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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Kristin Hersh: The Powells.com Interview

Kristin HershIn 1981, Kristin Hersh founded the iconic band Throwing Muses, along with her stepsister Tanya Donelly (later of Belly and the Breeders). She went on to record several solo albums and form a new band, 50FootWave. Throwing Muses' sound is unlike any other band's — at once delicate and jagged, hard-hitting and beautiful, it's known for its shifting time signatures, unusual chord progressions, and, above all, Hersh's distinctive and intense singing voice and candid, moving, and sometimes surreal lyrics.

Rat Girl, Hersh's first book, is a memoir of 1985, the year Throwing Muses recorded their first full-length, self-titled album for 4AD Records. It's also the year Hersh had her first child and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Mary Gaitskill writes:

Although Rat Girl is supposedly about what we call, for lack of a better term, "manic depression," it has nearly no interest in such grim diagnostic thinking. It is instead awestruck -- by music, feeling, perception, wild animals, mystery, dreams, "the gorgeous and terrible things that live in your house." It is an original beauty.

Though it takes as its setting a particular year in an unusual life, Rat Girl is an incredibly moving and universal coming-of-age story that could change the way you encounter the world.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jill Owens: As you write in your introduction to Rat Girl, you've said that you'd never write a book and that you're not in the business of publishing pages from your diary. So, what made you decide to revisit and rewrite this diary now?

Kristin Hersh: The dumb answer is that a handful of writers approached me offering to ghostwrite my memoir. I don't know why. There must have been a story published that I didn't see that made my life sound interesting.There must have been a story published that I didn't see that made my life sound interesting.

But I'm doormat nice. I'm such a loser that I didn't even think about it. I just said, "Oh, sure, that's so sweet." Then I found out that such an endeavor would entail hours and hours and hours of interviews. One guy actually implied that he would move in with me for a while. I am so not about that, and so I just stopped returning their phone calls. [Laughter]

Then, management noticed there was no longer a book and decided that someone had to write it and that would probably have to be me because I was the only person I was willing to talk to. And the only book I'd ever written about my life was that diary. So, that's the stupid answer, but, ultimately, I'm glad I did it because it encapsulated an interesting time, a universal time, when things begin.

I don't know if the time I'm talking about is specific to 1985 or one's 18th year, or a stage in your life when your story begins to tell itself, but it's such an optimistic moment in one's life when things begin.

There can be no moral. There can be no real evaluation of that moment, because it hasn't quite kicked in. But we, my bandmates and I, were so enthusiastic. We were so enraptured of how we were. We embraced that moment.

And I really appreciate that about us. It was a year that I had turned into this idea of shame that was lived by a person that I never wanted to be, that I longed to forget, that I kept secret.

Ultimately, after reading the book, I thought, "Oh, well. We were as sweet as pie. That's so nice." What happened next is a different story. [Laughter] But, it's a triumphant book because it stops before anything really happens.

Jill: It is a triumphant book, and the voice and tone are so innocent. In some ways, it's very funny and knowing, but at times — especially in the beginning — your voice does seem younger than 18.

Hersh: Yes. The temptation to make it a better book was strong, but I don't think it would have been a better book, you know? The voice was only believable as it was. I was smart but naive. And I embraced everything. The worst that happened that year was just going numb.

It's strange to see how writing changes on drugs, or during mania, or just because it's a dumb kid. And it's probably good for anybody to notice that their voice changes according to outside factors.

Jill: Did your handwriting actually change?

Hersh: Oh, yeah. It was scary looking. It looked like heart monitors. The more manic I was, the more the heart-monitor thing kicked in. At first, in the diary, I was very polite, because I was practically writing an essay for my painter friends. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know what a diary was. I had seen them on The Brady Bunch.

I didn't know what to talk about, so I wrote it like a book. And, then, of course, I tried to write a book later, and I could only write it like a diary. [Laughter]

Jill: What was the process of editing and rewriting it actually like? How did you fill in the gaps, and also choose which gaps to leave in?

Hersh: That's a very good question. That was really the entire writing process, trying to leave the right gaps and fill in the others. It was quite an impressionistic treatment at first. The book that Penguin... I don't know what you call it in publishing, signed? That book was very impressionistic, and I found during the editing process that they were interested in having lots of the holes filled in. But I was reluctant to do so, because I thought the story was more beautiful with all the holes in it. What I did to make up for that reluctance — to help the reader out — was to walk into every scene and try to bring it to life. The only way I could do that was to write at night.

I would put the kids to bed and sleep a couple hours. Then, I'd get up at one in the morning and work until the kids got up. It was so quiet, and so... I don't know how to describe it. I had spirals for eyeballs. It makes you hear voices that are gone and remember moments that you haven't had to recall since they occurred.It makes you hear voices that are gone and remember moments that you haven't had to recall since they occurred.

Now that my bandmates are reading it, they're saying, "I know all this, but I don't think about it. It just comes true for me when I read it," which is what I had to make happen while I was writing, at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. in New Orleans, trying to live through 1985 again.

It was addictive. I miss it, because I got to go back and see Betty, and hear her voice, and remember her odd, jerky movements and her liquid, sad eyes. I wouldn't have had the chance to recall all that, and it was very much like spending time with her again. Also, it was great just to remember us. I adore my bandmates. We're still all very close, but I miss the kids they were then.

I hadn't really seen all the changes in us because they happened so gradually, and because I continued to love them. I didn't need any reason to be objective; they were just themselves. This process was bittersweet in that.

Jill: That's interesting that you wrote between one in the morning and whenever the kids got up. That's recreating, in a way, the conditions under which the diary was originally written, when everyone else was asleep.

Hersh: That's a good point. That's when songs come, too. I'm used to being awake when nobody else is. But I definitely had to learn to turn a craft into — I can't use the word "art," but to be inspired by the craft. I'm not a writer by nature. But when the moments began to come through, it was easy to let the words spill out. It'll never be like songs are. The text had been formed by real moments. That's really the best that I could do. That was the occasion I had to rise to.

Jill: Your friendship with Betty is at the heart of the book in a lot of ways. It's why you describe it as a love story, in part. Could you describe how you met?

Hersh: Oh, she was just nuts! [Laughter] In the best way. But she was also heartbreaking. You would know when she walked into the room that she was different from all other humans, and there aren't many people like that. Particularly ones who tried as hard as she did to fit in. But she sort of came across like a drag queen. The way she applied her make-up and dressed was very "Broadway." Her voice was manly.

She was fragile in that very specific drag queen way, the beautiful eyelashes and then, right beneath them, this pinpoint of crucifixion. That was big. The day I met her, she just enveloped me in a bear hug. She told me that nobody could fuck with us. It's like, "Dude, this is the craziest old lady I've ever met!" [Laughter]

But she altered the course of events in my life to the point where I should probably attribute my entire musical career to hershe altered the course of events in my life to the point where I should probably attribute my entire musical career to her. I would never have made my first record if she hadn't turned all "grandma" on me and forced me back into the studio. Of course, I'd probably have a normal job now. [Laughter]

Jill: No one would want that.

Hersh: Then I could probably pay my rent.

Jill: Okay, except for your landlord. [Laughter] I love the way you describe Betty as "a warm heart in a cold world."

Hersh: That was part of her fragility. Her heart wasn't just on her sleeve, it was pasted on her forehead. It's hard to be that way, I imagine. I'm not that way. But she was. There was a muscularity to her emotions that made her think they should be out loud, and that was actually a weakening effect. She was quite a contradiction.

Jill: How did you decide to include in the book the sections when you were much younger, when you were a child living with both your parents? Were those memories in the original diary at all, or did you add them in to give a different context and rhythm?

Hersh: There were memories in the diary, but they weren't so elegantly placed. It was just when they would come up, I would write about them. Or I'd use them on a slow news day: "Nothing happened today, but I remember this...." And yet I found while doing some spoken-word shows that I needed to break up the passages not just with music, but with moments. That just seemed to help the book breathe a little bit, and I liked the visual. Maybe it's just for me, but those passages look like fuzzy, old family photos to me. I also wanted that texture in the book. The rest of the book is real to the point of being hyper-real, and I wanted some reality that was a little fuzzier and to back up the sweetness, because I was trying to carry that sweetness around with me, and it's not always clear.

Sometimes audience members at the spoken-word shows would get very upset. Some people would leave to throw up and faint. I didn't want to make people feel that way. A lot of people would cry. I'm not that way. I'm almost cold. But maybe that's because it's me. They were more caring about me than I was.

So, I found the fuzzy, old memories to be actually more relevant than the hyper-real moments because there's so much sweetness to them. There's a basic foundation of comfort, which the rest of the year of 1985 just didn't offer.

Jill: I will say I've read the book twice now, and...

Hersh: Well, that was nice of you. [Laughter]

Jill: It was very rewarding both times. I did not faint or throw up. [Laughter] I think the sweetness absolutely comes through, but it can be a very intense reading experience. It was hard to stop reading. It was hard to think about anything else while I was in the middle of reading it.

One part that was upsetting, and also fascinating, was the accident that you had on your bike with the woman — who you call a witch — who hit you with her car.

Hersh: That was one of the major vomit moments for people at the show.That was one of the major vomit moments for people at the show.

I was on my bike and this old lady careened into me. It was like she was chasing me down. She took a kitty corner left turn, so she really had no business running me over. But she plowed into me and later blamed the accident on me. [Laughter] She said I was going too fast. I mean, the cops didn't side with her or anything. She died right after that. I don't know how she died. I just knew she was dead, which was fine with me.

She didn't actually run me over. She hit me, and I flew up over her car, and then slid on the street for awhile. While I was sliding, I was on my face. When I turned over, I didn't really have a face anymore, and I thought my foot was broken off. My shin was broken in half, and my foot was folded up underneath my leg. So when I lifted my leg, there wasn't a foot on it. And, for some reason, my first thought was, "I can't be in a band without a foot!" Of course you can be in a band without a foot! That didn't make any sense.

Jill: And later you thought you couldn't be in a band when you were pregnant, either.

Hersh: I know! It didn't make any sense. I mean, people told us we couldn't be in a band because we were females! [Laughter]

In the hospital, after the accident, I started turning ambient noise into music. I don't know if it was being bipolar that made me think it was a magic world, or whether hearing music just makes you open to the idea of art and magic and other worlds. But I took it very seriously. The ambient noise would become music, and that was what Throwing Muses songs were, after that. Before that, I was just writing songs like anybody else would; but, after the accident, I was hearing noise like songs. I blame the double concussion.

Eventually, my face came back. At the time, I worked at a health food store, so all of the people at the store brought me all of these waxes and creams and oils and vitamins — all I had to do in the hospital was rub crap all over my face. [Laughter] My face completely reappeared. I only have a few scars. My leg's a funny shape, but the only real, lasting effect of that accident was that I still hear music.

Jill: You still hear songs and music to this day?

Hersh: I do. It was quite recently that I realized that it was ambient noise that I turned into music. I thought it was sort of... I don't know. Ghostly voices. It just sounds like me playing next door, to me.

Jill: That sounds really nice in some ways. Well, I say "nice" after having read the book — where it's obviously not as nice — but to hear fully-formed songs...

Hersh: I get it, though. I spent a lot of time complaining about it, seeing it as a curse, but I sort of worship it, too. I still believe in its magic, and I don't feel particularly responsible for it. And that's nice.

It did stop for awhile. For a couple of years, it stopped. I was touring a record that I'd already recorded, and I wasn't hearing any music for the first time since I was 16. And I was relieved. I just thought, "Oh, good, that's that. I can get on with the day. I don't have to get up at 4:00 a.m. and listen to ghosts anymore."

But then — this is actually going to make me sounds nuts — I was in New Mexico on tour. We were about to leave. I'd played a show the night before, and we were at this coffee place. Suddenly, I could see the music coming out of the speakers, and I remembered everything that had begun on the day the witch hit me and why I had ever devoted my life to music and how it had become my religion.

It was almost as if I'd lost a sense for awhile. When people lose their sense of smell, you think, "Oh, dear God, you can't smell cut grass anymore, and you can't smell your baby anymore," but they don't miss it, because they can't really remember being moved by that sense. So, I wasn't missing it at all until that moment, and then tears started pouring down my face.

My husband looked down at me to take my coffee order, and I'm sniffling and crying. [Laughter] He was like, "What the hell!" He whips around the room, as if somebody had hurt me or something. And, there were these two old Native American guys burning incense over a guitar behind us, and this young guy holding the guitar. He goes over and says, "My wife says that she can see the music come out of the speakers, and she's crying — did you do this to her?"He goes over and says, "My wife says that she can see the music come out of the speakers, and she's crying — did you do this to her?" I don't know why he even thought that, but they said, "Oh, yeah. We're blessing this man's guitar, and we must have missed the guitar and hit your wife in the back of the head. Sorry!"

[Laughter] The guy was bummed, you know? He had been fasting, getting ready for this music blessing that was supposed to be for his guitar. And they missed the guitar, and it got me instead. So he had me play his guitar for a while, and it was like I was trying to transfer some of it back to him.

His name was Leonard Crow Dog, and we stayed in touch for years. From that point on, I started hearing songs again.

Jill: That's an amazing story.

Hersh: Yeah, right. It's also nuts. I freely admit it. But that wasn't my fault.

Jill: The correlation that you have between music and colors, apparently from a really young age, is interesting to me, too.

Hersh: That never went away. There's a little bit of synesthesia that way in my kids, too. That wasn't really very special to me. It helps me remember chord progressions, because I think, well, yellow into blue into aqua into orange. But there isn't any magic there. It's just vivid confusion, I guess.

There was a woman who wanted to paint to my music by having the appropriate colors go down in time lapse along with the music. And she put up a really beautiful time lapse painting at my website. Her name is Carmen Benske. You can go find it if you're interested. It's very moving, and it's really pretty.

Jill: Many of the song lyrics that you include in the book are from that first album that you recorded that year, but a lot of them are not. A lot of them end up in songs that were released years later, though I don't know when the songs were actually written.

Hersh: That's because songs, literally, do not engage in linear time to me. I think that's a confusing point for a lot of people. They think, "Oh, God, Throwing Muses must have been so prolific. They're only 18 years old and they have 400 songs."

But I find that a song will jump into my life from all over the place and grab moments that it then puts together to make its own point. So there are a lot of bizarre juxtapositions that I think are more bizarre to me because they're my life.

I think, "Well, what the hell are you talking about that for?" But other people should see them as more easily pertinent than I would. So I felt OK about including them because they did refer to the text.

A 50FootWave song will sometimes bring about clarity to a moment either because it discusses it or because it's a universal concept that, hopefully, anybody could relate to. So, when a song lyric would occur to me because of the passage, I thought, "Well, this makes it more beautiful. It helps explain it a little bit." But, yes, I think a lot of people probably assume that those are all songs from Throwing Muses circa 1985, and that's not the case.

Jill: A lot of your lyrics in general feel both mysterious and very true to me. Thankfully, that's very much still the case after reading this book. I wanted to make that point because I love your first album so much that I was almost afraid to read the book. I didn't want the mystery to be punctured in any way.

Hersh: Oh, that's such a great thing to say. I don't like to analyze my lyrics, even though I would hope they stand up to analysis.I don't like to analyze my lyrics, even though I would hope they stand up to analysis. I think that if I were to do it, it would be flat and stuck in a moment and no longer plastic enough to stretch out into somebody else's soundtrack. So, I think that's a really appropriate way to listen. I mean, that's certainly how I listen. I just want them to be beautiful even when they're ugly. I want them to be true even when they're confusing.

There are a few moments that people have been sad about, though. I've mentioned in shows— do you know the song "Hate My Way?"

Jill: Yes, I was going to ask: is "Hate My Way" one of those?

Hersh: Yes. People have just been like, "Oh, man!" And there's definitely a bullshit aspect to it, but I sort of wanted to say that. This is was supposed to be a fake song and it becomes something real. But I found it very interesting that it took this sort of... I don't know... what could have been a loser moment? [Laughter] And, yet, what the guy was saying wasn't untrue. It's just how he was saying it was so goofy.

I really like goofiness, I think it's important to be goofy and to notice goofiness when it comes up. And it doesn't always get in the way of the truth. In fact, sometimes it's an easy road to the truth because when you're laughing, you're open for a minute. But there were definitely people who were disappointed in me for that.

Jill: I was reading the book the first time, and I came to your conversation with that guy and I was like, "Wait a minute. This is 'Hate My Way!'"

Hersh: So you were OK with it?

Jill: I was. I thought it was really funny.

I love when you were recording the album and Gil is asking you about the song "Vicky's Box," and he's stunned. He's like, "It's about an actual box, owned by a person named Vicky?"

Hersh: I'm such a retard. So many of my songs are literally true. People give them the benefit of the doubt as being poetry.So many of my songs are literally true. People give them the benefit of the doubt as being poetry. It's like, "That's not a metaphor, that's what happened to me." [Laughter] "So you mean there was an actual fish nailed to your wall?" Sorry. What could that possibly mean but that there's a fish nailed to my wall? That's a metaphor for what?

Jill: I don't know if you have any sort of answer to this question, but I wondered why you thought it was animals that you saw, when you were manic? The snakes, and the bees, and the wolf — why those images in particular?

Hersh: I really don't know. I spent so much time trying not to think about that, that I haven't done a whole lot of — I don't know what you'd call it — psychological work. I was just happy that they were gone. I think the songs were probably so vivid to me that they became quite real. And I've since come to understand that mania doesn't mean you have any more energy than anyone else. It's just that you're compelled to push out all of your energy and more.

You work beyond the point of exhaustion to empty yourself of the energy. And that's how people die of exhaustion. It's beyond what your physical form can take. I was not awake because I wasn't tired, I was suffering from severe, severe sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion and buildup of toxins. There was so much going wrong for me physically and psychologically that hallucinations were the least of it.

Because my world was music, I think the music was becoming more and more real and filling in the gaps in my perception. But beyond that, I don't know why those specific animals were what I was seeing, except that they did disappear when they became songs. I have a lot of history of elements in songs sort of coming to life for me and then disappearing when I give them a sound bite — they walk away. But it was just a little too realistic that year.

Jill: As a reader, it's a relief when you're pregnant and you do get to go to sleep.

Hersh: Yeah, I hated working on that middle part so much that I would skip it. Every draft, I would think, "Oh, I'm sure it's fine. It is what it is. I don't want to live though it again." By the time I got to the pregnancy I'd just think, "Wheee! It's clear sailing! I can talk about wheat germ now." [Laughter]

I don't know why I get better when I'm pregnant, because it's happened all four times. I'm no longer bipolar when I'm pregnant.

Jill: That's really interesting.

Hersh: I wasn't sure if it was a cool thing to say in the book. You know, I'm not sure any of it is good advice. It's just what happened. "Don't take your meds, just get pregnant." [Laughter]

Jill: Yes, just have a lot of children. [Laughter]

Hersh: Yeah. I was also a teenager, and I quit school. There's not a lot of good advice in there.

Jill: Your conversations in the book with Ivo Watts-Russell, the co-founder of 4AD, are delightful.

Hersh: Aw! He's still exactly the same. He lives in New Mexico. I just saw him on tour. He's just the same. He's a 6-year-old with a bowler hat. He's so childlike, so funny, so in the moment. He's just a goof ball, I guess. And he still talks like the Queen. It's such a great way to be.

Jill: You were the only American band on 4AD for awhile, right?

Hersh: Yeah, but then we brought the Pixies with us. We didn't want to be alone.

We felt like we didn't belong with all those 23 Envelope album covers with the wispy images. [Laughter] I just thought, "Oh, man. I don't belong here." There was nothing about us that was wispy or ethereal.There was nothing about us that was wispy or ethereal.

Jill: That was one of the first ways I heard of Throwing Muses, through the "Lonely Is an Eyesore" compilation.

Hersh: It was so sweet of him to name it after "Fish" [the Throwing Muses song on the compilation].

Jill: Well, and it fit. You were different than the other bands. But it somehow fit in that context, I thought.

Hersh: Did you ever see that video?

Jill: No, I didn't.

Hersh: The version they sent me of "Lonely Is an Eyesore" had the recording and all the videos that went with them. You could see that we stuck out. [Laughter] We were grown-ups, essentially, but we looked about 11. And the sound was live — we recorded the video live — so it's really raunchy and pointy, and I'm screaming and chubby. And it's so strange compared to the other videos... Who is the woman in Dead Can Dance?

Jill: Lisa Gerrard.

Hersh: Yes! They're like ghosts.

Jill: This was the video you write about in the book?

Hersh: Yes. They used footage from the Boston Aquarium, but we filmed our parts in like some loft or something.

Jill: Your descriptions of swimming and being around water, and particularly swimming in the ocean, are very vivid. Do you still swim everyday?

Hersh: It was hard. Our tour managers had to get me in water the way they had to keep other lead singers high. You know, it's like, your job as a tour manager is to keep the talent happy, right? It's usually scoring drugs. For me, it was scoring swimming pools, of all things. They had to break into pools at 3:00 a.m., just like I used to do. Now it was their job. And they had to bribe desk clerks and things like that.
It was such an addiction. It sounds so silly, but it caused problems. You're not supposed to jump into icy water. It's just not normal. And you're not supposed to use up all of your energy, either. So I try not to swim. [Laughter]

But, when I do, I can still swim for hours. I definitely would like to live underwater.

Jill: I was wondering if that had anything to do why you left Portland, because one of the few things I don't like about Portland is that, despite being surrounded by water and drenched with rain nine months out of the year, there are very few places to swim.

Hersh: That's true, because it's an old city. Tucson has that problem. It's so hot and nobody has any pools. I've lived in places where you do have pools. I had one in my New Orleans rental last year, and in Palm Springs, California. I've had way more pools than someone with my income deserves to have.I've had way more pools than someone with my income deserves to have.

It's not why I left Portland, though. We miss Portland like hell. I left because I had to go on the road, so we just stayed homeless for the next year, year and a half or so, and just traveled around the world working. We didn't have a good reason to leave Portland. We loved it there.

Jill: Well, you would be very welcome if you ever came back.

Hersh: That's good to know. Jesse von Doom, who runs Cash with me, is moving his family to Portland right now. We're so jealous. We sort of want to move with him.

Jill: You could sneak your stuff into his U-Haul.

Hersh: [Laughter] Yeah. Be castaways.

Jill: You're from the South, originally. You write a lot in the book about trying to get rid of your accent, which has been fairly successful. I wouldn't have known that you were Southern.

Hersh: When I'm drunk or singing, you can hear it more. My kids think I'm Foghorn Leghorn — I guess because I'm more comfortable with them, so it comes out. Or you speak in sort of a cutie-pie way to kids. They think I'm a Southern belle. You should hear them mimic me.

Jill: When you said "Southern belle," actually, I could kind of hear it a little bit.

Hersh: The guys from REM lost their accents, too. Only Vic Chesnutt retained his. I don't know what it is.

Jill: You're from Georgia? I feel like one of the times I met you in person, you told me that you had family in South Carolina, as well?

Hersh: Yes, and in Tennessee. Most of them are around Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, but I was born in Atlanta.

Jill: Do you miss it?

Hersh: I do miss it. That's where the fundamental smell of trees is to me. It's where the rain sounds right. It's where the pine needles feel right under your feet. Vic Chesnutt's house was my safe house that way. I could just go bury myself in his world and everything would be OK because it felt right. It smelled right. And then, I was ready to go back out on the road and be somewhere else. Where you're from seems to be your fundamental nature and it's hard to shake. Are you originally from Portland?

Jill: No. I'm originally from South Carolina.

Hersh: Oh, really?

Jill: I mostly lost my accent, too.

Hersh: Yes, you did. [Laughter] Do you miss it?

Jill: I do. I go home a couple of times a year.

Hersh: But it's different because it's not yours anymore.

Jill: No, it's not, but the air still feels the same. And the smells are the same. And you can see more stars. Different stars. Well, not actually different stars, but they look different.

Hersh: It's a big deal. John Doe says that where you are as a young adult is what you take on for your adult identity, but where you were as a child is your dream identity.John Doe says that where you are as a young adult is what you take on for your adult identity, but where you were as a child is your dream identity. And it does feel dreamlike to me to be in the South, and yet I have an ocean attachment to New England. Really, I just have no home, and that is evidenced by my continual movement.

Jill: In the book you talk about how you were much more likely to read science than fiction, though, by the end of the book the science/art line, you know, was a bit muddy. What are you reading lately? Do you read more fiction now?

Hersh: This is embarrassing, but it's very hard for me to sit still. So I don't get a lot of reading done. I read on the road, and now people send me books because I said I was a writer. [Laughter] So I'm trying to catch up, and I do a lot of literary events and meet other writers and think, "I should read their books, so I can talk out loud to them." [Laughter]

Colum McCann just gave me his new book, and I spent a week with him in Aspen. He was lovely, and he was talking about writing fiction as walking in someone else's shoes, like a good actor. I have a great deal of respect for that, and, yet, there's something wrong with my brain. I think, "Well, sure, this happened. You just made it up. You just admitted that you made it up."

So, I know what my own shortcomings are. I'm getting there. I read a lot of science still. My favorite science writer is Natalie Angier, probably.

A dear friend has given me a box of classics, so I'm trying to catch up on reading Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. That's been really interesting because you not only go back to a time, you go back to a brain that doesn't exist anymore. But, right now, I'm reading Proust and the Squid, which is just the science of the reading brain. I thought that might help me! [Laughter]

Jill: Rat Girl may be entirely free of the mention of any other band or any other music — except for the Applachian folk songs record. Who were you listening to then, when you were listening to music?

Hersh: That's a good point, because I did have references to bands in the diary that I ended up taking out because they made the book less timeless. I know I say it's 1985, and yet I like that it isn't necessarily music-centric. That it's more "insert your passion here." And I like that it isn't necessarily the '80s, because we had a different '80s than the popular culture one. But the bands that I was listening to were the Violent Femmes, X, Dead Kennedys, Talking Heads, and REM.

We had a hard time being influenced by anyone. We would have liked to have been influenced, so that we could sound like the bands we enjoyed listening to, but it just wouldn't happen. We just kept sounding like ourselves, no matter what we did.

So it's hard to take apart our influences. They probably seeped in but we were really stuck in our own vocabulary at the time. We wanted desperately to, you know, dress like our friends, but it just wasn't meant to be. [Laughter]

Jill: Which is a good thing, I'd think.

Hersh: That's good to hear. I'm so impressed that you can listen to that first record. I think it's just psychotic. [Laughter]

Jill: Well, it is, but in a great way. I heard it when I was young, and I think it's imprinted on my brain, at this point.

Finally, I love the idea that you come to in the book that peace isn't necessarily quiet. I think that's something we need to be reminded of more often.

Hersh: Oh, that's good to hear. I wasn't sure if anybody agreed with me on that. Being raised Buddhist, I felt like I was never going to be peaceful. Buddhism was so much about stillness, and there was nothing in me that was still, except maybe this essence that I reached when I was playing, or maybe even when I was swimming.

There was so much chaotic movement on the outside — and yet it was right. It was a right moment and so, in that, I had this seed of peacefulness. I am right here, right now, doing exactly what I should be doing, and it wouldn't look still to anybody else.

It probably looked like I was freaking the fuck out. But, on the inside, I just felt very strongly that I was supposed to be freaking the fuck out. [Laughter] That was my meditation.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Rat Girl: A Memoir Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. Proust and the Squid: The Story and...
    Sale Trade Paper $8.98

5 Responses to "Kristin Hersh: The Powells.com Interview"

    Kate August 26th, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    That was a fantastic interview and I'm looking forward to reading the book. Thanks!

    Joselle August 27th, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Thank you for this lovely and funny interview with my favorite musician ever. I can't wait to get my hands on Rat Girl. Kristin Hersh is amazing and I hope this book reaches the wider audience her work so richly deserves.

    Dale August 29th, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Exquisitely eloquent and perceptive questions that inspired such fascinating, deep-into-the-soul answers steeped in sincerity and humor. Truly loved reading this epic interview.

    ana August 31st, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    What a wonderful interview. Kristin is a delight--no ego, very honest. I appreciated the candid interview questions about her background and respect for her lifestyle and art.

    Art September 16th, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Fantastic interview. I didn't plan on reading: Now I'm gonna go buy the book.

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