Kristin Hersh’s frantic inner peace
In 2003, Kristin Hersh released a solo album, a new Throwing Muses album, and had her fourth child. But all that has not kept her from starting 2004 off with a new band (50 Foot Wave), an edgier sound, a new album (50 Foot Wave), and a new approach to getting her music heard. Avoiding the traditional music industry avenues, Hersh and company (bassist Bernard Georges and drummer Rob Ahlers) plan to release a five- to six-song album about every nine months, play more than 100 shows a year, and distribute their music via throwingmusic.com.
What’s the difference between a 50 Foot Wave song and a Throwing Muses song?
With the Muses, the song would enter the picture—no questions asked—and our answer was always, “That’s how it goes!” But for 50 Foot Wave, it’s part of the band’s work ethic to rip the songs apart and put them back together. For that reason, everyone gets songwriting credit, and we all own the publishing together. There’s a lot of structural reworking that goes on in a 50 Foot Wave rehearsal, whereas for the last Throwing Muses record, we just walked into the studio and played.
Did you change your songwriting approach for 50 Foot Wave?
I don’t think I’m smart enough for anything to change my writing process. I do seem to work in a vacuum. I’m under the impression that no one is listening, which works for me. I think self-consciousness would really get in the way of what I do. I don’t mean to imply that it’s all self-expression, because, as autobiographical as our songs can appear to be, I hope it’s not just me I’m yelling about.
The only real change in my songwriting approach for 50 Foot Wave has been that these songs are so positive. They’re also real hard, and I think that’s important. There’s a lesson to be learned there: Happy isn’t stupid, simple can be loud, and hard can be positive.
Many artists get more mellow as they get older, so it’s interesting that you’ve actually become louder.
I don’t know why people mellow out. I’m married, I’ve got kids, and we’ve got a house and a minivan. I even have dogs! But none of that makes me quiet. Being that much in love with the people in my family actually makes me kind of frantic. I know there’s inner peace that goes with that, but certainly not outer peace. It’s outer chaos!
You decided to avoid the music-industry machine altogether with this project. Why?
I don’t really have an anti-record-industry stance. The music business is a business, and sometimes they don’t admit it, but that’s where underground music comes in. The worse Top 40 gets, the better the underground gets. This way, musicians can completely avoid the whole concept of MTV and Rolling Stone and just play. But real music is never going to attract people with egos or people looking to make money. Real musicians will work at McDonalds to play music in the garage.
The Cardigans Get Naked
Twelve years into his singular direction of the layered and moody productions of Sweden’s Cardigans, guitarist/songwriter Peter Svensson opted to jettison his detailed demos and just wing it with his band. The result is Long Gone Before Daylight [Koch], a gloriously minimalist record that unveils the naked emotions of musicians playing together in a room. The austere, collaborative process presented Svensson with different challenges than past Cardigans projects, where the band was often dressed up in technology and production wizardry.
The sparse, almost singer/songwriter-styled production of this album is quite a surprise.
Everything you do is probably a reaction to something you’ve done before, and, in this case, I think everybody thought we’d had enough fun twisting everything around in the computer. For this album, we wanted to go back to basics and sound like we do when we rehearse. I even decided to let the guitars sound like guitars instead of synthesizers.
How did you adapt your songwriting process to allow more input from your bandmates?
For the first time in my career as a songwriter, I didn’t bring finished arrangements to the band. I didn’t even have my own parts done! The songs were written very simply with just an acoustic guitar, and everyone worked out their own parts. This freed me to really focus on my role as a guitarist, rather than think about the whole production.
Did it ever bother you to relinquish ultimate control of your songs?
Of course, it’s much simpler to go for your own idea. But you get so much more out of a song when you have a bunch of people coming with ideas and voicing opinions about other people’s ideas. A songwriter usually has the worst idea of his or her own song, but an outside listener can provide spontaneous reactions they’d never find in themselves. For example, Magnus [Sveningsson, bassist] might play something that opened up a new direction, or that helped me appreciate my own song a little more. Ultimately, it was very satisfying to achieve a great result that everyone loved. I had missed out on that before.
As a guitarist, what was the biggest challenge presented by keeping everything so simple, and denying yourself tonal layers and overdubs?
The musical part together with the sound was all that was allowed, so it was extremely important that the guitar tone was there, and that it had the right vibe for the song. Typically, I’d use a Gretsch for rhythm because those guitars give you very stable chords. For single-note things, I’d go for the soft warmth of a Gibson, and the crunchy riffs were played on a Telecaster. Of course, sometimes doing the opposite of what you think might work is the best idea.
What was one of the coolest compromises you had to make?
I’d frequently have to change the key of the song to accommodate our singer, Nina [Persson], and that often produced a positive result. “A Good Horse,” for example, was written in E minor—a standard rock-riff key. When I had to transpose the song to C minor for her, it was suddenly in a key that guitarists normally don’t use, so I had to develop my own tuning and revoice my parts to be able to play the riff. So then the song was not typical and boring, it was strange and different. I love surprises like that because they force me to be a more creative guitarist.