Last Friday, Kristin Hersh released her latest solo album and book, Wyatt At The Coyote Palace, via Omnibus Press, and it’s a stunner. It’s also her most ambitious album to date, a two-disc, twenty-four track double album that is easily her White Album: massive and sprawling, conventional wisdom might have it that there’s a fantastic single album to be found, as the record is too sprawling to be cohesive. If one is familiar with Hersh and her body of work, one knows that she has never been one to follow conventional wisdom, whether it be solo or with her bands Throwing Muses or 50FOOTWAVE.
In this instance, it pays off wonderfully. Wyatt At The Coyote Palace encompasses everything from her soft, folky side, her country side, and her harder rock and punk tendencies are represented nicely as well–as are some sounds that are different for her. Added to the equation is her sketchbook/lyric book that offers a glimpse into her unique and compelling world.
But there’s more to the book and music than that. The album is named as a tribute to her son, Wyatt O’Connell, of whom she speaks quite lovingly. One can feel the love in her heart when she declares him to be the most artistic person she’s ever met. That’s not just motherly pride, either; his Youtube page is filled with animated sketches and cartoons he created, all of which are as compelling as anything his mother has recorded, making him a contender to look out for in the next few years.
Wyatt At The Coyote Palace is easily one of Kristin Hersh’s finest creations to date, if not the finest solo record she’s ever released. We were fortunate enough to sit down with her to discuss it, the world of the Coyote Palace, her son’s art, and her music.
Wyatt At The Coyote Palace is your new album and book, but it’s based on a real place. Tell me a little bit about it.
I bore all of my children when I’m in the studio. They can’t bear to hear the same songs over and over, so normally they fall asleep. Wyatt, though, he would go wandering. He wandered into this old abandoned apartment building that was right behind the studio, and he called it the coyote palace. When the people left, the coyotes came in, and they sleep on the mattresses and floors and couches that were abandoned, and they turned it into their home. But it was amazing what was left behind. You’d think people would take things with them, but there were dishes, silverware, teapots, and lamps. Compared to where coyotes lived, this was a palace, real luxury! (Laughs)
Wyatt, though, he became enamored by it. He totally fell in love with it. He would film it, he would draw it, he would do whatever he could to document it in his own vision. I would go exploring in it with him, and his love of this place fascinated me. It then dawned on me—the way I walk into the studio should be the way Wyatt is when he walked into the Coyote Palace: a sense of wonder and anticipation for whatever new discoveries were to be found, plus a curiosity about the unknown.
Then, one day, he refused to go in any longer—which was okay, because about a week after that, the roof caved in! (laughs) But still, I was heartbroken. He loved that place and I loved his love of that place. But I was talking with Dave (Narcizo, Throwing Muses drummer), and he said it’s the finite nature of our work and our love here that lends it its import. When it came time to finish the record, I sort of realized that I had to walk away and let it be. It can’t be about what you get, it has to be about what you give.
Has Wyatt done anything with the documentation of the Coyote Palace, or is he keeping it to himself?
He’s probably going to use it in his animation, if he hasn’t already. I’ll ask him about that. I’m intrigued as you are about seeing the results. I’m still getting glimpses of his childhood moments of touring through Scandinavia and living in the desert. I think sometimes it takes a long while before your senses finish work through something and allow you to bring it out through your art. I love his work; Wyatt is probably the only real, true artist I know. Sometimes I like to study him, because sometimes I don’t know what to make of it! (Laughs) His art is amazing.
Are your other boys equally as creative?
I don’t think anybody is as creative as Wyatt, period. (Laughs) Wyatt is just a floating soul of pure creativity.
Did you recognize this in him from the moment he was born, or was there a moment that gave you an epiphany, where you realized, whoa, this kid is special?
I took him on a European promo tour when he was a toddler. I was flying to a different city every day, going to different record label offices and radio stations. It was in the winter, so it was dark the whole time; on that tour, we never saw the sun. He would fall asleep drawing, and then, when he would wake up, he’d immediately get up and finish the drawing. He would draw while I was dressing him, he would draw at breakfast, he would draw on the way to the airport—this kid, he wasn’t stopping for anything. It would be dark and rainy in Hamburg, and then we’d fly to another city, but it didn’t phase him at all. We’d get to the label offices, and they’d have a little desk set up for him, with pencils and crayons and paper, and they’d have his drawings from the last time he visited posted on the bulletin board, and there’d be a wastebasket at the desk, and it’d be full by the end of the day. The next day, he went straight back into that routine. After a couple of weeks, I started to think, “You know, this is not how most toddler’s mothers live, and most toddlers aren’t this devoted to their art.” (Laughs) So Wyatt blew my mind from a very early age.
Is he strictly a visual artist, or does he make music as well?
He does both; he makes music and he is incredible. He is light years ahead of me. He is an amazing composer and an incredible drummer, too. I’ve just never met anyone like him before. He would tell you he wished he was normal; I think i’ve told you about that myself before, too. He’s got the blessing/curse thing as well.
I’ve been feeling that way lately myself.
Do you ever get frustrated with life, like, you know, you wonder what a nine-to-five, Monday through Friday, forty hour week would be like?
Right. There’s so much imagined safety in those constraints.
Well, there is safety in them…
I wouldn’t know; I’ve never been in that situation before.
But there’s also death in there, too.
Absolutely! Wyatt has done that before. He took a job at corporate Disney, and one day he called me from his office and said, “Mom, I see zombies here, I gotta come home.” (Laughs)
Have you two collaborated together?
I work on his animations; I’ll score some things and do some voices, but I have to do it all strictly on his direction; I don’t bring anything creatively to the table. Not by his command, but I don’t feel worthy! (Laughs) He’s brilliant, and he is very kind.
What was your takeaway from the Coyote Palace? When you walked in to the Coyote Palace, how did it make you feel?
It was beautiful and spooky. I quickly understood his fascination. We both liked the idea of garbage and detritus, using what has been thrown away almost in an archeological/sociological fashion, and yet we both have an affinity with the natural world. To watch the natural world take over the civilized one was necessary for us to see. It is beautiful to us, like water in the desert.
Did you interact with any of the coyotes?
We saw them, but we didn’t want to bother them. It was their home now, and we wouldn’t want to intrude on that. We would see them bring rabbits in, brining it back to their apartment! (Laugh)
Well, they have to have something to eat off of the nice china!
(Hysterical laughter) Exactly! Before we left, I went in and took a teapot. I don’t know if that was blasphemy or not. I did it for Wyatt; I wanted to save him a piece of the Coyote Palace that he could carry with him, something concrete and real. But it’s funny, he said that the teapot creeps him out. He said he’d wake up and the little bunny rabbits that were painted on it would be staring at him! (Laughs) Poor Wyatt! I’m sorry baby, I was only trying to be nice!
I’m sure he’ll get you back somehow!
(Hysterical laughter) If he hasn’t done so already!
It’s amazing, the bond the two of you have.
We need each other, but I think I frustrate him. He thinks there is such a thing as fate now, and he doesn’t want that to be the case. He wants the math to work out better than it has for my brain and story, and I tell him it will. Fate isn’t fated; it’s just continuing storylines and circumstances, and they can mess you up or they can carry you through. When he’s in a dark place, I think he wants to protect me from what he’s doing, like, he doesn’t want to introduce me to a dark storyline, when things are naturally unforgiving anyway. We work of each other with kid gloves. You know how fragile things can get inside one’s soul.
You have that strength and bond, but it’s still a relationship, and those are so fragile.
We are very polite people as well, because it’s a mechanism for surviving in this world: you don’t let your lightning or your garbage hit anybody else. We’re very careful with each other.
One thing I found interesting about Wyatt At The Coyote Palace was the relationship between the dialogue and scenarios and your song lyrics. In our last conversation, we discussed the impact of EMDR on your ability to hear songs, and it led me to wonder for this book—which came first, the songs or the scenarios?
The songs always come first. My life has always been about the songs, but the scenarios are true. Whenever the conversations took place, from the beach to New York to Los Angeles, they were all triggered by the memories that the songs triggered. It’s all true; nonfiction is harder to fake than fiction.
Where I was going with that question, was this an exercise to get you to write songs again by connecting with real life, considering that after having gone through therapy and all of a sudden, the songs are gone?
These songs happened before I stopped hearing songs. The 50ftwave and this one were all written before EMDR.
Are you still not hearing songs, or are thy coming back?
I still don’t hear songs anymore. (Pause) Which is fine, because it’s finally quiet.
That must be hard to deal with.
I haven’t dealt with it yet. I’m still working with the material I have. I suspect that I will just know how songs go when it comes to that point, but I haven’t had to yet.
Maybe there’s a level of self-consciousness about it, that’s making you not hear them.
Probably, and a little fear, too. The guitar was always like a tool of God and Satan to me, I’m waiting to see what happens within the balance of those extremes.
In Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, you described a time when you were going through a fallow period, you weren’t hearing songs, and you were sitting in a restaurant with your husband, and all of a sudden, without warning, they came back.
Yeah, that was weird, I still don’t know what brought them back so suddenly.
So maybe it’s something that you sort of have to let yourself go about and let it return on its own volition, because thinking about it will keep it way.
Absolutely, I would never even know how to begin to force it. I don’t understand it, really. Vic used to force himself to write, and I just couldn’t understand it. I would ask him, “Why? Why subject yourself to it? You really can’t force it.” Because when you do, it sucks. (Laughs)
What I like about the music portion of Wyatt At The Coyote Palace is that it is something that lives and breathes on its own, outside of the book. I don’t want you to think I’m being dismissive, though.
Oh, I agree—it is a record that is related to the book, but it’s not something that’s tethered to it, either. It’s a big record, it can stand on its own feet.
It is a big record, and what I like about it is that it’s easily your most diverse record you’ve ever done. It incorporates everything from loud to soft, rock to folk; it’s definitely you, but it’s almost a you we’ve never heard before. I was telling someone that it reminded me a lot of the White Album, in that superficially it’s too disjointed to work, but taken as a whole, it’s amazingly cohesive.
Thank you, that’s so reassuring to hear. It took so long to make, and the field recordings are from all over the world. I spent five years on it; it seemed to take forever! (Laughs) But I haven’t listened to it yet, if that makes any sense.
Oh, that makes perfect sense!
Oh yeah! I’ll write a review or a column or an interview, I’ll publish them, and then I’ll never read them again. I’m like, Uh, well, I wrote the thing the first time, why do I need to read it again?
(Laughs) Wonderful! And that is what I mean when I talk about the finite quality of our nature. If you can’t walk away, you’re not giving.
Still no plans on doing anything for the anniversary of Throwing Muses?
Is it now? (Laughs uproariously) Guess not, then! The Throwing Muses, we could definitely do better on the marketing front. (Laughs)
Speaking of, my friend Mike Applestein recently posted an article where he listed what he felt to be the thirteen scariest recordings ever made, from weird noise records and punk rock to political ska and Jonestown tapes. I had to break it to him that his list was missing something, and I did so by posting this live recording from 1987, and the Muses were scary! There was you, rocking back and forth, looking at something, with a thousand yard stare, with a dreadlocked bassist who is stone cold in place, a very pretty but seemingly out-of-it girl playing tambourine and guitar, and a drummer who looks all of twelve years old. I believe the consensus was, “Damn, how could I have forgotten that?” The album scared me at fourteen, and still scares me a little bit!
(Hysterical laughter) Yeah, that was us! And I still think it is really, really cool that you got it at fourteen and that the songs I wrote when I was fourteen really meant something to you. We definitely scared and intimidated people, though. (Laughs) But I’m nicer now! (Hysterical laughter)
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