kristin hersh





A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer,

it sings because it has a song.*

2011 wasn’t a great year for new music. Indeed, some spectacular repackaging meant many of the most memorable album releases were ones we had heard before. Nostalgia hangs heavily over us these days; journalists are even writing books about it, but one thing is for certain: if everything is rosy in the garden you don’t look back to old summers.

In this environment what is the present becomes blurred as shades of the past are remembered, resurrected and reassessed. We walk sideways because walking forwards doesn’t always take us where we want to be. And we need to be where there is beauty, and vitality, and food for the soul. There are treasures to be found, gems that will enrich our lives, but they are not always in front of our eyes. Sometimes they are buried in history, sometimes they live deep underground, and sometimes half-remembered in the debris of our own lives.

2011 marked twenty-five years since one of the greatest of all these treasures was brought screaming into the world: the debut album by Throwing Muses. It came from nowhere, a record of such savage beauty it carved its way straight into your innermost being. A record of unimaginable ferocity and touching fragility that has rarely been matched, and probably never bettered. A record that, quite literally, fought its way out of the head of Kristin Hersh. And the presence of this remarkable musician loomed large over a disappointing year.

January 2011 saw the UK publication of Kristin’s book Paradoxical Undressing (released as Rat Girl in her native United States a little earlier). This was the tale of how this first record came to be made, a diary of her life from Spring 1985 to Spring 1986, and it makes remarkable reading. There have been countless books written by musicians. Most fall into the category of self-aggrandisement, sordid tales of how great it was to shove several tons of powder up your nose and live to tell the tale. OK, some of these are quite entertaining, but most should be avoided like the plague. Of course there are more measured accounts. Keith Richards’ recent Life demonstrates a healthy lack of ego, while other writers take a more historical approach, eschewing sensationalism for facts and figures, and many of these can be applauded. There are even books of distinct literary importance: Ian Hunter’s brilliant Diary Of A Rock And Roll Star uniquely captures the mundanity of life for a band on the road; honest, brutal and well worth a read. And Kristin Hersh’s book...? Bloody hell.

“I’ve heard music that no one else hears since I got hit by a car ... and sustained a double concussion. I didn’t know what to make of this at first, but eventually I came to feel lucky, special, as if I had tapped into an intelligence. Songs played of their own accord, making themselves up; I listened and copied them down.”

This is scary stuff. An accident to a girl in her mid teens who liked to play around with songs and guitars brought about an experience that carried her to the edge of reason, a diagnosis of a bi-polar disorder, and into the grasp of lithium. It was as she lay in hospital shortly after the accident that she first began to hear noises which filled her head and eventually turned

“into discernible parts that sounded less like ‘machines’. Instruments played melodies rather than disembodied tones ... I guessed that my brain was making sense of something, turning this sonic haunting into vocabulary with which I was familiar ... one of the humming voices eventually refined itself? enough for me to discern syllables in its talking and moaning ... the syllables eventually arranged themselves into words that told stories from my life.”

Songs were writing themselves in her head: Kristin had become a ‘lightning rod for songs’.

“Every few weeks song noise will begin again, and when its parts have arranged themselves, I’ll copy them down and teach them to the band, making them hear what I hear. As soon as I give a song a body in the real world, it stops playing and I breathe a sigh of relief, in precious silence.”

And this, astonishingly, was how Throwing Muses forced its way into being. Fortunately, a promo cassette from the band containing some of these songs found its way to Ivo Watts-Russell, the head of the 4AD independent record label in England, and he was so impressed by what he heard he managed to convince himself to take the plunge and start to work with an American band for the first time, paying for the studio time to get these enthralling songs on to tape. The recording process was a trying time for Kristin; the songs refused to play ball until the conditions were just right, but eventually quality takes began to emerge, ones that ‘felt’ right to the band. The songs recorded were the ones Watts-Russell preferred, the darker, more complex, numbers, the songs that affected the singer the most.

“All the songs are horrifyng now – fractured, disjointed and harsh. About atomic theory and reincarnation, crashing cars, soap and ice, McDonald’s murders, child abuse, slides and puzzles; it’s sad to me how strange they are. The strangeness has a life its own: unpredictable and out of control, impossible to measure because it won’t sit still.”

Strange, or just different? 4AD released Throwing Muses in August 1986 and the world became a better place.

Of course, there is a whole lot more. Paradoxical Undressing is gripping reading, both frightening and funny, and has recently been released in paperback so make sure you invest in a copy as it helps to frame one of the wonders of the music world. The anniversary of the release of Throwing Muses was also marked by 4AD who put together Anthology, a beautifully packaged, remastered two-CD set containing twenty-one tracks from the band’s history along with a collection of hard-to-find b-sides and a new essay on the band by Kristin. Unsurprisingly, it sold out quick time and was soon reissued in a single disc format. Even more importantly, the band reunited to promote the release, playing concerts in the USA, Europe and the UK, and returned to the studio to record over thirty new tracks which are now in the process of being mixed and are looking for a release later this year. Exciting times indeed for a band many people had probably written off. For after 1996’s Limbo album (their seventh) financial constraits had seen the band go into hibernation, Kristin movingly commenting, “My band also carried a very low price tag: the World didn’t value our world. Not enough people cared enough about our music to allow us to play it for a living any more.” With only one new album seeing the light of day over the past fifteen years it might have been believed there was no longer any relevance in Throwing Muses. What better year, then, for them to emerge back into the light to prove how wrong that was, and to fill a gaping void in our lives.

Kristin, how did you find the tour and what were the highs and lows?

The highs are often the same as the lows, oddly. The days that don't offer sleep/food/showers, etc., are the same ones that teach you what you can handle: anything! As long as you get to work. When your work is your passion, the body and its needs take a back seat to the high of playing every night.

The set-lists from the European dates revealed a solo element to the gigs. In the UK it was all about the band. Was this because the band were better known in the UK?

It was because we were still learning songs! I knew those songs, but the band didn't, so they asked me to play them. I also serve as an opening act when there's no support.

I am a bit confused by Anthology. Initially I thought these would be the tracks the band played on the tour. However, the set list contained fewer than half of them so the album must stand as an out-and-out representation of the band's history (something the hard-to-find b-side disc would underline). This begs the question, then, of why aren't any of Tanya's songs on it?

Tea only wrote 4 or 5 of our 150 or so songs, which means her songs are not very representative of our sound, but it was mainly because Anthology was initially a working setlist. Setlists always change on tour as people have ideas they want to try and begin to bitch about songs they don't think are working. Remember, the band has been this current lineup for 20 years! Tea is playing and singing on the early material, though...that's nice.

Is it true that you left it to Dave (Narcizo, drummer) to pick the tracks or was there more of a band input?

Mostly Dave. My ideas are usually silly.

Everyone has their favourites, of course, and in my opinion 'Delicate Cutters', 'Hook In Her Head', 'Pearl' and 'Not Too Soon' would improve any album. Are there any tracks you now think should have been included? Or excluded?

To tell you the truth, I can't remember what's on it right now ... I don't consider releases when I think about our songs because I don't listen to our records. It's all live material for me.

The tour took in some more obscure venues, such as Bexhill and Holmfirth. Was this deliberate or was it just the way it fell?

I believe the booking agent was looking for appropriate venues, rather than particular towns.

When you took the stage at Bexhill you commented on how tired you were. You then played the most fierce set I have ever seen (and I've seen you plenty of times). Did you get the feeling this was something special or was it just the battle with exhaustion?

Thanks for being there; that was a fun and funny show. I feel no pain when I'm playing (really), so exhaustion can't touch a set. I could play with a broken limb as long as that limb wasn't an arm.

When you played the opening bars to ‘Pearl’ in the encore I was pretty emotionally overcome. Are you aware of just how good you are?

You're so nice. I'm not good, the SONGS are when I play them right. If I were the songs, I would've picked somebody a lot more bitchin' to play me, though.

I was staggered at how powerful 'Limbo' was live. Do your songs ever take you by surprise when you recreate them?

They're always live to me. A recording is supposed to reflect that impression. Many songs that we love playing live didn't make it onto the anthology because we didn't feel they were well represented as recordings.

After Bexhill, you seemed a lot more relaxed in London?

I don't know, I'm always pretty nervous. Then the songs take over and I disappear.

The band is mesmerising to watch. There are not many bands who live what they are playing. Is Dave really the second best drummer in the world (voted as such by International Musician Magazine in the early 1990s) and is Bernie (Georges, bassist) really the coollest man on the planet (voted for by anyone who has seen them live)?

Don't believe everything you read. Dave is THE best drummer in the world. Bernie is the coollest man on the planet, yes.

throwing muses
Throwing Muses

4AD CAD 607

Released on vinyl, CD and cassette, this is where it all started

in a doghouse
In A Doghouse

4AD DAD 607

In 1998 the album was subsequently reissued in a 2CD set together with the original demos that so impressed Ivo Watts-Russell

paradoxical undressing
Paradoxical Undressing

Atlantic Books

Kristin's book was published on 1st January 2011 in hardback and 1st December in paperback


4AD CAD 3101

The release of the beautifully packaged Anthology led to last year's promotional tour

kristin live

If the songs are clever enough to force their way into the world, they're clever enough to have found the proper outlet. Could anyone be more bitchin' than Ms Hersh?

“I don’t want people to listen to my songs so that they’ll

care about me. That would be obnoxious.”

Kristin Hersh is not your typical rock musician, eager for the limelight, and Throwing Muses were never a band willing to bow to corporate expectations. They were strangely at odds with a business always desperate to find an angle to maximise a profit; a band which produced a UK top ten album yet shied away from the detritus that walks hand in hand with such an achievement. After producing 1991’s The Real Ramona (their fourth album) which was a top thirty success in the UK, the unremitting record company pressures grew too much for Kristin to carry on as she had. The band split, with Kristin’s sister Tanya Donelly departing to form Belly along with bassist Fred Abong. That left Kristin and Dave Narcizo to weigh up their future.

After The Real Ramona album a few fans didn’t seem to rate Red Heaven. For me, it is right up there with your best. How do you regard it?

Real listeners love Red Heaven, it's only people who like marketing to shove a record down their throats who don't know about it. After I dissolved the band during the making of The Real Ramona, Dave and Leslie (Langston, original bassist) and I decided to reform as a band that wouldn't play that stupid game.

Did the band splitting have you worried about whether it could survive?

I didn't want it to survive. I loved music, but hated the music business.

In the essay accompanying Anthology you talk of living and working in your own corner. Is that just resignation, despairing of the world, or is it a positive state of mind from which you can draw energy and strength?

It's where everyone should live: in their small world. Ambition to be looked at is a perversion, not a drive to succeed. Some people who call themselves musicians are very good at being attractive and fooling even people like you who think they know better. It's advertising you're responding to in that case – flirting, not music.

You have talked about record company executives pressurising you to 'suck more'. Was there a lot of pressure on you to produce more commercial material? And did any of this come from 4AD? I cannot imagine Ivo doing this.

4AD is no longer Ivo and hasn't been for a long time, but when I complain about record labels I mean our US labels because I'm American. Usually Warner Brothers (Sire). They love for women to play stupid songs and dress like bimbos. They are not alone in this.

If Hunkpapa (third album, 1989) is a case of you bowing a little to this pressure, it is still way better than most bands could dream of producing.

Thank you. ‘Dizzy’ started as a joke song, to keep the band working. Didn't know anyone would ever take it seriously. I forgot that people LIKE stupid songs.


Rejecting standard music business practices, in November 2007, Kristin announced the opening of CASH Music, a subscriber-based programme in which her music is funded directly by her fans who then receive free copies of any records produced as well as free tickets to any live performances. Named Strange Angels by the singer, these supporters provide a source of income that has allowed Kristin to continue working with Throwing Muses and her other band Fifty Foot Wave. The Strange Angels have formed a lively community on-line and are always willing to offer ideas and encouragement.

There was discussion on-line about people not knowing about the tour and how the dates could have been better promoted. Do you think there may be some value in some Strangel brainstorming before the next tour?

That could be interesting. It's hard to get the word out via standard channels now that fewer people pay attention to music press and radio. And people who want to know about tour dates haven't yet trained themselves to go looking for them.

When I heard you were touring and there were more Muses tracks in the bag, my heart skipped a beat. What is the state of play with the album? Are there insufficient funds for mixing as it said on the forum or can we expect a release soon?

There's more needed, as making a record is like making a film: we record the basics, then fund-raise for the overdubs, then try to raise more money for the mix. At a dollar a minute, a long record like this (38 songs) can be very expensive. I still feel that it's worth it. Bedroom demos of this material would be unrealized versions of the songs. This is a "master work" for lack of a better term; a record that, once it's released, will allow us to die happy.

Talking of dying, when I was walking to the tube from Shepherd's Bush my overwhelming emotion was terror that I would never see the band again. Will there be more UK tours, perhaps to promote the new album? You seem to get on so well. Would Bernie and Dave be up for it?

We adore each other and the music. All we want in the world is to be working musicians. That's just not a job that pays enough to support a tour or a record any more. Doing it for love is not a bad thing, it just means that we have to bust our asses in order to make a tour or a record happen. We all have day jobs, you know? (The future of music!)

Your music thrills me like very little else ever has and, to me, a world without Throwing Muses would be a very empty place indeed.

It's listeners like you that allow the music to resonate: no small deal. After all, resonance is the whole point.


There are too few bands at this time making music that really matters. Don't trust the press as it heralds everyday mediocrity as genius; seek out the gems and trust in yourself. Music should send you spinning inside, lifting you to unimaginable heights, or it should scrape you across the floor and laugh in your face. Beauty and pain. If it shakes your hand and makes you a cup of tea, it really isn't trying. One thing is for certain, the new Throwing Muses album when it appears will move you.

If you would like to help the band with the remixing of the new album you can contribute in the tip jar here. The band's other albums are available in all the regular outlets, as is Kristin's book. To become a Strange Angel subscriber, the details are here.


*Maya Angelou

the real ramona
The Real Ramona

4AD CAD 1002

The recording of the successful 1991 album saw the band split

red heaven
Red Heaven

4AD CAD 2013

The follow-up album reached No.13 in the UK charts but wasn't so popular with some of the band's fans

throwing muses 2
Throwing Muses

4AD CAD 2013

March 2003 saw the band's last album, another one called Throwing Muses. Hopefully a new album will be released this year.