Three hours before she’s due to appear on stage at New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art for the Naked Soul live music series, musician and author Kristin Hersh is enjoying a personal tour of an exhibition on the fourth floor of the museum. Titled “llluminated: The Art of Sacred Books “, it’s a diverse collection of beautiful and inspiring sacred texts from all over the world, representing Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Jainism. For Hersh, it’s not only a chance to see ancient art, but an opportunity to integrate a few pieces from the collection into her own work. Photos of chosen items from the exhibit will be projected onto the screen behind her during her spoken word and musical performance later in the evening.
Walking among the gold embossed books, elaborate tapestries, ornate boxes and delicate scrolls is a journey of discovery for Hersh. Soaking it all in, she comes to a Renaissance era book, openly displayed to reveal its painstakingly detailed handmade pages. Hersh leans in closer to the glass encased book as she notices the writing on the pages looks like musical notation. “Is it music?” she asks Tashi Chodron, the Museum Guide and Founder of Voices of Tibet. Tashi explains that the book is indeed a collection of songs. It was created by the community “to preserve their common spiritual, musical and artistic culture.” Undertaking such a project, she says, “was a monumental task to plan and complete, bringing together artists, printers, writers, musicians and financiers. It was a singular community event to create the book, meant to nurture and expand upon their shared sense of place, togetherness and spiritual bonds as a people.”
Hersh is visibly moved and fascinated, for the building of a community to support creative endeavors is something she practices and aspires to herself. To hear Hersh tell the story, it was both a necessary and a natural development when the traditional music business began to become less relevant to her long term goals.
“One of the side effects of extricating myself from my recording contracts was that social networking became immensely important.”, Hersh tells Buzztwang. “To help my people align with each other and to keep them abreast of any solo, 50 FootWave or Throwing Muses projects. Without a middleman like a record company, even a shy person like me has to be social!” she says with a laugh.
A simple visit to her website or attendance at one of her shows and it becomes readily apparent that the relationship between Hersh and her community is very deep and appreciated on all sides. “I wouldn’t be able to do the work at all without the support of my Strange Angel subscribers.” Hersh continues. “They pay all of my recording costs and when the Throwing Muses record is released, we’re hoping we’ll raise enough to mix, master and promote the record as well.”
Much like the sacred music book Hersh zeroed in on earlier, her own music and words are the common link that cements the bond between Hersh and her community. It’s sharing on the most personal of levels. “I think my goal as a musician is to create noises that could be adopted by others as their soundtrack.” she says. “I’m not particularly interested in self-expression, only writing what I know… a subtle but important difference.” Hersh concludes: “So, I tell my truth and hope that it somehow resonates with others as theirs, if that makes any sense.”
And, while she works hard at ensuring she has a good amount of artistic and financial independence – she co-founded CASH Music in order to facilitate funding for all musicians, utilizes social media to expand her outreach and attends to the very supportive Strange Angels community – the realities of a life spent in a business that can be brutal (to say the least) are not lost on Kristin Hersh. “I probably consider quitting every day.” she states bluntly. “Because, I’m an actual musician, not an entertainer. I’ll never stop playing music, but the entertainment industry is ugly and silly; it’s easy to lose patience.” It’s a topic she has thought about a great deal and discussed at length, with her family and her fans. “My listeners, however, tend to feel similarly, and as long as there are ears to adopt soundtracks, I feel it’s my duty to provide the noise.”
Onstage a few hours later, Kristin Hersh provides not only the “noise”, but spoken excerpts from her memoir Rat Girl/Paradoxical Undressing. Walking out onto the stage, only a guitar on a stand and a padded piano bench await her. The show is performed with zero amplification, no microphone, no amps. Only Hersh’s voice and guitar to fill the room. She sits down on the piano bench, opens a copy of the book and begins to read an excerpt. The book is an eye-opening, often shocking, always very funny look at her life. Finished reading, she picks up the guitar and plays a song. It’s a seamless transition from music to words and back again, from moments of pain to moments of laughter, quiet melodic interludes to raucous confessionals.
Hersh’s solo acoustic performances are well-known for their emotional and powerful energy level and this show is no exception. The audience feeds off of the raw energy, catching and responding to every word, every nuance, every emotive change in phrasing. The emotional tension and release that fills the room is uncompromising. The result of Hersh’s unyielding and endearingly enigmatic approach to her work: “All I do when I work is disappear.” she states. “So whatever happens in a studio or a concert hall is a direct result of active listeners allowing music to resonate. That seems magic to me: lovely and spooky and inexorable.” When asked if there is a spiritual element to her writing and performances, Hersh says: “Spirituality and electricity are closely linked for me. Songs are buzzy and they ascribe a glow to whatever on this planet is a necessary beautiful image or sound for a particular moment. When a song begins, my husband will often feel it before I do. The electricity is palpable, the accompanying spirituality is what keeps me addicted to the process.”
Hersh’s electric performances are also the direct result of her effort to ensure that the work and the experience is, in her words, “real”. Very much like the works of art she looked at earlier in the day. Hersh gets specific: “There is no lack of magic in the real.” she says. “If we strive for timelessness and we’re willing to work unself-consciously – meaning that we let our work embarrass us when it needs to, make us feel ugly, uncool, guilty, evil, whatever’s necessary- then we align with what in the past was called “sacred”. Real music is as close to religion as I’ll ever get.”
The confluence of music, self-publishing, DIY (Do-It-Yourself) work ethic, emotional honesty and spiritual integrity have always been bedrock approaches for the punk movement, especially before it was “commercial”. For a lot of bands, that self-reliant and honest approach was abandoned and compromised and very much betrayed when big labels entered the scene.
But, as the music business began to falter financially due to the proliferation of internet piracy, a lot of musicians such as Hersh found themselves in a fight for survival. It was a challenge she engaged. She reinvented herself and learned how to use the internet to her advantage. “It was inevitable, certainly, and I loved being able to jump in and change the rules, shift the paradigm early, even if it was because I was one of the first musical soldiers to fall!”
In the end, Hersh appreciates the upheaval for it helped to create her current independence artistically and financially: “For me, it’s a dream come true to be able to leave the game behind, to have no one ask me to dumb down my product for an imaginary ‘lowest common denominator’. ” she says emphatically.
Writing a book and performing at the Rubin Museum brings a certain form of artistic “legitimacy” to how one is perceived. The line between artist and teacher is blurred. Hersh embraces it as a natural development: “I’d like to see music move out of the sphere of the entertainment industry and into the sphere of art; to be judged according to that criteria and contained within those parameters.” she says. “So, I guess, I’d rather be seen as an artist than a teacher. I learn from what I do as much as anybody else does.” Being real means that it’s more often about the work, rather than the creator. “The word “artist” sorta makes me gag,” Hersh says. “Somewhere between grammy nominee and pretentious urbanite, but I think I’m gonna have to swallow my pride on this one!”
Today, the internet is ablaze with sites such as Kickstarter and Fundrazr that empower artists and allow them to finance projects independently. And, while the jury is still out as to whether it will be the cornerstone of a “new economy”, Hersh is positive in her assessment in regard to art. “It IS the future,” she says. “As long as we take all this free music in the ether and educate ourselves musically with it. I have no problem with people devaluing money as long as we demand to be moved every time we hear a song.”
In the end, for Kristin Hersh, her fans and those who aspire to create good and lasting work, the modern rules are not that far removed from how a village created a sacred book centuries in the past. There is a higher calling at work when a community works to create something they could not create alone due to lack of money. And, the act of coming together invariably creates something unique and inherently emotional, and real. “My generation (“X”) has always lived by the “broke but real” ethos.” Hersh states. “And we essentially stayed underground, so that philosophy was passed on without being watered down, thankfully. We’ll see how it works out, but at least we know it’s the right thing to do.”
Kristin Hersh is currently mixing a new Throwing Muses album, recording a new 50 Foot Wave album, and writing a new book she refers to as “Science Non-Fiction”. Further information can be found at kristinhersh.com