For younger music fans, it may seem that female musicians could always rock, but it took pioneers like Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett to inspire the current throng of guitar goddesses. Though not as well known, add the name of Kristin Hersh to that list of influencers.
Hersh was just 14 when she and her stepsister Tanya Donelly formed an alternative rock band in Rhode Island in the early 1980s. Throwing Muses toured and recorded extensively for the next 15 years, becoming internationally recognized for unusual chord progressions, shifting tempos and candid, stark lyrics that went on to impact a new generation of musicians, male and female.
Hersh and Donelly were both singers and songwriters and, while Throwing Muses has reunited in recent years, the two women have concentrated more recently on solo projects. While Donelly moved closer to a pop sound as frontwoman for Belly, Hersh has pushed herself into a variety of areas, including writing two memoirs (Rat Girl and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, an account of her long friendship with the late Vic Chesnutt) and a children’s book (Toby Snax) and recording six mini-albums with the power trio 50FootWave (the most recent, the Bath White EP arrived summer 2016).
Her most recent solo effort, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, is a double CD/book combination, released in the US by Omnibus Press on November 11. The book consists of stories and photos as well as lyrics to the songs on the CD. It’s the third release in the book/CD format which Hersh began with her previous solo album Crooked and Throwing Muses’ 2013 release Purgatory/Paradise.
Recorded in Portsmouth, RI, with engineer Steve Rizzo, Hersh created all the sounds on the 24-track CD, including guitar, bass, drums, piano, horns, cello and field recordings. The prose was inspired by her son, Wyatt, who is on the autism spectrum, and his fascination with an abandoned apartment building behind the recording studio, inhabited by coyotes.
Hersh spent most of the month of November touring the UK and Ireland in a concert featuring readings and songs that span her entire career and will be on tour for the rest of November and into December here in the U.S. (tour dates are below).
Hersh answered our emailed questions from Brighton, England, the same night she appeared at the Komedia club. Two days later, she spent Thanksgiving performing in London, away from her family, but wrote that, “My kids threw me a fakey one before I left. I also missed my youngest son's birthday, so that fakey holiday was a double whammy. Pumpkin pie and birthday cake. It was nice.”
Here’s the rest of our online conversation.
AXS: How has the U.K. tour been? With the recent political upheaval here in America, have you noticed any changes in how audiences respond to you and your work compared to prior visits?
Kristin Hersh: All people on the side of good and right will always be on the side of good and right. If we act with integrity, others respond with integrity, always and in any sphere. Humans are lovely that way.
AXS: With such an extensive catalog of material, how do you decide on a set list? Does it vary much from night to night?
KH: I just walk out and play and read whatever I feel like (is that bad?). A song will remind me of a story and vice-versa, so the text usually informs the music, which is interesting to me. I certainly haven't figured out anything about these songs except that they exist.
AXS: When a creative idea comes to you, do you know right away whether it’s something you want to express as prose or in a song? How does it reveal its rightful form?
KH: Songs have always come fully formed, whereas prose was something I was asked to do by...you know, grown ups. So it's communicative, though apparently still more esoteric than I realized.
AXS: Similarly, when a musical idea comes to you, do you know whether it’s destined to be a solo/Throwing Muses/50FootWave song?
KH: I write solo songs on my Collings, Muses on my Strat or Tele and 50FootWave songs on my SG or Les Paul. My drummers tell me this is a flawed system, but I haven't come up with a better one.
AXS: Did you begin Wyatt knowing that you would do all the instruments yourself? How does recording solo affect the evolution of the material as compared to a band effort?
KH: This is the sound of having no friends! But it was easier to just run out of the control room and jump behind the drum kit or grab my favorite bass and play what I was hearing than it would have been to try and describe what I was hearing to someone else. Throwing Muses' drummer, Dave, says Wyatt sounds like it does because I can play instruments without sounding like I have a part.
AXS: My older brother is autistic, born at a time when those on the spectrum were often viewed with suspicion and/or fear. Though we’ve come a long way since then, what would you most want people to understand about what you call Wyatt’s “intense and fascinating psychology?”
KH: Wyatt and I have similar wiring. It feels to us as if we have fully developed super egos and ids but are lacking that big chunk of ego that runs the world. People seem transparent to us and yet we can't follow their manipulations. So we're like dogs: we'd die for you because we love you deeply, but we're uncivilized. Wyatt's psychology is more extreme and different than mine, and in my opinion, more elegant. As if he is at an advanced stage of evolution.
AXS: Finally, looking back over a long and fruitful career, what would you say to 14-year-old Kristin - or any young girl, in fact - who’s thinking, “I want to start a band?"
Kristin Hersh American tour dates:
Nov. 29 – Seattle, WA – The Triple Door
Nov. 30 – Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios
Dec. 3 – San Francisco, CA – Swedish American Hall
Dec. 4 – Los Angeles, CA – Echoplex
Dec. 5 – Del Mar, CA – Brick 15
Dec. 8 – Denver, CO – Swallow Hill Cafe
Dec. 9 – Minneapolis, MN – Cedar Cultural Center
Dec. 10 – Evanston, IL – Space
Dec. 11 – Cleveland, OH – Music Box Supper Club
Dec. 13 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
Dec. 14 – Vienna, VA – Jammin’ Java
Dec. 15 – Philadelphia, PA – Tin Angel
Dec. 17 – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade
Dec. 18 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair