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
KRISTIN HERSH, HOWE
GELB, ANDREW BIRD
*7 p.m. Saturday
*Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
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
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
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
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
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.