As a musician, Kristin Hersh has had the best of both musical worlds. Although she launched her solo career in 1994, she has continued to perform and record with the Throwing Muses, the seminal college band she helped found in the 1980s. This point was underlined when her record label released the solo album The Grotto simultaneously with Throwing Muses in 2003. Hersh has also divided her modes of musical expression between acoustic and electric formats, creating lush pop songs and spare, haunting folk songs. "Though one can construct a narrative of her work that creates a plausible course of artistic development and linearity," wrote Marshall Bowden in Pop Matters, "the fact is that Hersh's work has a dual nature: it changes depending on what she is experiencing at the time she writes the songs on any given album."
Hersh was born on August 7, 1966, in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Newport, Rhode Island. Her influences were an odd combination of her freethinking father, who taught Zen Buddhism and yoga, and her Southern Baptist grandparents, who read Bible stories to her. Hersh picked up an acoustic guitar for the first time at the age of nine, and although her father taught her several chords, she quickly grew impatient. "I got frustrated with his limited knowledge," she told Randee Dawn Cohen in the Alternative Press, "because I'd be writing songs and asking him what the chords would be, and he'd just say, 'You make it up.' So I started making up my own chords." Family life was disrupted when her parents divorced. Her mother, who worked with learning disabled students, eventually got married again, to the father of Hersh's friend Tanya Donelly.
At the age of 14, after several years of playing guitar and many early efforts at songwriting, Hersh recruited Donelly in order to start a band. They added bassist Elaine Adamedes and drummer Dave Narcizo, a childhood friend, and called themselves the Throwing Muses. Although too young to enter most bars as customers, the band was welcomed in local clubs and quickly gained a reputation around Boston. "I had guns pulled on me, trying to get our 50 bucks pay a night, and I didn't sleep," Hersh told Lisa Simeone in an interview on National Public Radio. "I lived in my car. And it was a hard life, but it didn't feel hard." Hersh was later diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder that caused seizures and hallucinations. However, she was able to use her skills as a songwriter as an outlet, purging her nightmares and creating beautiful music in the process. "If you don't know how to let it out," Hersh told Ken Micallef in Ray Gun, "it makes you seem like a crazy person."
Beginning with their self-titled debut, the Throwing Muses created a string of albums that won over the critics, created a group of hardcore fans, and proved influential to future pop-rock units like the Red House Painters and the Blake Babies. "From their first folk-punk efforts … to later pop-art gems," wrote Bradley Bamberger in Billboard, "the Muses earned favor with critics and college radio at home and abroad, with the emphasis on Hersh's deep, distinctive songwriting and mesmerizing voice."
In 1994 Hersh released her first solo album, Hips and Makers, and surprised old fans by introducing an acoustic format. Further distancing herself from the electric guitars of the Throwing Muses, she released Strings in the same year, a recording that naturally featured a string quartet. "Compared to the Muses," Hersh told Bamberger, "the new music is a pencil sketch rather than a painting with bright, loud colors. But the picture is still there—it just came from a more intimate space." Hips and Makers also reached more people than had the Muses' albums, selling 70,000 copies in the United States and 150,000 in Europe. In the wake of her success, Hersh returned to the Throwing Muses to record University, an album Heather Phares of All Music Guide described as "one of the band's most cohesive and accessible efforts." The group followed with Limbo in 1996, and then disbanded, citing the economic difficulty of sustaining a group.
Hersh, who had always been a prolific composer, found herself unable to write for the next two years. "After my band broke up," she told Simeone, "I had two years of writer's block, which was actually wonderful for me personally, but not so good for my record company." To stimulate her muse and also to educate her children, she decided to record an album of Appalachian ballads and lullabies she had learned as a child from her father, and she gave the collection the intriguing title of Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight. "It might not exactly be Soothing Sounds for Baby," wrote Andy Kellman in All Music Guide, "but Murder is still a sinister, lulling pre-slumber treat."
Hersh returned to her electric roots with Sky Motel in 1999, but added a new twist. Although songs like "Fog" and "A Cleaner Light" reminded fans of recent Throwing Muses' albums, the addition of keyboards and Latin rhythms added a layered richness to songs like "Costa Rica" and "Husk." In 2001 she returned to a quieter, though still electric, format with Sunny Border Blue. Susan Glen wrote on the Pop Matters website, "Sunny Border Blue is a gorgeous, rich, accomplished collection of songs that cascade from one into another, blurring the boundaries of style and content, and providing the most honest musical and lyrical storytelling of Hersh's critically-acclaimed career." Hersh surprised her fans in 2003 by re-uniting the Throwing Muses to record a second, self-titled album, while also releasing a new solo effort, The Grotto. Both were recorded in Rhode Island, where Hersh lived for six months following the death of a close family member.
Hersh's life has changed a great deal since her hectic days in the Throwing Muses. Whereas she once slept in her car and played in rowdy clubs, she now lives with husband Billy O'Connell and their three children in a home in California. A lifestyle change, however, has failed to tame her approach to music. In 2004 she started a band with Bernard Georges and Rob Ahlers called 50-Foot Wave. The music, unlike her solo forays into the acoustic format, is loud, abrasive, and in-your-face. The new band, noted Judith Lewis on the L.A. Weekly website, "has Hersh howling through tunes that shift time signatures on a whim." Although it isn't the kind of music likely to garner commercial success, Hersh has remained unconcerned. "I'm only doing this because nobody else is," she told Lewis. "I wanna hear it. I would just play it in my garage if there weren't other people saying, 'Go here, stand here and play it for other people.'" In January of 2004 the band played a month of shows at the Silverlake Lounge in Los Angeles to increasingly larger crowds, and then recorded an EP. "I don't understand why everybody my age isn't doing it," Hersh told Lewis. "Everybody should play louder and faster the closer they get to 40."
Hips and Makers, Sire/Reprise, 1994.
Strange Angels, Rykodisc, 1998.
Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight, 4AD, 1998.
Sky Motel, 4AD, 1999.
Sunny Border Blue, 4AD, 2001.
The Grotto, 4AD, 2003.
With Throwing Muses
Throwing Muses, 4AD, 1986.
House Tornado, 4AD/Sire, 1988.
Hunkpapa, 4AD/Sire, 1990.
The Real Ramona, 4AD/Sire, 1991.
Red Heaven, 4AD/Sire, 1992.
The Curse (live), 4AD, 1992.
University, Sire/Reprise, 1995.
Limbo, Rykodisc, 1996.
For the Record …
Born on August 7, 1966, in Atlanta, GA; married to Billy O'Connell; children: three.
Performed with the Throwing Muses, 1986-2003; released first solo album, Hips and Makers, 1994; recorded University with Throwing Muses, 1995; group disbanded, 1997; recorded Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight, 1998; re-formed Throwing Muses, 2003, simultaneously releasing Throwing Muses and solo album The Grotto; formed 50-Foot Wave with Bernard Georges and Rob Ahlers, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—4AD Records, 17-19 Alma Rd., London SW18 1AA England, website: http://www.4ad.com. Website—Kristin Hersh Official Website: http://www.throwingmusic.com.
Throwing Muses, 4AD, 2003.
Alternative Press, April 1994.
Billboard, January 31, 1998, p. 11.
Ray Gun, March 1994.
"Faster, Louder, Harder," L.A. Weekly, http://www.laweekly.com/ (March 26, 2004).
"Kristin Hersh," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 26, 2004).
"Kristin Hersh," Pop Matters, http://www.popmatters.com/ (March 26, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from an interview with Kristin Hersh on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, March 10, 2001.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"Hersh, Kristin." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hersh-kristin
"Hersh, Kristin." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hersh-kristin
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