Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Kristin Hersh typically doesn’t remember what her songs are about. The Throwing Muses icon views her music and herself as two separate entities — two separate personalities, in fact. When we talk about her 10th studio solo album, Possible Dust Clouds (out on 10/5 via Fire Records), she doesn’t have very much to say about the irascible, alt-rock cuts within. Those belong to “Rat Girl,” aka, Hersh’s musician alter-ego, and the title to her 2010 memoir.
“I’m never fully her anymore, but I will disappear when I need to focus, because she’s better than I am at this,” Hersh explains over the phone. “She’s the guitar player, she’s the songwriter.”
When she hears her own description of Possible Dust Clouds — “a futuristic rewriting of how music works” — Hersh doesn’t know what to say to that either. “Wow, what did I mean by that?” She laughs. But after a minute she’s retraced her cognitive footsteps and takes a stab:
“I guess when I started looking at music from a bigger picture instead of being lost in my tiny song world, it was because I was making Wyatt At The Coyote Palace, my last solo record, and traveling all over the world touring the one before it,” she recalls. “So it took about five years from start to finish, and a big player on that record is field recordings. So I have Australian birds and German conversations and a woman kicking Bigfoot out of her house in New Orleans.”
Hersh’s entire relationship to music — including her years in college-rock staples Throwing Muses, their follow-up project 50FOOTWAVE, and her immense solo catalog — is arguably the result of an accident she had at 16, where she fell off of her bike, sustained a concussion, and started hearing music no one else did. Doctors misdiagnosed her for years, initially calling her schizophrenic and then bipolar.
Today, Hersh is relieved to say that she suffers from neither of those things. She actually has PTSD-related Dissociation, which explains her inability to remember what most of her songs mean and where she goes as she writes them. Below, Hersh continues to unpack her diagnosis, explains the treatment that lets her access lost memories, and what Throwing Muses is currently working on.
STEREOGUM: I’d love to know what the name Possible Dust Clouds means to you.
HERSH: The original cover was a sign that said “Possible Dust Clouds.” When Fire Records picked it up, they have an art department. The cover ended up being a different picture I took with my phone. But I said, “I’m cool with this, it’s really beautiful. I’m gonna look really poetic and esoteric now, because I called my record this.” And no one’s going to understand. It’s a little enigmatic. My son Body is a pro surfer out here [in California] … We drive a lot all over Southern California, and there’s this sign on the way to one of his favorite surfing spots that just says, “Possible Dust Clouds,” and we got obsessed with it. Then when I heard the record back after leaving the atmosphere of the studio, where it’s a very granular orientation and you’re obsessed with the minutia. When you step away, it’s like stepping back from a painting. It just sounded like this chaotic party. You want the chaos, you want the violence, the sweetness lends itself to a fun explosion. And that’s what “Possible Dust Clouds” sounds like. Yeah, it’s an act of God, but it’s going to be cool.
STEREOGUM: I love that. How long have you actually been in California now?
HERSH: A few years, I guess. He started surfing three years ago. And we were out here, my band 50 Foot Wave was doing music for a surfing documentary. And we’re just looking for the next place to go; we move every few years. And I said, “You choose this time. Where would it be wonderful?” And he said, “Right here.” So we stayed. It’s just a small town between LA and San Diego that’s all about the surfing.
STEREOGUM: I thought was kind of funny that you called one of the singles “LAX.” I read an interview you did recently where you talk about the people-watching aspects of going to LAX. And I thought it was nice that you could appreciate the beauty in that place… Because most people I know hate LAX.
HERSH: That’s a better question than the answer is, I think. But I think it was a particular morning, and my songs, they just sort of came unbidden. I don’t have inspiration, I have retroactive impression of inspiration. For many years I was not present during the writing or performing of any of my material. Do you know anything about this?
STEREOGUM: I’ve read interviews where you’ve talked about how, for a long time, you just didn’t have any actual memory of writing or performing.
HERSH: When I was treated for PTSD it revealed an alternate personality. So all these years of being misdiagnosed, things like bipolar, schizophrenic — it was just a dissociation, which is not even a mental illness. It’s something that people do to cope and survive. So as a coping and survival mechanism, it works for a short period of time and then sort of breaks down. And I was cured, but that means that I don’t really write songs anymore; I don’t hear them. I had to gradually get all my memories back that were hidden in the music. When “LAX” is playing, I remember what that moment was. But right now I’d be hard-pressed to really be in it.
STEREOGUM: Say you’re playing a show. Is there anything you can do to access your songs on-command? Or does it not really work that way?
HERSH: I snap into it, and I try not to. This was just very recent that I was even made aware of what was happening. I’ve had friends say, “I hate to tell you this, but you disappeared up there.” But I’m getting better at being myself up there and having all the memories and not disappearing, being the musician and the nice person at the same time. My memories are intense, but I think with “LAX” there’s so much inherent backstory when you codify the story in a moment. Songs are very good at capturing the essence of that experience. So “LAX” is the seat of humanity around you coming from all over, going to all over, escaping, being very still. Having all their backstories and these noisy backstories. You can’t shake off the impression of all those people and all that’s driving them and burdening them. It’s sort of like dying every time you step out of that sphere. And so the song is just about, well, we just can’t wait for the chaos to end, and we can’t wait to be still. It’s like I’m about to die, and it’s so good.
STEREOGUM: You said that it was only recently that you were able to recover a lot of your memories. What did it take? Did you see somebody who was helpful, as opposed to any professionals you’d seen in the past?
HERSH: It’s really intense. The therapy is called EMDR: Eye-Movement Desensitization … R. I can’t remember what the “R” is [Editor’s note: “R” stands for “Reprocessing”]. It was rough, it’s psychological chemo. When you have PTSD, your whole system is oriented to keeping the memory at bay. So triggers will start to … you can pass out, you can vomit, you can have a heart attack. Triggers are intense because your system is responding to cues that the memory — which is always ongoing for you, always present tense — is about to kick in again, so you’ll do anything to not remember.
And EMDR, the treatment, involves remembering, reliving. And it reorients the memory to the past. So it doesn’t really change its intensity, but it’s no longer ongoing, so that’s the best it can do. And the twist for me was having it release this Pandora’s Box of music, where all of my traumatic memories had been stored. Which is how I can be this nice person, a good wife, mother, friend, bandmate. And have all this ugly music, intense music. People couldn’t put the two together, and rightly so, it didn’t make a lot of sense.
But now I’m a lot more like the songs, and I carry these memories and I do know that they’re in the past, so I don’t have triggers anymore. But I was collapsing on the way into the treatment, just because it’s unbearable. It was like, what you know you can’t bear is what you have to face. And then you come out clean. That’s the best you can do, is be a whole other person. And that’s where I am, which is better. You’re not allowed to lose your own memories, it’s not fair. Everybody else has to live with theirs.
STEREOGUM: Have you known many other musicians who relate to music the way that you do?
HERSH: I know people who relate to it in similar fashion. Not exactly what I was doing, which was hearing it and hiding it from myself. But I knew songwriters that had a similar fear of the “God music.” Like Vic Chesnutt was absolutely immersed in that world, but he wasn’t sickened by it or afraid of it; he thought it was a good God and a good place to go. But he would do things he said, he thought he heard the singer — meaning his own muse — on the other side of a wall. So he took an X-ACTO knife to the wall and tried to get to it. Which, I think he was probably really high or drunk. But to make your muscles move that way, you have a very vivid relationship to the process. It isn’t like, “I have this idea.” It’s too intense to really become anything else. So any time I meet a songwriter who goes to another place, I’m reminded of my process; it resonates with me. Mine is a little cartoonish, but it’s only reflective of the event, which is technicolor. And every word is a verb, and you are not your person anymore, you become something else. I think it’s actually something that can happen in anybody.
STEREOGUM: Does what you experience relate to what Lorde has talked about? Her experience with synesthesia?
HERSH: I have synesthesia, too. [Music has] always been colors to me, and very visual, as if it’s a presence. So it’s hard for me to take music apart into its constituent pieces and say, “Oh, well it’s just reflective of this.” I can’t reduce it that way. There’s just so much happening. But you really shouldn’t reduce anything, I don’t think. It becomes a cadaver once you think that you’ve reduced it.
STEREOGUM: The way you describe music, it makes me think of saying a word over and over again until it loses meaning.
HERSH: That’s why songs don’t use words the way we do in conversation. A lyric, in a real song, is like a verb and a color, and it’s active. It isn’t about communication, so when people try to analyze a real song, sometimes they’ll come to dead ends because it’s not having a conversation with you. It’s spitting out images and action and effect. And it’s a ride you need to take. I like intellects, I can be cerebral, but if you think and you don’t know how to shut down one eye and one ear and let the song impress you with its visceral impact, it’s just going to fall short of what you’re looking for.
STEREOGUM: I also saw that you brought musicians in to play in the studio here, as opposed to recording every track yourself, which you had done in the past.
HERSH: Yeah. My drummer David Narcizo from Throwing Muses was there just saying hi, and actually watching my son Wyatt play drums on something. And Dave said, “I only got 10 minutes.” And I said, “I know, I know. Let’s just hang.”
The song that my engineer just happened to put on in the control room was so perfect for Dave that he and I just looked at each other and he said, “OK, I have eight minutes now.” And I said, “You know the song’s three minutes. Just go, go, go, go, go.” And he did one take, and it was so beautiful and it was so Dave-when-we-were-in-high-school. With his elbows sticking out everywhere. I was in tears, I’m not ashamed to say — or maybe a little ashamed to say. It was so beautiful and so fun.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of Dave, do you guys have any plans for another Throwing Muses record to follow up 2013’s Purgatory/Paradise?
HERSH: We’re in the studio right now, here in LA. When we release a record, we tour it for a long time. And we also are really goofy, like a little cult. So we keep up with each other and embarrassing amount, we’re sort of addicted to each other. And the music is ongoing in conversation and a cloud over our heads, so when we reconnect it’s under that cloud. But we do stupid shit, like we take nature walks together. We’re silly people.
Possible Dust Clouds is out 10/5 via Fire Records. Pre-order it here.