“When you are playing rock’n’roll in tiny clubs nobody notices if you are half blind up there,” she laughs. “After I had a hit with an acoustic album, I realised I had to be able to see what I was doing. Sometimes there were a thousand people at a show. Without my lenses I might fall off a stool or bang into a microphone. And believe me, that makes a really loud noise.”
Hersh is reminiscing about the mid-1990s and her top 10 record Hips and Makers. The record was an angsty, bone bare affair that hinted at what Norah Jones or Alanis Morrissette might sound like if they’d up been up all night crying themselves to sleep. Hersh enjoyed the success, but not to the point where she was willing to abandon her first love, noisy alternative rock. Two decades later, she continues to keep a foot in both genres. She is currently assembling a new solo project in the minimalist style of Hips and Makers whilst also finishing a plugged-in LP from her band Throwing Muses.
The mother-of-four also runs her own record label (her studio costs are paid for by fan subscriptions) and is working on the second half of her memoirs, the first volume having been a surprise hit last year. “I’m an idiot,” she laughs. “The new Throwing Muses record has 38 songs on it. We are a listener supported project. My fans are my patrons. Which is just as well. No record company would let you put out a record that long. They’d tell you that you are crazy.”
Through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Throwing Muses were, along with the Pixies and Husker Du, at the forefront of the American independent rock scene. However, they were never comfortable with fame and the greater their popularity, the more awkward their songs became.
Then, in 1995, she recorded Hips and Makers. The album yielded an international hit single Your Ghost, and featured a cameo from REM’s Michael Stipe (then one of the biggest rock stars on the planet). It could have made her the darling of the dinner party set. But she went back to churning out raw, angry Throwing Muses records, as well as launching an even louder side project, 50 Foot Wave.
Hersh has been garnering headlines for her autobiography, Rat Girl (in Europe it has been lumbered with the horrible, meaningless title Paradoxical Undressing). Chronicling her first year fronting Throwing Muses, the book tracks Hersh’s progress from her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, to her first stab at a rock career in Boston and New York. Rat Girl is more than a by-the-numbers rock memoir: Hersh also speaks frankly about her bi-polar disorder, a condition that has affected her since she was struck by a car at age 17. Written in an accessible first-person style, it offers a moving insight into mental illness, as well as capturing the chaotic energy of late adolescence. “I didn’t even mean to write a book,” she laughs. “For whatever reason I signed a two-book deal. For four years I struggled to turn my diary into what is essentially a non-fiction novel. For the first two years, I had to work hard at it not sucking.” She became an early riser. Getting to her desk at 2am, she would let herself be swept back to her misspent youth (at the end of Rat Girl, Hersh finds out she is pregnant, though she declines to identify the father).
So caught up was she in the past it never occurred to her that other people would be reading her reminiscences until the day her publisher delivered the finished book. “I came back from a European tour and there was a big stack of ‘em on my porch,” she laughs. “I realised for the first time I was going to have to hand-deliver it to a lot of people who were in it and still alive. And apologise if necessary.”
Hersh invests great thought in her songs. But she tends to let her career take care of itself. In fact, she almost didn’t release Hips and Makers, initially intending it to be a musical gift for her husband Billy. It took a phone call from Michael Stipe to change her mind. “I recorded some acoustic songs for Billy. He gave them to my business manager who lives in Athens, Georgia, and works with REM. So one day Michael swipes it off his desk and starts ringing me, telling me what I should do with this album. Then Warner Brothers got hold of it and they started calling. I kept saying, ‘this is not meant to be an album’. I thought they felt sorry for me.”
Eventually, Hersh agreed to put out the record, with the proviso she be allowed to spend a fortnight re-shaping the material (Warners wanted to issue the demos in their original form). “I never imagined those songs would be in stores, or there would be a single, or it would be the biggest thing I’d ever done. The weirdest part was having to get up there and play by myself. What I discovered is that there is a certain listener who prefers a pencil sketch to the bright colours of a painting.”
Such awkwardness has long been one of her most distinguishing traits. When Throwing Muses fetched up in Boston in the late ‘80s, dozens of labels vied for their signature. Hersh, though, wasn’t interested in a corporate record career, and in the end the band signed to an obscure British outfit called 4AD. Even that required some protracted wooing on the part of owner, Ivo Watts-Russell. “I’d never heard of 4AD,” she says. “Ivo was such a goof ball that when he was calling our apartment in Boston I thought he was waiting for one of the cute girls in the band to answer the phone. I was the one who kept picking up. It blew my mind that someone in England could have heard our demo. At the time we were talking to a lot of American labels. The deals they were offering were basically straight from Satan. 4AD offered us a one record deal, after which we could leave if we wanted. I grabbed hold of the opportunity. All of a sudden we were playing all over Europe. It was a trip, but I was too young to really take it all in.”
*Kristin Hersh plays the Spirit Store, Dundalk tomorrow; The Set, Kilkenny on August 21; Cyprus Avenue, Cork on August 23 and The Workman’s Club, Dublin on August 24.