Kristin Hersh’s live and studio performances are built on a foundation of inspiration, craft, and ferocious technique on guitar. Fender Telecaster Thinlines are among her favorite onstage electrics. Photo by Patric Carver
You even play with a sense of physicality and instinctive movement. Is that because you’ve been so close to the guitar for such a long time?
I’ve been playing it longer than I’ve been writing songs. I started when I was a little kid, but I took classical for so many years that it sort of kicked my sensibilities out of my hands. This isn’t uncommon. You learn the rules before you learn to break them, and yet you’re born knowing how to break them. You just need to get back to the musical language that you’re born knowing. That was thrust upon me in the car accident, where I started hearing music. I guess it was just the music that I would’ve written if I had remained unsocialized in my playing.
There’s a lot of electric guitar on this album, too, and I noticed that’s how you’re playing these songs on the road.
I have an ESP Xtone that became my most solid, roadworthy guitar for a while. It takes effects well without feeding back, but I don’t have it out right now. I’m playing a Tele Thinline, and that’s what I used on most of the record. It has a little more character, a little more balance, and I can put chromes on it and the character doesn’t suffer. These songs need that kind of clarity. It’s full-bodied for a Tele, and yet it still has that clarity. It was tough to find the right guitar for this stuff when I’m playing it live, because obviously I’m solo, so it doesn’t sound anything like all the layering that’s on the record, but the songs still need to be realized. An acoustic wasn’t gonna do it. It’s just not the right feel.
That layering you’re talking about really comes through in songs like “Diving Bell,” with the cello parts near the end, and especially on “Detox.” Even though that song seems to change time signatures, from the opening bass line to the main guitar riff, the pulse is actually constant and consistent.
I’ve been playing that live and noticing that. That song, like a lot of the other ones, is not played to a click. If you do, it sounds mathy and rude. It has to be performance-based, especially if other songs are supposed to be hypnotic and need to be played to a click. And I love bass. It’s so much fun. Drums are the most fun, but bass is a close second. I’m playing a Reverend on that. It’s just a dry acoustic sound that I really like.
Did you use any effects on the album?
Not really. It’s mostly the different slide parts that are on the most chaotic leads. It seems to have replaced singing for me. My voice is actually what I want it to be for the first time ever, for a long and unusual reason, but I found that the lead guitar parts were akin to the field recordings, as an extension of the room mic. So the leads were more [about] singing than singing could ever be. I guess what it is, you hit a point where your body isn’t enough. I mean, why else would you be in a studio playing instruments? Sometimes they can say more than you can, so the most chaotic leads were telling a truth that I wasn’t able to articulate. That sounds kind of pretentious, but I can’t think of any other way to put it. It’s like vomiting electric guitar, which is a lot more charming than actually vomiting [laughs].
So no Electro-Harmonix fuzz wah anywhere?
Ha! That’s my favorite pedal, which is embarrassing because it’s been my signature sound for a while. I found that at Kingsway Studios, Daniel Lanois’ place in New Orleans, where we made a bunch of records. It distorts at the top of the wave and mellows at the bottom into this ’70s bass sound. It can carry a whole song. It’s hypnotic. It doesn’t have the effect you’d think a fuzz wah would have. I don’t know—it’s just really charming and awful, and I love it. It’s on a lot of 50 Foot Wave stuff, but the Throwing Muses song where it’s the loudest is probably “No Way in Hell” from University.
Then I lost it in my house flood with all my other equipment. I’d always wanted another one, even though I was scared to let myself play it again because I get so annoying with them. Then a friend picked one up for me for my birthday, and I was so psyched. I brought it to the studio—it was like, “Yeah, I have my sound back!” And it sounded like a beer commercial. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Do I suck now? Is it 50 Foot Wave that was good, not me? And then I realized it’s because the old one was totally screwed up, and that’s why it sounded so cool. So I soaked the new one in water, and now it works perfectly.
Would that have been salt water or fresh water?
Hey, there you go! Something about degrading it is awfully attractive.
Is every day in the studio different for you?
Yeah. It’s probably like being an athlete, but I’m allowed to determine my flexibility for each event. If I go in and I’m big and raw, then I can take on starting a song. I can take on basics and work. But if I’m more subtle about detail, and my muscles are finely tuned, then I have to work under the auspices of a song, filling in the blanks. A producer would recognize those strengths and weaknesses in the artist he or she is working with, but I have to do it myself. I have to boss myself around, and give myself shit, and fire myself.
But I get the sense that you record, mix, and produce a song as you’re working on it.
Yeah, I think you have to. I wouldn’t know what we had unless I was tweaking and backing up, and tweaking more and backing up. I know now why people paint, because you can just see it. You take a few steps back, and you know what it is. Records are okay. Books are impossible. But for me, Stable Sound is already a church, so when the real song walks in, everybody knows it. It’s really hard to fuck up because the atmosphere is already in place. I don’t know if that’s spiritual practice or what, but why else would we have buildings called churches unless that effect was real? So I step through that doorway, and I just think, “Okay, I worship here.” It would be very difficult to lie if you thought God was watching, you know?
Here’s a look at Kristin Hersh and producer Steve Rizzo at work in Stable Sound Studios, Hersh’s recording refuge. While her reputation largely rests on her masterful songwriting, she’s also a ripping guitarist, as the solo she’s cutting on “Morning Birds 1,” from Throwing Muses’ Purgatory/Paradise, displays.