Kristin Hersh reads and sings

Journalist Katherine Lanpher interviews Kristin Hersh. (Photos copyright 2010, Steven P. Marsh)

Kristin Hersh, founder of the legendary band Throwing Muses, who’s now performing solo when she’s not fronting her new band 50FOOTWAVE, is on the road talking about her amazing new memoir, Rat Girl. It’s based on her teenage diaries and gives a look into her beautifully messy mind and crazy life.

She visited Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York City on Tuesday, where she spent an hour chatting with journalist Katherine Lanpher, reading excerpts from her gripping memoir and playing some songs.

Kristin Hersh sings

Kristin has had quite a life, and deals with much of it in the memoir. She nearly died when she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in Providence, R.I., when she was 16 — her face, reflected in the mirrored sunglasses of a Good Samaritan at the scene, was “hamburger with hair,” she recounts. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She started college at age 15, younger than everyone else and out of place, and bonded with another out-of-place student, the much older actress Betty Hutton.

The memoir is based on truth, but Kristin admits “that girl isn’t me anymore. Now it’s just a story.” But what an amazing story!

Postcards from the future

Katherine got Kristin to speak a bit about her songwriting process. Kristin, like many musicians, has synesthesia, in which she sees music as color. But she also feels that she’s not really writing her songs, but almost channeling them. She’s pretty much at peace with that sort of barely-in-control songwriting process except when it comes to what she calls “postcards from the future.”

Vic Chesnutt with drummer Tommy Larkins at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, June 16, 2009.

That’s Kristin’s term for songs about things that are going to happen. They really scare her. Take, for instance, “Flooding,” a song on her new album Crooked. I had heard her perform the song at least once before, but on Tuesday she revealed that it’s one of those “postcard from the future” songs. It’s about the suicide of her good friend, singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who took his life on Christmas Day 2009. But Kristin wrote it long before that happened.  Whether you believe her song predicted something that might happen, or really foretold a specific future is not so much the point. The lyrics are chilling, and her rendering on the album, and live, is intense:”I can pinpoint the moment you closed your eyes and said yes to the flooding.”

For Kristin’s fans, Rat Girl is a must-read, and Crooked is a must-listen. If you don’t know the work or the artist, Rat Girl is an awesome way into her strange and fascinating life and work.

As novelist and singer-songwriter Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding) puts it in his cover blurb:

Hersh’s memoir is the book a fan didn’t dare hope for: a beacon in a dark field, illuminating the mysterious and the mundane. Beautifully, honestly, written and as close as you will ever get to being in a Throwing Muses song.

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