Kristin Hersh has lived more life before age 20 than some people do in a lifetime. Within a year’s time, a teenaged Hersh was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, sustained a double concussion after being hit by a car, saw her band Throwing Muses become the first American act signed to 4AD and discovered she was pregnant. By age 30, she’d toured the world, gotten married and grown her family, battled for (and lost) custody of her eldest son, launched a solo career and pushed Throwing Muses into the alt-rock consciousness with 1995’s University (after which the band was dropped by its label).
As someone whose life has redefined the word “complicated,” and for whom music is inextricable from her mental and emotional state, she should get a free pass to indulge in art for art’s sake. But personal catharsis isn’t Hersh’s endgame.
“It’s hard to give a shit about yourself,” she explains via e-mail. “Even though I’ve lived all the stories I tell, I feel strongly that we shouldn’t make public anything that isn’t primarily for others.”
Thus the unique, user-friendly format of late 2013’s Purgatory/Paradise, Throwing Muses’ first new material in 10 years. After taking a similar approach with her 2010 solo album Crooked, she and her fellow Muses (bassist Bernard Georges and drummer Dave Narcizo) packaged Purgatory/Paradise as an art book, complete with a multimedia CD, lyrics, photos, writings from Hersh and design by Narcizo.
“My songs don’t always invite participation, so an offering of nice pictures to look at and friendly stories can sort of…help the listener along,” she says. “[Throwing Muses] have always thought of ourselves as leaving gifts on the table and tiptoeing away, because we aren’t rock-star types and we don’t make money at this…we have to actually leave something a listener would want—and books are beautiful.”
While she makes it clear that she creates music with the listener in mind, that isn’t to say the listener doesn’t still have to work for it a little bit. Hersh is an undeniably talented guitarist (one of Spin’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, in fact) and a singer and songwriter—but her music can’t help but summon analysis and interpretation.
“I know a lot of bands [who are] candy. Or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good. For a minute,” she writes in the opening pages of Rat Girl, her 2010 memoir. “My band is…spinach, I guess. We’re ragged and bitter. But I swear to god, we’re good for you.”
To Hersh’s point, there is something satisfying, and maybe even healthy, about consuming Throwing Muses’ music—tempo changes, unusual structures, fever-dream lyrics and all. Those qualities are most certainly tied to her experiences with mental illness (and the head injury she sustained after being hit by the car). However, Hersh is careful not to romanticize the relationship between the two, nor does she want to be pigeonholed as a tortured artist.
“Music has more to say about everything than we do,” she explains. “Being a strong musician means listening, not whining. It’s ugly to demarcate potential listeners by believing in that goofy well of ‘self-expression’ we’re all so used to hearing on people’s records.” That pragmatic brand of poignancy also holds true for her lyrics, which can be downright hallucinatory. Even so, Hersh believes her words should “hold up to analysis even when they’re stream-of-consciousness swimmy; they should be beautiful and ‘right.’ And they are essentially for the listener, not for me.”
The frustration of getting her music directly into the hands of those listeners has prompted Hersh to be vocal about the music industry machine, which she says has “[taken] power away from musicians and listeners by keeping them separate from each other.” While there was a 10-year gap between Muses albums, the band continued to work, play, live and record music together, but didn’t release an album, feeling “morally bound to no longer participate in an industry we were so dead set against,” Hersh says.
“Now that the landscape of the industry has shifted toward people and away from corporations, we can release records without engaging with anyone who has an ear toward the marketability of our product,” she adds. “In fact, I think if we presented our listeners with something ‘marketable,’ they’d reject it.”
She’s probably right. Partly because of the age at which she started and partly because of the intimate nature of her music, Hersh’s fans have remained deeply invested over her 30-year career. At age 14, Hersh founded Throwing Muses with her stepsister, Tanya Donnelly, in Rhode Island. (Donnelly left the Muses in the early ‘90s to join the Breeders and form Belly.) House Tornado, released in 1988, positioned the band as a naive angular, jangly counterpart of the Gun Club and the Feelies. The music grew up as the band did, and its fans evolved with it.
Embodying what was known at the time as “college rock,” the band moved to Boston in the late ‘80s and released The Real Ramona in 1991, marking a shift to a poppier sound. By the time University (which spawned the single “Bright Yellow Gun”) and 1996’s Limbo were released, Throwing Muses was an inventive, yet well-oiled rock machine—a streamlined trio that could handle monsters like “Shark” with the same deftness as it did subtler songs like “Crabtown.” But in 1997, Throwing Muses disbanded due to a lack of financial viability. Hersh had already launched a successful solo career, which veered toward a softer, more acoustic sound. Muses then reformed in 2003, right around the time she and Georges started the punk/math rock-leaning 50 Foot Wave.
Now a mother of four, Hersh splits her time between New England and New Orleans. Throwing Muses plans to tour throughout 2014, with Donnelly already joining them for some performances. Hersh says that, despite their long musical history, she and Donnelly have never written together. “Songwriting is weird and intense for me; I’d never inflict that on my own sister or anyone, for that matter. Being close personally is much more important to us than working together.”
Hersh says her enthusiasm for touring has been renewed as Muses are no longer beholden to the industry they’ve worked so hard to separate themselves from. “It’s actually better now that we have no record company courting casual, trendy listeners. We can turn a room into a church again, like we did in the really old days, when we were 14 years old.”
“It’s humbling and powerful at the same time,” she adds. “We love being losers.”
Photos by Dina Douglass