, chatting about her impressions of Ireland. “The kids love it too. It’s brilliant.”
It’s not often you find yourself trading Tedisms with a US alternative rock icon who paved the way for Courtney Love, Nirvana and the Pixies, but then you shouldn’t count on the expected from an encounter with Kristin Hersh.
Fine-boned and small of stature, with a fashionable fringe and round blue eyes that surprise you with their brightness, Hersh looks barely any older now than she did in the 1990s, when she sang with Michael Stipe on Your Ghost, the hauntingly odd first single from her brilliant debut solo album Hips and Makers.
Although Hersh is always likely to delve into the subjects of magic, bipolar disorder and suicide in her conversation, and has suffered more than most in her life, the 44-year-old Throwing Muses founder is also remarkably easy company: funny, unassuming and whip-smart; and amusingly delighted when I tell her that for many Irish admirers, she is an indie-rock pin-up.
Hersh has come to Dublin to promote her memoir, Paradoxical Undressing (published in the US as Rat Girl), which sees her return to the diaries she began in 1985 when she was 18.
Hersh has spent four years working them up to publication standard, and it shows: the book is brilliantly put together and beautifully, sharply written. An acid portrait of youth, it would frighten the horses and then some.
At heart, the book is a story of survival: Hersh was diagnosed first as schizophrenic and then as having bipolar disorder. Beneath the humour and insight, there’s a lurking, obliquely expressed fear of what she might do to herself.
Born in Atlanta and raised in Rhode Island, Hersh formed her band Throwing Muses when she was just 14, a scrappy thing who spent several of her teenage years homeless and refused to wear a coat, or even glasses to help herself see properly.
Songs were not compositions Hersh actively crafted. They were compulsions. They grabbed her by the throat and held on tight.
‘‘I hear the songs and copy them down,” Hersh says, settling down to a cup of tea in the bar of Buswell’s hotel. “My job is not to get in the way. That’s harder than you think, particularly if you turn music into a career. But it’s not hooks that bring a song home, and it’s not a moral that you already know. It’s surprises. It’s vitality.”
The songs began as ambient noise in Hersh’s head after an accident where she suffered a double concussion. ‘‘I was riding my bike to a teenage job, and an old lady careened into me. I flew way up into the air, and went limp, and the ground rose up. I believe it was the double concussion that made me start hearing music. The notes would continue until they were a cohesive piece. Eventually, I realised that no one else was hearing this sound. It was frightening but also beautiful.”
If that sounds like mumbo-jumbo to you, buy one of Hersh’s nine solo albums and consider the music. Strange chords and unusual time signatures dominate. Hersh has a refined, complicated sense of melody, but she rarely sings notes that go with the chord. She sings notes that seem not to belong, and yet also fit perfectly. There’s mathematical logic in them, but it doesn’t conform to the expected rules. When she was starting out, in the thrashier, more primal indie-rock band Throwing Muses, her sound would alarm even herself.
‘‘You can’t call what I do singing or entertainment,” she writes of her early offerings in Paradoxical Undressing. ‘‘I hiss and yell and wail. Sometimes I make seagull noises, unfortunately. Music is something I have almost no control over.”
It wasn’t long before a more sinister aspect started to appear alongside her songwriting gifts. The young Kristin became convinced that a house she sometimes stayed in had an evil aspect that was infiltrating her work.
‘‘In the Doghouse,” she writes, ‘‘sleep stopped coming, days stopped ending – now sleep doesn’t come and days don’t end. My songs are different, too, and when I play them, I become them: evil, charged.”
The diaries become clipped, terse in tone. In the song fragments Hersh includes, a momentum builds. ‘‘I’m losing my person,” she writes. ‘‘I don’t even look like a nice girl anymore. I look like the songs sound because I am like the songs sound.”
Hersh began to hallucinate a wolf in the night, a snake in her bag.
Realising that her songs were trapped inside her, she decided to set them free – by cutting her body open with a razor. It’s hard to talk about suicide attempts in a cosy bar in Dublin with two old biddies beside us, earnestly chattering about the price of tea, but I ask Hersh quietly nonetheless if it was only during the 1980s that she felt, as she writes, that ‘‘I don’t belong on this earth. I’m not good enough’’.
I’m foolishly expecting a happy answer because Hersh herself seems so wonderfully bright and sweet-natured. But she pauses and, when an answer comes, it sounds a little reluctant and awkward.
‘‘It’s been tough for the last 25 years,” she says. ‘‘Right now, I take supplemental lithium in very small doses and mega B vitamin doses.‘‘Even with children, depression can convince you that everyone is better off without you. I can be depressed and manic at the same time. It’s happened many times. I know lots of suicides, and I cannot judge them. I miss them, but I know that cloud, and I know it probably has something important to say at times.”
There are also physical repercussions for those suffering from certain forms of depression – you’re reminded of Kurt Cobain saying that he took heroin to stop his stomach pains. ‘‘I’m pretty sure Kurt was bipolar,” Hersh nods. ‘‘The physical pain that mania and depression cause is something people don’t talk about. There’s a huge desire to kill the pain.”
Like Hersh, Cobain was ambitious at the beginning of his career – sending notes and demos to record companies – and angry with himself later on, making it clear on his records that he felt he’d sold out: ‘‘Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old’’ (Serve The Servants).
For a while, Throwing Muses too played the record industry game, tweaking their songs to make them more radio-friendly, doing a million interviews and guest hosting MTV’s alt-rock show 120Minutes. Hersh’s stepsister and Throwing Muses member Tanya Donnelly also later formed her own band Belly, which notched up Grammy Award nominations and hit singles in the shape of Feed The Tree and Gepetto.
But Hersh ultimately wasn’t willing or able to follow the easy route. ‘‘When you are essentially sponsored by someone with a vested interest in the marketability of your product, your product is going to be dumbed-down,” she says. ‘‘Real music happens in basements and bedrooms and bars. Keeping a song at home is like keeping a kid in a closet – and yet, to squirrel my way through this bimbo of an industry to get real music to real people is an exercise in frustration.”
Hersh had a disastrous experience with Warner Music over what should have been her greatest commercial success, her first solo album Hips and Makers. ‘‘Hips and Makers was in the black the day it was released, as it only cost a few thousand dollars to make,” she says. ‘‘But the day I left, they declared it in the red, so I never made another penny off it.”
But in 2007, Hersh set up Cash Music (www.cashmusic.org), an organisation through which she and other artists could record and release music without any need for a record company.Her most recent album, Crooked, is every bit the equal of Hips And Makers – and if the world was a fairer place, it would occupy a spot in the home of anyone who loved indie music. These days, Hersh has a peripatetic existence.‘‘I never really stop running away, and now I take my whole family with me.”
She and her husband Billy O’Connell – who is clearly deeply protective of her – are currently house-sitting with their children and pet squirrel in New Orleans, in a mansion they’ve filled with their ‘‘crappy furniture’’ and strung with Christmas lights to make it homier.
This year, the couple will be married 20 years, and they still hold hands walking down the street.
When the time comes for them to leave, they will move city again, as they have been doing every year since 2005,when they lost their house in a flood in Ohio, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina. When Billy pops over to say hello, it transpires that they’ve been giving some thought to moving with two of their children for a while to Ireland – perhaps Wicklow – after New Orleans. ‘‘We’re always in cities,” says O’Connell. ‘‘We want to see the countryside.”
Professionally, the next step for Hersh is a second volume of memoirs. ‘‘I loved writing this book,” she says. ‘‘I didn’t at first because I wasn’t good at it. It took me four years to learn how to push out a scene.But I found I was good at falling back into memories, even without the diary.”
And, of course, there will be more albums, both from her newer band, 50 Foot Wave, and from Throwing Muses, who will go back into the studio in a matter of months.The music will be uncompromising and direct, recorded without the interference of a record company.
‘‘The listener doesn’t want it to suck, and neither do I,” Hersh says with a smile. Although she might not have the material success of some of her contemporaries, Hersh has something she knows is far more valuable: artistic satisfaction. ‘‘The music sounds the way it’s supposed to be,” she says.