After the flood
This article is from 2008.
From Throwing Muses to baking cakes, Kristin Hersh has always done things her own way. But why is the self-proclaimed shy person going public about her bipolar disorder, asks Rachel Devine
To the casual observer, Kristin Hersh is a bundle of contradictions. Just seconds into our conversation she is gabbing away like an old friend, expounding on her one-woman show Paradoxical Undressing, the tale of a tumultuous teenage life when, in the space of a year, she hit the big time with her band Throwing Muses, was diagnosed as bipolar and discovered she was pregnant. It’s an intimate and candid portrait – with musical accompaniment – of a woman who claims to loathe talking about herself.
‘Like most of the things I do this was my husband and manager Billy’s idea,’ she drawls over the telephone from her home in California. ‘I don’t think I do anything on purpose – I don’t have any ideas.’
This is Hersh at her most charmingly self-deprecating. It’s nonsense of course – her place in the canon of underground rock is already guaranteed. Throwing Muses, like their contemporaries The Pixies, Breeders and Sonic Youth, belong to that semi-mythical era in the late-1980s and early-1990s when lo-fi launched itself into the mainstream and paved the way for the ascent of grunge. It’s a tale well worth telling on its own and Hersh’s unorthodox life story makes it all the more riveting. But why would Hersh – shy to the point of nervous wreck – choose to tell it all?
‘Last year I was asked by five different writers for permission to ghost write my memoirs,’ she says. ‘I have no idea why they all seemed to come up with that idea at the same time. I was touched and said yes to all of them until I found out that it meant hours and hours of interviews and I’m not good at talking out loud. As a shy person I don’t like talking, particularly about myself or my feelings.’
She politely declined and thought that would be the end of it – but her husband had other ideas. ‘He told me the book still needed to exist so now I had to write it,’ she giggles, sounding at least two decades younger than her 41 years. ‘So I reworked my teenage diaries into something a little more informative than a diary would normally be. Being somebody who is afraid to speak, even at the grocery store, it was not my idea to turn it into a spoken word performance. That was also Billy’s idea. I just nod and smile and do what he says.’
In control of her own story, Hersh was determined to be as forthright as possible without dwelling on the more troubling recollections and, in particular, the battle to control her bipolar disorder. It’s not in her nature to look back in anger. The songs span her music career because, she says, her life has been all about music.
‘There’s a history of musicians being very whiny and self-centred about their story because the church of the rock star begs them to be that way,’ she says flatly. ‘I didn’t want that to colour the story I was telling. There are moments of drama in everybody’s life but I wanted it to be clear I never felt sorry for myself. I was worried that if one of these kind writers were in charge of the story they would make it seem otherwise, that I was living a harder life than I should have been. I didn’t feel that way at all – it was just life.’
Hersh premiered Paradoxical Undressing in Glasgow in March, so by the time she brings it to the Edinburgh Fringe in August she will have relived one of the most difficult periods of her life several times over. ‘We decided to debut the show in Glasgow because it has a literary crowd that’s tuned into the music scene,’ she says. ‘The people are smart and funny and I don’t know anyone there, which was important to me.’
The story might not have been told at all were it not for Hersh’s razor-sharp memory. The original diaries were destroyed in a flood in 2005 and Paradoxical Undressing is written completely from memory. She is in the process of turning it into a book but is tweaking all the time.
The title refers to a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in the latter stages of hypothermia. Disorientated and confused, the body fools the sufferer into feeling hot and they remove their clothes, often expediting death. It’s the perfect title for the memoirs of a self-confessed introvert. It was also an opportunity to reacquaint herself with the teenage Hersh.
‘I kept those diaries in a superstitious way, almost to keep history from repeating itself,’ she says. ‘When I lost them in a flood I felt only bitterness, as if “good riddance, let that year drown”. I used to think it made me evil or at the very least annoying, but now it seems so clear that what had happened to that girl was not her fault.’
The experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one for Hersh. The only time she felt remotely emotional was when her eldest son Dylan drove unannounced from New York to Detroit to see the show. ‘I choked up at the point where I’m describing the blue vial of fluid that meant I was pregnant,’ she says. ‘I realised the whole human that he became was in the room. I suddenly felt the majesty of a human life – the baby who saved my life and grew into an incredible man.’
There is an impression that Paradoxical Undressing represents the drawing of a line for Hersh, now a mother of four sons for whom she ‘bakes manically’. She is still making music, of course, and as well as the occasional Thowing Muses get-together she plays with the power punk trio 50ft Wave, while her solo material is released on CASH Music (Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders) a co-operative that allows fans to download music for free, for a financial contribution of their choice or to set up a regular subscription. Not many take the something for nothing option. Radiohead eat you heart out.
‘I’m now entirely supported by fans,’ she says triumphantly. ‘It’s such a nice elegant response to a very ugly business that got even uglier when it fell apart.’
Hersh releases a song a month on CASH and at the end of the year she will release all 12 songs as a CD album. It is her reaction to the disintegration of the grassroots music industry. She is inundated with bands who want to be part of a new musical revolution. The underground will recover, she says, but it may take a while. ‘The true carnage happened in the trenches and that’s unfortunate,’ she says. ‘The real musicians are not the popular ones, the real record stores are not the ones that make money, the real radio is actually good and therefore dead now. It will all come back – these are early days but we are hopeful. Good music will always be around even if we can’t expect to make a living from it. You can make a living from it if you suck, but I’m not really interested in sucking.’
Where Hersh is concerned, some things never change.
Kristin Hersh – Paradoxical Undressing, Cabaret Voltaire, 0844 499 9990, 13 Aug, 7pm, £10; St Cecila’s Church, 0844 499 9990, 17-23 Aug, 7pm, £11.