Talking to Kristin Hersh you get the feeling that she has no idea how special (and, in many ways seminal) her debut solo album, Hips and Makers, was and remains. If you pick this record up for the first time today it still sounds as relevant and beautiful as it did when it first came out 20 years ago (this week!).

An antithesis to her output with Throwing Muses, the 15-track set showcased Hersh at her more vulnerable and revealed a whole new side to her song-writing, audible not just because of the acoustic strip-down of the arrangements. From the haunting Michael Stipe duet, 'Your Ghost', to the almost unbearable, painful 'The Letter', the songs were as personal as they were honest and the delivery electrifying.

To celebrate the special landmark birthday of this album - which also happens to be Hersh's most commercially successful effort in the UK - we chatted to her about her memories of making it as well as the stories behind some of the songs.


Hips and Makers reportedly came about after Michael Stipe had heard some acoustic songs you'd recorded for your husband and brought them to Warners' attention. Do you remember which of those songs you wrote first?

The oldest song on Hips is 'The Letter', written back in 1984... a song that worked like poison on me: it used to make me sick to play it. Same with 'Close Your Eyes'. So I did one take of each and stuck them on my solo record, which I was pretty sure would never be released. The first one I wrote for Billy [O'Connell, her husband]was 'Beestung'. Sweetest song I have ever written. I know for a fact that I will never be that sweet again.

Had the idea of doing something outside the auspices of Throwing Muses ever occur to you before that time?

No, I like hiding behind my friends and my equipment. I had no idea that Warner Brothers would call this record using my name or that I'd have to play shows alone. I did learn a valuable lesson about the dollars-to-decibels equation, meaning that some people are actually more willing to invest in a song with an acoustic presentation, like the pencil sketch of a Throwing Muses song.

Were any of the songs written during the Hips and Makers era/sessions left out but used later in any of your subsequent projects?

Sort of the opposite...I used songs that never made it onto Throwing Muses records.

Did you write 'Your Ghost' with the intention of it being a duet?

No, I wrote it in Scotland at 4 a.m. as a round and that's all I knew about it. When I tried to put cello on it, it sounded like a monster, though, and Michael happened to be on the phone at the time. While he was giving me advice on mic-ing a cello playing low D, his voice filled in all the midrange holes I was having trouble with. So I interrupted him and asked him to sing on it, assuring him that the record would never be released and that, even if it were, 'Your Ghost' would never be the single and - even if it were - we'd never get a video funded or radio play, etc... All untrue, as it turned out, but Michael was a good sport.

Whose decision was it to release it as the first single?

Warner Brothers.

'Beestung' is one of the few predominantly piano-based songs on the album and, generally, in your repertoire. What do you remember about writing this song and the creation of its arrangement?

I don't actually remember writing any of my songs, but 'Beestung' is so gentle, so kind, it makes me worry that I've lost a great deal of innocence.

Have you ever performed it live on guitar only?

A few times, but on guitar it doesn't have that sad, thunky tone it needs to sound like a love lullaby.

How did the third track on the album, 'Teeth', come about?

I was living in the Catskills at the time, in a nutso house without water or heat, on a frozen lake. My husband and I had a pickup truck with fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. We lived on chicken wings and vodka tonics. We were turning white trash fast, in other words. As for the song's name... 'Teeth' wanted to call itself that. Vic Chesnutt said it's such a girly song, I had to give it teeth.

'Sundrops' sounds like it could've been a Throwing Muses number. Do you agree?

I'll ask my drummer! I write Muses songs on my Telecaster or Strat, 50 Foot Wave songs on my SG's or Les Paul and solo songs on my Collings acoustics. So, given that I wrote 'Sundrops' on an acoustic, I guessed that it was a solo song, but my drummers are always disagreeing with me on that subject.

Did you ever consider keeping it for the Muses?

No! It's too percussive. It has to sound like muscles on wood, no matter what Dave says.

There are two instrumentals on the record: 'Sparky' and 'Lurch'. Did you set out to write instrumental pieces for the album or did they just come to you organically?

I have lots of instrumentals lying around and this record needed some patchwork shards to complete the homemade feel. I'd play only instrumentals if they'd let me. I think singing is so dumb.

To what extent was your father involved with 'Houdini Blues'?

He wrote a song with some of these lyrics in it, but he couldn't remember how it went. So I expanded on the lyrics and put it to my own music. Then my dad, 'Dude', said: "Yeah...that's how it went." Dads are like that.

What inspired you to write a song about Harry Houdini's relationship with his wife, if that's what the song is about?

I liked that he'd leave his wife twice: once in death and then again after death. So freakin' sad!

'A Loon' was the second single from the record, which was released in re-recorded form on the Strings EP. Why reinterpret the originals?

My cellist, Martin McCarrick, wanted to hear five strings of my guitar turned into five stringed instruments, for some reason.

What, to you, is 'A Loon' about?

My husband, Billy, on our icy lake in the Catskills. He did the loon calls in the first half. Also, he's crazy.

The video for 'A Loon' was filmed in Amsterdam. What are your memories from that shoot?

It was shot by one of my dearest friends, David Kelley. Fun fact: he was one of the Painters in Rat Girl [Hersh's 2010 memoir]. He also came up with the straw in the orange for Tropicana. I remember that it was like a day off, which one rarely enjoys on tour. Days off mean you start asking yourself where the hell you are and what the hell you're doing there, but David made it sweet by letting me spend the day with my little toddler, Ryder (Ryder called it "Hamsterdam"). The camera was hidden for most of the entire two day shoot, which was very kind of him.

'Velvet Days' and 'Me and My Charms' were also reworked for the Strings EP. What ideas did you and Lenny Kaye throw around in the studio for giving these tracks an alternative sonic "attire"?

Lenny is the nicest man in the whole world, so he didn't step on any of my production toes in the making of this record. I thanked him with lobster that I pretended to know how to prepare because I come from an island, which I did: you boil them. But I forgot you need tools to eat them with and we ended up banging them violently on the kitchen counter, trying to crack their shells. It was gross and embarrassing, but Lenny said it was the best dinner party he'd ever been to. Moral of the story: Lenny Kaye is the nicest man in the world.

You mentioned earlier that 'Close Your Eyes' was done in one take. Can you tells us more about its origin?

'Close your Eyes' is two songs that needed each other put together. One is angry because it's hurt, the other is hurt because it's confused. Neither is fun.

On 'Tuesday Night' you're addressing someone with a refrain of "I can't wait" - who was it written about/for?

Billy. I wanted a drink so bad, but without him, it wouldn't have worked, you know? So I had to wait and be bored by the clock and the moon.

You wrote 'The Letter' during the sessions for the first Muses record and your relationship with the song has, over the years, remained fractious. Can you explain why this is a difficult song for you?

It rides the line between song magic and diary page which, to me, is unhealthy. The "dis-ease" that is a song stays partially physical when I perform 'The Letter' and makes me sick.

There's a cover of the traditional song, 'The Cuckoo', on the album. Why did you chose to cover this one?

It was my favorite lullaby as a child in Georgia and Tennessee and the source of my nickname, "Bird".

Finally, what is the title-track, 'Hips and Makers' about and how come you chose to name the album after it?

It sounds to me like a human anthem. Idiosyncratically universal, you know?

Hips and Makers was released on 21 January 1994 on 4AD and reached number 7 in the UK Album Chart. Kristin Hersh's latest album with Throwing Muses, Purgatory /Paradise is out now on The Friday Project.