Kristin Hersh checks into her 'Sky Motel'
August 19, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- For anyone who enjoys romanticizing the renegade, anti-corporate world of alternative music, Kristin Hersh -- former Throwing Muses front woman and current grande dame of the American independent music scene -- has a bittersweet story to tell.
"My sister and brother-in-law were in a store the other day," she says, "and a guy behind the counter told them that he could guess their professions. He points to my brother-in-law and says that he's a musician, which is correct.
"So my brother-in-law points to my sister and asks, 'What does she do'? And the sales guy says, 'Retail. The Gap, right?' Ouch! That's got to hurt!"
Her half-sister, the one going perhaps too incognito, is former Belly singer and Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly. You know, of "Feed the Tree" fame. She had a brief taste of celebrity when modern-rock radio picked her single up in 1993, and then promptly forgot her when the song ran its course.
That's exactly why Hersh, currently promoting her fourth solo album "Sky Motel," insists she's perfectly content to stay on the periphery of music. She has her core audience, a loyal following that's been eating up her brand of peculiarly confessional rock music since she formed Throwing Muses more than a decade ago.
"I have pockets of appreciation," says Hersh. "Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those are fun cities to play. But in order to please all of America, you have to titillate people into thinking you're shocking them, like Madonna and Marilyn Manson. I don't want to do that.
"I like being in the underground and being able to do what I do."
Hersh cut her teeth in Throwing Muses, which she and Donelly formed in 1983 with a few high-school friends. Their band signed with the British label 4AD and wowed critics with such releases as 1986's "Throwing Muses" and 1991's "The Real Ramona." Despite her ongoing battle with mental illness, Hersh served as the band's chief songwriter.
But as she and her bandmates soon learned, critical praise and a packed college touring circuit didn't pay the rent. Donelly ultimately left the band in 1992, first joining The Breeders and then forming Belly. Hersh soon followed suit, releasing her solo debut "Hips and Makers" in 1994. Shortly after that, she married her manager, Billy O'Connell.
Hersh reunited with Throwing Muses for 1995's acclaimed "University," which yielded the band's solitary radio hit, "Bright Yellow Gun." But after 1996's "Limbo," the band broke up and Hersh went solo, releasing "Strange Angels" and "Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight," a collection of Appalachian folk songs, both in 1998.
Hersh says 1999's "Sky Motel" is a salvation of sorts, all twelve steps of recovery rolled into one. She was grappling with the loss of her group, which had disbanded in 1997. Her solo career notwithstanding, she missed her bandmates. But even more difficult, the mother of three boys (Dylan, Ryder and Wyatt), a woman who desperately wanted to bear more children, was told that her health doesn't permit more childbearing.
"I lost my band and the ability to bear children at exactly the same time," she says, "so I was just moved out to the California desert and disappeared. I didn't know what to do. Obviously, I have three beautiful children to raise and music I can play, I have a solo career, but I didn't really appreciate it. I wanted the party back.
"Once I got over feeling sorry for myself, I started to write songs on purpose, for the first time. It sounds like working, but it wasn't. The songs didn't suck. They didn't hurt my feelings to write them -- I wasn't fighting them anymore."
On "Sky Motel," Hersh says that for the first time, she felt that she had control over her songs, rather than the other way around. The singer, previously diagnosed as schizophrenic and then as having a bipolar disorder (a manic-depressive condition), says that for years, she heard music pounding in her head. For a long time, she thought she was crazy as she wrestled with sounds audible only to her, converting them into the tunes heard on the Throwing Muses albums and in her own solo work.
"I used to hear these songs in my head," she says, "like it was musical epilepsy. I was hearing things other people weren't and the only thing keeping me from having seizures was to write the songs and turn them into sounds. If I didn't write the song, I would literally have a seizure. And I haven't had a seizure since I started writing songs for this album."
For once, says Hersh, she had fun writing and recording her songs. And also, for the first time, she says she's happy with the final product. "Sky Motel" was finished in a little over a week with the production help of Trina Shoemaker, who had worked with Grammy winner Sheryl Crow.
But while the album may be unusually accessible for Hersh in musical terms, her songs are, as usual, lyrically impenetrable.
Even the artist, who wrote all the songs and played all her own instruments -- including guitars, bass and drums -- says she doesn't really understand her own words.
"I don't know what any of my songs are about," says Hersh. "I don't know what I'm saying half the time, until I see it written down. It has to feel right coming out of my mouth. I can't be lying. If it sounds beautiful, that's what I need to hear."
Only when she hears the final product does she get her hands around the meaning behind each song. "Clay Feet," says Hersh, is about life in the glitzy world of Los Angeles, while "A Cleaner Light" deals with her battle with mental illness and "White Trash Moon" refers to Hersh's childhood home near Joshua Tree National Monument in California.
Per the norm, critics love "Sky Motel." David Gerard of the Boston Globe wrote that "Hersh is back in her element … . Hersh's intensely personal songs resonate with naked honesty and lyrical imagery." People magazine's Steve Dougherty describes "Sky Motel" as being "enthralling as it is unnerving," with Hersh creating "a spare but sharp setting for her unsettling, vividly literate lyrics."
Yet Hersh says she's somewhat untouched by her status as critical darling. In the past, she's been reviewed as everything from utterly crazy to deliberately nonconformist, so she takes what she reads with a grain of salt.
She's an outsider, says Kristin Hersh, and happy to stay that way.
"Whether people think I don't know how to write a Top 40 hit," she says, "or whether I'm being intentionally quirky, that's unfortunate and psychotic. But I'm not famous enough to have a persona invented for me."
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