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Kristin Hersh

Kristin Hersh

Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Monday 25th August, 2014 11:16AM

Kristin Hersh’s career in music spans over 25 years, although I’m sure if she heard it described as a "career" she’d protest. Having founded Throwing Muses as a teenager, Hersh was at the forefront of a alt-rock-grunge-punk sound that can be hard to categorise, but universally recognised. Hersh has gone on to release solo albums, form hardcore punk-influenced trio 50footwave, and pursue a number of writing projects, including releasing a memoir and writing a children’s book.

Hersh will be in the country to perform in Wellington and Auckland, as well as speak at Word Christchurch – a festival of writing taking place in the Garden City next week. Under the Radar spoke to Hersh about her visit, the projects she is involved in at present, and where she expects music will take her in future...

You are involved in a few different of events while in New Zealand. How have you prepared and what are your thoughts about the programme?

I've learned over time that I'm not smart enough to prepare for a tour - that my time is best spent finishing recording and writing projects here at home before I leave (and squeezing in all the kid time I can). "Preparation" is now no more than keeping my fingers loose with daily practicing and my brain loose with daily thinking...

You're doing a session on lyrical writing... what do you think distinguishes your approach to penning lyrics, and what can the audience at those sessions and shows expect?

Boy, that answer takes about four seconds - don't know what I'll talk about the rest of the time!

I hear songs - the lyrics are merely percussive melody, their meaning inherent in their sound. When they get stuck in my throat and feel like a lie, I know I've somehow impeded their progress and I try to listen harder. I know I've gotten them right when they fly out of me and I don't remember what happened. Then they sound beautiful, not pretty, and they tell the story the song wants to tell. As long as I stay out of the way, it all falls into place.

Do you think land and cityscapes influence the tone of lyrical writing? How does your hometown shape yours?

The new Throwing Muses record, Purgatory/Paradise, was released as a book - a series of essays accompanying the thirty-two songs on the CD. Every essay points from a different direction toward that ‘global citizen/world traveler’ vs. ‘islander/there's no place like home’ perspective which exists in everyone but is so exaggerated in a musician's life. I don't live in my hometown, but it clearly still lives in me.

This may be a slightly crude attempt at drawing a parallel, but do you think there was a noticeable difference in the music that came out of New Orleans after Katrina, and have you perhaps thought about how some of the musicians and artists in Christchurch may have been similarly affected as a result of the major earthquake in 2011?

Strange to watch a place fall apart and come together, huh? I don't know, but I imagine the music that is "real" is necessarily reflecting a harder life, than the music people hear coming out of New Orleans. This is always the case, but undeniably when lives of poor people don't come back together, when "recovery" happens for the people who were never much hurt in the first place. I imagine Christchurch is better at taking care of its own than New Orleans has been. Most of the people who lived in the 9th Ward - the area hardest hit - never came back.

How, if at all, will you Christchurch appearance differ from the other shows you'll play while in NZ?

The Words and Music shows incorporate text that informs the songs and vice versa. Mostly taken from my memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, but also from the new Muses' release and my last solo record, Crooked, also released as a book with accompanying essays. Speaking English to people turns out to be a lot more immediate than speaking music to them; a language not all of us speak fluently. I don't really speak ‘English’ fluently - I talk weird - so it sort of balances out the equation.

Are there any other writing projects on your artistic horizon at present?

I just finished writing a book about Vic Chesnutt, commissioned for a ‘musicians on musicians’ series.

Given you've penned a children's book, I wonder what your favourite one is? And from where you drew inspiration when writing yours?

Guess How Much I Love You has to be the best, because of how the little rabbit's arms stick out when he sleeps.

I didn't mean to publish mine, really - I just needed to get back on the road and my youngest son, Bo, didn't want to leave home. His three older brothers were happy to get back on the tour bus – to them that always was home - but he sort of put his little bunny foot down and said that the adventure would have to end "someday". He could be right, but at the time, the record was out, the shows were booked, and I wanted him excited, not scared.

So I wrote Toby Snax for him (the nickname of each brother when they were "the baby") and drew pictures of everything he had done on the last tour. It made him look braver than he felt; just brave enough for him to decide that the adventure didn't have to end "yet".

Where are you at musically at the moment? Are there any projects you're working on or considering? Any directions you're being pulled in?

I am wrapping up a solo project and mixing a new 50FootWave record. After spending the last four or five years on the Muses' record, I think if I were pulled in any more musical directions, my kids wouldn't have enough to eat... recording is expensive! Becoming listener-supported was the best thing I was ever talked into. The listeners pay our recording costs and we give them the music.

What are some of the things that are exciting you in the music world at present?

Music isn't the music business to me - like god isn't religion. That sounds pretentious; I just mean that music is in the air, and what I hear there is not usually what you'd hear on the radio.

Kristin is performing on 28th August at Bodega in Wellington, then appearing at the Transitional Cathedral as part of the Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival on the 30th August, then the next evening, on the 31st August she will be in Auckland at the Q Theatre.