Archive for the ‘Kristin Hersh’ Category
If you follow this blog, you’ve probably gathered that I don’t listen to much loud music. (That is, music that is performed loudly—I’m very happy to turn softly performed music up to to a loud volume.) I don’t think this has to do with age, though in general I’ve trended toward whisperiness and finger-picking as the years go by. Loud music has always kind of scared me. So I’m a little surprised by how much I love 50 Foot Wave, who are extremely loud but not scary. The band is made up of two-thirds of Throwing Muses, who play medium to medium-loud, and its singer is Kristin Hersh, whose solo work is generally on the quiet side, but no less intense for that. I’ve been a long-time listener of both, but my feeling toward 50 Foot Wave is more than just brand loyalty. The band records sporadically—they’ve released four EPs since forming in 2003, and you can download them all for free, here. (A fifth, called With Love From the Men’s Room, is supposed to come out later this year.) My pattern of music consumption usually follows this arc: acquire, play for a season or two, retire, let another few seasons pass, rediscover, play for a week, retire, let a year pass, repeat. I have an iPod with a dainty memory, so I’m always having to rotate songs on and off. Not 50 Foot Wave songs, though; they’re on there all the time. And when one comes up in the shuffle, I am happy. And as the song proceeds, I feel like my guts are being wrung like a wet washcloth, and that feels great. Because you go about your day-to-day, and mostly things are good, and every so often they’re much better than good, but there’s a little tedium in there, and a fair amount of worry, and a lot of having to keep your soul in line, so that a part of you wants to break out, to explode. Not explode with anger or anguish, or even joy; there isn’t necessarily an emotional shading to it; but just a self-transcending explosion, all over the universe. And not just at certain times, when things are, for whatever reason, particularly trying. The part of you that wants to explode is there all the time, kept in check. And 50 Foot Wave songs are, for me, little detonators.
Last weekend I saw Kristin speak on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival titled “Culture Vs. Cash,” about how musicians might support themselves now that the record industry is in tatters. Kristin read a very funny excerpt from her new memoir, Rat Girl, and then answered some questions from the moderator and members of the audience. I’m paraphrasing, because I’m working from memory, but some of the things she said in response to queries about the conflict between making art and making money were: Don’t try to get famous, just try to get good at what you do, because in order to become famous, you probably have to suck at least a little. Having a day job that you do to support your artistic life is an honorable thing. Ambition (to do more than just excel at your art) is suspect. Kristin said she sometimes plays “house shows” for … I want to say fans, but she’s careful to draw a distinction between fans and listeners, the first being people who latch onto your music because it’s the hot thing and move on just as quickly, the second being people who absorb what you’re doing and give it careful consideration and appreciation over a period of time. At these shows, listeners get together at one person’s home to hear her perform, and she’s struck by how many of the people who show up are musicians who subsist in small communities, who play for and support each other, and by what an ideal situation this can be.
I thought afterward how much of this could be applied to writing, or to any art form. Especially the not-thinking-about-fame part. Because the truth is that ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to be famous. After all, is this not America? I used to watch television and imagine that I was cast in a sitcom as a smart-alecky adopted orphan, the kind who used to show up in the fourth or fifth season, when the ratings were going south. (Why such a marginal part? Why not a starring role? Why not my own show?: To be saved for a future therapy session.) The particulars changed over time, but the fantasy never went away. At the bottom of my mental list of things to do over the course of my life, right beneath “Travel a lot” and “Be good to other people” and “Read all of Dickens” and “Dress better,” is written, in invisible ink, “Get famous.” To be known and loved by everyone! It always seemed like a great idea. But as I’ve grown older and watched some friends gain fame, I see that it can also become loaded with problems. It’s not like fame has been banging on my door, begging to be let in, but lately I’ve taken up the slow process of crossing out that particular bullet point. And, really, everything’s fine without it. Family, friends, a close partner, a dog who does a crazy dance every time you walk in the door—that’s famous enough.
I’ve listened to “Sally is a Girl” countless times, but only this morning did I look up the lyrics, on one of those shifty-looking lyrics websites. The last lines are “I’m Rose Marie/A boy/But Sally is a girl.” Some further research turned up, delightfully, that these lines and the title are a reference to this episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
One of the things that’s so rewarding about being a Kristin Hersh fan is that she makes loyal listeners feel like royalty. She’s a prolific songwriter, to say the least. She started making music in the early 1980s, when she was in her teens. She’s released, as of this writing, eight albums with her seminal band Throwing Muses and seven as a solo artist, and also four EPs with her more thrashy band, 50 Foot Wave. New recordings by all three are in the works.
Such a profusion of music would be enough to keep me happy. But Kristin was one of the first musicians to begin thinking about how to reinvent the relationship between artist and listener. She was one of the founders of a remarkable nonprofit organization called CASH Music, which allows musicians to distribute their work directly over the Internet in creative ways, with no middleman.
For the past few years, Kristin’s been posting one demo a month on her CASH site. You can download them here and here—they were gathered in two series, one called Speedbath and one called Bliss—and she drew from these rough drafts for her forthcoming studio album, Crooked. The entire recorded output of 50 Foot Wave, including their amazing half-hour-long song suite Power + Light, can be downloaded here (where it says “download everything”). Demos for a new Throwing Music album are now being posted here. If you download this music and enjoy it, it would be very nice if you left a donation, but it’s not obligatory. What’s important, I think, is that the music finds its way to people who will enjoy it.
Kristin’s also a terrifically gifted prose writer. She blogs and twitters—her tweets feature a lot of very funny dialogue overheard in New Orleans, where she lives—and she also posts a picture a day on her website. Her memoir of her early days with Throwing Muses is being published by Penguin in the US next year as Rat Girl and by Atlantic in the UK as Paradoxical Undressing.
Crooked is coming out in June; the first song on the album is “Mississippi Kite,” above. Kristin recently announced on her website that in the UK, rather than release “another dead, plastic CD”—and when I read those words, I knew just what she meant—Crooked will be packaged with a nifty 60-page book, a collaboration with HarperCollins, filled with photos, lyrics, and essays, as well as special codes that you can type into your computer, which will then explode with more cool stuff, including an excerpt from her book. You can read all about it here. There’s a charming interview where she talks about her new songs here.