It’s mid-morning in California and Kristin Hersh is making final preparations for a medium-haul flight. “I am flying back east tonight to finish the [new] record, which is an optimistic thing to say,” she says, chuckling heartily as she remembers she’d regularly told herself the same thing for five years while she worked on her previous album, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace.
“But there’s no excuse for not making it as perfect as you want it to be and that has to allow for months of reflection and letting it sit by itself in the studio again feeling hurt while you go off and live life then when you come back you can see it very clearly.
“You can sit back from a painting and see it as a viewer might but to hear a record the way a listener would takes some practice.”
LAX, the one track Hersh has released so far in demo form from Possible Dust Clouds, suggests a return to rugged alternative-rock after the largely acoustic musings of Wyatt at the Coyote Palace. “I make most of the records on my own including Throwing Muses records, to tell you the truth,” she says. “My rhythm section will work for a weekend and I’ll work for five years, but that’s not a good thing, me being whiney.
“In this case I made it the rule that anybody who stopped by the studio to say ‘hi’ had to play something. Because Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is essentially the sound of having no friends, I wanted [its successor] to sound live and raucous and atonal or to have a certain undercurrent of energy rather than studiousness, which is fine and spacious and there’s clarity on Wyatt but this, as a response to that, is more about the chaos.
“I like chaos – in its place it serves a really enjoyable function. It’s a fun record, I guess,” she says, adding self-deprecatingly: “I’m going to say it’s fun, nobody else is going to say that. I set out to make this fun and I’m probably ruining it as speak, but my friends did their best.”
In recent years Hersh, now 51, has released several albums with accompanying books. “That was more problem-solving than an idea,” she says. “I didn’t like CDs, they were pieces of plastic that no one values whereas books are still a gift. If you hand someone a CD it’s almost offensive to say, ‘Here, adopt my soundtrack’ and it’s a little two-cent piece of plastic. A book has historical value and can still break rules so you can hand it to someone and it’s a gift that doesn’t offend them, but I’m sleazy enough to stick CDs in the books and make them adopt my soundtrack that way.”
She says it’s sustained her “for a few years” but sadly she doesn’t see it continuing as book publishing goes the way of the recording industry. “But that’s OK,” she says. “It’s more about planting your peers for all the world and if they’re adopting this just as download that’s fine too. I like the idea of music being in the ether and even for free. I’m one of the few musicians that says we shouldn’t get paid,” she laughs, “because historically we didn’t. There should never have been a rock star and I like to see that breaking down.
“But people are now coming to value integrity in their soundtrack so they won’t really let these soldiers fall, in my experience – the real musicians. They seem to hunger for them once they find out what that is. It’s essentially someone not lying to you. In that sense, marketing is being redefined as sharing, so I have to put music out there and share it with the idea that it will be supported in some way. Even kids who can’t afford to buy music will come to a show and support you and I’ll put them on a guestlist. That’s like humanity rather than dollar support - and it’s probably more important.”
With two bands – Throwing Muses and 50FootWave – sometimes on the go, along with her solo material, Hersh says she knows exactly which avenue a song is going to take when she picks up a guitar. “I write Throwing Muses songs on my Strat[ocaster] and my Tele[caster]; 50Foot songs on my SG and Les Paul and solo songs on my Collings. My drummer says it’s a poor system but I’ve been using it for a long time. I’m in a rut and I like it.”
Hersh has said in the past that her best songs are three-dimensional. Today, she reflects: “Songs with legs begin with a strong essence, like a person. The people who are essentially themselves as children don’t adopt much superficiality in their presentation and the same with songs. They are substantive and therefore not necessarily devoid of style but they’re not defined by it, and those songs will come back and say something completely different 20 years later because they have not been realised by me as much as by themselves, just like kids. You serve their idiosyncratic universality, their selfhood.”
From the first Throwing Muses album in 1986, Hersh’s songs have long had a powerful, visceral quality that has inspired a devoted following. “I don’t know why people listen to what I do,” she says. “It feels so selfish and yet I am not attached to the outcome. It feels like it is a gift for someone else. I don’t want to write for money or attention, and you certainly don’t want to be focused that way, but if you redefine marketing as sharing it’s because you aren’t lying, there’s really no other way to do it. I’m not lying.
“I didn’t think it was a truth anybody needed necessarily and I’m still sort of torn on that. Now that I am more available to listeners, as opposed to when I was on a major label and hidden from the audience, I’ve been able to ask people why they listen to it and they’ll say, ‘It saved my life’. But how? It seems almost a rude thing to bring them into a world that is so chaotic and expect them to take that ride when they are nicer places to go. They say, ‘Because I wasn’t alone’. But I think I could do better.
“You should probably not just climb into pits with people and just have everybody hanging out in the pit indefinitely, there should be another place to go. I’m not qualified, but maybe we should find the next place to go together. Maybe that’s what the next batch of songs will help with.”
Hersh’s experiences of having to deal with a major label and of watching others left her feeling that music and the music business are mutually exclusive. “There’s a breed of person who calls themself a musician and they’re not really,” she says. “They’re just ambitious and they’ve taken sound as their fashion with which to sell themselves whereas a musician will be more focused on their music and want it to sell itself so we can be very quiet and that is not allowed in the entertainment industry.
“I think there’s a sub-recording industry in which you are supposed to be substantive and you are supposed to laugh and you aren’t supposed to lie or sell yourself, but that’s also been co-opted. All you can do is hope the free-for-all settles in a way where people find their people. I think music is active medicine and it’s not good for people it isn’t intended for, so I like the idea of refining my audience, not growing it. I want it to go to the right people.
“I don’t want to give up my real life for anything, for what they call success. That would be a crime on my part and the music would suffer.”
She sees in the late Vic Chestnutt, about whom she once wrote a book, a kindred spirit. “He said that he wished he was more like me. It’s very easy for me to let go of ego stuff. I’m more like a dog – I have a highly developed super-ego, I’ll die for you and then I’m just an id and there’s nothing in between. That’s no way to be a person or a musician or anything but that’s the way I am and Vic envied my ability to say f*** ’em. It’s not about them, it’s about the song.
“If he had lived he would have become more successful, people would have discovered him and he would have given them songs they could understand that were still substantive. He knew his way around that. I can’t go there, I wasn’t made that way, I speak my own language. I sucked a couple of times on purpose to do Warner Bros favours and I won’t do that again. There’s no reason to any more but I also immediately regreted it.”
During her visit to the UK this month, Hersh will play at Robert Smith’s Meltdown festival in London. She says she has never met The Cure singer but adds: “He’s been awfully nice in emails. I did not grow up listening to The Cure but kindred spirits are all over, certainly within different musical genres and they’re in different media. I have more in common with scientists than I do with most musicians so what I bring has an element of hiding and he seems OK with that which I respect. There are very few rock stars who are OK with the concept of hiding.”
Kristin Hersh plays at Square Chapel, Halifax on Monday June 25. Possible Dust Clouds is due to be released on Fire Records later this year. www.kristinhersh.com