Kristin Hersh has been performing music since she was a teenager, first as co-founder with the massively influential indie act Throwing Muses since the early 1980s, then from the mid-90s as a solo artist and most recently with 50FOOTWAVE – an outlet for her noisier impulses.
She continues to release music under all three names and has just released a new solo project, Wyatt At The Coyote Palace, the first to bear her name since 2010’s Crooked. It is a 32-track double album housed in a book of Kristin’s writing and beautifully designed by Throwing Muses’ drummer Dave Narcizo.
But Kristin is entering uncharted waters for the first time in her career.
She has written openly about her struggles with mental health, and in the autobiographical Rat Girl (published in the UK as Paradoxical Undressing) about the early years of the Muses, she tells how she doesn’t so much write songs as be possessed by them. Her songs are renowned for their intensity and emotionally packed lyrics.
WOW247 caught up with Kristin on the phone in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. So how do the songs come to her now?
‘They don’t these days,’ she says, surprisingly. ‘They stopped like a year or two ago. I was treated for PTSD and the songs stopped.’
Songs used to come almost as aural hallucinations and it was just as creepy as that sounds. I was not in to itKristin Hersh
Kristin had PTSD as a result of having her eldest son, then aged three, kidnapped from her by his father in the early ’90s.
‘They used to come almost as aural hallucinations and it was just as creepy as that sounds. I was not in to it.
‘But I sort of worship music, and it’s frightening to me. I suppose it’s love and hate, but maybe that’s what any obsession is.
‘The material I’ve been working on for the last couple of years was written before I was treated for the PTSD, so it could be that I just need a new working method.
‘When I went through the treatment I stopped fearing the music, and realised this is not the devil, this is just visceral, this isn’t even my dark side.
‘It’s the heavier side and the lighter side I have, it’s the extremes, and that would scare a nice lady like me. But now I’m more like the songs and I suppose I’m not such a nice lady,’ she gives a childlike giggle, ‘I’m a little bit more intense, a little more lightness, a little more darkness.
‘Now I love the music and I can see that it’s something that resonates – it’s a reflection of what we are, and we’re a reflection of what it is. I find that equation very beautiful and much more stable. It’s not too hot to handle.’
‘The treatment itself revealed an alternative personality. Where I had been misdiagnosed as bipolar, I was actually dissociative, and dissociative disorder means there’s a part of you that isn’t recognised, and for me that was music.
‘Music was compartmentalised, I had no memory of having written or performing any of my material.
‘Now I can be present when I play. I did a whole Throwing Muses tour (for their last album, Purgatory/Paradise) awake and aware of what was going on. I have a clearer picture of what music is, and it’s much lovelier than I thought. It’s not frightening, it’s just real.
‘Rat Girl was the name of my book, and that was the name I thought of as my alternate personality.’
While this is great news for Kristin’s mental health – what does it mean for her playing music?
‘The first time I played a song after integration – which is what they call it – was actually on the BBC. It was kind of cool, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and it was great. It was like, hey, I know these chords, and I know what this song is about, and this is lovely, it’s fine.
‘I’ve had therapist friends, people I know in psychiatry, say: “I watched you play for 20 years and exhibit classic switching and never recognised it as such, and I’m sorry”. It’s like hey, there’s nothing we can do about it now.’
Kristin acknowledges that her situation as a professional musician is a little out of the ordinary.
‘It’s an unusual story, I’ll admit that, but it’s probably more common than we know, I think there’s a lot of misdiagnoses going on.
‘I knew I wasn’t bipolar, I kept saying: “I’m just a musician, I’m just a musician”, but I didn’t know exactly what I meant by that.
‘But that was exactly what was wrong all the time – I was a musician.
‘I didn’t remember being a musician and I think music journalists thought I was talking metaphorically when I talked about disappearing, and I was like, no, I’m not in there when I’m playing music.
‘But then Dave Narcizo, he was like: “We knew that”. Well, you could have told me!’ she laughs.
And what about her songwriting? Has she written new material since the treatment?
‘I haven’t had time, I’m probably a little more tense about it than I admit. I may just be a writer now and not a musician any more, but my suspicion is that I will pick up a guitar at some point and know how it goes!’
Wyatt At The Coyote Palace gets its name from an abandoned apartment building behind Kristin’s studio that her son Wyatt spent the majority of this recording session exploring.
When WOW247 asks about the Coyote Palace, she says: ‘Actually I’m driving past it right now – that’s serendipitous. Don’t worry,’ she laughs, when your writer expresses concern, ‘I’m used to driving and doing interviews, it’s hands free.
‘I was up to that too, exploring it during downtime in the studio. Before the roof caved in we explored it together for months and I assume the coyotes don’t care if the roof caved in, but it was such a beautiful and scary thing that our experience of it had to be made finite.
‘That was the work ethic that I needed to make this record what it should be – to be able to close the door and walk away and know that you can fill a syringe with it, shoot it up and be able play the songs – tripping back in to the coyote palace and all the memories that are key to the songs.’
Kristin was an early adopter of the crowdfunding model to fund her career – asking her fans to help pay for recording sessions, and in turn donors get exclusive access to anything from demos to being named as executive producers. These fans are called Strange Angels, the name of her second solo album.
What does she get from that relationship with her Strange Angels?
‘I’m humbled by it, and humility is good for anyone, I’ve got plenty of it to be honest.
‘I’m honoured too, which lifts me a bit out of the humility. I wasn’t ashamed to ask them to be my record company, but it’s so presumptuous, I would rather give than get, and yet when I’ve spoken with these people, they’re more listeners than fans, they’re not nutty, they’re very down to earth, they’re friends, they’ll come to the studio, and they’ll hang out, and they say that’s what they get out of it
‘ I mean I do give them records and free tickets to shows, and yet that seems presumptuous to me – to make anybody listen when you make noise.
‘But this is a selfish endeavour on my part.
‘I would do anything to be in the studio 24/7, and they’re facilitating something pretty close to that at this point, which is something (former label) Warner Brothers never would, whether it is to take five years to make one record, or release five in one year if I want.’
And when someone tells her they like her work, she’s rather sweet about it.
‘It worked for me to feel like I work in a vacuum, or think that, so for me to hear it worked for someone else, it makes me think: “It is a gift, I always wanted it to be a gift!”
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Monday, November 7