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Kristin Hersh (born August 7, 1966) is a noted, prolific American singer/songwriter who performs solo acoustic concerts; she also has performed as lead singer and guitarist for alternative rock group Throwing Muses and currently leads the hardcore punk-influenced power trio 50 Foot Wave. Her best-known songs are "Your Ghost" and "Bright Yellow Gun", which received national commercial airplay in the mid-1990s.
Along with her creative chord chemistry, evocative lyrics, and unique vocals ranging from softly melodic singing to impassioned screaming, Hersh's signature contributions to popular music include addressing the complexities of marriage and motherhood in often psychedelic lyrical and sonic treatments of every day feelings and varying mental states. A few of her abundant songwriting subjects have included childbirth ("Hysterical Bending"), love ("Tar Kissers", "Lavender"), surreal vignettes ("Delicate Cutters", "Fish"), death ("Limbo"), emotional anguish ("The Letter"), loss of custody of her first son ("Candyland"), and the shedding of a relationship's angst or anxiety ("Snake Oil").
Hersh has also sprinkled her kaleidoscopic lyrical canvas with concrete images from nature and the ordinary physical realm, such as apples, water, diamonds, eyes, the sea, snow, ice, rain, fire, the sun, sand, and cowboys. On occasion she has used historical figures like anorexic suicide Ellen West as metaphors in depicting a state of mind ("Ellen West"). Eccentric characters encountered in her family's travels have made occasional appearances in songs such as "Ruthie's Knocking"; a 2005 live solo set list included a then-untitled song about a "parrot lady" character she happened upon while visiting Lake Michigan.
In the past, Hersh has listed among her early musical influences The Raincoats, Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, Meat Puppets, Dead Kennedys, Hüsker Dü, Velvet Underground, R.E.M., and X. She has said her parents' albums by Patti Smith, the Carter Family, Stevie Wonder, Robert Johnson, Talking Heads, The Clash, Steve Miller, The Beatles, Philip Glass, and traditional music influenced her when she was growing up.
Background and musical beginnings
Born in Atlanta, she was raised in Newport, Rhode Island. Hersh, who has four sons (Dylan, Ryder, Wyatt, and Bodhi), is married to her business manager, Billy O'Connell. Learning guitar at age nine from her father, W. J. Hersh, led her to start writing songs soon after. As a teenager, she formed Throwing Muses in the early 1980s with stepsister Tanya Donelly and other high school friends.
Hersh began singing and writing most of Throwing Muses' songs in changing tempos, with Donelly also singing and writing some of the songs. The group was signed by the British 4AD Records label after a few years, and also were signed to Sire/Reprise Records by the second album. They began touring around the U.S. and Europe while recording critically acclaimed rock albums, with Hersh writing most of the songs.
Some interviews have described Hersh's early drive to perform as due to hearing sounds in her mind so that her songs began to "write themselves", becoming at times their own separate presences in her life, inner voices haunting her. She has stated that hearing these "pieces of songs" clanging together in her mind compelled her to take the pieces apart and craft songs from them. "If I don't turn ideas into songs", she has said, "they can get stuck in me and make me sick".
1990s: band and solo work; emerging reputation; songwriting approach
Her Throwing Muses band project became a trio when Donelly left the group after 1991's The Real Ramona. In 1994, Hersh began an additional career on Sire/Reprise and 4AD as an acoustic solo performer, beginning with Hips and Makers, an album sparely arranged around her vocals, guitar, and a cellist, in contrast to the volatile, electric sound of her band work. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. made an appearance on this first solo album.
Hersh's vivid and expressive solo songwriting style focuses some of the relationship subject matter on her family. While Hersh's work reflects her personal experience, she has said that she writes from a point of view outside of her personality so that her lyrics are not literally autobiographical. Stating that "songwriting is about shutting up instead of talking", Hersh has said that songs that appeal to her are those that "say things that I don't know yet and tell stories I may not have lived yet", as opposed to diary entries expressing feelings.
The New York Times pointed to Hersh's explorations of "rage, aggression and mental chaos" as evidence that there were at least a few female female rock music artists by the early 1990s pushing against gender role boundaries to express "more than simply vulnerability or defiance" in their work.
Hersh, whose early publicity at times portrayed her as a tortured artist "channeling" her songs from her psyche, has mentioned that the "angry young woman" fascination of some writers in reviewing the work of female performers has at times led to cartoonish stereotypes, rather than three-dimensional portraits respecting their intelligence. By the mid-1990s, journalists acknowledged that the breadth of her "fierce, quirky, and imaginative" lyrical style included explorations of "emotional and physical love" combined with "elliptical puzzlement".
After receiving some airplay and major media coverage for Throwing Muses University album in 1995, Hersh moved to Rykodisc for her 1996 Throwing Muses album, Limbo, and her 1998 solo album, Strange Angels. Manager O'Connell created the ThrowingMusic label in 1996 for co-releasing certain Hersh-related projects, eventually including an ongoing download subscription service called Works in Progress for releases available only through the label's ThrowingMusic website. After 1998, she primarily worked on solo material released on 4AD into the early 2000s.
Late 1990s: recording projects and songwriting inspirations
Her parents' Lookout Mountain heritage influenced her to record a solo album of Appalachian gothic folk songs in 1998 — Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight. Performing traditional songs was a rare covers excursion for the prolific songwriter, although she was no stranger to these tunes, having heard some of them played by her father when she was a child. In fact on other solo releases, Hersh has cowritten with her father two songs, "Uncle June and Aunt Kiyoti" and "Houdini Blues", also recording a third that he wrote on his own, "Sinkhole".
Hersh and her family have tended to move every few years to live in a different locale, rather than strictly basing her work in one region throughout her life. Her experiences in each location have sometimes influenced the emotional landscape of her songs. An example is how living for a period near Joshua Tree, California, impacted on some of the atmosphere and lyrical imagery of Sky Motel, a 1999 solo album on which she played most of the instruments. Time spent in the New Orleans area while recording Limbo in 1996 at Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studio had similarly influenced songs like "Ruthie's Knocking", inspired by Ruthie the Duck Girl, an offbeat character well known to locals for her antics in the French Quarter.
Hersh has also said in an interview that she writes many of her songs as though "taking place in New Orleans or Rhode Island". She and her family additionally logged time in New Orleans when recording Throwing Muses' 1992 Firepile EPs, Throwing Muses' 1995 University album, and the Sky Motel solo album. University, Limbo, and Sky Motel were recorded by Grammy-winning engineer Trina Shoemaker, the latter album co-recorded by engineer Ethan Allen; Allen later worked on band tracks with Hersh in the 2000s. Hersh spent part of the 1990s in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, recording several solo albums and a few band tracks at Stable Sound studio with engineer Steve Rizzo.
In 1999, Hersh also participated in Throwing Muses drummer David Narcizo's Lakuna solo project album release, Castle of Crime.
The early 2000s: solo career, band reunions, and 50 Foot Wave
In 2001, she released the Sunny Border Blue solo album, on which she again played nearly all instruments. She has described this album as having even more intensity than her previous works, as she continued her pursuit of songwriting as being in part a way to transform "ugly feelings" into art.
Hersh's recorded and live performances in recent years have occasionally included appearances with like-minded alternative artists like Vic Chesnutt, Willard Grant Conspiracy, Grant Lee Phillips, and John Doe.
In 2003 she released The Grotto, an atmospheric, meditative, acoustic solo album of song sketches with personal lyrics set in Providence, Rhode Island, with Andrew Bird on violin and Howard Gelb on piano. On the same release date she also released a rhythmically complex, energetic self-titled album by her Throwing Muses group, the first release for the group since Limbo. Both were recorded at Rizzo's studio in Rhode Island.
Also in 2003, she formed a power rock trio called 50 Foot Wave, when longtime Throwing Muses drummer David Narcizo was unable to tour on a full-time basis due to other commitments. Much of her touring and recording plans for 2004 through 2005 center around the new trio.
Solo works discography
- Live at Maxwell's — 1992 — (limited release, live solo bonus disc included only in the first UK edition printing run of Throwing Muses' Red Heaven release on 4AD label)
- Hips and Makers — 1994
- Your Ghost (EP) — 1994
- Strings (EP) — 1994
- The Holy Single (EP) — 1995
- Strange Angels — 1998
- Like You (EP) — 1998
- Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight — 1998
- Sky Motel — 1999
- Echo (EP) — 1999
- A Cleaner Light (EP) — 2000
- Sunny Border Blue — 2001
- Live at Noe Valley Ministry — 2001
- The Grotto — 2003
- Instant Live: Boston, MA 1/28/05 — 2005
- ThrowingMusic label downloads
- 4AD audio downloads
- Kristin Hersh: Loose Timing. Splendid; article includes links to audio samples from Sunny Border Blue.
- Beestung fan site (Kristin Hersh audio downloads)
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