Hersh never far from her muse


November 14, 2003


As the leader of Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh was one of the most inspired voices during the heyday of alternative rock -- as distinctive as PJ Harvey, as bitingly angry as Courtney Love and as seductive as Liz Phair (though she sold fewer records and garnered less acclaim than any of these peers).

At 37, Hersh remains a unique voice -- and a prolific one. This year, she reunited Throwing Muses for a self-titled disc on the 4AD label and a subsequent tour, as well as releasing yet another Spartan but gripping solo acoustic disc, "The Grotto." Now living in Los Angeles, she has also formed a new band called 50 Foot Wave, a trio that she describes as "hard-pushing math rock."


*7 p.m. Saturday
*Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
*Tickets, $20
*(773) 728-6000

I spoke with Hersh by phone in the midst of a tour that brings her to the Old Town School of Folk Music for two shows Saturday night with Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and Andrew Bird of Chicago's Bowl of Fire (both of whom made guest appearances on "The Grotto").

Q. I understand that, as usual, you're traveling with your children on this tour. That must be challenging.

A. It's wonderful, actually. They're the foils that you have for touring. It's sweet and healthy -- they're everything I need on tour. Plus, I have some big ones, so I have help with the little ones.

Q. You realized two pretty extraordinary albums at the same time this year. Tell me how you decide which songs are for Throwing Muses and which are for your solo albums.

A. It's pretty obvious, actually, although I have played some Muses songs on the acoustic. But it sounds goofy and lonely. I've never had much trouble telling them apart; the difference is, I suppose, in the extroverted nature of the band approach to a song and the introverted nature of the acoustic. I actually had to learn to appreciate that. I thought that solo, I would just be the band minus two. But the stylistic approach of an intimate acoustic song is much better for some people than the full-blown, multicolored band approach. Some people can't hear the songs through all that noise, so a pencil sketch is actually better. I had to learn that, and I really love that now. I love the fluidity of timing -- that I can stretch the songs out when I'm playing by myself.

Q. Is it obvious from the minute you write a tune which way it's going to go?

A. It is. Maybe that's a mistake on my part, because I know the band could take an interesting approach on any number of my solo songs. But I just have so many goddamn songs that it hasn't really been an issue! I've always had far too many songs. We usually drop about five songs per record.

Q. What inspires you to sit down and write?

A. I have no idea, and I've been doing it since I was 9. Truth be told, I don't sit down and write; the songs just start playing in my head. It's like getting a song stuck in your head, but it's one I haven't heard before. Eventually, some of the melodies become syllables. I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to publish them or even allow anyone else to hear them, but it seems to be the nature of the beast to want to be heard. The songs seem unfinished until they're passed around and let go and they become part of someone else's soundtrack.

Not to get groovy about it [laughs], but my point is I didn't really mean to be a performer. I didn't mean for this to happen to me; I'm very shy and very private. I wanted to be a scientist; I just wanted to go measure things and have it all make sense, and I'm kind of doing the opposite!

Q. Your songs are so intensely personal that longtime fans almost view them as journal entries. It seems as if you've almost used the songs as therapy.

A. That's probably true, although I choose not to admit that. [Laughs] I feel like I'm singing the listener's songs instead of mine. Even though I've lived all of these stories, whatever a song is picks and chooses between my life experiences to make its point. It's not necessarily the point I would make, or the things I would want to say, so it's not necessarily self-expression or cathartic. For me, it's as cathartic as listening to another songwriter I like, but I don't feel like I'm expressing myself.

Q. So once you've recorded a tune and put it out there in the world, you feel as if it's become someone else's?

A. Yeah. I'm careful with it until then, because I feel like it's something I need to serve, and it has to be done right or there's no point in doing it. But I don't feel responsible for it, and I don't necessarily feel like it reflects on me in any way. It could easily be a mind-f--- on my part to keep me doing it. But once you get that personal, you can do the math -- you might as well be speaking for anyone. I still believe that there are enough specifics removed that anyone who trusts the song enough to take its ride will hear it speaking to them instead of it being about me. I can't imagine that anyone would want to sit down and read a page of Kristin Hersh's diary. It's something far more important than that! [Laughs]

Q. Are Throwing Muses still a going concern?

A. It's not necessarily a working entity. We just did this record because we wanted to hear it, and we did the tour because we wanted to play it. But the realities of the business are such that it can't be our day jobs.

Q. You have an interesting perspective on this, having come from the indie '80s, when no one ever expected to make any money, and survived the alternative explosion, when you were signed to a major label, and finally come out the other side. Where do you think you fit in the music industry today?

A. I think it's always been cyclical: There's always been a fruitful time followed by a [crappy] time, and I think that has more to do with the people running the business. Sometimes they're selling actual music, but then there's a lot of half-assed crap that kind of follows in the footsteps of the real musicians. When the business exploits all they can of that stylistic approach, then they realize that they're going to lose their jobs unless they start marketing to pre-teens; they have little respect for that audience, so they find candy, and they begin marketing that, until people realize that there are no musicians on the radio or selling records anymore. They go elsewhere to find that, and then the people at the record companies realize, "Oh, my goodness, we should have this." And it starts again.

Actually, I kind of prefer the crap eras, because it means the underground is so strong, because it doesn't attract egos or greed. It attracts musicians who have to play music.

Q. Nevertheless, it blows my mind how we got from Courtney Love and Liz Phair and PJ Harvey and your sister, Tanya Donnelly, in Belly, to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and Hilary Duff and their ilk in just a few short years. As female role models, that's a huge contrast.

A. That's just the business. No one like you or I sees the business as music; it's popular culture, which is determined by money. So I'd really rather be left out of that equation. And I much prefer the breast job to someone calling Eddie Vedder an artist. When people are fooled by Alanis Morissette saying, "Well, that's female anger," then they don't go to look for the real stuff. They've swallowed the Disney version instead of the real thing, whereas no one in their right mind would think that Britney Spears is a real musician or even a woman!

Q. What was it like to work with Tanya again in Throwing Muses?

A. Oh, it was wonderful. There's no reason we hadn't done anything together except that we both do the same job; we both sing and play guitar. And we hadn't lived near each other for a long time. I can't even remember how it came up; I think we were just having bagels with the kids. I said, "This Throwing Muses record really sounds like an old one," and it was so perfect for her voice. I just couldn't believe what she did; she just added these swooping melodies, and sometimes I can't tell who's singing what. Touring was fun as well. As much as I like to say there's no such thing as gender, it was nice having another woman around.