Words, photos and interview by Farrah Skeiky
It’s something I’ve waited for since I was fourteen years old: seeing Throwing Muses live. And for most of the crowd, it was something they hadn’t seen since they were fourteen themselves. But an older crowd at 9:30 Club proved a couple of things. Primarily, as a very wise and blunt Kristin Hersh would tell you, these are music listeners and not fans. Fans are bought by marketing campaigns, listeners are never bought but rather earned by the caliber of the songs. And the caliber of the Muses catalogue? Not to be questioned, especially when the crowd are either softly singing along to every song, hanging on to every word; or they’re so awestruck and full of wonderment that they can’t muster a single sound.
Secondary to that, it’s pretty nice to find a crowd that is 100% appreciative of what is happening onstage that they are completely respectful of the performance, and brought their kids along to teach by example.
Kristin doesn’t waste time with inane banter, only banter that actually has a point. It’s a story about a record store clerk mistaking the Muses track playing in his shop for Weezer, or a prompt to follow along because you’d be a fool to not know the words. And whatever did we do to deserve not only the return of Throwing Muses, but an opening set by Tanya Donelly and Tanya joining Muses onstage? I know exactly what we did: we asked only for music with no strings attached. We did not demand that Throwing Muses change or follow trends. We did not embrace the big box labels. We asked Kristen to write, to write anything and trusted that as always, she knew what she was doing.
Aren’t you glad we did?
Kristen was kind enough to answer a few questions via email between stops on the road. She does a much better job of giving an email interview than anyone I have ever email interviewed. This should surprise no one.
Now, as you’ve put it before, this album is out and you’re “ready to die.” What do the first few days of your other-worldly life look like and how to you explain the whole thing to your kids?
I’m gonna read this as metaphor 😉 Throwing Muses finished its first record this year, as far as I’m concerned. We never had the time/money/record company support to be completely happy with a project before; there was always some song or production element or overdub or mix fuck-up that had us embarrassed at the outset. We came real close a few times, but the listener-supported “Purgatory/Paradise” is the realized release we’ve been trying for all these years. We don’t even care if anybody hears it, ’cause we did what we set out to do and now we know we were born on this plane for a reason 😉 And allowed to step off of it whenever that train comes. My kids have watched this whole process and have a deep understanding of will vs. shakiness and the conundrum at play when the trick to being effective is to hide-the-fuck-out and live in your own world. Even (especially) when it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with this one.
Loss, grief and aftermath are also consistent themes in this album. How do/would you explain not just death but loss to your kids?
Your kids can’t experience loss. They can’t even lose a goddamn goldfish. They aren’t allowed to have nightmares or to throw up or fall down or watch nature shows where something cute gets eaten or be sad about anything that cookies and cuddles can’t fix. Ask any mother. There is no solution to this equation.
It seems that there’s just about a 50/50 split between musicians who follow an unwritten rule about their children and the media, and those whose internet personalities partly revolve around their kids. How do you decide that tweeting about your kids is going to be adorable instead of tedious? Are your kids aware they’re twitter famous?
Hopefully, it’s neither adorable nor tedious when I quote my kids on Twitter. Just insane.
I’m curious about how you’ve mapped out this album and how you decide the order in which songs are place. Sleepwalking 2 is track three, but Sleepwalking 1 is track 27, and something similar happens with other songs, too. I’m imagining you sitting on the floor with a bunch of post-its in front of you, sorting them in the right order for hours but I highly doubt that’s how it went down.
That’s exactly how it went down, just virtually; with sequences flying back and forth across the country. This was a bossy record. We weren’t allowed to do anything it didn’t want us to do without the whole thing falling apart or just sounding stupid. Luckily, “Purgatory/Paradise” sort of showed us the way, but it was like adopting a shelter dog with a ton of stories you don’t know, just hoping that mutual respect keeps it from tearing your house apart.
Is this multi-media format something you’d explore again, in Muses, 50FootWave or any other projects? Is multi-media format putting it too simply? I don’t think that label does it justice.
“Book” is an ok word to use 😉 but yeah, I never know what to call it, either, so I just say “release” and let people sort it out. My last solo record, “Crooked,” was also published as a book; I liked images and text informing the sound and vice-versa. Not to explain songs, but to invite the listener into the bubble that is a piece of music. Usually the musicians are kind of trapped inside that bubble, speaking a different language. Not everyone is fluent in “music” but most people respond to stories and images.
The songs from this album pull so many parts of your life, and from the past ten years of writing “between albums.” The book component is almost responsible for holding them together– do you the album would feel less cohesive without it? Did you intend for the book and the album to rely on one another, or for them to be independent companions?
Music always comes first, but now I can’t imagine this record without the accompanying prose. I actually told my bandmates writing 33 cohesive essays that both reflected the themes in these songs *and* the sequence was not a possible thing to do. So I pouted and avoided writing entirely for a few months, but when I put the record on as a listener rather than a musician, it reminded me of tour stories and goofinesses that made the writing idea seem less pretentious.
You live in both Providence and New Orleans. What does each city offer your writing and creative process that the other cannot? How have the emotions and personalities of each city changed the way you write, if at all?
I am obsessed with “place” and the sensory impressions that go along with weather, architecture and accents, flora and fauna, etc. Kind of like a dog would be, though. I tend not be very articulate when it comes to this stuff; I just know that there’s music floating around in the air in New Orleans and Rhode Island. That sounds so lame, it makes me laugh, but it’s palpably true to me.
You do things hundreds of other musicians do, but you’re the antithesis. It comes across in your songwriting process, the way you wrote Rat Girl, the creation of CASH Music and the way you seem to be in a constant state of reflection whether or not you realize it. Are you okay with being the poster girl of modern anti-pop? If not, who do you nominate to that post?
I WANT IT! I WANT IT! I WANT IT! More than okay with that.
What do you listen to during these tours to keep you sane? What are your tried and true standbys, and what new musicians are you excited about?
This is gonna sound really dumb, but there is so much music in my head that I can’t really listen to anything else. I have a Nick Drake cd in my car that I play while I’m running errands at home, but my kids tell me they’re going to mutiny if I play it one more time.
You’ve said many times that you now have freedom that listeners have granted you to simply write. Are there any challenges or pitfalls to working within that understanding or is this simply right for you?
The Strange Angel subscribers allow me to be invisible. No photo shoots or singles or videos or selling selling selling some cartoon version of the “me” person that’s supposed to fool people who don’t even like music into buying this year’s release. That should never have happened to music. I was lucky enough to have escaped it when our manager, Billy O’Connell, came up with the idea of CASHmusic and its subscriptions. When people responded, it became a team effort; a circle of gratitude that allows songs to walk out of my house and into theirs.
More Throwing Muses photos!
Tanya Donelly Setlist:
Every Word/ Dusted
Not Too Soon
Low Red Moon
Tanya Donelly photos galore (including a massive singalong. You can guess.)