Calm Down, Come Down

Just published in the UK is Kristin Hersh’s remarkable ‘Paradoxical Undressing’ (‘Rat Girl’ in the USA)..

‘Paradoxical …’ is funny and heartbreaking, heartwarming and terrifying – this is an astonishing human story. Even if you are not a fan of Kristin or Throwing Muses, you must read this.

The book is autobiographical even if it only covers a fairly short period – about a year. But it was an extraordinary time in her life which included mental illness, pregnancy and the first Muses album.

The inclusion of a record in that list seems incongruous but ‘Paradoxical Undressing’ more than anything illustrates the complex relationship between Kristin and her music.

Kristin’s approach to songwriting is unique – the songs have a life of their own and teach themselves to Kristin. Initially this is an incredibly disruptive process in her life – the songs gradually emerge unbidden from industrial noise in Kristin’s head.

Music dominates her life yet its influence is not always welcome. At times she is at its mercy. Whilst this sparks one of the most original bands of all time, it is also a symptom of her illness. For in the course of the period covered, Kristin is diagnosed as being bi-polar.

Her decline is illustrated by the book changing style as the illness takes a grip, with the folky nature of a lot of the narrative replaced by short sharp passages as Kristin loses control.

Thereafter the book deals with her struggle to control the illness after meeting a sympathetic doctor just as her band are signed to 4AD to record their debut LP. Prescribed drugs have some impact, although at the cost of having a serious detrimental impact on her guitar playing but ultimately it’s an unplanned pregnancy which allows her to find some form of equilibrium.

The link between her art and her illness is disconcerting – there’s a strong aspect of voyeurism in listening to and enjoying the music given all that she had to go through to create it. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

Yet the importance of this period lasts well beyond even a few years from its events. Throughout the book fragments of lyrics are reproduced at appropriate times, a similar device to the live performances of songs between extracts from the book. The songs included however are not just Throwing Muses songs but also feature solo songs up to and including her more recent LP ‘Crooked’ as well as songs by 50 Foot Wave.

Talking of the live ‘Paradoxical’ I also get the distinct impression that some of the passages read live did not make it into the book. I’m certain that there was a disturbing section which dealt with the first time that the snake appeared to her which is not in the book. Maybe somebody decided that the book was harrowing enough already.

This really is an extraordinary story. Buy it now here.

Just noticed that Kristin’s Reading, Signing and Playing promotion of ‘Paradoxical Undressing’ now includes a Scottish date in Waterstone’s in Glasgow on Thursday 28th January.

There are similar events at Waterstone’s in Dublin (21st), Topping’s in Bath (25th), Amolfini Arts Centre, Bristol (26th) and David’s Bookshop, Letchworth (27th).

There’s a performance of “Paradoxical Undressing – Words & Music” at The Bloomsbury Theatre on January 24th.