IN A NUTSHELL
Kristin Hersh is one of North America’s most singular yet undersung rock musicians of the last 40 years. She is a conduit to the spirit of the beatnik, counter-cultural 1960s via her hippie academic parents. Hersh was a rock & roll early adopter; picking up the guitar at the age of 11 and forming the band Throwing Muses with her half-sister Tanya Donelly at the age of 14. But after she was involved in a horrific road accident a couple of years later, her relationship to music shifted radically.
While in hospital with double concussion, she began to realise she was hearing sounds that no one else was able to perceive; she would go on to interpret these audio hallucinations as parts of songs, and she remains an incredibly prolific songwriter to this day. This condition was misdiagnosed variously as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and was only diagnosed successfully as PTSD and dissociative disorder recently, some 35 years after the accident. Her condition has led, in part, to an inimitable and intense live performance style, with a stage presence that is, by turns, hypnotic, uncanny, exciting and unsettling.
The Muses somehow managed to combine a classic song writing dynamic (Hersh’s cerebral yet febrile urgency complemented Donelly’s undeniable gift for melodic pop) with a modernist edge - their tracks were manic and constantly shifting, typified by tempo changes and stylistic switches, with lyrics that mapped out new psychological and social terrain.
The band, which initially called Boston home, was the first American act to get signed to veteran British indie 4AD, thus changing the entire face of the label and the alternative rock scene of Britain itself. It was through Throwing Muses that Pixies were also signed to 4AD. They set off on a joint headlining tour of Europe in 1987, as The Smiths split up and bands such as Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers were outgrowing cult status, while homegrown acts such as My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3 finally started blossoming. They arrived on these shores for the first time just as the entire nature of what being in an ‘indie’ band meant, was shifting radically.
Despite being in one of the core acts to lay the groundwork for the grunge and alternative rock explosions of the mid-90s, Hersh was one of the few key musicians to not really see any benefit. Every time Throwing Muses seemed close to hitting the big time, Hersh would react as if allergic to the idea and would steer the band further into the leftfield or away from the obvious path. Big selling, radio playlist-friendly songs such as Counting Backwards, Dizzy and Bright Yellow Gun remain the exception rather than the rule in her discography.
Since the mid-90s, she has moved further and further away from the major label industry, successfully setting up a subscription based, direct to fan music service called CASH Music in 2007, which has in part paid for her to continue working since. This flow of work has barely been interrupted by her having to weather a run of bad luck, the scale of which would be blackly comical were it not so awful. (This has included, among other things, losing her home and possessions in both flood and fire, homelessness and getting stranded in a mountain pass after her tour bus set on fire.) But it should be clear to anyone looking across the nine Throwing Muses LPs, the six 50ft Wave LPs (the noise rock trio she formed in 2003) and her eleven solo LPs - not to mention reading her books and journalism - that she has played the longest of long games, creating a unique body of work that will weather all temporary changes in fashion, finance and taste.
Something profoundly conservative but still undeniably radical happened in popular music between 1985 and 1994 concerning the idea of age. Or rather I can pinpoint a change in attitude towards age that began with the de-territorialisation caused by Live AID and ended with the re-territorialisation caused by the release of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings in 1994.
There was a time when the idea of a mainstream rock band carrying on into their forties simply seemed ridiculous; Elvis, after all was seen as hopelessly out of touch with current trends when he staged his comeback bid in 1968... at the gnarled old age of 33. The science fiction film and TV series Logan’s Run seemed like an allegory for what regularly happened to rock and pop performers. This prejudice has now fallen completely away to an almost absurd degree. To paraphrase the Slovenian cultural theorist and philosopher Slavoj Žižek, it is now easier to imagine the end of the world itself than it is to imagine the Rolling Stones ever retiring. But this is a relatively new development.
When the Stones hit their early forties and released their 20th album, Dirty Work, in 1986, the cover art featured the band in luminous pink, blue and yellow suits, looking like the doddery love interests from an episode of the Golden Girls. The Happy Mondays were waiting in the wings; The Pet Shop Boys had just arrived in the charts and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam were enjoying their moment in the sun. Never had a band looked as anachronistic and out of date as the Rolling Stones did right then. Which is weird because if you look at a picture of Jagger and gang in 2019, why do they look cooler and less embarrassing now, given that they’re now in their mid-Seventies?
Obviously the times have changed as well as their age revealed by their birth certificates. There are plenty of reasons for this - far too many to list here - but let’s look briefly at the process which was nudged forwards by Live AID. On the day of the British and American concerts there was an audience of two billion people watching live on television, and all of them were able to compare yesterday’s supposedly over-the-hill rock dinosaurs to the thrusting young bucks of the 1985 pop firmament.
Obviously, some fresh faced types still in their ascendency rose to the occasion, U2 being the most notable example. However, most didn’t and this essentially left veterans Queen (who were considered all but washed up by this point) to show the entire world how it was supposed to be done. Thirty four years may well have passed since their extraordinary, berserk, totalitarian 20 minute set of global hypnosis but I still wince now at the absolute drubbing they handed out to the Thompson Twins, Duran Duran and The Hooters. Hell, Howard Jones even managed to make Status Quo look amazing by means of sheer contrast.
But if the world was made to consider the idea of musicians continuing to rock well into their middle age as valid, then this concept was given solid legitimacy by Johnny Cash’s American Recordings LP in 1994. No one with any sense would have held out much hope for the 81st LP by the 62-year-old rockabilly innovator being much cop. His stature, after all, had crumbled to a savage degree during the 1970s and 1980s. Much credit for this sudden and all but unheard of reversal of fortune should go then to Rick Rubin, a record label owner and producer best known for his work with Slayer and the Beastie Boys, for realising that it was Cash’s voice - as creaking and careworn as it was - that needed to be foregrounded as it exemplified something a younger artist couldn’t hope to portray: experience. This series of albums, re-contextualised but stripped down to the essence of what the artist was about, with their carefully curated covers of Nine Inch Nails and Nick Cave songs, introduced Cash to a whole new generation and garnered him the respect that should have been his all along.
This process has kicked the doors (back) open for a lot of people. And by ‘a lot of people’ what I actually mean is ‘a lot of men’. The idea of the elder statesman of rock, with his weather tempered, barrel aged, single malt voice has become a bankable commodity. And this isn’t always a bad thing. Why should Tom Waits remain such a bizarre outlier? I for one am glad we live in an age where Nick Cave is scaling new creative and commercial heights as a 60-something; I appreciate the fact that artists such as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, get to make dignified final statements; it’s good that in the future someone such as Mark Lanegan won’t have to go away in order to be rediscovered - it’s almost as if this process was custom built to guide him from one stage of his career into the next. Band members of Sonic Youth were teased about their choice of name from the late 90s onwards but now in 2019 it feels like Thurston Moore is only just warming up as a solo artist.
Which is great if you’re a man because then even if you should have called it a day decades ago - like, for example, Iggy Pop - you get to keep on having one last crack at releasing records and playing gigs, even though you sound like Davros with a sore throat. But it’s less great if you’re a woman who actually has the chops, the drive, the voice and the relevance.
If it was the punk and post punk period that really saw the massive gender imbalance in rock music start to shift in the right direction then hopefully now, as the punk and post punk generation approach bus pass age, this shift can come into play once more. However, Siouxsie Sioux has all but retired; Viv Albertine has reached new creative heights but as a writer rather than a singer and Cosey Fanni Tutti is still too progressive an artist for this idea to be relevant to her.
It’s true that Kate Bush’s return to the live music fray in recent years has been impactful and feels like it’s only just begun, although there’s certainly nothing late period about what she’s doing so far. In the generation directly below, it’s both exciting and interesting to see how artists like Tracey Thorn, Beth Gibbons and Polly Harvey continue to carve out new space for themselves with no sign of slowing down and with their stature, quite rightly, remaining undiminished.
More than anyone else I would love to see Kristin Hersh get the kind of wider recognition she’s been missing for the last quarter of a century over the decade to come - preferably from an entirely new generation. She has the kind of back story that would make Henry Rollins flinch; she made The Fall seem lazy; she has a commitment to the road that would make Iron Maiden’s tour manager blanch, I can think of very few artists of her generation who settled into their voice in such a luxurious yet comfortable manner, but more to the point I can, hand on heart, say she’s producing some of the best work of her career right now, without having to cross my fingers behind my back like I might have to were I talking about some of her male peers.
Perhaps you disagree, and that’s fine, it’s all subjective personal taste after all but what isn’t fine is the fact that so few female musicians over the age of 50 are afforded this kind of respect at all, as what this says about us collectively and what it suggests we actually value women for (despite our liberal protestations otherwise) is simply unacceptable.
FIVE EASY PIECES: WHERE TO START WITH KRISTIN HERSH
Vicky’s Box (from Throwing Muses, 1986)
One of several stand out tracks from the first commercially available Throwing Muses album, Vicky’s Box introduces several hallmarks of Hersh’s songwriting style. The track initially appears to be about two different subjects and in fact seems on first contact to actually be two different songs (skilfully) welded together; but appearances can be deceptive and these elements are like food that is improved by being left to stand on the stove overnight, the different ingredients talking to one another… Two vignettes, one apparently about a closeted gay man uncomfortable about travelling in cars and a neurotic, house-proud wife, of course, do complement each other more and more on successive listens and the song’s skill lies in the fact it concerns what isn’t said explicitly. (Although it should be mentioned that the song is actually named after Hersh’s artist friend Victoria Cessna, so who really knows...) Nothing sounded like Throwing Muses in 1986. Perhaps the only real contemporary touchstone for their self-titled debut, the first American album to be released on 4AD records, was Violent Femmes’ astonishing (and also self-titled) debut album from 1983 as both applied a manic punk energy to a cleanly recorded ‘live’ sound that was perhaps rooted in the utilitarian practice of rockabilly and American folk but then placed under incredible pressure until morphed into something new.
Furious (from Red Heaven, 1992)
When Tanya Donelly departed the Throwing Muses fold in the early 90s to concentrate on Belly, Red Heaven was the first album the band produced with just Kristin Hersh as songwriter. Pared down to a power trio, the Muses chose to flex their muscle and reconnect with a heavier rock sound instead of auditioning for a replacement elsewhere. The decision paid off, creatively at least. While Furious has an anger and a power to match any track from Nirvana’s Nevermind (another 1992 release), it doesn’t have that imperial grunge, ironic slackerdom or chest beating self-pity, opting for a more ambiguous balefulness backed by music which was as much raga-inspired psych as it was second gen punk rock.
Your Ghost (from Hips And Makers, 1994)
Hips And Makers was recorded after University, the last Throwing Muses album released on a major label in America, but also released before it. The lag in releasing the Muses album reveals that things were fast grinding to a halt at her major label Sire records (probably due to the fact they clearly weren’t going to either be moulded into a unit shifting pop act or rebranded as a foot on the monitors grunge band in lipstick smeared wedding dresses). So the relative success (not to mention relative accessibility) of Kristin Hersh solo in 1994, must have come as a bit of a shock to her record label. The album opens with this searing, plaintive and intimate acoustic number, an unforgettable performance bolstered only by cello and backing vocals by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
Golden Ocean (from Golden Ocean, 2005)
Kristin Hersh was fast approaching her 40th birthday when she released the debut full length 50 Foot Wave album Golden Ocean in 2005… not that you’d know it from listening. It’s often the way that artists follow a set path when it comes to vocal style. Early period sees them experimenting with different styles; mid/imperial period sees them settling successfully on one style and experimenting to a lesser degree within those parameters followed by late period, typified by a retreat away from experimentation and innovation altogether into refinement, a process which pares any ostentation from the individual style, reducing it to a minimal core sound. The particular arc carved out by Hersh seems more congruent with the apocryphal Hollywood quote: “I want a film that starts with an earthquake and builds to a climax.” There was a refinement of sorts at work here; the numerous manic, honeyed and guttural voices of Throwing Muses were replaced with a jet engine roar, but this was the opposite of pared back minimalism: this was the incredible sound of a death metal vocal (bordering on chordality like that of Janis Joplin) married to a keen melodic sensibility, riding atop the blazing rock grooves of a power trio.
Loud Mouth (from Possible Dust Clouds, 2018)
Possible Dust Clouds was the first album by Hersh for veteran UK indie, Fire, released just last year and featuring banger after strident banger. After the 21st Century of misfortune she has had so far, fans could be forgiven for simply being glad that she’s still putting out records period, but on the evidence of this recent single, she is no mere survivor limping on in the face of common sense. In fact she seems ebullient, reinvigorated, perhaps even disaster proofed. Loud Mouth, like the rest of the album, shows that she is now as much interested in the texture of sound as the songwriting process itself and this is reflected by a warm, granular production quality that has as much character as her now immediately recognisable and inimitable vocal grain.
KRISTIN HERSH IN QUOTES:
“To what extent is it healthy for artists with depression to tap into their depression for the sake of their art? That is exactly what my friend Vic Chesnutt and I used to talk about. He would say, ‘It’s not a good thing, it’s the only good thing.’ I can argue both sides of that. What I did, to cope with the depression, was to create a split-personality. After my first child got taken away I got PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] like you hear about Vietnam vets getting and from that point on I had two different personalities. This one and the music one. Every traumatic event went into the music one. I never had any memory of writing songs after they were done. They just seemed to arrive fully formed.” (2013)
“I disagreed with the recording industry when they said that music being available for nothing was devaluing music. I think it's devaluing money, which is probably a good thing.” (2010)
John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus website. He published the acclaimed memoir about alcoholism, habitual drug use and mental illness, Jolly Lad for Strange Attractor in 2015. He recently wrote and presented a documentary on Aphex Twin for BBC Radio 4 and has a series called New Weird Britain, about underground DIY music in the UK, currently in production for the same station and due to air this year.