Throwing Muses
Kristin Hersh
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"Kristin Hersh: Loose Timing" by Ryan Tranquilla, ca. 2001 (originally published on


The Second Annual Throwing Muses Gut Pageant arrived in San Francisco during the last weekend in May, as Kristin Hersh and her former bandmates spent three days playing music and mingling with excited fans. Hersh played one solo show each day from Friday through Sunday, with a special Throwing Muses reunion show on Saturday night; tickets were also available for a Saturday lunch with the band and an open soundcheck, plus a farewell continental breakfast on Sunday morning. A family feeling prevailed, with Hersh's husband/manager, two of her children, her dog and the other band members chatting with fans and friends. The loose soundcheck culminated in a Throwing Muses karaoke, with five thrilled (and slightly drunk) fans taking the stage to sing Muses songs with the band. The karaoke seems to have given Hersh a chance to rest while adding to the fan-appreciation aspect of the weekend; after returning earlier in the week from a European tour, her powerful voice sounded ragged. The crowd provided a predictably rapturous greeting to the briefly-reunited Muses when they took the stage at Slim's on Saturday night for a sold-out show, with two new songs spurring hopes of a new album ("Only if we find a sugar daddy," Hersh joked from the stage). Hersh sat down with Splendid before the sound check, while her two kids occupied themselves in the background.


Splendid: How was Europe?

Kristin Hersh: It was great! And I hate Europe. It's not Europe's fault, it has nothing to do with Europe. It's my experience of being dragged there since I was a teenager and not being allowed to eat or sleep for months at a time in a van with twelve people...coming back with diseases that I had no resistance to that would nestle in my lungs. I would just lie on the couch for a week holding my baby whenever I got home from Europe, and it became something that I just dreaded. I stopped looking at it. It was just touring, it wasn't the places I was visiting. This time we just drove the whole trip in our car with our kids and got to see the countryside and the villages and the architecture.

Splendid: You went everywhere. It was a big tour.

Kristin Hersh: We went everywhere, yeah. We usually go everywhere; we felt like we were missing things. We didn't go to Sweden for some reason, we had to cancel the Swiss show, and we only had two English shows. It was so nice to watch the kids learning the languages, and over the years we've made so many friends, and we suddenly thought, Wow, this is great, this is fun! We started to get Euro-envy, because there are things they do so much better than Americans. At least you feel you have more in common with them than if you were stranded in Idaho or something, you know.

Splendid: You've obviously talked in the past about how your songs write themselves, but after that, once the song comes to you, do you write the music first, do you write the lyrics first -- what about the physical process of writing the songs?

Kristin Hersh: comes first, and one of the melodies is like phonetic percussion and that becomes the lyrics. I gradually begin to take apart the syllables and realize that there are words. Not in time for me to take out the parts that would hurt other people's feelings, but they gradually evolve into something that makes more sense than the noise I hear at first. I suspect that in that unconscious process there's also a lot of conscious processes like editing (and) song-craft that I no longer see, that are just invisible to me, because they happen automatically. As such, I'm totally unaware of them; my impression is that I get a tune stuck in my head, and I have this "blah, blah, blah" bullshit lyric thing. You know, like when you get any song stuck in your head, you start making up words, like it's a Rorschach ink blot and those are my lyrics, the bullshit ones. (Laughs) Then sometimes it turns into something genuinely moving, sometimes something that pays the rent.

Splendid: In that construction, something certainly about the new album that struck me is the complexity of the arrangements on some of the songs, like "Ruby" or "Spain", that adds a guitar riff or a section and then the song sort of changes. Is that something that you craft or does that come, too, on its own?

Kristin Hersh: Yeah, that's the other side of it, I guess. The song is moving along at a certain pace and then it just stops, and the next thing I hear is's contrast inside (the song), I suppose, and it feels unfinished if you don't present that side, like it's not in 3-D yet. And also if you just kept going with that one style, whether it's big and loud or quiet and slow, it would get a little boring, at least to me.

Splendid: Do you think about playing when you're writing? Do you think about how the song's going to sound when it's delivered to an audience?

Kristin Hersh: I'm not aware of thinking that. When I had a band, I would begin to hear their parts. Actually, I probably still do, but I can't really have them. I wish they were still there. So I think there's a production hat that goes on right away too that I'm also not real conscious of.

Splendid: How do you like producing yourself, and playing all of the instruments? You're doing everything -- there's a lot of burden in that sense.

Kristin Hersh: I'm really shy though, so it's easier for me. And I can't afford to have a producer or a band, either! By now, a producer would just get in the way, unless I really wanted their style of production kind of pasted on top of what I do, because I think I'm difficult to work with in that regard. I'm nice, but I also know, "No, no, no, this is what the song means -- you don't know yet, but you will!" I think that's hard for people, to have their ideas erased. (Laughs) I'm shy; it's very easy for me to play a bass part, come back, listen to it, say "No, that sucks," erase it and do it again. Then lay over a vocal track, listen (to the) playback. It's a very...I don't even realize I'm working. For me to bring a session person in, hope their instrument sounded right, teach them the part I want them to play, hope they play it right, pay them money I don't have -- it would just be silly.

Splendid: Have you always been interested in it or have you just had to learn the technical side? Because the record sounds great, the production is fantastic -- I was listening to it this morning, cranked up, and it sounds very clear, a big sound. It doesn't sound like someone just decided, "Oh, maybe I'll produce myself," and walked in and did it. It sounds like you really know the mechanics.

Kristin Hersh: Ah, that's good. I've been doing it for so long that if I didn't it would just be sad. We've been recording since we were fourteen or fifteen years old, and at first we didn't realize you had to EQ every drum, you know, and then go on from there. Eventually we were taking days to EQ each kick drum, and that, you know, I don't do any more, except at first. I think I use kind of a jazz-miking technique, meaning you mic right over the set and you mic in the room and then you mic whatever drum's going to be focused on, and that's it. I don't want that perfect '80s drum sound, I don't like that. I'd rather have something looser-sounding, and this phantom band that I had in mind on this record I wanted to sound like a drunk '70s band, really loose in the middle of the night that no one had ever heard before, you know. That's difficult to pull off when you've been a rhythm guitarist for so many years. (Throwing Muses was) a power trio, meaning that everything had to be perfect, and it's really hard to introduce loose timing into that.

Splendid: Do you think of other records when you're recording? Do you think, "I'd like this to sound like..."?

Kristin Hersh: I think I might. I'm trying to remember; when I'm at that point in making a record it's a very different place to be. But yeah, I start...some things that I used to think were beautiful begin to sound ugly because they're not appropriate for my record. Like I don't want to listen to anything but sounds that are appropriate for this record, like Meat Puppets or Vic Chesnutt or Violent Femmes. But I wouldn't listen to bands that I love, like X, because that was not appropriate production. I think that what is most necessary to you is going to sound most beautiful. I believe that I live by that. That's why I don't know what I'm saying until the songs are already written, because the words sound very beautiful to me because they're very necessary.

Splendid: It's interesting to say that the words are beautiful because they're necessary, even though some of the words are not necessarily beautiful.

Kristin Hersh: Exactly, yeah.

Splendid: There are a lot of words about addiction and passive-aggression and all that stuff. Is that hard for you to present your work to other people? Like the artist's thing, once the artist does his/her work, and says "Here it is," to the world, and the world reacts and says, "Oh God, that's kind of pointed."

Kristin Hersh: Well, there are all different phases of that. My impression is that I work in a vacuum, and that the songs don't judge experiences positive or negative, they just make it strong. I am obsessed with music, I love what songs do, and I think they help me see these things in a better light. Then there comes a point where I have to do months of press tours, and it's okay to have conversations with people about music, and people are usually really good; I'm allowed to say no to some (interviews) now, so I don't really have to talk to people who don't get it. But if I read what people write -- record reviews, say, (from) people who haven't talked to me -- I just think, "Oh my God, they think I'm psycho!" I mean, they really do. I'm so nice, I'm so normal. (Laughs) All of the stuff I don't want in my personality goes into the songs, and yet they can't see me, all they see is all this mess in the songs.

Splendid: Yet it doesn't come out as a mess...

Kristin Hersh: I don't think so!

Splendid: I think it comes out very clear; even when it's angry or bitter or whatever, it's very clear, which I always thought was great about your work. It doesn't shrink from that negative side, but it presents it just as clearly as something that's more positive.

Kristin Hersh: That's nice to hear. I think that's how songs don't judge positive or negative, they just take experience and they make their own point with it. A lot of music journalists are used to immediately analyzing, and not really being affected by the music. And they don't necessarily trust me, so it's not necessarily a safe trip to take, to have your emotions manipulated by something that could be about something really horrible.

Splendid: Here's an interviewer question. Bob Dylan turning 60 brings up the question of aging, as a musician or artist. When you were a kid, what did you see yourself doing when you were in your 30s?

Kristin Hersh: I wanted to be a scientist my whole life. Well, not my whole life, obviously, but...

Splendid: In biology or chemistry? What kind of science?

Kristin Hersh: Biology. I was interested...I wanted to be an ethnologist and study animal behavior. I was on my way, I was in college when I was fifteen, I was a straight-A student. I was Lisa Simpson when I was a kid. Then suddenly, it was like a cork unscrewed, or like a coil unscrewed in my head, and I don't know if something went missing or if something was added. Music hit me really really hard. Songs started writing themselves and we put this band together, and I never really did anything else. (Laughs) Except have babies, which is kind of the same thing -- they're somewhat like songs. (Laughs) 'Cause they go off and never know what they're going to say, or what they're going to do -- you can't possibly feel responsible for them! I can't make a toenail -- but I've made 30 toenails in my lifetime! It doesn't make any sense. That's a good way to approach songs too. Kids teach you immediately that you are not the story, and that's a good perspective to have when you write songs. You shouldn't be writing a diary, you shouldn't be thinking, "I'm going to make the songs say this." You should be waiting to hear what the song has to say.

Splendid: I work in literature, and that's something that people seem to have a better grasp of with writing than music -- that there's a character. It's not just you pulling things out of a diary, it's something separate.

Kristin Hersh: Well, it's confusing for me, because they're all my stories, so they might as well be pages out of my diary. But I would not organize my diary that way, I wouldn't pick and choose among my life pictures the way the songs do. And they are all my life pictures, but the combinations, and the points they make with them, I'm not smart enough to make. I learn those things only after the songs tell me. So, I'm not sure if it is...maybe it's a character in the sense that it's the parts of me that other people could relate to, you know, that maybe I'm not the only one who's ever had those experiences. I haven't ever written a song about an experience I didn't have.

Splendid: I think that obviously a lot of people have had experiences that are similar, or the feeling, anyway.

Kristin Hersh: Yeah, the feeling, right; it's like a scrim, and you see your own pictures fall into place through that. Hopefully I don't get so specific that it would negate that effect. I've turned down Lilith Fair three years in a row because I don't want to associate myself (just) with women, and in that...that I'm a woman, but I think that's so beside the point. I'd hate to think that because I'm a straight white female I write straight-white-female-music for straight white females -- that's garbage. Songs don't give a shit about that, they just find somebody. I assume that if I wasn't musical the songs might turn into something else. If I knew how to dance I'd go dance them or something. I'm not particularly creative as a person. (Laughs) Like, I wouldn't do a dance, and I wouldn't paint a picture, and if it was a book it'd be really sucky... My point is that I really don't know what they are or why they turn out this way.

Splendid: Let me ask you one last question, about business. You seem very involved in your marketing and design, your website and all of that. Most artists aren't in control of their own destiny as they're put out into the world. What do you think about the future as record companies continue to consolidate, but people like you have a tremendous fan following outside of that system?

Kristin Hersh: My dream has always been to write songs and just kind of mail them out, not have to paste my picture and name to them and be talking about them. We've come a long way in that direction, given that with the band we used to make videos and shop them to MTV and they'd show them at 2:00 a.m.; we'd have to do radio tours, begging them to play the single, which was always a little bit stupider than the other songs. We'd do tens of thousands of dollars worth of photo shoots, you know, hoping to fool people into buying the record. And that's just no longer the case: I don't make videos, my husband takes my pictures. The website has allowed us to do MP3s, which is very very close to mailing out songs. (Fans) are supportive, they wanted to pay dues, so that I wouldn't run out of money and die the way the band did. Which is lovely, but would also be bogus, so we created the "Works in Progress" series, the MP3 thing, and charged money for (subscribers to download unfinished songs) just to pay studio costs so I wouldn't have to stop working. There's still a giant business that is taking a generation's sound away from it.