By Chris Parker
For the last half-dozen years or so, life in Kristin Hersh's household has resembled that of the Partridge Family. Like the 70s sitcom, Hersh's musical career finds her frequently packing her kids into the tour bus for months at a time.
"I just got home from the 50 Foot Wave tour. We had one day off to pack the kids and then we left on a solo acoustic tour," she says from her in-laws' home on the Jersey Shore, a brief respite on the East Cost. "They feel practically part of a cult at this point. They have this idea that there are us and other people. My eight-year-old keeps asking 'Are we different? Who's normal, us or other people?'"
Certainly, the singer/guitarist's life has changed dramatically since leaving the Throwing Muses — her first band — and staking out a solo career. The only way to be successful, as any musician will attest, is touring, touring, touring. Then a little more touring. With three children, there was only one way Hersh could do that: Take them along.
So for years the kids have grown up with the musician's "Is this Cleveland? Then it must be Wednesday" lifestyle, though Hersh cooks in the bus, and home-schools the children, trying to create structure within the rock & roll world she's chosen.
"It can be hard sometimes. They feel like all they see is the inside of a car. The inside of a dressing room. The inside of a hotel room. It can be true, but they also have people they call uncles and aunts and friends all over the planet," Hersh says. "They know so many people who are like-minded individuals of different colors, genders, shapes, sizes, religions, persuasions — they don't judge people by anything but their character because they've learned nothing else works. They won't even use gender as a descriptive term. It took me my whole life to learn that was true."
For 14 years, beginning in 1983, Hersh led the college rock trio, Throwing Muses, establishing a catalog of pop-rock whose web-like intricacy and angularity belied an energetic punk undertone. Hersh herself possesses one of alt-rock's most dynamic voices, capable of going from heart-tugging vulnerability to fiery passion at a moment's notice. When the Muses broke up in 1996, it was not because of creative differences, but because of the difficult finances of supporting a band. It broke Hersh's heart.
"I guess for most people when they're in their 30s they begin to need more than passion, they also need health insurance, and, you know, food, but that didn't really happen to me. I would've kept sleeping on floors. I just kind of got left behind, but at the same time as a solo artist I can afford food," Hersh jokes.
Indeed, across her six solo albums, Hersh has developed quite a following for her introspective acoustic pop. True to her muse, it's still full of a certain emotional violence and pain, but it's delivered in a softer tone. Even Hersh, who initially chafed at the idea of playing this "wussy" music, has come around.
"That's changed, and I now appreciate the pencil sketch song rather than the loud, bright colored painting that a band is. I learned there are people who don't see it as a decibel-to-dollar equation and can appreciate the song more on the quiet, line-drawing scale. I love that acoustic guitar is muscles and air and emotion, rather than a volume pedal," Hersh says.
But that hasn't slackened her thirst to rock out. Last year she debuted her new side project, 50 Foot Wave, a trio featuring Throwing Muses' bassist Bernard Georges. Unlike Throwing Muses, the Wave is all about power.
"50 Foot Wave is just about release, and it's fun. There's a strength and solidity there that we didn't have in Throwing Muses because of our complexity. That made us fragile, though in a nice way. 50 Foot is more about blitzkrieg, which frees up my solo acoustic material to be whatever it wants, with fluid timing and spaciousness. I can bring that fragility back and feel okay about it now that my noise is out of my system," Hersh explains.
For Hersh, the songs have a life of their own and, like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, demand to be heard. In the past, she's described it as if she's channeling the song, so intensely does she immerse herself in the process.
"It's not the allure [of writing], it's the necessity. You know whatever is most necessary is most attractive. Not only that water is beautiful when you're dying of thirst, but the other way around, when something needs you, it's more attractive to you," Hersh explains.