When she fronted Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh played guitar so hard that she turned her hands into a bloody mess. Now, after six predominantly acoustic solo albums, she's playing some of the harshest, loudest music of her career, with the power trio 50 Foot Wave. And while a mother of four isn't an obvious source of shredding punk aggression, the most turbulent relationship between volatile young lovers would be hard-pressed to match the stream of problems and conflicts that arise in a house shared by a genteel woman with southern roots and five boys -- her husband and their four sons, ages 2 through 18.
"I don't find marriage comfortable," says Hersh. "And I don't find motherhood comfortable. It's incredible, and I guess there's inner peace with it, but where's the outer peace? The twentysomethings I know, who don't have their hearts entwined with someone who can jerk their heartstrings around whenever they feel like it and who aren't filled with love and terror all the time -- they're the ones with the boring lives. They're the ones that seek out comfort, because nothing has yet moved their bones so hard as to move them to do anything but seek comfort. I see having a family as the greatest adventure."
Despite playing over 100 shows a year, Hersh has made her clan part of her everyday life as a touring musician. Her husband is her manager, and the children accompany them on the road in the family tour bus, where she home-schools them between her own crash courses in the diesel-engine's owner's manual. Over 18 years and 17 albums, Hersh has developed a niche that's made her the married music fan's equivalent of Ani DiFranco, a songwriter spinning tales of interpersonal chaos as compellingly as any young troubadour who's just been though an ugly breakup.
Unlike most artists who have gone from mobile hipster to domesticated spouse, Hersh hasn't let home life sap her vitality. Between lullabies, waltzes, and traditional Appalachian ballads, Hersh writes like an 18-year-old trapped in a 38-year-old's body and none too happy about it. Mother or no, the Hersh that emerges in her songs has sunburned lips and a beer buzz, seething with tales of infidelity, emotional claustrophobia, and chemical relief. She convincingly evokes scenes of bucolic bliss, misplaced underwear, and sex on leather couches and living-room floors. Though her stormy inner life is often ascribed to a much-discussed bipolar condition so strong it's caused her to hallucinate, the explanation is less dramatic: Even when she's raging, she makes an effort to be polite.
"When the songs come, and they say, 'We want to use this day and this moment and this emotion and this person,' then I just trust them and let them say whatever they want," Hersh explains. "And sometimes I cringe whenever I realize that I'm going to have to say these things out loud. I'm a very nice person. I'm very sweet. I was raised by suuuthern women. I would never for a minute be harsh or aggressive with another human being. But that's what's left over."
Hersh's discography makes more sense when played in reverse. She founded Throwing Muses at the age of 14, and the Boston-based band became critical darlings as the '80s underground grew into the alternative boom of the '90s. The Muses' jarring jangle pop gave way to a string of delicate, string-backed acoustic albums that still had serrated edges. Golden Ocean, the full-length debut of Hersh's punky 50 Foot Wave, is by far her harshest music yet, all slam-dance punk, with Muses bassist Bernard Georges pounding his four-string and drummer Rob Ahlers beating his kit like he's playing on an SST Hüsker Dü release.
Hersh remains attached to major-indie label 4AD (home to the Pixies) for her solo records, but 50 Foot Wave is intended as her formal departure from the record business as we know it. Distributed through Universal Records, the band records independently, with artist-friendly online warehouse CDBaby as its preferred sales outlet. After years of being a cog in the major-label machinery, she's banking on her name recognition -- which could be bigger, but she's content with her props. After all, the 5-foot-three Muse with piercing eyes, who stays lithe by swimming a mile a day, has had plenty of opportunities to doll up and sell out.
"At Warner Brothers, [Sire Records chair] Seymour Stein would actually say to me that I should be less like Kristin Hersh." she recalls. "We made a video that was rejected because they said I didn't look good enough, and then they had a guy who did a Nirvana video come in and do another one where I looked not like me. I guess there's this thing where you're supposed to be cute, and you're not supposed to care about what you do. But the whole reason I became a musician is because of sound. It's not a visual thing. And that was the first clue that I don't belong in the selling side of this. I will do what I do, and if someone wants to sell it, then great."
As she did last year, she'll spend the bulk of 2005 supporting the forthcoming 50 Foot Wave album. For this mini-tour, she's playing old material and working out new acoustic songs in preparation for her seventh solo disc. She's been moderately successful -- in the U.S., the best-selling Muses disc, 1995's University, moved around 100,000 copies, and her 1994 solo debut sold around 125,000 -- but at her level, she sees record sales as a break-even promotional necessity, and she still needs to be on the road constantly to pay her bills. It's a job, but it's a good job.
"I can't believe that I'm a working musician," she says. "That's a pretty lofty goal. I get to play, and people show up. I get to play in the studio and play in the practice space. And the rest of the time, I get to play with my kids. I'm a very lucky person. There's nothing I have to do that I wasn't put here to do. It's all saturated with meaning. That's a big deal. I'm not wasting my time."
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