There are those musicians who attempt to straddle the impossibly thin line between staying true to their artistic vision and wanting to reach a wider audience with a hit song. Then there’s Kristin Hersh, who erects a full-length security barrier around her music with little regard for its commercial potential.
“Popularity was always secondary it and it still is, it doesn’t factor in at all,” said the 51-year-old American singer/songwriter with a nervous, endearing laugh. “My definition of success is the next song coming to fruition.”
That probably explains why it was Bon Jovi that was inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and not Hersh, who has established her own kind of success over the last 30 years as the master of her own domain – first as founder of ‘80s-’90s indie-rock heroes Throwing Muses and later as a diverse, uncompromising solo artist capable of beautifully stark folk songs one minute and jaggedly dissonant post-punk shards the next.
A child of free-thinking parents who exposed her to the music of Patti Smith, the Carter Family, Robert Johnson and Philip Glass, Hersh was 14 when she formed Throwing Muses in her native Rhode Island with her best friend (and future sister- in-law) Tanya Donnelly.
An accident at age 16 while she was riding her bicycle left her with a concussion that affected the way she heard sounds and led to various physical and mental ailments (including hearing noises in her head) that have stayed with her in various stages ever since.
In conversation, Hersh jokes about being “brain damaged” but she credits her condition to contributing to her unorthodox songwriting, singing and performing style that thrust her into the indie world limelight with Throwing Muses after she dropped out of the Rhode Island School of Design and moved the band to Boston in 1985.
The arty punks evolved into MTV-era darlings after they became the first American band signed by trendy British label 4AD.
“BOSTON HELPED us develop with having to lie or be influenced by anyone else. We got to play with incredible bands, with nobody headlining and with the audience made up of other bands,” said Hersh in a phone call last week ahead of a European tour that will see her perform in Israel for the first time on June 14 at Zappa Tel Aviv.
“We loved the purity of vision that it instilled in us.”
Hersh and the band developed a strong camaraderie with another fledgling Beantown group, the Pixies, also a 4AD signee who were asked to accompany Throwing Muses on their first tour of England in 1986 – a gang-mentality move that gave Hersh confidence to face a new audience.
“We had signed with 4AD, and their other bands were so gauzy and ethereal, and I’m going to say... pretentious.
We were Americans and we didn’t like pretentiousness, we’d rather be dumb and nice,” she said with a guffaw. “We were the goofy Americans, so I needed to bring out goofy friends with us to make sense of it. So we brought the Pixies with us. I wasn’t ready to face England without them, they made us feel not so alone.”
The band’s trajectory shot upwards for a while when they signed with Warner Brothers subsidiary Sire in 1987, but pressure to sound more mainstream and sell more records took its toll. Donnely left the fold in 1991, and, with a baby in tow and lagging record sales, Hersh became disillusioned with the business of making business.
“The band never really broke up."
I just couldn’t handle being on Warner Brothers and have them say ‘You have to suck to succeed,’” said Hersh, who eventually bought herself out of her contract and has steered her own professional course ever since.
A turning point for Hersh occurred when she was recording tracks with Throwing Muses drummer David Narcizo for songs that eventually were released on 1992’s Red Heaven.
“I had another baby, and was living a real life. I thought, ‘Music, yeah, music business, no f***ing way.’ Dave was playing with the baby, and listening to my songs I had recorded on 4-track and he looked up and shouted – because he had headphones on – ‘Let’s be a band that doesn’t give a shit because we ARE a band that doesn’t give a shit.’ “It sounds like we don’t care, but we actually care more than people who are willing to suck. And that was the beginning of not caring anymore about the business and only caring about making music and playing for people.”
That approach has allowed Hersh’s muse to flourish. Her first solo album, 1994’s Hips and Makers, featured mainly acoustic material revolving around her vocals, guitar and a cello. The album’s haunting single, “Your Ghost,” a duet with Michael Stipe, remains one of her most widely-known song, especially among Israeli listeners.
“As popular as it was, it wasn’t a bad song. It’s deceptively simple and it’s a strange sort of song for people to like – there’s no drums, it’s a got a strange meter and there’s silence in it,” said Hersh, adding that attendees of her show at Zappa Tel Aviv might be surprised if the song is the extent of their knowledge about her work.
“I suppose I yell more than I do in that song. A lot of my songs are kind of shouty.”
Over the last prolific 25 years, Hersh has continued to release acclaimed and challenging music, collaborate with an elite crop of musicians like Bob Mould and the late Vic Chestnutt and managed to stay true to herself.
“An honest musician is an honest person, you don’t have to align yourself with dishonesty. I saw the insidious nature of marketing to the lowest common denominator.
You don’t need it – you can work a day job and still make music that changes the world. If you work at McDonald’s and make real music, you are never going to lose your listeners.”
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