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Kristin Hersh: Raw Bones, Dressed in Colors

Kristin Hersh’s favorite acoustic is a one-of-a-kind, Collings C10 cutaway, handbuilt for her by Bill Collings. She selected the body shape. Note the “K” on the headstock.

The Throwing Muses cofounder sets her muscular, riff-heavy ninth solo album aflame with ferocious flatpicking and bravura textures.

None other than Bob Dylan once said about songwriting: “Songs don’t just come to me. They usually brew for a while, and you learn it’s important to keep the pieces until they’re completely formed and glued together.”

Kristin Hersh might agree, if only to a certain extent, because for most of her life, the songs haven’t simply brewed—they’ve churned, cascaded, and crashed like an unrelenting flood of pictures, sounds, memories, and emotions. As she recounts in her memoir Rat Girl, it all started after she sustained a double concussion in a childhood accident. After a car struck her while she was riding a bike, the trauma literally flipped a switch in her head, and the music kept coming, to the point where she felt less like a budding songwriter and more like a constantly live wire, unable to shut down the current that possessed her. She was only 16 years old.

“Eventually the songs no longer tapped me on the shoulder,” she wrote. “They slugged me in the jaw. Instead of singing to me, they screamed, burrowing into my brain as electricity. Do you want your face grabbed and shouted at? Probably not; at the very least, it’s irritating. But now that it’s happened to me, I know that music is as close to religion as I’ll ever get. It’s a spiritually and biologically sound endeavor—it’s healthy.”

That energy fueled a string of explosive albums by Throwing Muses, the defiantly eclectic indie-rock band Hersh cofounded with her stepsister Tanya Donelly when the two were still in high school in Newport, Rhode Island. The band blazed a humid trail of triumphs and broken dreams, punctuated by soul-baring anthems like “Hate My Way” (from their eponymous 1986 debut), House Tornado’s episodic “Walking in the Dark,” Red Heaven’s slow-building gem “Pearl,” and, in 1995, the yearningly sweet, critically lauded but commercially doomed University, their last album to be distributed in the U.S. by a major label, Sire/Warner.

Along the way, Hersh and her bandmates helped set the stage for the ’90s alt-rock craze, influencing the rise of the Pixies (who in their early days often opened for the Muses), Pavement, the Breeders, the Lemonheads, and, yes, even Nirvana and Radiohead. By 1997, in the wake of the aptly named album Limbo, the band went on hiatus, but Hersh was just getting revved up.

Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is her ninth solo album, going back to 1994’s Hips and Makers. Nearly five years in the making, in a sense it’s her Physical Graffiti—a beautiful and unruly 24-song, multi-instrumental, double-disc magnum opus that finds Hersh pushing open strange new doors with her writing, arranging, and recording chops. She also plays every part, including bass and drums. Coproduced with longtime friend and confidant Steve Rizzo at his Stable Sound Studios in Portsmouth, Rhode Island [see sidebar, “Studio as Sanctuary”], it’s a concept album that’s rife with expertly layered acoustic and electric guitars—including Hersh’s go-to Collings C10 cutaway acoustic, custom-shaped for her by Bill Collings himself in 2008. She still refers to it as “the guitar that love built,” because her fans helped buy it for her after she lost her house, and everything in it, in a flood.

Love in all its permutations, in fact, is the driving force behind the music here. Hersh named the album for her third son, Wyatt, who made his own discoveries while exploring an abandoned apartment building near Stable Sound that was taken over by coyotes (hence, the “coyote palace”). She was also working through the painful dissolution of her 25-year marriage, lending songs like the Bowie-esque “Hemingway’s Tell,” with its sheets of distorted lap-steel guitar, a poignant aura of catharsis. It’s just one of many moments where Hersh sounds palpably inspired, excited, and maybe even a little terrified by the possibilities of trying something new.

“When I step into the studio, I always know what I’m gonna walk out with, even if it’s five years later—and I’m always completely wrong,” she gushes. Hersh speaks animatedly, with a sharp, self-deprecating wit that goes a long way toward explaining how her music appeals to so many: she’s always open and authentic, never striking a pose.

“You can pretend,” she warns, “but the songs know how they want to be raised up. They know what colors they want to wear. It’s like telling your kids what to say and what to wear, when you shouldn’t. You can’t really, because when a song presents itself to you in a superficial way, it’s not skin deep. It’s just using the colors of this plane appropriately. I find that charming, and humbling. So this time I walked into the studio saying, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna Nick Drake this shit up,’ and then I suddenly realized, well, I’m not Nick Drake. It needed deconstruction as well as incessant layering, which makes no sense at first. I thought ‘raw bones’—then you can’t lie, and everybody knows you’re not lying. But there are also layers of color. I can respect that as long as you don’t make any mistakes.”

“Vinyl, as much as we like it, is still kind of presumptuous. It’s like suggesting that someone adopt your soundtrack or your religion.”

Adding to the layers of color, wonder, and meaning, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is packaged as two CDs accompanied by a 64-page hardcover book designed by Throwing Muses drummer David Narcizo, complete with lyrics, photographs, and interstitial prose passages. It’s the third time Hersh has released an album this way, starting with her 2010 solo album Crooked, and followed in 2013 by the Muses’ Purgatory/Paradise, which was their first full-length release in 10 years, and a harbinger of things to come. The band has tentative plans to begin work on a new album in early 2017.

“Hopefully what I’m doing is ear-catching without turning everybody off,” Hersh quips. “I know that what I do isn’t for everybody, but I wouldn’t want to come between them and the music. That’s why I thought a book would be a nicer gift than a piece of plastic. Vinyl, as much as we like it, is still kind of presumptuous. It’s like suggesting that someone adopt your soundtrack or your religion. But a book is a nice little keyhole view of the world. It’s saying, ‘Here’s some pictures. Here’s some stories. You can come in.’ It’s like a sweetness, I guess.”

Overall, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace has a much bigger sound than your last solo album, Crooked.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Crooked was almost like recording a garage band. I just couldn’t make this one small, and I really do love small. I like the character actors in every sphere, but this just isn’t one. It’s so big. Wyatt likes to call it my “big-budget home movie.” [Laughs.]

Did you talk with Steve Rizzo beforehand about what you had in mind?
Poor Steve. He never knows what to expect when I walk into the studio every day! I mean, there’s never been a harsh word between us, but I walk in, and he knows that’s when the mad scientist part begins. Sometimes it means breaking instruments or building instruments, and layering them or using these field recordings I made, which seemed to replace the room mic this time. The room mic is useful when you don’t feel like the listener is being invited into the atmosphere. If you can identify the track-within-the-track that’s too dry or too removed from the human body, then you just bring up the room in that track.

And yet this time that wasn’t enough. I needed more idiosyncrasy without just crawling up my own ass, you know? I don’t want to be pretentious, but I needed something to catch people’s ears, and that’s a difficult thing to do. You don’t want to be willfully kooky. So I found that I was compulsively recording things all over planet Earth. At first, I would just send them to friends because they were funny or interesting, but then I thought I’d try treating them like instruments.

There are street sounds like that in “Soma Gone Slapstick” or “Elysian Fields,” for instance.
I worked on “Elysian Fields” for a few years—intermittently anyway. I can’t remember everything that went into it right now, and I don’t want to make shit up, but it’s about a street in New Orleans, like a bunch of my songs.

You’re doing some nice flatpicking there. You’ve said the Collings guitar figures prominently in all your solo albums.
It just has a nice bite. I don’t always like sparkle, but it has an edge. I went for something more percussive on this record, too. That’s more a reflection of the foam that I stuck under the strings, and the duct tape and all the crap that I used. Sometimes I would put down eight tracks of the same guitar, so it sounds like brush strokes. That’s a little hint of the versatility that a Collings affords, because the sustain inherent in that instrument is so similar to an electric that you can play leads that don’t sound like Spanish guitar. It’s a striking sound. It almost reminds me of a banjo, sometimes. There’s a slight slap, because there’s an attack and then a sustain.

It’s similar to playing an electric, but you can relate to the muscles. You can hear that it’s being played physically. That’s been a frustration for me with electric, because you’re sort of lying. You use pedals to mimic muscles, and with acoustics, you don’t do that. It’s all about the body.

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.

Kristin Hersh’s Gear

• Collings C10 cutaway (custom)
• Nashville-tuned Gibson J-45
• Fender Telecaster Thinline (vintage)
• Fender Stratocaster (vintage)
• ’80s Michael Allison LP-style
• Danelectro Double Cutaway ’59 reissue
• Reverend Rumblefish bass
• ’62 Fender Jazz Bass
• Fender Classic Series ’69 Telecaster Thinline (live)
• ESP Xtone (live)

• Supro 16T
• Vox Cambridge Reverb
• Harmony H410
• Ampeg Rocket
• Fender Twin Reverb (live)
• Fender Bassman (live)

• Electro-Harmonix Crying Bass Wah/Fuzz

• D’Addario EXP13 80/20 Bronze, Custom Light (.011–.052; acoustic) • D’Addario ECG26 Chromes Medium Gauge (.013–.056)

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?

YouTube It

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.

Hersh reads from her 2010 memoir, Rat Girl, while another of her favorite guitars, an ESP Xtone, hangs on her shoulders. “That became my most solid, roadworthy guitar for a while,” she says. “It takes effects well without feeding back.” Photo by Tony Nelson

Studio as Sanctuary

Steve Rizzo’s Stable Sound Studios gets its name from being adjacent to an actual horse stable, but for more than 20 years, it’s also provided a no-nonsense, down-to-earth, and relaxed environment for Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses to commit their music to tape (or Pro Tools, to be precise). Over the course of more than a dozen albums and countless hours of tracking and mixing sessions, Hersh and Rizzo have forged a creative partnership that comes down to one thing: trust.

“I think I’ve said this before, but for us it’s like the William Tell routine,” Rizzo jokes. “Some days the apple’s on my head, and some days it’s on her head. Kris trusts me, I trust her, and that’s it. I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement musically in the studio. If I have some ideas, it’s more like I’m hearing something in my head, and I’ll just say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ And she’ll be like, ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’ She just comes in and we record, and as it’s happening, it’s developing into something.”

To capture the sound that Hersh wanted out of her Collings C10, which is the key guitar on Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, Rizzo would usually start with a Shure KSM44A and a Miktek C7, with one microphone positioned in front of the guitar, about a foot away from the 12th fret, and the other as a room mic above Hersh’s right shoulder. From there, he’d run the signal through a MartinSound Martech MSS-10 mic preamp, primarily just to stay true to the sound that Hersh was hearing in the room.

“When she started recording, I remembered it would be cool to put some foam under the strings,” Rizzo says. “We’ve done that before. When you hear that chung chung chung that sounds almost like staccato cello lines, that’s the guitar. There’s some real cello on the record—we have some samples in there, and then we used the faders to give them a dynamic feel, like at the end of ‘Diving Bell’—but for the guitar, the foam on the strings just keeps them from ringing too much.”

Another distinctive acoustic sound comes from a Nashville-tuned Gibson J-45. “We’ve been using that on almost every solo record,” Rizzo says. “A lot of people think she’s playing a 12-string, but what’s happening is it’s the 6-string and the Nashville played together. She can play the exact same thing from take to take so they sound like a 12-string, which is pretty cool. And sometimes it sounds very physical. Her hands can be so strong that it’s like, ‘How the hell is she playing that?’”

Once the album was ready for mixing, Hersh gave him the green light to “Rizzofy” the mix. “She’s never overly detail-oriented, so it’s never like, ‘Give me a dB of this or that.’ I think she just enjoyed the process of having the luxury of time, because it gives you perspective. You record it, you live with it, and then you can go back and try different things. And that’s really the beauty of Pro Tools. The analog-digital argument is kind of moot these days. If you’re a modern musician, composing and editing in the studio, that’s how you work now.”