In 2007 Kristin Hersh started work on what was, tentatively, to be her eighth solo album, Speedbath. The album was intended for release via CASH Music, a non-profit Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders Hersh founded as an alternative to the careworn corporate models of the record industry. Despite having the blueprints of a Throwing Muses record, the project ultimately remained a predominantly solo endeavour, with some of the songs ending up on Hersh’s actual eighth long-player, a book-CD combo titled Crooked, while others were shelved. That is, until now.
Back with a staggering 32-track collection of new music, Hersh and Throwing Muses have transformed some of the Speedbath demos, which – alongside a slew of new compositions – appear on Purgatory/Paradise, a deluxe 64-page book and a full studio album on CD. This format, which comes out this week on HarperCollins’s experimental imprint, The Friday Project, features essays, lyrics, art and photography from both Hersh and the Muses’ David Narcizo.
This evening (28 October) Hersh celebrates the release of Purgatory/Paradise with a special acoustic session and book-signing at Rough Trade East. Londonist met with the rock legend in Covent Garden – one of her favourite areas in London – ahead of this special appearance, to find out more about the new album and book.
What made you decide to give songs like Slippershell, Opiates and Speedbath a Throwing Muses treatment rather than keeping them as solo releases?
I write 50 Foot Wave songs on my SGs or my Les Paul [Gibson guitars], I write Throwing Muses songs on my Telier or my Strat and I write solo songs on my Collings guitars. So I knew they were Throwing Muses songs all along but I didn’t think I had Throwing Muses itself because, in order to participate in this industry, we would have had to dumb down our product. So we felt morally bound to continue playing but not publish the music we were playing. We played shows, we played by ourselves, we did some recording but not for release.
And so when the CASH Music project wasn’t realised but turned out to be fairly sustainable as a venture I called Dave [Narcizo] and Bernie [Georges] and said: I have a lot of Throwing Muses songs, I keep trying to play them in 50 Foot Wave and solo and they sound really, really lame. If – ellipsis - [laughs] - then, would you – ellipsis – and they said yeah. So, because of CASH Music we were able – slowly – to make a record. We funded the basics and then did the overdubs, mixing and mastering. The next thing we need to fund is publicity. And then we will have erased the whole concept of a record company for ourselves.
When did you realise that that concept didn’t work for you and that you needed to work out a new way of putting out music?
It was before we signed with anyone. I mean, I was 14 and I knew it was never gonna work.
It worked with 4AD for a while, though, didn’t it?
Yeah but I didn’t know it would. I didn’t believe it. I thought we couldn’t sign with a record company. We recorded by lots: Capitol, Arista – all of them. And I just said – it doesn’t work. You companies need people who will follow trends, who put style over substance, who do fashion shoots. And then 4AD came along, Ivo [Watts-Russell - founder of the label] said: let’s just do one record. And well, that solved the problem [laughs]. Let’s just do one record at a time. And then we fell into the hands of Warner Brothers and everything went into shit again. Which I knew would happen. Throwing Muses sort of reformed to be a band who didn’t play the game. We made [1992 album] Red Heaven and never played the game again. And, of course, we ran out of money. I fought our way over Warner Brothers. I gave them Hips and Makers in return for our freedom. And we struggled until there was no way to record or tour anymore. So we’ve just been playing music until now.
The burgeoning reality for musicians is that there are few sustainable options for making a record and then taking it on the road -
And it’s also no longer a celebrated culture, live music. Except for the crap stuff. It used to be an aspect of our sub-culture that one bought recorded music and saw live music. It’s part of that big giant falling on its face – the corporates should never have played a role in it anyway. I feel lucky that right now I have a product and it doesn’t lie for a minute. I think the future of music is probably all of us having day jobs and playing whatever the hell we want to. Just like it was before there was a music business.
Purgatory/Paradise follows the route you took with your last solo album, Crooked, in that it comes out as a book and CD. Has it been easier dealing with a book publisher rather than a record label?
It was supposed to be. Ultimately, it’s just like dealing with a good record company [laughs] because we had to create a new concept of release. And because this record is supposed to be a keyhole view into our stupid little island where the music happens, a book is a nice textural and visual vehicle to show the layers behind the songs. It’s not just what is happening in the musical ether but also our goofy lives. There’s nothing cool about it, but it’s a world, a realised world. A book is so quiet, it’s not plastic and I like that you can give it to somebody.
Do you think that this format takes the music into another, different form of art?
Yeah. It is to us. And so when we listened to this material and thought it’s – not unrealised but – unfinished, we thought we could use my writing and Dave’s graphic design to complete the picture. There were holes in the presentation, which I adore. But having written my book and seeing what effect speaking English has on people as opposed to speaking music – which is the only language I am fluent in – I thought, ok, I’ll add some English. I can sit next to the song and tell a story. And it so deeply reflects the way that these particular songs have worked together. The way that a bridge will appear as a chorus, as an instrumental until it’s a closed circle. The essays started doing the same things, with the same thematic currents. Dave’s images reflect us seeing thematic currents.
In the book you state: “Dave says Purgatory/Paradise is “fractured” and I agree, though I think it also sounds “shattered”, which is maybe less premeditated”. Is the division in the songs something you noticed coming about very early on when working on this project?
It started happening – I knew that we had to record it without a click-track and I needed to put my parts down first, otherwise it wouldn’t have that sort-of wave-like feel. So everything except for the drums and bass. And Dave then had to play the drums to that. Which is bumpy and it gives for a nice Velvet Underground swampiness. You can’t fake it. When you have a click-track there is no way of bringing back that feeling. By the time Dave started playing on it, the songs had already started dividing themselves. Dave is really good at the overview, the big picture and he says it’s 70s filmic, it’s real, with no apologies. It’s just exactly as it should be. We had four years to make sure there’s nothing else we can erase, nothing else we can add.
Which of the 32 tracks do you consider to be the song that started this project off?
Well, Dave says that Slippershell should never have been a solo song. Which I knew, but I didn’t think there was a Throwing Muses possibility. And I said – you know, there’s another 75 of those if you wanna hear them! [laughs]. And we started taking them apart.
One of the songs from that era that you released to your fanbase was Gin. Again, this was ostensibly a solo demo that sounded more like a Throwing Muses song. Was it considered for this record?
Aww, I love Gin! This was considered for my next solo record but yeah it sounds like this stuff. But it wasn’t working with the flat layers of electric so I am trying to put it on this new solo record that I am making. We are putting out a song a month on the website and then a secret song for Strange Angels [Hersh's fan-club] so if you count ‘em, there’s 24 songs which is like two records [laughs].
How much do you think your work on this next solo record, Spark Meet Gasoline, was influenced by Purgatory/Paradise?
Usually it’s the opposite, you want to try and complement the last thing you did by contrasting. But it’s definitely part of a wave of sound that was going on. It’s just that there’s something so distinctive about solo material, for me. I don’t know how to be objective about it. But for me the production is completely different. It’s about drying things and texturising them – the guitar has this foam under the strings and duct-tape under the strings, things are made percussive. Whereas the Muses are about the room, a melody but in a large room. A little bit more jarring. It’s about atmosphere.
In January your debut solo release, Hips and Makers, turns 20. Earlier you mentioned creating it as an offering to Warners in return for the Muses’ freedom. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Had you not planned to go solo anyway?
Oh no. I was tricked into it. I recorded acoustic songs for my husband, Billy, and he – being one of our managers – sent them to our business manager who worked with REM in Athens. Michael Stipe took the tape off the desk and sent [the songs] to Warner Brothers, our shared label. They said: oh ok, we’ll release this. And I was, like, WHAT?! It’s like someone coming across your diary and publishing it. No, no, no! I mean, I thought they were feeling sorry for me, actually. But they said, no – we wanna release this. So I said, ok, well let me go into the studio and actually make a solo record and then you can release that. But first let me talk you out of this. You don’t have to feel bad for me. I’m not into self-expression and certainly not into writing my name on a record. That was really hard. I’d been hiding behind the words Throwing Muses for so many years… and then they just put my name on the cover! And I was, like – what are you doing? No! And they said, well, whose name did you think was going to be on it?! I don’t know, give me a minute, I’ll call you back! [laughs].
And it was very successful. In fact, your most commercially successful record, to date -
Yeah and also successful musically. Now I appreciate those layers and textures that you can achieve acoustically. I didn’t before.
Do you think that the Kristin Hersh who released that record in 1994 is vastly different from the Kristin Hersh of today?
I wrote a teenage diary that I had turned into a non-fiction novel [2010's Rat Girl] and people would tell me on press tours for that: wow, you’ve really captured the voice of a teenager. And then they’d actually do the interview with me and go: oh, you didn’t capture the voice of a teenager – you just didn’t grow up! And I’d be, like, yes I know! [laughs].
But I’m more like her than I am the Kristin of 1994, because my oldest son – he was kidnapped by his own father and taken away and hidden. The police came and served me papers, saying that I had abandoned him, giving me a restraining order and keeping me away from him. His father had taken all the money out of my bank account, sued me for child support and I lost it. I developed post traumatic stress disorder and my personality divided in two.All the bad stuff went into music and then the good stuff was just a cerebral person that couldn’t deal. So I no longer had any memory of writing songs or performing them. And the rest of my life could be spent not letting ugliness affect people around me. Or even me.
Unfortunately, as successful a defence as PTSD is, it keeps you in the time of the nightmare. So I couldn’t be made to understand that it wasn’t going on, so I always thought it was that time. A child crying could make me vomit in a grocery store. It could make me faint or start sobbing. The PTSD made it impossible for me to fight bi-polar symptoms. I have just been treated for it, this past year, with this bizarre therapy called EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing], which is flashing lights on a bar, while you hold electrodes and watch the lights, reliving the memories. For me it’s taken a year, I suppose.
And you found the treatment to be effective?
It cured me. But I have to live those feelings now. So I am much more like that rat girl than I am that person who couldn’t function back in 1994.
There was a song on Hips and Makers called The Letter which you had famously said you couldn’t bear to play live because it upset you too much. A few years ago, during your Learn To Sing Like A Star tour, you faced that demon and performed it. What made you change your mind?
I actually wrote that song when I wrote the Muses’ first record, living in an apartment called The Doghouse and I was manic and not understanding what was going on. I thought it was haunted. I just got lost in the music and I wrote that whole record including The Letter. The Letter didn’t make it onto the record. But Billy talked me into putting it on Hips and Makers. I performed it once and they used that recording, I never did it again until I had my friends with me for the last tour. I had the strings section of the McCarricks, the 50 Foot Wave rhythm section and Bernie from Throwing Muses so I had all the love all around me and they came to me and said we think this is the time that you can do this and it’ll be ok.
And it was never ok. But I didn’t break down. But most of that is because of the PTSD separating the personality – I wasn’t me, I was in the song. The person who had written that song was trauma. She just lived it. So you see me on stage – I am not upset, I am just in it. The more cerebral me – well, now they are combined – couldn’t handle any of it. Now the two personalities have been integrated and I can’t disappear anymore so we’ll see what it’ll be like. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, the first EMDR treatment was for losing my son and the second one was to integrate my two personalities and that’s only been about a month or two, so it’s still fresh.
Will there be a full-blown tour with the band?
Yeah, it was supposed to be now but Bernard cut his thumb in half at work and has lost some of its dexterity and it won’t be healed until January/February so we had to push it back.
Do you think you’ll be visiting London with it?
Do you remember the first show you guys played here?
Yeah, it was with the Cocteau Twins. I don’t remember when it was [Londonist's research suggests 16 November 1986 at the Forum] and we tried to watch them sound-check but Liz had us removed. I don’t think she was being mean, I just think she was shy. And we were enthusiastic children so I don’t blame her at all.
A few years ago you took part in Patti Smith’s Meltdown in the Southbank Centre. Would you ever curate such an event yourself?
Those things are fun to do because they’re low pressure. But I am not really good at being lumped in with the women. I’m just not one. [laughs]. I don’t fit in.
You were thrown in among Tori, Beth Orton, Sinead O’Connor, Marianne Faithfull and Yoko Ono -
Yeah, the women. You know, people can divide themselves whatever way they want, it’s up to them. I thought we were against gender segregation but whatever! The problem with those is that they always want to do a finale. I think those finales are so lame. It’s always like a Bob Dylan or Neil Young song and some people sing verses and then you all sing the chorus together and it’s just so lame. So usually what I say is – I’ll do that, but don’t make me do a finale. So if I curated one of those it would only be with people who’d agreed with me about a finale.
Lastly, when do you think we’ll get Spark Meet Gasoline?
I don’t know. There’s a new 50 Foot Wave record coming out first, so we’ll see.
Purgatory/Paradise is out tomorrow on The Friday Project. Kristin Hersh launches the album tonight at Rough Trade East. Details HERE. You can watch the new Throwing Muses video for single, Sunray Venus, here.