In 1985, Kristin Hersh was an 18-year-old kid sleeping in her car or abandoned apartments, playing shows every week with her band Throwing Muses. In one tumultuous year, she would be signed to a major label, diagnosed as bipolar, and become pregnant. This is the story told in her new memoir, Rat Girl.
Throwing Muses singer Kristin Hersh performs in the KEXP studios in Seattle.
Throwing Muses singer Kristin Hersh performs in the KEXP studios in Seattle.
In 2010, Hersh is older, wiser and still an incredible musician, both with Throwing Muses (currently working on a new album) and as a solo artist. She couldn't have visited during a better time: KEXP was in the middle of a pledge drive, and Hersh herself has entered a new phase of her long career where she, too, is listener-supported, releasing her music with support from fans, instead of a record company.
Sitting in our performance room, she kicked off her shoes and curled up in her chair, definitely feeling at home after many visits to our station. When she plays, she becomes transported, her sky-blue eyes staring off into who-knows-where. You want to watch, but the music sometimes becomes too intense, and you find yourself looking away, or down in your lap.
In a special Favorite Session, Hersh reads from her memoir and performs acoustic versions of classic songs from both her own catalog and the Throwing Muses songbook.
And, as a web bonus, we're also including a lengthy KEXP interview with Hersh that took place after the session, which you can read below.
KEXP: Is it different for you to be doing a book tour after decades of performing music in front of people?
Hersh: Yeah, it's different, particularly when the passages I'm reading are dark. There's places that are heavy, heavy places to go. It's not cathartic and it's not uplifting for me, for some reason. The prose version of what happened brings me down. So if I have to do a show for a month, at the end of the month, I'm ready to stop. Whereas music will go to those same dark places, but the music makes the ugly beautiful, and it brings me up higher, and in fact, I divorce myself from the experience when I'm playing music. I haven't yet been able to do that with prose.
KEXP: In the book, you have fictionalized re-tellings of your past, combined with actual passages from your diary, with lyrics from your songs sprinkled in. Did you re-experience old emotions writing it?
Hersh: I had kept that year in the back of my heart as this shadow place that I should be ashamed of. I had somehow blamed myself for everything that was hard that year, and assumed that I was a bad person, and I never wanted to go back to a place like that. So I wanted it to go away, and in bringing the truth of the time to light, I realized that none of it was really my fault, and I wasn't a bad kid.
It was hard sometimes, but it was good for me to go back. 'Cause when you're 18, you're pretty non-judgmental. You don't have a context for judgment. It was good for me to find the actual voice of that time and be non-judgmental, 'cause I would like to be that way again. It's a hard place to get to. You're born that way, but then you got to get back to it.
KEXP: Do you feel that through writing the book and revisiting that person, it provided a bridge?
Hersh: I'm actually living through a very similar time right now. The reason Rat Girl encapsulated the beginning moment of so many things is because I think it's an important moment to honor rather than goal-achievement. There's an idealism, there's an open-eyed... well, non-judgment, that you can't help living in.
Kristin Hersh reads from her memoir, Rat Girl, during a live appearance on KEXP.
Now that I'm listener-supported, I'm able to work in that kind-of purity again, with that kind-of curiosity, with that non-judgment of the product, because my sponsors are finally people who have no vested interest in the marketability of my product. I can go into my lab and perform my experiments, and whatever they are, I'm allowed to speak their truth, because the sponsors are the clients.
KEXP: So the timing was perfect, because your current experience is the same, but what actually made you write this book?
Hersh: It's stupid. [Laughs.] A fistful of writers approached me offering to ghost-write my memoir. I don't know why. I think there was a story published I didn't see that made my life sound interesting? And I'm doormat nice, so I just said, "Sure, whatever you wanna do, go ahead and do it! That's so nice!"
But what they meant was, we were about to begin weeks, months, maybe years of interviews? Talking about feelings? Which is... real bad. [Laughs.] I didn't want to do that. One guy implied he might move in with me for a while. So, I just stopped returning their calls, and then management noticed there was no longer a book and said, "Well, since you're the only person you're willing to talk to, you have to write the book." And it was... Okay.
In fact, when I realized I had to write it at night, it became really okay. A work of obsession. I got to time-trip back to 1985! And it was a charming year! It was messy, it was chaotic, but it was sweet, and I got addicted to going back there. So I'd put the kids to bed, sleep a couple of hours, and then wake up at midnight and work until the sun came up. And in those hours, you get pretty good at self-hypnosis, at remembering details that you don't have to call up through the course of a normal day, even to the point of remembering friends' voices who've since died. I had two friends in the book who died while I was writing it, and I worried that I couldn't call them and ask them to talk and remember things with me, but at 4 a.m., I could hear their voices again, and remember their idiosyncrasies, and the color of their eyes... It's all there.
KEXP: Did your friends who passed away have a chance to read any of the book while it was still in progress? Was anybody allowed to read the book while it was still in process?
Hersh: Nobody read the book, just because I'm funny that way. It wouldn't have occurred to me that they would want to. And changing a diary into almost a non-fiction novel, it takes a long time, and you go through a lot of "stupid" phases, where you just make dumb mistakes. [Laughs.] Because there's so much to the truth. There's a lot boring in the truth. And there's a lot horrifying in the truth. It was a long process of learning how to edit so I would include enough detail to bring the reader into that world, and yet remove all the detail that would either confuse them or bore them.
To elaborate on a scene, I would step into it as if it were a bubble and just push out the edges of the bubble. I could see the world through it, but I was in the scene that took place in 1985. And I knew that had to become a world, or no reader would want to hang out there, or be able to follow what was going on. What I edited out were a lot of people, a lot of things happened many times... there were many suicide attempts, for example, and I only covered one. There were many, many doctors; I only talked about one. Because the story starts to fly off into a nether world of detail if you don't make sure it's a cohesive story arc. And lives have cohesive story arcs. That's what stories are all about -- lives. You just have to make sure you're happy deleting big chunks of your own life.
KEXP: Back when you were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, doctors didn't really get it. Like the one doctor in the book who says, "Oh, it's schizophrenia, but they don't call it that anymore." How are things different for you now?
Hersh: That's another reason why I wanted to encapsulate a beginning. It was the beginning of a disease that I struggled with for 25 years. So the book can be charming in its sweetness, given that; it can be uplifting. It's hopeful. But what happened next was not hopeful. I don't think I could write the next book, because it got much darker than this, much more complicated. It's been a struggle, and yet this time, right now, I don't really consider myself bipolar, because of acupuncture. I've been treated by an acupuncturist for the last year, to the point where I no longer suffer from mania or depression. I can be out of balance, and acupuncture will put me right back in. I'm not on lithium any longer. It's not advice, but I'm saying, it's a very similar moment right now. I've started over again in the music industry with being listener-supported. I can be idealistic again, and I can be hopeful again because bipolar disorder seems to be a thing of my past.
KEXP: Did it occur to you when you were writing this book that this could help people?
Hersh: It did, actually. I think that's probably the only reason I ended up finishing the book, is because I thought it would help people. I'm the only person in the book that comes off looking bad. And I look pretty bad in it. [Laughs.]
There's a lot of shaming myself. And what kept me going was thinking, "Shame is important if it can help somebody else crawl up out of their own." Especially if you juxtapose it with goofiness, 'cause they're right next to each other. And the moment that you can go from shame to goofy -- and open your heart, just for a second, just long enough to laugh at it -- then you're right there in that moment, in that non-judgmental space, and you're not going to go down into a pit, in my experience. The pits are there. And if you give bipolar disorder an inch, it will take 10 miles. My imperative is to [de-]stigmatize mental illness to such an extent that we can see, "There is the shame there, you have to look at it, but right next to that? You're free."
KEXP: In the book, you talk about an experience you had getting hit by a car, and then afterward, hearing music in your head. Decades later, do you still hear the songs in your head like that? Is it different?
Hersh: It's never been in my head; it's always been next door, as if I was playing outside. And I don't understand it, but I'm not so freaked out by it anymore. I don't welcome it, 'cause it's creepy. [Laughs.] But I think what I do is take ambient noise and roll it over in my head until it becomes instruments. And those instruments build over time into songs. And I hear a lot of voices, like a lot of bipolar people do, and those begin to be incorporated into the songs as lyrics. So I could call it an auditory hallucination. It's associated with a seizure-like buzzing. My husband knows when a song is coming before I do, for example. He can feel it around me.
But I don't discount the magic part of that. Magic is associated with mania, this belief in magic, and that's why I could blame the lady that ran me over, call her a witch, and think that she shoved a lightning rod in my head, and that the apartment called The Doghouse had turned it into "Satanic energy," and that I was therefore evil and in love with this "Satanic energy." There's a lot of this magic storyline that's going along, so when I started seeing animals, they just ran into this thread of magic that was going on alongside the music that I was hearing.
It all went away when I was on medication, and yet I can't say I don't believe in it. I know that the songs are as real as the people I share my life with. And I believe in all of the elements associated with the songwriting process. I'm only saying that I don't know what to think about it, except that it continues when I'm not manic, and when I'm not depressed, and I can take a song out of that psychosis, and play it in the recording studio, and it will come to life again. It is real. It's like a window that you can open, that you do have to close, but it's still a window to something. I'm just not sure what that is.
KEXP: If you could go back into time and talk to your 18-year-old self, is there anything you would tell her?
Hersh: It's all in the book! When I fleshed it out, it was sort of a gift to her. Not to say, "Look what's going to happen," but to say, "Look where you are." Because she absolutely did not know where she was; there was too much falling. It was just raining constantly. And this was my way of spinning it with the future in mind, without stepping in her way.