Interview With Kristin Hersh

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photo via flickr by nicihares

With her unique voice, her wonderful guitar playing, and her special ear for poetry, Kristin Hersh has been one of my favorite artists for some time now.  She’s a performer and a writer, a mom and a philosopher.  She’s a co-founder of cashmusic.org, a website that allows fans to help artists fund and distribute their music. With everything on Kristin’s plate, I thought it was a long shot that she would be able to answer my questions, but it turns out she’s a hell of an interviewee too. I hope you enjoy reading Kristin’s answers as much as I did.

When did you begin playing and why?

My father taught me a few chords when I was six years old and I started taking lessons a few years later. I was absolutely driven to handle that guitar, wanted desperately to tame it and make wonderful noise, but I was frustrated to learn that there were rules associated with the instrument (and music in general!). In the interim between learning the chords with which my father was familiar and taking classical guitar lessons, I invented chords, shifted from time signature to time signature, and just generally broke rules. Taking lessons separated me from this musical vocabulary that had moved me so when I was younger and it took years to get it back. I had to “forget” the rules in order to speak my own language again.

What was your first guitar, and how did you get it?

My father gave me his nylon-strung Yamaha when there was nothing more he could teach me. I was still frustrated, trying to make the guitar sound the way I wanted it to, and he knew I’d be restless unless I was allowed to explore the instrument until I found the sound I was looking for, so he just handed it to me one day, told me to “play colors.” My first electric guitar was a Strat knock-off, “Lake Placid Blue,” as I recall. It served me well until I could afford a real Strat and then a really lovely Les Paul I bought at my favorite guitar shop. Aerosmith was supposed to buy it, but they hadn’t picked it up yet, so the guy sold it to me.

What equipment do you prefer now? Which guitar? What amps, cables, pedals? Why? Has this changed over time?

I play a Strat and a Telecaster with Throwing Muses; SG’s and a Les Paul with 50FootWave; and Collings C-10’s solo.

In the studio, I use whatever vintage amp is sounding wonderful that day, but on tour, I bring more reliable, standard-issue amplifiers, the make depending on the sound I need for the record I’m touring. Because I’m the only guitar player in my bands, I need versatile amps that will allow me to play both rhythm and lead. I’ve been through hundreds of amps, but never stayed in love. I’m still searching for that perfect combination of character and reliability.

My pedals are all over the map. My favorite is an ancient Electro-Harmonix fuzz-wah that I used for Throwing Muses and now have moved over to 50FootWave. It sounds so wrong–crushing compression and wooly lows. I used the one at Kingsway, a studio in the French Quarter of New Orleans, years ago and loved it, but couldn’t manage to find one as fucked up as that one for myself.

Last summer, a friend who’d toured Europe with us and heard me lamenting this fact, found me an ancient, fucked up, Electro-Harmonix fuzz-wah and sent it to me for my birthday, which is how I can use it for 50FootWave. I am now complete!

Mudrock, 50FootWave’s producer, has a collection of Japanese effects pedals, but he doesn’t play guitar and doesn’t read Japanese, so he doesn’t actually know what they do. When I play a 50Foot lead, I plug a mound of them in and Mud crawls around on the floor, pushing pedals down with his palms. It’s hilarious and almost always sounds wonderful.

Can you tell me a little about your songwriting process?

I seem to turn ambient noise into songs. Sounds are replaced by instruments and voices. I hear all this and copy it down, usually at 4 a.m.

I don’t have much to do with my songs. My job is to listen, really. And that’s good, because it keeps evils like cleverness and ideas out of the process. My songs can be pure because I have so little to do with them.

Initially, this made me sound crazy. When I was younger, people really seemed to think that my songs were psychotic, and they may have been. Now that I’m older, I don’t believe we’re here to puke art fits at each other–you aren’t supposed to say EVERYTHING, you know? The only things I didn’t say were lines that’d freak me out too bad to include. So now I edit a little more. But I censor less, if that makes any sense. If the song wants to say something, I no longer freak out and suppress it. I figure the song knows best, whether or not it embarrasses me.

On Cats and Mice, you have this amazing version of The Banks of The Ohio. Before I heard yours, I had never heard a version from the perspective of the woman. Can you tell me a little about how you came across that version, I think it was your grandmother’s?

My family is from Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and that’s where I learned all the Appalachian folk songs I know. My father taught me most of them; I guess he learned them from his parents. My grandmother was a freaky Jesus lady, but a great example of what the American south can turn you into. She was nuts and gentle and democratic and oddly violent, like the songs she sang.

What are you working on right now?

I’m mixing a new Throwing Muses record with 38 songs on it (nobody can tell us what to do anymore! or, more importantly, what NOT to do!), and helping sequence a Throwing Muses anthology. 50FootWave is about to begin its second session for “With Love From the Men’s Room,” a record that will be released as a film, and this summer, I’ll begin recording another solo album that looks like it’ll just be guitar and cello.

I’ve spent most of this year doing promo for my book (“Rat Girl” in the U.S., “Paradoxical Undressing” in the UK and its territories), plus live readings in a multi-media show from the same book. WAY outside of my comfort zone. So I’m writing another book–two books, actually, can’t decide between the two–but I’m so enjoying being in the studio again. It’s like a warm bath after all the grown-up literary events I’ve done this year.

Name one or two (or more!) artists (musicians, writers, visual artists) you find inspiring. Why?

I love Natalie Angier, the science writer, because her poetic nature so compliments her concrete subject matter. I feel more like a scientist than an artist; measuring and serving the messy music beast in my laboratory/studio. Natalie Angier’s books and articles remind me that that is a fiery role to play. You never wanna get cold when doing what you love.

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