Kristin Hersh: “Music Has Been A Cruel Lover”

The former leader of Throwing Muses exorcises her demons about “Rat Girl”, her book of memoirs

In 1985 Kristin Hersh discovered that she was bipolar - while she was setting up the first version of Throwing Muses - and she got pregnant. To find out more, you can read “Rat Girl” and this interview.

In 1985, Kristin Hersh didn’t have four children yet. Nor had she dissolved Throwing Muses. In 1985, Kristin Hersh was 19 years old and had just discovered that she was bipolar. She had always suspected that she wasn’t like everyone else, and now she knew why. Oh, but something else also happened that year. She had her first child. And she started to tour (around the world) with her newly-formed (and twisted) band. She talks about all of this in “Rat Girl”, the diary she kept that year (1985) revised and updated today, a diary that reads like a novel, with the air of an underground sitcom about a misunderstood woman who collects problems the size of enormous babies. From her home, from a soaking wet armchair (thanks to the wet swimsuit of one of her children), as she looks out the window at the waves breaking on the shore and trees that seem about to lift off ( “the remains of hurricane Isaac”, she adds), she confesses herself to be a fan of the eccentric veterinarian (and writer) James Herriot and of the star of “Buffalo Bill” (Jean Arthur), and she discusses her past with us. And it’s a difficult past. A past that calls for putting on boxing gloves and daring to fight against it. As we speak, her turtle - a tiny turtle that the Hersh family has just adopted as a pet - which lives in an aquarium on top of an amp that also has a couple of candles and a handful of Christmas lights still twinkling on top of it, seems about to launch itself onto the pink bass underneath it. It does so as we speak.

When did you decide to rewrite your 1985 diary and tell the world how you found out you were bipolar? Why confess now?

I didn’t really want to write this book, but I was tired of journalists offering to write my biography under the table. At first it didn’t seem like such a bad idea, but when I realised that what they wanted was for me to talk for HOURS about how I felt and everything, I thought it could become a real NIGHTMARE (one of them even threatened to move into my house for a couple of weeks!). So when my managers realised that there wasn’t going to be any book, they said that if I was the only person who could talk about what had happened to me, why didn’t I just write it myself? The only book that I had written was that old diary and it wasn’t that bad. It had characters, a plot, everything. So we already had it. And it’s not that it helped me get over anything, because it’s something that was over a long time ago, but I think that if it could help someone who is going through something similar, that would be great.

"I think being manic-depressive has made me more empathetic than other people. I can understand anybody."

So you haven’t written a diary again since then?

No. I only did it then because I had painter friends who said that music wasn’t as great as painting and writing. And I believed them. So I wrote down everything that happened to me, hoping to become some kind of a writer. It never happened, of course. In part because I stopped writing when my first child was born. When you have a kid you never again have time to eat, sleep, think, have your legs waxed... let alone keep a diary!

Your best memory from that time...

Music. Music made me want to get up every morning. Music gave me friends, success, and it allowed me to feel passionate about something that never ends.

And the worst?

Also music. Because sometimes I had the feeling that it was whispering to me that the planet Earth and I would never be friends.

And if music was both the best and the worst thing about that time, in what sense has it helped you to get where you are today?

Music has been like a cruel lover. A permanent obsession. I’ve realised that living with a soundtrack that never goes away is a gift that not everyone has. At the same time, it allows me to escape from reality and reflect what I’m experiencing.

And how do you think being bipolar has affected your music?

Sometimes I have the feeling that my instability has made my music unnecessarily complex and that the depressions have often taken colour away from my compositions. But I am convinced that a singer-songwriter feeds off of this sort of thing and that one who hasn’t gone through struggles like that can’t sing and try to transmit what they feel with the necessary intensity. As far as the chemical imbalance goes, bipolar disorder has allowed me to imagine how others feel. In that sense, I think being manic-depressive has made me more empathetic than other people. I can understand anybody.

You once said that it was hard for you to figure out that your excess energy was really part of an illness. Why do you think it took you so long?

I was just myself. I didn’t have any more experiences of life. When your perception accelerates, so do you. I was also embarrassed about being so weird. I’m still embarrassed today. I love normalcy and I still work hard to seem like someone normal when it’s clear that I’m not.

What was your first thought when you found out you were pregnant?

I thought about the test being positive—it managed to erase all thought from my head! My mind went blank. It was a shock. Every time something like that happens to me, I go to the beach, because, I don’t know, the beach puts my ideas in order. Even if there are no ideas to put in order. Finding out I was pregnant was a little like discovering that I could write songs. At first it seemed like a curse, then, little by little, I found out that it was really a blessing. With kids it’s like with music, they imply an idea of the future, having something to expect something from.

"I still like to think that music could change the world and help people, but I suppose it’s just another social activity"

Was becoming a mother so young as hard as it seems?

“Hard” isn’t the right word. Being a mother so young is tons of work, tons of fear, tons of love, of intensity, of worry, of time... It’s TOO MUCH! But it is a biological imperative and an emotional milestone. Maybe the word is “overwhelming”. As the mother of four children, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t “overcome” by the circumstances.

What was it like raising a child and being the leader of a grunge band at the same time?

My fellow band members slept and ate while we were on tour, but I didn’t. They didn’t worry about the baby when we were onstage, but I did. Because nobody could feed him for me. Flying all over the world is hard, but with a baby, it’s a real challenge. On the other hand, it was like taking a piece of ‘home’ with you, and I was never bored!

You once said that you started Throwing Muses because “people should be able to feel other people’s pain”. Is that what your music has tried, and continues to try, to do?

I hope so. Like the shy person that I am, I still like to think that music could change the world and help people, but I suppose it’s just another social activity. Playing live is different. Because it’s something that happens between the musician and the audience. It wouldn’t exist without one of the parts. It’s kind of like a chemical reaction, something that we make together. One that means something. For both sides.

"Rat Girl is personal, but it’s also universal. And fun. In fact, what I would emphasise most is the humour"

Who are your favourite writers?

Right now, Natalie Angier, the journalist who writes about science in the New York Times.

And the last three books that you have read?

A compilation of Krazy Kat comics by George Herriman titled “Necromancy By The Blue Bean Bush”, the complete short stories of Ernest Hemingway and “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle.

If you could spend an afternoon with a character from a novel, who would you choose?

James Herriot. He is a real person and also the main character of all his books. A British veterinarian who told his stories. If one day I manage to make a time-machine, the first thing I’m going to do is go to see him.

Speaking of the past, if you could go back and change something that took place in 1985, what would you change?

Well, if I had a time-machine, of course I would use it. But more than to change things that I did in 1985, I would use it to go back to the moments when I hurt people I loved. My band mates and friends, Betty, Gary and Mark, suffered unnecessarily because I couldn’t believe that I really mattered to them. Thinking that you are invisible inevitably makes you hurt the feelings of people that you matter to.

What do you think that readers will learn or take away from “Rat Girl”?

I had the feeling that the only excuse for publishing this book was that it worked like a sort of caustic story with the addition of “insert-your-passion-here”. It’s personal, but it’s also universal. And fun. In fact, what I would emphasise most is the humour. There isn’t a single moment that you don’t have something to laugh about.

Imagine that “Rat Girl” is made into a movie. Who would you like to play you?

I’m not very up on actresses now, so I’m going to use my time-machine to get Jean Arthur. Although I’d have to double for her when she sang.

Finally, choose another year that you would write a diary of, and tell me why.

I have to confess that I’m trying to write what happened not very many years afterwards, because I still had the same problems, and my life was much more complicated. I still don’t know if it will work yet, but I’m on it. I’ll pass it to you when I’m finished so you can take a look at it.

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