Big Issue Vendor

Kristin Hersh: Major labels bank on the assumption that people are stupid

Crippling shyness and missing the 'cool' memo couldn't stop Kristin Hersh achieving indie-rock greatness. Here she speaks to The Big Issue in a Letter to My Younger Self

I grew in a hippie family on a commune. My parents were raised Southern Baptist on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee and had broken with that tradition to move into an empty barn in the woods with a bunch of people and a parachute on the ceiling. It was supposed to say ‘Be Together’ on it, but the guy who spray painted it was really high, so it said ‘Be A Tog Eater’ instead. We had rats in our kitchen and my parents would feed them, because they were hippies and rats are people too. I think they were right about that.

My parents gave me what I needed. And it’s very difficult to give a 16-year-old what she needs for a counterculture life. They played Jimi Hendrix and Appalachian folk songs and they were right about that too. There’s very little music in the music business, so they had chosen carefully to find some purity of expression. While on the surface it all looked crazy and ambiguous as a lifestyle, I had exactly what I needed to reach 16 and be in my band. ‘Be Together’ meant you live in a van with your bandmates. I’d think, ‘I’m garbage, I am a rat… but I’m people too’. And the visceral orientation between Jimi Hendrix and Appalachian folk songs was our shared language.

My bandmates were always protective of me. I’m very, very shy. You can see in early photoshoots that I’m always hiding at the back, barely peering around my fringe. On stage, I got to hide in noise even though I had to stand in the front and sing my songs and they were obviously autobiographical. My bandmates gave me the strength to be there at all. I would have just been lost in a room somewhere with all those colours around me if it wasn’t for them. So I was noticed because I hadn’t got the ‘cool’ memo, and then people listened. I still don’t know why. Even I find our first Throwing Muses record, which is pretty palatable compared to how we really sounded, to be unlistenable.

Kristin Hersh Throwing Muses
1989: Back where it all began with her Throwing Muses bandmates

I didn’t find the Boston scene exciting, I am just not made that way. I’m here for focus. I found the social thing off-putting. I didn’t like that there was a scene and there was hype, although it was an extremely supportive scene where you were supposed to create your own sonic vocabulary. So there was an interest in people who sounded like themselves. We played on bills with Dinosaur Jr, and Pixies and there was no headliner. The bands would come offstage and become the audience, some of the audience would go on stage and they’d be the next band. You could play all the time, and that’s beautiful.

As a teenager, I was friends with an old movie star, Betty Hutton. I had never heard of her, because you couldn’t Google stalk someone in the 1980s, but we went to college together. I was 15 when I started college and she was about 65, so we became friends because nobody else wanted to talk to us. She would call what I did, of all things, showbiz. I was a shy dork and to me it was nothing but music – and music didn’t belong in the public sphere. It’s like spirituality versus televangelism. Betty was interesting because she brought her humanity to an extremely shallow industry. She said, why would you play a song out loud instead of keeping it in your head? I would say, because I’m addicted to the guitar – but I’m not going to encourage people to listen by wearing lipstick!

The hardest part for me was getting trapped on a major label. I knew you shouldn’t engage with something this greedy, this shallow, this exploitative, but it happens. You’re advised you will bring quality to their quantity, so you begin with this enthusiasm. You say, here is some substance. But they bank on the assumption that people are stupid – and I kept fighting for the right to not make that assumption.

Kristin Hersh
2011: Reading from her memoir Rat Girl in Los Angeles

In America, politics is just another part of the entertainment industry. But sometimes you luck out with an anomaly like Obama. To be fair, all the entertainment industries have some substance, but music barely has any. I suspect that’s because it’s closer to prayer than any of the other disciplines – it is just so pure in its purest form that it’s the most bastardised. But the most damaging is the political sphere.

Only fuck with what doesn’t matter and only fuck who does. That’s a line I had to cut out of the new Throwing Muses single, Bo Diddley Bridge. I had to replace it with a guitar line for the radio. But that would also be the advice I gave my younger self about relationships.

My favourite record I’ve done is Power + Light by 50 Foot Wave. It is exactly what my younger self needed to hear. And it is what she should have been playing. But I hadn’t yet learned to edit. Songs were not just sacred to me, they had a control over me. I thought I wasn’t allowed to touch them. But you have every right to play with the clay and make it into colours. In truth, I love most of what I’ve done. When you’re not ambitious, and I’m not, there is no reason to do anything you regret. So even singles like Counting Backwards and Your Ghost I absolutely stand by. I never lied. Those songs are just more likeable. Some songs have an irresistible quality, and that’s magic. Others are not tasked with that, they’re complex or off-putting – but that’s who they are, and you have to let them be.

Kristin Hersh
2014: On stage with Throwing Muses in Manchester

A southern hippie childhood is like saying ‘you’re an animal, go outside and play’. But when you have a baby when you’re still a teenager, you think: “Oh my God, you’re alive and I have to keep you alive.” So although I passed on the southern hippie way to my sons, I said “You’re an animal, go outside and play… but I’m going to stand over you the entire time and hold your hand and we will talk about everything.” My parents told me I could be anything except unkind. If I gave my sons any advice it is that. I was an unbearably hands-on mother. Not in the new helicoptering way, in a let’s grow up together, side-by-side way, which is ongoing. My children and I are still growing up. Let’s talk about it and let’s hold hands. We’ve got this, cos we’re still here…

The new Throwing Muses album Sun Racket is out on Fire Records on September 4