After decades of making music and with more than two dozen records under her belt, Kristin Hersh can claim a remarkable first with her latest album: She knows what her songs are about ― even if they were written by an alternate personality that has tormented her for most of her life.
You might know Hersh, 52, as one of the frontwomen for Throwing Muses, the high-octane alt-rock band that played clubs with R.E.M. and the Pixies in the 1980s, found commercial success in the 1990s, and still records and tours. You might know her from her darker and more intricate solo albums. It’s possible you know her from her rock band, 50FootWave, or her seven books. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of her.
I know Hersh from all of these roles because I’ve been a diehard fan for 25 years. I’ve seen her in concert half a dozen times. I own most of her albums, and I was that person who awkwardly hung around after shows to meet her. Even when I haven’t listened to her in a while, it’s her raspy voice and frantic guitar that auto-play in my head.
Hersh just released her 10th solo studio album, “Possible Dust Clouds,” and it’s as raw and artistically inventive as she’s ever been. But this isn’t a music review*. This is a conversation about a nice lady with demons, the impressive cottage industry she created in a business she openly despises, and the complicated forces behind her music. At times, it is horrifying.
*I think I got this interview because I’m supposed to do a music review, so here it is: “Possible Dust Clouds” is Hersh’s harshest solo album to date. There’s glimpses of melancholy, but you might miss them as Hersh leads you into a basement party with people playing with electric guitars, distortion pedals and clanging things. It’s a fun shift for Hersh, who sounds rejuvenated and plays a dulcimer “badly and out of tune” throughout the album. What better selling point is there? I’ll link to some of its songs in this piece so you can listen.
You would never guess the personal hell Hersh has been through from a casual conversation. She is the most delightful interview. She’s funny. She’s disarmingly kind. She thoughtfully answered every question I had.
Musical hero? The late Vic Chesnutt. What’s your home life like? She lives “a small life” with one of her four sons in a house behind a 7-Eleven in Southern California. Do you identify as queer, even a little bit? “No, I wish.” Are you politically engaged? “Absolutely.” She’ll tell you why Trump is not the cause but a symptom of a cancer infecting the nation’s political discourse.
But shit gets real when you talk about her relationship to music. She reveres it, and scoffs at a recording industry bloated with entertainers and performers masquerading as musicians.
“It’s the only language I speak fluently. You can’t lie to me,” Hersh insists. “They’re lying to you. They’re lying to me. They’re not musicians. They’re trying to make money. This is ego.”
She’s found a way to make music that cuts out the industry. She raises money directly from fans to pay for studio costs, and in return they become “stakeholders” in her projects. That means they get perks, like access to exclusive music, the ability to come see her in studio or a spot on her guest list at a show. (I never donated.) Hersh pays her other bills by going on tour.
Her model is working. She’s currently making a new Throwing Muses record and another solo record, and after that she plans to get to another 50FootWave album.
Hersh originally thought “all the rock stars who said I influenced them” would contribute to her projects. But it’s her non-celebrity, non-rich fans who have stepped up to support her.
“Eh, it’s a better world,” she said with a weak laugh. “I don’t want anything to do with the fucking 1 percent. Do you?”
And then there’s Rat Girl.
I was just this nice lady, and I’d be doing deals with God in the dressing room.
For decades, Hersh didn’t remember writing her songs or know what they were about. She didn’t remember performing them. That was all Rat Girl, the name Hersh came up with for an alternate personality that showed up after she got into a bike accident at 16, suffered a double concussion and began hearing music that nobody else could hear.
It was “a metallic whining, like industrial noise ... layered with humming tones and wind chimes,” Hersh wrote in her 2011 memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, which was based on a diary she kept at 18. That was the same year she had an emotional breakdown, attempted suicide, was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, got her first record deal, got pregnant, recorded her first album and became a single mom.
Hersh has spent her entire career channeling “terrifying” music out of her head and into songs. But she says it was Rat Girl who wrote and performed all of them. If you’ve ever seen Hersh play live, you’ve probably seen the split happen. When she sings, her eyes, glassy and unblinking, fixate on a spot at the back of the room. It’s such a trademark visual that there’s a band called She Never Blinks named after her.
Hersh describes it as disappearing. She would say this to friends or music critics when they commented on her stage presence, but they seemed to think she meant it metaphorically in some cool, artistic way. She meant it literally.
“I had really bad stage fright because I never knew what was going to happen on stage,” she said. “Kristin couldn’t play guitar. Kristin had no idea what those pedals did. I was just this nice lady, and I’d be doing deals with God in the dressing room.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago, after more misdiagnoses, that Hersh figured out what was going on: She was correctly diagnosed with a dissociative disorder that had developed in response to childhood trauma. Music had effectively become her vocabulary for trauma.
After months of excruciatingly painful therapy, during which she dropped to 80 pounds and thought about ending her life, Hersh finally began integrating the dissociated aspects of herself, aka Rat Girl. In clinical speak, integration means safely processing traumatic memories and developing coping skills to integrate different identities into one functional person. Hersh’s memories are back now. And she’s come to see value in having been a vessel for music that she feels needed to be made.
“It’s like saying a baby had to be born, so I got pregnant,” she said. “Now that I have all my memories, I think the songs were the point. They were bigger than some girl living something.”
She doesn’t hear music in her head anymore. It’s a huge relief, but it could mean the end of her songwriting. She said she’s still working with material she wrote before the integration and doesn’t know what will happen after that.
But Hersh has already found that she can perform without letting Rat Girl take over. In November 2016, not long after she began integrating her personalities, she did a televised BBC interview, and the host asked her to play a song, “Sunray Venus.” Hersh said she started to panic that she didn’t know how to play guitar anymore. But the show was live, and she had to do something. So she got up and started playing, miraculously, without switching to Rat Girl.
“I’ll never forget it,” Hersh said. “I could see my hands for the first time in my life. I was watching my hands play. I knew the chords. I know what the song was about. I had all the memories. I was singing with just as much power and more. I was so thrilled. It was crazy.”
It’s no wonder Hersh was ready to throw a party with “Possible Dust Clouds.” Unlike her last album, “Wyatt at the Coyote Palace,” for which Hersh holed up in a studio by herself and played all the instruments on her songs, she brought in friends to liven up the new album, including drummer David Narcizo from Throwing Muses.
“It really is much more fun,” she said. “When you record, you’re always going to create the atmosphere of the room. And hopefully your room is great.”
For all the turmoil Hersh has endured and channeled into her music, she bristles at the idea of her songs being categorized as “dark.”
“It’s often just so sexist, that impression that if a woman is intense she must be upset. You know, ‘Calm down, honey.’ It was always celebratory,” Hersh said. “Of course it’s intense. What else is it going to be? It’s music.”
I tried really hard not to sound like a dumb fan in this interview. But I felt like I had to say something about how deeply her music has affected me over the years. I asked how it could be that I feel so connected to her songs when, most of the time, her lyrics are nonlinear and stream-of-consciousness and I have no idea what she’s talking about.
Her: “Isn’t it supposed to be like that?”
Me: “I don’t know. I guess?”
Her: “I don’t know either. Because I feel the same way.”
Me: “Do you hear this from other fans?”
Her: “I do. They say, ‘I don’t know what she’s talking about. But I know what she means.’”
Hersh said songs need to be “athletic in the center of the sonic spectrum.” Words are a kind of communication that is obviously imagistic, she said, and there’s a reason every word is used as a verb. “There’s a dreamlike quality to the way words are used in a real song, in contrast with songs that are just people trying to boss music around.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. I want to keep listening.