Kristin Hersh Interview
An interview with Kristin Hersh about the origins of her book “Wyatt at the Coyote Palace”
What is the meaning behind the title of the book “Wyatt at the Coyote Palace”?
My son, Wyatt, who’s on the autism spectrum, spent most of my recording sessions for this record behind the studio, exploring an abandoned apartment building. Abandoned by humans,that is; coyotes had moved in in their absence. This is why it’s called the coyote palace.The coyotes live with discarded mattresses and teapots and old books people left behind when they moved out. They hunt in the woods and then come home at the end of the day, like they’re coming home from work. Wyatt was fascinated by this process and this place: he filmed it in the snow, in the summer heat and spring mists while I recorded these songs.
About three years into the making of the record, he suddenly lost interest. Or, rather, refused to allow himself to explore the coyote palace any longer. I was devastated. I had so loved his love of the place. Throwing Muses’ drummer, Dave - my best friend since third grade - decided that Wyatt needed to encapsulate his sense memories of the coyote palace, make the experience finite, like bottling a memory. Dave thinks we’ll see it again, and Wyatt’s love of the place will come back, when the images have been filtered through Wyatt’s intense and fascinating psychology.
You could have released just a double CD album of new songs. Why did you wish to release them as part of a book?
A book is still a valuable object, whereas a CD really isn’t. We all know they’re just little pieces of plastic. Plus, if you hand someone music you like and ask them to adopt it as their soundtrack, it’s a little like asking them to switch over to your religion. Handing someone a book, on the other hand, is giving them a gift. So I snuck a couple CD’s into this book, secretly hoping people will switch over to my religion.
Which came first - the stories or the songs?
Ha-ha! The stories are all true. They happened over the last few decades. The songs were written in the last five years. They’re true, too, in a much more oblique way. But it’s always felt to me that songs were pushing my life around so they could be born: I live the stories and then the song lives. Very much like children. A baby isn’t born because you got pregnant, you got pregnant because a baby was going to be born.
What do you suggest would be the best way for readers/ listeners to absorb and digest this book/CD package?
Throwing Muses’ last record, Purgatory/Paradise, was published as a book with a CD included as well and some listeners told me it actually made them dizzy to the point of nausea to listen and read at the same time. Admittedly, these could have been very sensitive people (I think I could do it without throwing up), but I was impressed by their investment.
Anyway…I don’t know! Hopefully the visual and aural aspects of this release can stand alone as well as they hold together. Without making anybody puke.
The stories and songs seem very personal. What was your main inspiration?
A conversation I had with a guy over sushi at the beach. He pointed out that my friends and I almost die in all of our stories. I didn’t believe him until he started listing the brushes with death we thought were so hilarious. Of course, not all brushes with death are funny. The years during which these songs were written and recorded were dark ones for me and my children. Sort of on fire underwater years.
I try to carry the listener (and myself) over the worst of the twisting contractions. “Butterfly breathing” they used to tell us pregnant women preparing for labor. The songs are the contractions, the stories are butterfly breathing and the record is a new baby. Ok I’m done with childbirth analogies. Sorry about that. I have a lot of kids…
Do these stories and songs bear some truth or some fiction or both?
All true. I don’t know how to make things up. Someday I’ll figure out how to fabricate and then everything will be much nicer.
Between Piety and Desire, Purgatory and Paradise – can you illustrate situations where you have been between these two kinds of states?
In the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, we lived between Piety St. and Desire St. On the island where I grew up, we crash land at the beach between Purgatory and Paradise roads. Piety/Paradise and Purgatory/Desire don’t clash necessarily, except in a perfunctory way; the learning curve of the human condition. Redemption through sin is a biggie, but it gets boring and falls away when you wake up enough to know that alive means kind. Then nothing is wrong.
You live sometimes in New Orleans and sometimes in New England, so both appear in your work. Do these places inspire or terrify you?
New England and New Orleans are “where things happen” for me. Everyone has their own “where’s”: the stage is set, and we wait for dreams and nightmares to come true. The dreams are inspiring, the nightmares terrifying.
Do you still make Hooker Gazpacho?
Yes! My old bass player from Throwing Muses, Fred Abong, was the guy I made hooker gazpacho with in LA, while we were recording The Real Ramona. He now lives a couple blocks away and equidistant between our houses is the best liquor store in the world (unfortunately). So our hooker gazpacho is now informed by haziness and hangovers. Not a bad way to eat cold soup.
You played all of the instruments on this album. Besides your usual contributions of guitar, bass, drums and piano, did you play any instruments that were unusual for you?
I was building instruments at the end of this session. I mean, it took me four years to get to that point, but my poor engineer had to clean up afterward. Horrible Frankenstein crimes against nature, just to achieve a sound “no one has heard before.” And then, of course, you realize no one’s heard it for a good reason (they don’t want to) and you mix it all the way down.
I guess cello and horns, upright bass, and the inside of the piano were a little out of character for me. Singing in a garbage can full of stuffed animals. That’s when I start to question my chosen profession. The field recordings are probably the most striking overdubs, though, and I didn’t “play” them, just recorded birds and music and conversations all over the world on the last Muses tour. Sound is best when I don’t build it.
How do you define these 24 songs apart from your other works with Throwing Muses and 50FOOTWAVE?
Solo songs are written on my Collings guitars, Throwing Muses songs on my Strat or Tele and 50FOOTWAVE songs on my SG’s or my Les Paul. It’s a stupid system, according to my drummers, but I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m unwilling to change. SOMETHING has to be the boss of me; I figure it’s only right to let it be guitars.
Near death experiences and substance abuse are prominent in this work. Is there a message there?
What are the origins of the numerous references to water, including storms, floods, frozen lakes/ice and even drowning?
Water has informed my life to such a bewildering extent that I no longer even TRY to figure out what’s going on there. I’m seriously addicted to swimming, mist, showers and baths, rain, the ocean, ice, guzzling the stuff…Which doesn’t sound that bad, because we’re, you know, MADE out of it. Until the floods come.
It has been pointed out to me that only a witch would need to be soaking wet and icy cold in order to be happy, but I ignore helpful advice like that.
What is the significance of falling, or not falling in your work?
I read an article once about a woman who suffered from a neurological condition which caused her to feel a falling sensation at all times. Her doctors asked her what happens when she lies on the floor - you know, does she gain any sense of stability - and she told them that a hole opens up in the floor and she falls through it. I can’t think of a better way to describe the tumult that is moving through time. But I would factor in moments of sunbathing. Hopefully, she was able to do that, too.