Kristin Hersh: Rat Girl Live!

photos by Renata Steiner

In 1985, Kristin Hersh was a eighteen-year-old kid, sleeping in her car or abandoned apartments, playing shows every week with her band Throwing Muses. In one tumultuous year, she would be signed to major label, diagnosed as bipolar, and become pregnant. This is the story told in her new memoir, Rat Girl.

In 2010, Kristin Hersh is older, wiser, and still an incredible musician, both with Throwing Muses (currently working on a new album) and as a solo artist. She couldn’t have visited during a better time: KEXP was in the middle of a pledge drive, and Kristin herself has entered a new phase of her decades-long career where she, too, is listener-supported, releasing her music with support from fans, instead of a record company.

Sitting in our performance room, she kicked off her shoes, curled up in her chair, definitely feeling at home at KEXP after many visits to our station. When she plays, she becomes transported, her sky-blue eyes staring off into who-knows-where. You want to watch, but the music is so beautiful that sometimes it becomes too intense, and you find yourself looking away, or down in your lap.

After her performance, Kristin spent some time talking about Rat Girl with us:

Janice: Is it different for you to be doing a book tour after decades of performing music in front of people?

Kristin: Yeah, it’s different, particularly when the passages I’m reading are dark. There’s places that are heavy, heavy places to go. It’s not cathartic and it’s not uplifting for me, for some reason. The prose version of what happened brings me down. So, if I have to do a show for a month, at the end of the month, I’m ready to stop. Whereas music will go to those same dark places, but the music makes the ugly beautiful, and it brings me up higher, and in fact, I divorce myself from the experience when I’m playing music. I haven’t yet been able to do that with prose.

In the book, you have fictionalized retellings of your past, combined with actual passages from your diary, with lyrics from your songs sprinkled in. And when I would get to the song lyrics, even if you just printed a couple of lines, my brain would keep singing the rest of the song, and then I’d find myself transported to my own teenage years, remembering where I was the first time I heard that song, like going back-to-school shopping with my Mom, or sitting in art class, listening to my Walkman…

That’s perfect! That’s my goal as a songwriter, is for you to have adopted that music as your soundtrack. Which, as a shy person, is very difficult for me, because I would like to… hide. But the songs aren’t finished until I give them away, and I need my presence in a lot of cases in order to do that. I have to either push the record, or be there at the show, and see that it’s finished, that the work is being done. And that’s actual work. The listening work is very active, and there’s a musical education that has to go along with it in order to trust me to take that ride. It’s impressive.

But I don’t wanna remember my teenage years! [ laughing ] Even the emotions came back up. Did you experience something similar while writing this book?

I had the opposite experience, because I had kept that year in the back of my heart as this shadow place that I should be ashamed of. I had somehow blamed myself for everything that was hard that year, and assumed that I was a bad person, and I never wanted to go back to a place like that. So, I wanted it to go away, and in bringing the truth of the time to light, I realized that none of it was really my fault, and I wasn’t a bad kid.

It was hard sometimes, but it was good for me to go back. ‘Cause when you’re eighteen, you’re pretty non-judgmental. You don’t have a context for judgment. It was good for me to find the actual voice of that time, and be non-judgmental, ’cause I would like to be that way again. It’s a hard place to get to. You’re born that way, but then you got to get back to it.

Do you feel that through writing the book and revisiting that person, it provided a bridge?

I’m actually living through a very similar time right now. The reason Rat Girl encapsulated the beginning moment of so many things is because I think it’s an important moment to honor rather than goal-achievement. There’s an idealism, there’s an open-eyed… well, non-judgment, that you can’t help living in.

Now that I’m listener-supported, I’m able to work in that kind-of purity again, with that kind-of curiosity, with that non-judgment of the product, because my sponsors are finally people who have no vested interest in the marketability of my product. I can go into my lab and perform my experiments, and whatever they are, I’m allowed to speak their truth, because the sponsors are the clients.

So, the timing was perfect, because your current experience is the same, but what actually made you write this book?

It’s stupid. [ laughing ] A fistful of writers approached me offering to ghost write my memoir. I don’t know why. I think there was a story published I didn’t see that made my life sound interesting? And I’m doormat nice, so I just said, “Sure, whatever you wanna do, go ahead and do it! That’s so nice!”

But what they meant was, we were about to begin weeks, months, maybe years of interviews? Talking about feelings? Which is… real bad. [ laughing ] I didn’t want to do that. One guy implied he might move in with me for a while. So, I just stopped returning their calls, and then management noticed there was no longer a book, and said, “Well, since you’re the only person you’re willing to talk to, you have to write the book.” And it was… okay.

In fact, when I realized I had to write it at night, it became really okay. A work of obsession. I got to time-trip back to 1985! And it was a charming year! It was messy, it was chaotic, but it was sweet, and I got addicted to going back there. So, I’d put the kids to bed, sleep a couple of hours, and then wake up at midnight and work until the sun came up. And in those hours, you get pretty good at self-hypnosis, at remembering details that you don’t have to call up through the course of a normal day, even to the point of remembering friend’s voices who’ve since died. I had two friends in the book who died while I was writing it, and I worried that I couldn’t call them and ask them to talk and remember things with me, but at 4:00 am, I could hear their voices again, and remember their idiosyncrasies, and the color of their eyes… It’s all there.

Did your friends who passed away have a chance to read any of the book while it was still in progress? Was anybody allowed to read the book while it was still in process?

Nobody read the book, just because I’m funny that way. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that they would want to. And changing a diary into almost a non-fiction novel, it takes a long time, and you go through a lot of “stupid” phases, where you just make dumb mistakes! [ laughing ] Because there’s so much to the truth. There’s a lot boring in the truth. And there’s a lot horrifying in the truth. It was a long process of learning how to edit so I would include enough detail to bring the reader into that world, and yet remove all the detail that would either confuse them or bore them.

To elaborate on a scene, I would step into it as if it were a bubble and just push out the edges of the bubble. I could see the world through it, but I was in the scene that took place in 1985. And I knew that had to become a world, or no reader would want to hang out there, or be able to follow what was going on. What I edited out were a lot of people, a lot of things happened many times… there were many suicide attempts, for example, and I only covered one. There were many, many doctors; I only talked about one. Because the story starts to fly off into a nether world of detail if you don’t make sure it’s a cohesive story arc. And lives have cohesive story arcs. That’s what stories are all about — lives. You just have to make sure you’re happy deleting big chunks of your own life!

I have to say, in the parts of the book where it got really dark, it was those empty spaces on the page that really freaked me out. It was the absence of words. It made my stomach hurt.

Aw, that’s so sweet of you. That’s what the diary looked like, and it was freaky. It was sort-of upsetting to look at, ’cause it looked like the writer just disappeared. And yet, as hard as it was for me to go back, draft after draft, and read through those, it was sort-of beautiful. In contrast, when they put me on medication, the writing becomes very dry. The stories are not far-reaching. I had no 3-D understanding of moments any longer. Which makes the writing essentially bad, which was frustrating for me, because I wanted to make it a better book! But it wouldn’t have been a better book, y’know?

The book begins when I was sort-of young, and the writing is very young, and that’s embarrassing. But it wouldn’t have been better to make the writing better. The contrast has to be there. So, I didn’t mind juxtaposing the dark poetry with the flat, drugged prose right after it, because the contrast is so striking, I imagine it must happen to other people in their perspectives as well, to be lost in dark poetry on the one hand, and to be living a one dimensional life on the other.

I personally know a few people who suffer with bipolar disease, and I know it was different for you back then ’cause doctors didn’t really get it. Like the one doctor in the book who says, “Oh, it’s schizophrenia, but they don’t call it that anymore.” How are things different for you now?

That’s another reason why I wanted to encapsulate a beginning. It was the beginning of a disease that I struggled with for 25 years. So, the book can be charming in its sweetness given that, it can be uplifting, it’s hopeful. But, what happened next was not hopeful. I don’t think I could write the next book, because it got much darker than this, much more complicated. It’s been a struggle, and yet this time, right now, I don’t really consider myself bipolar. Because of acupuncture. I’ve been treated by an acupuncturist for the last year, to the point where I no longer suffer from mania or depression. I can be out of balance, and acupuncture will put me right back in. I’m not on lithium any longer. It’s not advice, but I’m saying, it’s a very similar moment right now. I’ve started over again in the music industry with being listener-supported. I can be idealistic again, and I can be hopeful again because bipolar disorder seems to be a thing of my past.

Reading Rat Girl, I was thinking of my friends, and I thought, I want them to read this. Just to know, you’re not alone. And that this happens. Did that occur to you when you were writing this book that this could help people?

It did, actually. I think that’s probably the only reason I ended up finishing the book, is because I thought it would help people. I’m the only person in the book that comes off looking bad. And I look pretty bad in it. [ laughing ]

[ laughing ] What?! You don’t come off bad at all!

There’s a lot of shaming myself. And what kept me going was thinking, shame is important if it can help somebody else crawl up out of their own. Especially if you juxtapose it with goofiness, ’cause they’re right next to each other. And the moment that you can go from shame to goofy, and open your heart, just for a second, just long enough to laugh at it, then you’re right there in that moment, in that non-judgmental space, and you’re not going to go down into a pit, in my experience. The pits are there. And if you give bipolar disorder an inch, it will take ten miles. My imperative is to stigmatize mental illness to such an extent that we can see, there is the shame there, you have to look at it, but right next to that? You’re free.

In the book, you talk about an experience you had getting hit by a car, and then afterwards, hearing music in your head. Decades later, do you still hear the songs in your head like that? Is it different?

It’s never been in my head, it’s always been next door, as if I was playing outside. And I don’t understand it, but I’m not so freaked out by it anymore. I don’t welcome it, ’cause it’s creepy. [ laughing ] But I think what I do is take ambient noise and roll it over in my head until it becomes instruments. And those instruments build over time into songs. And, I hear a lot of voices, like a lot of bipolar people do, and those begin to be incorporated into the songs as lyrics. So, I could call it an auditory hallucination. It’s associated with a seizure-like buzzing. My husband knows when a song is coming before I do, for example. He can feel it around me.

But I don’t discount the magic part of that. Magic is associated with mania, this belief in magic, and that’s why I could blame the lady that ran me over, call her a witch, and think that she shoved a lightening rod in my head, and that the apartment called The Doghouse had turned it into “Satanic energy” and that I was therefore evil and in love with this “Satanic energy.” There’s a lot of this magic storyline that’s going along, so when I started seeing animals, they just ran into this thread of magic that was going on alongside the music that I was hearing.

It all went away when I was on medication, and yet, I can’t say I don’t believe in it. I know that the songs are as real as the people I share my life with. And I believe in all of the elements associated with the songwriting process. I’m only saying that I don’t know what to think about it except that it continues when I’m not manic, and when I’m not depressed, and I can take a song out of that psychosis, and play it in the recording studio, and it will come to life again. It is real. It’s like a window that you can open, that you do have to close, but it’s still a window to something. I’m just not sure what that is.

I guess you don’t even have to question it.

I guess not! As long as it stays beautiful. As long as it remains something that you could adopt as your soundtrack. ‘Cause I think you would reject something that was wholly psychotic.

What about the Doghouse songs, which you describe in the book as evil? And I have to say, I never realized there was actually a place called “The Doghouse.” I thought it was an expression, like you’re in trouble, you’re in the doghouse. I actually had that moment where I put the book down and said, “Oh!”

I’ve run into a lot of that! I find that over the course of my career, I’ve been given a lot of credit for being poetic, or speaking metaphorically when I’m actually speaking quite literally! And I think that it would be simplifying art to assume that these songs were all autobiographical, and yet they are! It’s not fiction. I have to live the story, or I’m not allowed to play it. Duh-uh.

It was interesting seeing the threads in the book. Like, you’d have a conversation with your friend Betty, and then there’d be a lyric snippet, and you’re just like, “Oh!”

It helped me, too. Some of it I had forgotten. I was like, oh yeah, that came from Betty, and “The Letter” came from a letter. But it didn’t turn you off to find out that part wasn’t your soundtrack?

No, interestingly. Was that a concern for you when you were writing the book?

Only because people had been upset about it in the past. If I talked on stage about a song, like how “Hate My Way” came from this goofy guy with a mohawk who was spouting about killing God. I disappointed a lot of people by laying bare those lyrics. They found out that I thought they were funny, and they came from a pamphlet, and they had been moved by those lines. I had to say to them that, nothing will make it into a song if it isn’t beautiful. It maybe begins with goofiness, but I say goofy is very, very important! It’s that open intake of breath that will take you somewhere else. The song definitely takes you somewhere else. It’s just a little way of opening that window to god-knows-what. But some people can get their feelings hurt because they took the song as their own, and I stepped in the way of that? And that’s a valid concern.

In “Devil’s Roof,” the lyric, “I have two heads” — I always thought of that as being about mental illness, and then after reading the book I thought, I wonder if that’s about her being pregnant? Which never would’ve occurred to me!

I’ve had people tell me what songs are about, and they’re right. Journalists particularly, because they’re professional music-listeners. It’s their job to analyze a song. It’s my job to not analyze the song. I have a song called “Candyland” on Sunny Border Blue that’s about losing custody of my son, Dylan, and a writer said to me, “Well, obviously — Dylan’s name is in the title.” And I had no idea. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I was stunned. But it’s one of many moments where writers have said, “Well, obviously!” It’s not unlike telling a dream at the water cooler, that everybody can analyze but you, ’cause it’s your dream.

If this was an episode of Futurama, and Professor Farnsworth created a time machine, and you could go back into time and talk to your 18-year-old self, is there anything you would tell her?

It’s all in the book! When I fleshed it out, it was sort-of a gift to her. Not to say, look what’s going to happen, but to say, look where you are. Because she absolutely did not know where she was, there was too much falling. It was just raining constantly. And this was my way of spinning it with the future in mind, without stepping in her way.

‘Cause if you had it would’ve been different.

Yeah. Absolutely… Professor Farnsworth. I love Futurama.

I love how in the book you say, “That’s unpossible.” I thought, does Kristin know she’s Ralph Wiggum?

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  1. Sara
    Posted October 13, 2010 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    Fabulous work, Janice! This is just lovely.

  2. steve
    Posted October 14, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    LOVE this interview. Can’t wait to read the book. Thanks, KEXP!

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