Since she first picked up a guitar at the age of nine, Kristin Hersh has never fit easily into a typicalmusic-marketing mold. “What most fans don’t realize is that Throwing Muses has always been Kristin’s band,” Randee Dawn Cohen wrote in Alternative Press about the group that was considered “alternative” before alternative rock came into vogue and which paved the way in the mid-1980s for bands like the Pixies and the Breeders.
Hersh began writing songs in junior high with her stepsister, Tanya Donelly. “I’ve spent my life looking for the perfect chord, the perfect combination of notes, and it was fascinating for me to build those chords with hundreds of melodies flying in and out,” Hersh told Guitar Player. This experimentation led Hersh and Donelly to develop a distinct sound: intricate cross rhythms and disparate melodies that often sounded like two separate songs played simultaneously. With these riffs, Hersh’s haunting lyrics, high school buddy Dave Narcizo on drums, and the addition of Elaine Adamedes, the first of many bassists, Throwing Muses was born. The
Members include Bernard Georges , bass; Kristin Hersh (born c. 1965, in Atlanta, GA), vocals, guitar; and David Narcizo (born c. 1965), drums. Former members include Elaine Adamendes and Leslie Langston , both on bass, and Tanya Donelly (born c. 1965) keyboards, guitar, vocals.
Band formed in Providence, RI, late 1970s; originally called the Muses; signed with 4AD label, mid-1980s, and released self-titled debut album; signed with Sire Records, 1987, and released House Tornado, 1988; disbanded, 1991; reformed as trio, 1993, and released University, 1995; Hersh released solo album, Hips and Makers, Sire, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Sire Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694.
band quickly garnered a devoted cult following in the Boston area.
Though they have released numerous albums on the 4AD and Sire labels, the Muses have never attained widespread commercial success. Indeed, Hersh’s lyrics and unsettling stage presence are anything but mainstream. Known to begin songs with lines like: “Get your black hands/out of my mouth,” Hersh early on developed a reputation for emotional imbalance. On one song, “Delicate Cutters,” she sang: “And the walls began to scream.…I throw my hands through the window. Crash. Like poetry…a room full of delicate cutters,” lyrics that Neil Strauss of Rolling Stone called “as chilling an account of a mind that has lost its balance as [poet] Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or [writer] Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.”
CMJ called Hersh’s detailed dialogues about her hallucinations “frightening and downright eerie.” In fact, Hersh has waged and is winning a battle with mental illness. Her troubling experiences, nonetheless, have inspired some of her greatest work. And her dedication to presenting her creative vision in its purest form—commercial rewards be damned—has taken its toll on Throwing Muses; it wasn’t until early 1994 and the success of the band’s seventh album, University, that bandmates Nacizo and bassist Bernard Georges were finally able to support themselves through music alone.
Hersh told CMJ, “I’ve been poor, but that didn’t push me to write a bunch of cute catchy songs that put food on the table. I’d rather be a waitress.”
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Hersh was raised by free-thinking parents and influenced by the allegorical landscape of bible stories read to her by Southern Baptist grandparents. Her parents moved to Newport, Rhode Island, when she was six and divorced when she was 11. Hersh credits her introduction to music to her father, a professor who taught yoga, Zen Buddhism, and courses on Native American mythology at Salve Regina College. Her father taught her all the guitar chords he knew, but he soon could not keep up with the demands of his nine-year-old musical prodigy. “I got frustrated with his limited knowledge,” Hersh admitted in Alternative Press, “because I’d be writing songs and asking him what the chords would be, and he’d just hand me the guitar and say ‘You make it up.’” For several years Hersh played around with the guitar, coming up with her own chords, but at the age of 14, her method changed. Hersh began hearing voices in her head; she would write what she heard and these transcriptions became songs. The voices became so regular that the line between reality and songs began to blur.
Hersh’s life during this period was also filled with domestic upheaval: her mother, a teacher of the learning disabled, married the father of Tanya Donelly, Hersh’s best friend at school. After about a year of prodding, Donelly finally agreed to start a band with Hersh; she played keyboards and sang backup, later picking up the guitar as well. With bassist Elaine Adamedes, the band known then simply as the Muses was asked to play at a high school party at the house of Dave Narcizo, whom Hersh and Donelly had known since the first grade. After the party, Hersh asked Narcizo to join as the Muses’ drummer, and the band was complete. However, since the only drums that Narcizo had ever played were marching drums, he failed to notice that the drum set he borrowed to practice with his new band lacked cymbals. Narcizo taught himself to play without cymbals, and this has become his signature.
Early Muses songs were quirky, the band producing a new wave sound with bass, keyboard, guitar, and random percussion played on hubcaps and pieces of hardware. “People said that the main problem with our music was that you couldn’t ignore it,” Hersh told CMJ. “I hope this doesn’t sound egotistical, but our music is music you have to sleep with, you have to go all the way with it. I know it’s hard to follow and hard to take. I have a lot of respect for people sitting through our shows.” These shows took place in clubs that the bandmembers wouldn’t have been permitted to enter under normal circumstances as they were underage. Just out of high school, Throwing Muses led a wild lifestyle, playing nightly for little money in dives in the Boston and Providence area. Hersh had guns pulled on her, was groped by drunks, and was dragged into cars and vans. “It amazes me that I survived all those years in clubs as a very young girl,” she reflected in Melody Maker.
But if Hersh had any misgivings during those days, she didn’t show it; Throwing Muses were gaining great respect on the British punk scene, and music fans were starting to take notice of the band at home. In Melody Maker, Hersh described the intense emotional feelings she was experiencing at that time as “a heat.” In 1978 she walked through a a raging blizzard for 24 hours hoping to cool this inner fire. “I was burning up so much inside that there was no room for fear,” she revealed. “I was so angry with myself for turning into a crazy person that there was no fear.…All I was, was the music.”
Although Hersh’s bizarre psychic state made for arresting Throwing Muses material, her behavior from 1986 to 1990 revealed a deeply young troubled woman. Many events during that period served to disrupt an already frenetic life: In 1987, after one album and an EP on the British label 4AD, Throwing Muses were signed to the larger Sire Records; Donelly and Hersh’s parents divorced; Hersh, majoring in archetypal psychology and philosophy at Salve Regina by day and going to art school at night, dropped out with only one semester left because she was pregnant with her first child, son Dylan; and the band relocated to Boston with new bassist Leslie Langston, continuing to play shows nearly every night.
In the meanwhile, Throwing Muses produced what some consider their best music, albums like House Tornado, The Fat Skier, and Hunkpapa. But Hersh’s inner life remained in turmoil. She broke up with Dylan’s father, and a court determined that she was an unfit mother and relieved her of her custody rights. She began to have frequent seizures. In 1990 she finally checked herself into a mental institution. There she was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a condition similar to schizophrenia. “I tried really hard to keep my band and my family out of it…because it felt so dangerous,” she told Melody Maker. “I didn’t want it to spill over onto them.”
Also that year, Hersh married Sire executive Billy O’Connell and tried to focus her attention on being a wife and mother. Throwing Muses began to unravel. Langston left the band and moved to California. Donelly began recording with a side project, the Breeders. She usually only contributed one or two songs per Throwing Muses album, but she came up with about seven for the band’s fifth album, 1991’s The Real Ramona. This caused tension between Donelly and Hersh, especially since Donelly’s songs were more pop-oriented and thus more appealing to a mainstream audience. “I had tunnel vision when it came to the band,” Hersh told Alternative Press. “It was my child and my life. And it was probably rude not to take her stuff seriously, but it was only because it was my band.” So Donelly left the fold and started her own band, Belly. Soon thereafter Hersh disbanded Throwing Muses due to legal battles with their former manager and problems with income taxes.
Though she had vowed to stay out of the music business after giving birth to her second son, Ryder, Hersh began rehearsing and collaborating with Narcizo again. In 1992 they released a new Muses album, Red Heaven. Hersh told Alternative Press, “In the Muses I always felt that Dave and I were (the real) partners.” Former roadie Bernard Georges joined up on bass and Throwing Muses, now a trio, recorded their next album, University.
University was completed in 1993, but Georges and Narcizo agreed to sit on the recording for a year to allow Hersh to release her first solo LP, Hips and Makers. This turned out to be a good decision both for Hersh and the band; in 1994 Hips and Makers sold over 52,000 copies, securing Hersh’s place as a songwriting force on the burgeoning alternative rock scene made popular by formerly underground bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Hersh wrote most of the songs for Hips and Makers while on tour with Throwing Muses, though “The Letter” dates back to the early Muses days, and “Houdini Blues” was the first song her father ever wrote, a find upon which she stumbled while rummaging through an old filing cabinet. The eerily stark “Your Ghost,” was written while Hersh was in Glasgow, Scotland, and was initially recorded in a horse stable back in the States. On the final version, Hersh decided to keep the sounds of horses moving in the background and added the voice of her close friend, lead singer of R.E.M. Michael Stipe. “I didn’t expect anyone to listen to it. It was almost the soundtrack to my photo album at home,” Hersh said of the solo release in an interview with Billboard. “I just wanted to get it out of my head and out of the band’s way.” Hersh also released an album called Strings, which featured songs from Hips and Makers with a distinct string background.
Hips and Makers paved the way for University. “Bright Yellow Gun,” the propulsive first single from the record, exploded in 1995 at the top of the alternative rock singles charts. Rolling Stone called the album “one of [the band’s] best,” describing the songs as “among the Muse’s brightest and most energetic.” In the spring of 1995, Throwing Muses embarked on a national club tour to promote University. The band was finally poised to achieve national recognition. “You take this ride, or it takes you,” Hersh concluded in Alternative Press, “and in the end, you’re just the clay you started out with, you’re just a body, and you can’t get higher than that, and you can’t get lower than that, and what a great reason to take the ride.”
Throwing Muses, 4AD, 1986.
The Fat Skier (EP), 4AD, 1987.
House Tornado, Sire, 1988.
Hunkpapa, Sire, 1989.
The Real Ramona, Sire, 1991.
Red Heaven, Sire, 1992.
Hips and Makers (solo album by Kristin Hersh), Sire, 1994.
Strings (solo album by Hersh), Sire, 1994.
University, Sire, 1995.
Alternative Press, April 1994.
Billboard, January 22, 1994; December 10, 1994; January 21, 1995.
CMJ, January 1995.
Guitar Player, January 1993; May 1994.
Melody Maker, January 15, 1994.
Musician, January 1995; March 1995.
Rolling Stone, April 7, 1994; February 23, 1995; March 9, 1995; May 4, 1995.
Spin, April 1994; June 1995.