POSTCARDS FROM PURGATORY AND PARADISE: Throwing Muses

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Kristin Hersh resurrects the Throwing Muses name to return with an epic 32-song, 64-page music book.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

As a founding member of the Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh has spent her career on the outskirts of the music industry building a diehard following and anticipating changes in that industry before most.

In 1986, the Throwing Muses were the first American band signed to the British 4AD label, predating even the Pixies. And though the latter’s profile grew to legendary status, the Muses were arguably just as seminal an influence initially for the fertile 1990s independent music scene.

Throwing Muses 4ad era

Then, as though she had her ear to the tracks and knew what was coming down the line, Hersh created the ThrowingMusic label in 1996 with her husband/manager Billy O’Connell in order to have more control over the distribution of her own music. She was also one of the earliest artists to run a download subscription service. Ten years later, along with L7’s Donita Sparks, Hersh was ahead of the curve again in 2007 when the two co-founded CashMusic.com, a non-profit dedicated to building a free and open-source platform for musicians and labels to use in distributing, promoting, and selling their music.

In 2010, Hersh released her latest solo album, Crooked, as a book—the first time any major recording artist had taken such a step, according to her publicity. This groundbreaking book contained full color artwork, lyrics, and an exclusive essay on each song…and that was just the tip of the digital iceberg.  Each copy also came with a gaggle of online content, including the full album, full recording streams for every track allowing for fan remixes, track-by-track audio commentary, exclusive video content, outtakes, and a forum enabling fans to interact with Hersh, ask questions, and participate in live web chats.

In the interim, Hersh kept the Throwing Muses a viable recording and touring entity, launched a solo career, maintained a power-trio side project with 50FootWave, wrote a children’s book and penned an autobiography, 2008’s Rat Girl, acclaimed for its candid honesty and humor.

And Hersh accomplished much of this without even being aware of it – literally. Until just recently, the 47-year-old singer/guitarist hasn’t been writing songs so much as hallucinating them into existence. Hersh had been misdiagnosed for years with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia because she heard voices as music, and couldn’t remember writing or performing songs at all.

“I actually have a songwriting personality that has nothing to do with the ‘me’ with a name, so I don’t remember writing any of my songs and I don’t remember performing them,” she says. “It’s creepy, and I would shake off the whole exercise if I could, but it’s the way I’ve lived since I was about 14.”

But a year ago Hersh got a new diagnosis — dissociative disorder — and began a new therapeutic cure: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR. Patients relive traumatic memories using a bar of light and pulsing electrodes to physically alter the brain. Hersh says the treatment’s been difficult, but effective — her other personality held all her trauma and that’s where the music has come from. She recently performed solo shows in London without any of the debilitating stage fright that usually resulted in what she calls her “disappearing” into the musical personality.

Those emotional traumas still fuel the music on Purgatory/Paradise, the first original Throwing Muses songs in a decade. Together with fellow Muses David Narcizo and Bernard Georges, Hersh has released the music in the form of a book once again. Designed by drummer Narcizo, the 64-page book is a rich collage of lyrics, photographs, and compelling prose writing by Hersh. Every book comes with downloadable content featuring commentary, instrumentals, and the 32-song album (plus art) in multiple digital formats.

As for the music, the band sounds as sharp and barbed as ever. The tracks slither and wind between haunted acoustic vignettes and fractured song-shards of razor-guitar and percussion. Many clock in at 60 or 90 seconds, and a few recurring motifs give the LP a surprisingly brisk feel.  Hersh’s insomnia and anxiety have always fueled her songwriting’s tightly wound twists and gusts, which work best when contrasted with passages of calming or cathartic melodic beauty. There’s arguably more of that here than on any Muses LP since The Real Ramona.

Blurt caught up with Hersh in her Rhode Island digs — she lives there half the year and the other half in New Orleans — on a blustery day, where the band’s studio lies between Purgatory and Paradise streets. Kind, amicable, quick to laugh and whip-smart, Hersh discussed the Throwing Muses’ recording techniques, the new LP and its format, as well as her recent new diagnosis and treatment.


BLURT: Hi, Kristin – it sounds kind of blustery up there…

HERSH: Yeah, I just got a ‘weather alert’ on my phone to “get my old people inside.” If I had old people, I don’t think I’d keep them outside no matter what the weather was. National Weather Alert’s become an asshole, I guess.

 Isn’t that what we do with our old people anyway — just toss them outside when they start getting difficult?

 (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s right. When we lived out in the desert (Editor’s Note: Near Joshua Tree), there was this road called Old Woman Springs Road, and it was called that because it was where the Indians used to walk their old women out, as soon as they got useless, and they’d leave them out in the desert to die of exposure. The street name sounded so beautiful, like there’d be medicine women out by a creek or something; no, it was old ladies starving to death and burning to a crisp in the sun.

 Well, tell me about the genesis of the new Throwing Muses LP – which came first, the book or the music? Or were they entwined from the get-go?

 My last solo record I released as a book as well, just because I don’t like the idea of music being a little piece of plastic that nobody cares about — there was no CD, just a download code. The idea was divorcing something that I like to infuse with texture and substance from the little piece of plastic that none of us value anymore. So this was just the Muses’ version of that, which is of course much more realized and jam-packed. We had five years to make this, given that we’re listener-supported rather than on a record label — so a lot of what we do is erasing, editing. That’s because you have to feel out your chunk of granite and feel out what it wants to be. You don’t want to alienate anybody, you don’t want to end up with a product that’s stuck in time. So we do a lot of erasing. If they’d given us any more time we’d have erased the entire thing!

 What about the essays? Not a lot of musicians talk about what their lyrics might mean, or the genesis of individual songs.

 What you end up with is something that is full of holes, yet attractively so, I think. Yet after having written a book myself, I realize I’ve been speaking ‘music’ to people for many years and confusing the ones who don’t speak that language fluently. So when I spoke English to people it was interesting; they would respond instantly, and I didn’t really confuse anyone. So that’s what we were doing with the Muses record — not filling in the holes, but adding something next to them to help the listeners out a little bit. Dave’s visual elements seem to complement the currents in the music, they seem to reflect the visual elements in the essays. It all has to work together if you really stand by the idea that you are just giving something away, that you’re not attached to — you’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s a tough balance for us. Our pet name for Purgatory/Paradise is Precious/Pretentious, we’re so stuck in what we do and we’re so old we don’t even care anymore. We don’t apologize anymore. We love what we do and we just did it in three different ways this time.

 Tell us about the title…

 We live on Aquidneck Island. This is where we make our records and the band is based – so it’s a beach that’s near our studio which is where we go to recharge, and it’s in between Purgatory and Paradise roads.

 Thirty-two songs is a lot of songs – you’re sure this is about erasing?

 Yeah, but we started with like a hundred. Also, I mostly meant production elements; you try things and then you question their value. And hopefully you don’t end up with a top-heavy production, but you’re still trying to fill the song. Really, the test is, do you have skeleton and viscera, but no make-up and maybe no skin? That’s ideal. Sometimes you don’t get something that can walk around when you do that, but I really like to not pretty things up. I like to have beautiful and ugly going on and not a lot of pretty.

  You really sound re-charged on this record – it’s like you never left…

 We didn’t. We just decided that if we were being asked to tone down our product by the recording industry then we were morally bound to no longer participate in that industry. But we remained a band — music doesn’t care about the music business, so we kept playing and recording and even touring. We released an anthology, but all the stuff we were working on was not going to be released and we felt that that was a tragedy — but not a reason to stop playing. So we haven’t really left, we just don’t like the industry very much. And now it’s falling on its face, which it should have done a long time ago.

 It’s a strange time for music and the business of music….

 It is. I like that music’s available in the ether, in as much as it offers a musical education to anyone. And it lets people become musically literate while bypassing genre and era, which is what marketing is all about — it’s good to be able to not participate that way as a listener, too. We always hated it, we knew we never belonged in it, but we didn’t know what else to do.

 Tell us then about CashMusic….

 I started that about eight years ago, when I became listener-supported. I reached out to fans and said ‘how ‘bout you become my record company?’ It’s become a non-profit that offers free software to artists and even labels. It’s a great little company. You can Google the essay that I launched Cash with, it’s about art versus commerce, and it explains what Cash set out to do.  It is kind of worth reading because the state of the business back then for me is what it is now for everyone.

 How has it changed for you today?

 We can play the big markets, New York, Portland, Seattle, L.A., Chicago, Washington, Boston – but ticket sales are down as much as CDs, a lot of people don’t know that – they think, ‘oh, well, you can’t just sit at home and make your money anymore, you got get out there and work it!’ You know what? Touring was always promotional, we never made any money touring and now it’s even worse because nobody shows up.

 As you were erasing things in the studio, how did the prose writing progress?

 The writing has to be sitting in the atmosphere of a song and just chatting. I really couldn’t do more than that, because the song says its piece. I could hang out with the song and tell a short story or write some prose poetry that the song brought about. But I don’t know how to explain the songs. I generally have no memory about having written them. But the short stories are like, ‘ah, this reminds me of…’

        I have a split personality, so I have no memory of writing my songs. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was a misdiagnosis. I actually have a songwriting personality that has nothing to do with the ‘me’ with a name, so I don’t remember writing any of my songs and I don’t remember performing them. It’s creepy, and I would shake off the whole exercise if I could, but it’s the way I’ve lived since I was about 14.

 You’ve certainly had a love/hate relationship with music – maybe that’s too simplistic a way to put it, but….

 No, that’s a good way. That’ll work. It’s better now. I was treated for PTSD and it brought the two personalities together so I no longer suffer from anything like bipolar symptoms, and I don’t hallucinate the songs anymore. But this is a very recent development. I’ve made this record and the next few records that will be released — the next solos and the next 50FootWave — before the treatment, so I don’t really know what it’s like.

 What kind of treatment did you undergo?

 It’s called EMDR, a bar of light and pulsing electrodes that you hold and you relive traumatic memories as they are placed back in time in your perception. It actually alters your brain physically, and the changes continue long after the treatment. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s been hard. The whole thing has been hard. I didn’t like hearing songs, either, so I’ll be a healthier person now, but it’s been difficult. I’m not into freaky — I like normal, and kind, and this is sort of the opposite. But that’s what medicine is sometimes.  When I was treated for the PTSD, my bipolar symptoms went away, so that’s when the therapist recognized that I wasn’t bipolar. It was just a personality that has held all of my trauma, and that’s what the music was. I always thought it was songs, when it was just sort of another person I became. My drummer says, ‘yeah, I’ve known that for a long time.’ We took a walk by the ocean this morning and he told me that when we were 18 years old — ‘that you’re somebody else when we play and I can tell.’

      I suffered from debilitating stage fright that is now gone — I didn’t know that until I went to London last week and performed for the first time after this treatment. Because it was the ‘me’ with a name, who has nothing to do with music, that was so terrified. I’d be doing deals with God, ‘don’t make me go out there, I don’t know what to do!’ Because I didn’t know how to play, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But then as soon as I started to do a song…well, I call it disappearing. And I thought it was just intense focus, but it was the other personality who would just sort of take over when I was playing. That’s why when people would ask me what the songs are about, I’d say I have no idea — I don’t even know what you’re talking about. Journalists would quote my own lyrics at me and I didn’t know what they were saying. It should’ve freaked me out a little more, but you know, you don’t want to be freaked out. I’m really used to it, and Dave is used to it, and all the Muses are used to it. It makes me kind of sad, I suppose. I feel kind of grim about it. But I guess to lose stage fright and still have music, and to be a healthier person? That should’ve been my goal all along. I just didn’t know how to even hope for it.

 How long was the EMDR treatment?

 About a year. It was intense for about six months. It seemed to kind of just snowball though. The changes, they happen after the treatment, and continually. Every day you’re a different person. It’s good. I lived hung-over most of my life — I couldn’t even take an aspirin without having a hangover. I felt dirty all the time, I had to take four or five showers a day. Sometimes I couldn’t eat dinner because it would give me a hangover. I was poisoned by these traumas, because I carried them around. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to feel them, and then they go away. But instead this other personality just kept the traumas in me all the time. So I was full of pain and hurt and anger that I wasn’t even aware of. It was just poisoning me.

      So I feel clean now. I feel like, I don’t know, I don’t feel hung-over anymore.

 Hersh Photo Credit: Dina Douglass

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