Five years of songwriting, three years of recording — the making of Kristin Hersh’s new combination book and double CD, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace (Omnibus Press), sounds grueling.
“Oh god no, this is all selfish on my part!” she laughs. “This is what I do for fun, and I’m lucky if anybody wants to listen to it after the fact. I’m so moved when that happens. What I do isn’t for everyone, but for anyone to pick up an instrument and think that someone is going to want to listen to them bang on it is pretty presumptuous!”
Hersh has been making music since she founded Throwing Muses at age 14 with drummer David Narcizo, her best friend since third grade. The band released their 1986 self-titled debut on British indie label 4AD Records and made a name for themselves on the alternative scene, combining elements of folk, pop, rock, and punk. Hersh quickly gained widespread recognition for her songwriting, vocals, and guitar playing.
Following two EPs, Throwing Muses signed with Warner Brothers/Sire Records in 1988 and soon released House Tornado. The band eventually released six albums under the Warner label umbrella (which included Sire and Reprise) culminating with Limbo in 1996. The Muses parted ways for seven years, reunited in 2003, released Uses, disbanded again, and returned in 2013 with their self-released CD/book package, Purgatory/Paradise.
In 1994, Hersh launched her solo career with the album Hips and Makers (Sire/Reprise). Tired of feeling like a cog in the corporate wheel and being told to play by industry rules, she bought herself, and the Muses, off of the label in exchange for that record, and has since released eight studio albums. In contrast to the Muses’ guitar-driven, radio-friendly, indie sound, on her own Hersh leans toward an acoustic and at times almost folk-style delivery, but just as seamlessly dives back into her college-rock roots. In 2004, taking yet another turn, she formed the power trio 50Footwave, with whom she has recorded six mini-albums. Their latest EP, Bath White, was released this summer.
Kristin Hersh with 50footwave
Over the course of her career, Hersh has been a voice for change within the music industry and independence for recording artists.
In 2007, she co-founded, and currently serves on the board of directors of, the nonprofit Coalition of Artists and Stake-Holders, or CASH Music, whose mission is to empower artists to create without boundaries. Through the organization’s website, artists can access free technical tools to sell and promote their work.
Hersh recorded Wyatt at the Coyote Palace in Portsmouth, Rhode Island with longtime engineer Steve Rizzo, who has worked with Throwing Muses since 1991’s The Real Ramona, and engineered all of Hersh’s solo albums, with the exception of Sky Motel. The songs were written during what is described as a “turbulent period” in Hersh’s life, while the prose was inspired by her autistic son, Wyatt, and his “fascination with an abandoned apartment building inhabited by coyotes.”
Although she describes herself as shy, Hersh has been fearless about baring her soul to the world, allowing listeners and readers to experience both the dark and light of her innermost thoughts. Wyatt at the Coyote Palace follows in the vein of her previous work in terms of its raw honesty and, of course, her driving electric and acoustic guitar work, which accentuates her intimate storytelling and vocals.
Hersh played all of the instruments on the album: guitar, bass, drums, piano, horns, cello, banjo, and even Irish bouzouki on one track. “She used her custom Collings guitar, my Gibson J-45’s — one from the 60s and one from the 70s, custom ’70 and ’71 Les Paul, Fender Jazz and P basses, a Reverend Rumblefish four-string bass, a custom lap steel, and a Line 6 500 Series POD for the guitar,” says Rizzo. “We didn’t use a lot of amplifiers. We used a Vox a lot and we might have used a Supro.”
“Kristin was very open to trying things,” he says. “She trusts that I’m not going to make it sound like a heavy metal record or something. She has strong opinions and she can’t relate to the macho bullshit that’s in a lot of rock music. She’s an artist and a poet. She doesn’t see herself that way, she never wanted to put the lyrics in books, but she’s grown into that with time because a lot of people love her words, so it’s nice to see it on the pages and follow along.”
As she was preparing to head out on tour, Hersh spoke to She Shreds about her latest project, her studio process, and finding strength by being vulnerable. Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is out now.
She Shreds: In the interview included in your press kit, you stated, “A book is still a valuable object, whereas a CD really isn’t. We all know they’re just little pieces of plastic.” Does that not devalue the music?
Kristin Hersh: I love what we put on CDs, but I think it could come in a better gift-wrap. I think it is a little presumptuous to assume that someone would be willing to adopt your soundtrack. It’s like suggesting they adopt your religion. And yet I’m pretty sleazy, so I stick CDs into the gift-wrap and suggest that they adopt my religion. So really, I’m just a hypocrite!
Does the music influence the lyrics and prose, or do the lyrics and prose influence the music? Or does it vary from one song or one thing to the next?
It’s always music first for me. That’s really all I have going on. That’s the only language I speak fluently. But after I wrote the first book, which was sort of by accident, to be honest … my bandmates were convinced that I could write books, which is not true, and then I just sort of got stuck in it! The books I write are not particularly books. They’re conversational prose poetry, science nonfiction is what I call is. I don’t have the kind of brain that can wrap itself around fiction, or make anything up, or be creative at all, so when I play the record I remember stories and that’s what I write down. I don’t know if that counts as writing books or not. It’s just what I do.
Kristin Hersh by Billy O’Connell
You played all instruments on the album. Is that both an insular experience and in some ways a more creative one? You work in band settings. Is that why it’s important that solo projects just be you?
It’s really the sound of having no friends! But I don’t mind that, because I don’t have to boss any friends around. I know exactly what I want to hear, and if anybody’s going to get shit, then it’s me. I like that I can keep myself up until 3 a.m. if I need to, I can fail if I need to and nobody knows, and I can break an instrument and break another instrument and stick them together and make a Frankenstein instrument! I’m such a nice lady that I can be a little too polite, I suppose. When I work with my beloved bandmates, it doesn’t matter. We don’t even need to speak. We all know what’s happening, whether the song is another body in the room or whether it can walk in at all. But when I’m alone I can absolutely root myself in the mad scientist nature of what I do. No polite lady walks in and messes that up.
Are there certain ways you like to do things in the studio?
I’ve been trying to figure out why I walk into the studio every single session and know exactly what mics I want to use, where I want them placed in the room, what bow I want to use on the cello, what picks I want to use on the guitar, which effects pedals, which reverbs I want to use and which ones I don’t want to use, exactly what sonic vocabulary I’m going to walk into the mix with, and I’m always wrong. I’m completely wrong. I’m totally wrong. One of my favorite things about music is that it knows so much better than you. So when I’m in there and the cello is saying, “No, not that bow,” and the guitar is saying, “No, not those effects,” I have to truncate those urges and at the same time expand my sonic vocabulary. So each record is probably limited to five or six tonal textures that I give myself up to across the board.
With these different projects, I’m trying to introduce another varied vocabulary and then refine it. An analogy for that would be children. I have four children and they’re bizarre. Very kind, funny people, I’m proud of them, they’re brilliant, but mostly they’re just surprising. And I didn’t do anything. I just watched them. When people say children grow up quickly, they mean they grow up in a short period of time, but not fast. It’s the slowest 20 years that ever happen because you’re watching every minute. And it’s the same thing: they refined themselves until they became these bodies that then walk away, and you’ve got to be strong enough to say, “OK, that was my gift. It’s not what I get. It’s what I give. I’m going to walk away now and I’m going to trust that you’ll be OK.”
You’ve spoken openly and often about the corporate side of the industry, how it was dumbed down, how image-conscious it is. Has it gotten better or worse?
I don’t look at the industry now. That’s the beauty of being listener-supported. I can orient myself to the timeless nature of music, which was always supposed to be a spontaneous venture — nothing premeditated, nothing stylized, always substantive. That said, people express themselves in different ways, violent ways sometimes. I think what we’ve done to women in this industry is pretty fucking violent and dangerous. There’s always been people who are born healthy and people who have to learn healthy. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by intelligent humans where I grew up. They still surround me, and no matter what happens, they’re here. It’s tough. It’s not a slam-dunk, it’s not a no-brainer, and I don’t know that I can keep going, but so far my teammates have kept me here.
“What we’ve done to women in this industry is pretty fucking violent and dangerous.” Please elaborate.
The idea that men are people and women are women. That there is a kind of person that might be more beautiful and look more beautiful than another. That shallow is valuable. That superficial has any meaning at all. They’re very dangerous concepts, they’re insidious, and they make money. In our psychology it’s very real, and the way we respond to it in a capitalist country like ours, those values are celebrated noisily. And yet you can live in a small world, and that’s where your heaven is. You live in a manifest heaven and there is no dearth of God or solace. You just have to be looking for it.
You never sought to conform or play by those rules, and as such you’ve outlasted many who did. You open yourself up and expose your vulnerability in songwriting, prose, and interviews, which requires a thick skin, but vulnerability doesn’t usually come with a thick skin.
I didn’t know that would happen. I didn’t mean to be open. The songs were talking and I thought that’s all that had to happen. Then people started asking me questions, and I was still a teenager and I answered them. I thought I was supposed to, and then I would feel betrayed when they wrote the conversation down and published it, as if they were talking behind my back. But it never occurred to me that I had any choice.
In the meantime I realized that there were people I was helping by showing strength and vulnerability, and that was reflected in the music itself. Which is, you can live a story that’s hard, you can be ashamed of it, but if you reach down to the bones of our universal expression, there’s no shame left because we’re all sharing the stories, so we can’t be ashamed. That would be a kind of hubris, to adopt any kind of resentment of humility. So I just live with the humility, and if that means I need to publish a book like Rat Girl [Hersh’s 2010 memoir based on the diary she kept as a teenager touring with Throwing Muses and struggling with bipolar disorder] where I don’t come out that great, and I’m weak, and I love badly, and I work my fingers to the bones and nobody likes it, then that’s OK, because I’m still trying hard, and I’m good, and it’s all about kindness, so I have to drop the shyness and be more kind than I want to be. My ex-husband, who used to manage me, would say, “You need to give more than they expect,” so I still live by that.
People are amazing. They always seem to give more than I expect, and I like to rise to their occasion. I mean, if I have any listeners giving more than I expect, which is all of them, they’re listening. That’s huge, and I owe them at least a little bit of honesty.