“Speed and Sleep:” My Interview With Kristin Hersh

The early nineties were a turbulent period for me: uneasy, scary, and fascinating, one of huge new responsibilities and intense personal and geographic exploration. And through it all, as has always been the case, music was there, providing stimulation, comfort, and light during an uncertain and often dark time.

My home state of Kansas has always been a classic rock, Zeppelin-n-Stones kind of place, but I was always able to find music not heard on Wichita radio. For years, alternative rock to me was electronic (Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk), gothic (The Mission U.K., Sisters of Mercy), or flannel (Pearl Jam, Nirvana). Then one day—I forget where or how—I came upon “Not Too Soon” by a Rhode Island band called Throwing Muses. I found their music totally different and completely compelling: dreamlike lyrics, edgy, unconventional guitar chord structures, tempo changes out of nowhere. Later, in 1994, when Throwing Muses’ cofounder, guitarist and singer, Kristin Hersh, released her first solo album, Hips and Makers, I was smitten. Even now, “Beestung” and “Your Ghost” transport me instantly back to my training days in New England, their delicate, dark acoustic melodies beautifully reflecting the shadows and quiet chaos I lived in at the time.

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So it is with some delight that I can say that in recent years I have become friends with Kristin Hersh. She is as lovely and intriguing as her music. Self-described as shy, she absolutely tears it up onstage. She lives and records music in New Orleans. She is a wife, mom, bandleader, touring artist, and author. She is also an insomniac of long standing.

Kristin’s difficulties with sleep are thoroughly chronicled in her excellent memoir, Rat Girl. On the very first page, introducing her 1985 self to us and upon finding a place to crash for the night: “So I park myself under a sad crucifix and watch tiny blue, green, red and orange bulbs blink on and off. Insomniacs like to waste time.”

Rat Girl‘s depiction of Kristin’s concept of musical creation demonstrates an altogether higher plane of creativity.  She has the gift of synesthesia, in which senses interplay and stimulate one another.  She sees music and melodies in colors; songs are born, and she is their pained, sometimes even reluctant, conduit. Her description of the sensation of sleeplessness is in many ways similar to that of her perception of music: colorful, raw, graphic, desperate, vivid almost to the point of shocking. “Sleep stopped coming, days stopped ending—now sleep doesn’t come and days don’t end. Sleeping pills slow my thinking, but they can’t shut down my red-hot brain. If I do manage to drop off, wild dreams wake me up. So I’m different now; my thinking is liquid and quick, I can function at all hours. My songs are different, too, and when I play them, I become them: evil, charged.”

People with psychophysiologic insomnia (a clinical form of insomnia, associated with excessive worry and frustration from not sleeping well) can easily relate to this portrayal of the sleepless mind. The urgency of her music further exacerbates her problems when birthed at night: “If I fall asleep, the song wakes me up, whispering, chanting and shouting, suggesting bass lines and backing vocals, piano parts and guitar solos. It’s that—the clattering noise of the thing, louder and louder, first whispering, then gasping with its own impact—that’s so upsetting, so overwhelming. A sickening frenzy.” Finally, conjoined with her insomnia, Kristin’s diagnosed bipolar disorder is also an important, recurring theme in her book; compromised sleep, particularly in the “manic” phase, is in fact a hallmark clinical feature of bipolar affective disorder and a primary contributor to the “red-hot brain.”

I checked in with Kristin recently and asked her some questions regarding her long struggle with insomnia.

MC: How long have you had your insomnia, Kristin? How has it changed or evolved over the years?

KH: I stopped being able to sleep reliably when I was a teenager and experienced my first manic episode. I could no longer fall asleep at night and songs came to me at 4 a.m., so I was only sleeping about fifteen minutes at a time. After that, life on the road, sandwiched between four pregnancies and subsequent sleep disruption due to nursing babies, was difficult to distinguish from that caused by manic and depressive episodes or even blood sugar imbalances.

MC: How has your insomnia affected your life? Like your thoughts, your songwriting, your relationships with others?

KH: It is the number one problem in my life (and in my husband’s life, though he has never experienced it himself!). Not only is it caused by bipolar imbalances, it also can trigger them. It reduces immune function and is so isolating that it imbues my worldview with a sharp loneliness that is very difficult for me to shake. I think my songs would be a lot less melancholy if I were healthier.

MC: How does the insomnia change, if at all, when you’re on tour?

KH: Crossing time zones shakes up any healthy pattern I’ve been able to implement but it also offers a handy scapegoat when I’m already out of balance! Sometimes it actually allows me to start over and clean up my sleep act. Additionally, playing music every night is such a release, there is very little tension or mind chatter left to keep me awake. That said, living without a schedule is difficult. The availability of meals and beds and showers and exercise is unpredictable at best.

MC: Have you found anything specific that has reliably helped you?

KH: Acupuncture helps immensely, but sleep medication doesn’t seem to work; it makes my brain more buzzy. Exercise helps and adhering to a strict schedule and diet help. 5-HTP and melatonin when I’m crossing time zones help temporarily.

A huge thank-you goes to Kristin for helping raise the awareness of insomnia and the effect it has on people’s lives.

I’ll conclude with Kristin’s perfect description of Throwing Muses music from Rat Girl, a book I recommend without reservation for its wit, honesty, and importance in the world of modern music. “Some music is healthy, anyway. I know a lot of bands who’re candy. Or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good. For a minute. My band is . . . spinach, I guess. We’re ragged and bitter. But I swear to god, we’re good for you.”

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2 comments on ““Speed and Sleep:” My Interview With Kristin Hersh

  1. flbells says:

    Very interesting read as well as helpful perspective and information.

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