If there’s one word that sums up Kristin Hersh, it’s generous. As a solo musician, member of Throwing Muses and 50 Ft Wave, collaborator, creator, mother, wife, interviewee, writer, she is generous with her time, her talent and her thoughts. As one of the founders of CASH music, alongside Donita Sparks of L7, she’s generous with her work, offering her fans constant streams of new music, much for free. Live, she gives her all. Last year, she released her first memoir, Paradoxical Undressing (called Rat Girl in the United States), where she laid bare her diaries from one year in her teenage life, 1985 – 86. She jokingly calls it “so humiliating”. “Oh God, yeah, the whole thing was embarrassing, but it was better than I thought,” she acknowledges.
Going back in time meant revising what she thought she knew, not so much rewriting the past but reworking her own image of herself. That year of her life was tumultuous – a car crash had rendered her severely injured; she fell pregnant just as Throwing Muses were taking off; she suffered a breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Not your average year for a girl in her late teens. “I thought that I wouldn’t like the person I was. I had always assumed I had made a lot of mistakes and fucked up people’s lives, that I was sick and I was sad,” she says. “To go back, I realised if you’re sick you’re sick; it’s not your fault. I didn’t hurt anybody. I was really quirky.”
Was she a very different person back then? “The only difference between us is time. I haven’t changed very much.” Hersh wrote the book in the middle of the night, while her family slept. “It was easy to go back and remember rooms and cars and idiosyncrasies and conversations, and that was trippy and interesting so I enjoyed it. But it was just me. I really haven’t changed very much.” She pauses. “I hope I’m a little smarter.”
There was, though, a little editing when it came to putting the book together. “Every time I hit up on a tough memory I would take it out of the book, which I know you’re not supposed to do…Tough means something different to me – I actually found the darkest part of the book to be the most beautiful, it was as ugly as it was at the time. On paper it was very poetic so that wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be.”
The ugly-beautiful-poetic moments were written, too, to help people – or just one person. “That’s why I published it rather than keeping it, because that’s why the music is published,” she says. Hersh wants to show others who have been in similar situations that life can go on, that diagnoses and decisions and dilemmas don’t define us. State wonders if she is often told by fans that her music has helped them. “That’s what it’s for, there aren’t many reasons left to do what I do but for that to happen once in your lifetime is very lucky and it happens to me often,” she says. “Part of me starts to think I’m not allowed to stop. If I started to hate music I would have to wrestle with that. I have helped people live and people die.” And that, she says, is an honour.
Since her late teens, Hersh’s songs have announced themselves to her by playing in her head. It’s a process that takes its time. “It just plays over and over again, I get words that rhyme with a real word…. I have to stop thinking and just let it play.” She laughs. “I get in the way a lot. If it weren’t my job I probably would let it fly out a bit. I stand in the way a bit. It’s nerve-wracking too because they often make me say things I don’t want to say,” she adds. “My songs are often embarrassing or mean.” She describes herself tapping her foot, asking the song “what are you going to do now?”, and keeping an eye on it “like you do with your kids”. It seems as though there’s a power struggle of sorts going on.
“If you get it wrong then you have to live with it,” she says. Hersh knows when to edit, and when to let the song become itself. Recently, she has allowed herself to edit a little more than usually. “Instead of allowing my psyche go kablooey, which nobody needs, I try not to censor the songs. I let them say what they need to say, but when my brain tries to release itself and puke all over it I don’t let that happen.”