By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by L. Fletcher
Kristin Hersh arrives to meet me with a baby boy on one hip, a young son at each side, and her husband and manager, Billy O’Connell, walking a few steps behind her. She looks tiny surrounded like this, the late-afternoon Pasadena sunlight glinting off her bleached-blond chin-length waves, her 1920s-movie-star mouth painted a perfectly muted red. The vision is almost comical, in the truest sense of the word: When she passes the baby off to O’Connell and separates from the entourage, it’s as if somebody’s comic book sweetheart has just emerged from the candy-colored frame to tread upon the drab green soil of an ordinary Starbucks. As O’Connell, 12-year-old Ryder, 7-year-old Wyatt and 1-year-old Bodhi (yes, after the tree) retreat into the adjoining bookstore, the pocket Venus steps forward to have coffee with an inhabitant of the workaday world.
In some rarefied circles, the Throwing Muses’ front woman and co-founder — a role she shared for the band’s first decade with her half sister, Tanya Donnelly — has been a rock star for nearly two-thirds of her life, even if her band’s moment in the industry spotlight lasted only a flicker and a record, The Real Ramona, in 1991, made in the days when Warner Bros. still had the stomach for beautiful rock music of marginal commercial value. “Their attitude toward us was, ‘We think Throwing Muses should be making records, but we don’t expect anybody to buy them,’” Hersh remembers. “I kind of agreed with that.” With her new band, 50-Foot Wave, a “math rock” trio that has Hersh howling through tunes that shift time signatures on a whim, she does not necessarily plan to alter that tradition. “I’m only doing this because nobody else is,” she says. “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.’” It is not, she acknowledges, “music for people who would go elsewhere for their musical opinions.”
As such, it is the ideal music for a singer-songwriter who has existed for a while now in that netherworld of career musicians who don’t care whether their songs get played on the radio. Hersh is adamant, and articulate, about where she thinks music belongs in the culture, about how necessary the music of the time is for people coming of age, how the business of music conspires to deprive them of it. She may look like a baby-doll princess, but she doesn’t talk like one — she laughs easily and heartily, and she speaks in an alto voice with authority about everything from politics to why she doesn’t read novels: “I just can’t get past the idea that somebody made it up,” she complains. (Instead, she reads books about science. Her favorite: Natalie Angier’s Woman.)
Hersh has packed into the last 23 years a life most people would feel proud to have squeezed into 50. She started Throwing Muses at 14 in her native Rhode Island, went to college at 16, released her first record at 19 — on the same day that she went into labor with her first son, Dylan, at a Meat Puppets show. (“Is that tacky?” she asks.) She resolved to never start another band, and kept that promise for nearly a quarter of a century. But she has never made such pronouncements about babies. “Some people ask me, ‘Why do you keep having kids?’ And all I can say is that they’re such great people — they are so much smarter and nicer and more everything than I will ever be. They’re just great roommates.”
And she has written more songs than anyone can count, enough songs that if you try to summarize her oeuvre — five solo records, 11 with Throwing Muses, many more EPs and singles — things start to spin inside your head and you stop. She writes songs about snowmobiles and men who speak in “fucked-up military time,” about twisted conversations and senseless rules, and about who knows what — often the words resonate but make no logical sense. On her most recent solo record, The Grotto, her songs seemed more than ever to be inspired by alien powers. (“I see a snake and a girl in the snow,” she sings on “Snake Oil.” She still aspires to be a herpetologist.)
“I’ve actually tried to stop many times,” she tells me, “but it didn’t work.” The songs come to her “as percussive melodies, as if I’ve learned the language phonetically and I’m just spitting it out,” and they always hit at 4 a.m. — even across time zones. “I don’t necessarily have to get up. I just have to finish the song — even if it’s not with my hands, just in my head, I have to work out the lyrics and the bass parts and the drums. But if I try to go back to sleep, it’s murder. That’s when I start to feel like a crazy person.
“I’ve been called one before and I always disagree. But if I fight the 4 a.m. thing — those songs can play really loud in my head.”