An evening with Kristin Hersh

This week I was fortunate to meet the singer of bands Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave, as well as solo recordings. Kristin Hersh was bright-eyed and attentive in conversation, making time to speak with every one of the dozen who attended the night.

During a talk she recounted the scene in Boston near the start of her career, mentioning how important it had been that the bands had an “idiosyncratic sound”.

It was funny to hear her mention that for a long time she’d thought that Black Francis of The Pixies was a lesbian. Hersh mentioned that they’d talked often about how it was to be different.

“We were supported by this scene that allowed us to sound strange,” she’d said ahead of explaining a “glowing garbage” analogy where it was beautiful to be different.

“Pretty music is never going to resonate except in a superficial way,” she’d stated. Hersh discussed how she’d ask people why they liked the music. “They’d say ‘I wasn’t alone’” she recounted, which reminded me how much grunge had seemed to unearth an alienated generation. She described her music as “unattractive, but I had to make it.”

While she acknowledged how important the Boston scene had been to her career, Hersh didn’t see the support network as something that was as important these days. “A scene is something there isn’t much of these days, geographically anyway.”

Hersh was critical of her former label Warner Brothers. She mentioned the advice for songs offered by major labels amounted to “If it blows, it sells.” There was a pursuit of the lowest common denominator that had led to losing early followers. As a result Throwing Muses had found themselves excluded from the Boston scene. “Imagine the losers at your shows if you do what the major labels ask?”

In addition to disparaging the accounting practices of some record labels who would claim that an album was still in debt after paying itself off, she went even harder on the fashion industry. Hersh described that she knew all her physical flaws from appearing in photo shoots, as this industry relished in pointing out shortcomings.

When the opportunity arose to ask a question of her songwriting process, I was dumbfounded to hear Hersh describe it as a case of transcribing aural hallucinations. I’d known that misdiagnosed mental illness had been a theme in her career but didn't think I'd have so little scope to ask about creative processes.

“There’s something about the songwriting process that makes you want to die,” Hersh said later on. “The song exists and it says ‘go away now’.”

Other musicians in the audience asked questions on how to develop and she offered “You have to find your vocabulary to move people.”

“You’re not allowed to be relieved, that’s the listener’s job. You’ve got to crucify yourself. I know a lot of rock stars and they’re ridiculous… I know more successful homeless people.”

It seemed clear that she’d found more contentment outside the world of a recording artist. She explained that she’d been cured of aural hallucinations and no longer wrote songs. Writing books was now her focus and a story was shared about her moving on to editing proofs after performing a concert the night before.

I thought Kristin Hersh was thoughtful, honest and thoroughly charming. The two songs she performed were great, although the acoustic guitar sounded brash with bright new strings and over-powered her singing.