With One Eye Closed and One Ear Shut
Kristin Hersh: Learn to Sing Like a Star
In 1987 Kristin Hersh had a baby and a six-year-old band with three recordings. Twenty years later her son is a young man with three brothers, her band, Throwing Muses, has ten releases, and her musical brood has grown to include three recordings from 50FootWave, the high-velocity punk band she founded in 2003, and eight solo albums, including the just-released Learn to Sing Like a Star (Yep Roc, 4AD).
Over the years, journalists have delighted in dissecting Hersh’s personal life: The various juicy bits amount to what Billy O’Connell, her husband and manager, has dubbed Hersh’s Behind the Music material. It’s certainly not unusual for rock journalists to address the artist instead of the music, but the work of Kristin Hersh, with her prolific output, fluid traversal of genre, and decades-long commitment to making music her way—with or without a label’s support—merits a level of inquiry beyond voyeurism.
Throwing Muses, 50FootWave, and Hersh’s solo work form a dynamic, three-headed body. Sure, it all sounds different. Muses songs have a magnetic rhythm born of complex layers of melody and inventive use of time signatures. The band’s sound can be lilting and jangly or darkly hypnotic. The first time I heard 50FootWave, on the other hand, I’d just watched half a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mother of God, I thought, Kristin got caught in the Hellmouth! In “Pneuma” she growls, “I tongue the socket, and you feel the jolt.” That captures the spirit of 50FootWave—part frenetic scorch, part toothy grin. In contrast, Hersh’s solo work runs the gamut from The Grotto’s airy, strings-adorned sparseness to the shiny electricity of Sky Motel. Different, yes, but hand-in-glove inseparable. Throwing Muses, 50FootWave, and Hersh’s solo efforts share the same blood, the same veins: her songs.
“I always do the same thing no matter how it comes out sounding,” Hersh said in a recent interview. “The song, the music, and all the melodies are flying around in my head. It’s spat out as melody.” Next come the sounds that work their way first into syllables, then into words. “Lyrics are percussive melody to me,” Hersh says. “I look for the most beautiful ones and assume they’re the most necessary.” Working “with one eye closed and one ear shut,” she avoids intellectualizing the songwriting process; it’s her job to step back, get lost in the fray and give over to the will of the song. “I wouldn’t expect someone to listen that way,” she says, “but it’s important that I let the song say what it wants to; I trust the song and not me.”
Hersh emphasizes that her lyrics aren’t poetry or metaphor. “Everything and every song happened to me. But I would never talk about it!” she laughs. “The songs don’t care, though. The song is like a syringe that brings about honest responses to my life experiences. They make me see and say things I don’t want to; they make good points.” This translation from life to lyrics is alchemical: Hersh is a deft, acutely artful writer. (Her recent stint as a Powells.com guest blogger evinces more genre agility—and an unequivocal gift for essay-writing.) Her songs’ cast of characters, a resplendent, off-kilter freak pageant, showcases the color-drenched imagery that is one hallmark of her writing. There’s a fulgent fourth-grader and a man made of butterfat; a distant moth and a cutthroat trout; paste-eaters and drooling zombies; idiots, prophets, and a starfucker; delicate cutters and tar-kissers; the brainless, chattering null set; and colormad, candymouth you. Not to mention all the snakes—Hersh originally set out to be a herpetologist. “But music happened to me, and I didn’t seem to have any choice,” she says. “It’s been suggested to me that songs might actually be the snakes I was looking for.”
The landscapes where Hersh’s creatures roam, whether it’s a rooftop under a devil’s moon or “an urban hillside glinting copper in the morning,” are home to narratives that at turns unsettle, bewitch, and set the heart to giddy racing. (At a live performance, it’s hard to escape Hersh’s spell. Her head sways, and her gaze locks on to something only she can see. We are the deer; she is the headlights.) In “Half Blast,” from Throwing Muses’ self-titled 2003 album, Hersh writes, “Love is half blast and half burden / A body’s half weight and half motion / Together we settle into the hum.” It’s a pithy encapsulation of twenty years’ work. Since the first Muses album, Kristin Hersh has melded sounds and words into vessels that navigate the many extremes of life experience—childbirth and burial, elation and devastation, lust and repulsion. But Hersh reaches further than the poles: She’s a master of mining what’s in between. In one song Hersh mentions “the filler hours”: They can be spans of aching limbo or the moments of anticipation just before entering a party where all one’s friends are waiting. Hersh’s songs chart the shapes, colors, tastes, and smells of what lies between points A and B.
Learn to Sing Like a Star continues this musician’s visceral exploration of the world around and inside her. The disc’s fourteen songs are not a departure from her previous work; rather, they compose the latest leg of a journey that never gets dull. Rich, symphonic, and big, the album’s sound is as to-the-gills full as her last solo release, 2003’s The Grotto, is spare. Hersh says she didn’t see that coming. “It was a wait-and-see. I just knew my friends [Martin and Kimberlee McCarrick] from London would be here [to play cello and violin],” she says. “With the addition of strings, it can be extra-moving, as long as you avoid schmaltzy. Each decision I made in the studio was to serve the song.”
The album’s first three tracks deliver a gut-wrenching one-two-three punch. The drums (courtesy of Throwing Muses’ David Narcizo) that open LTSLAS seem to herald a battle; Hersh is “head over heels in shock,” pelted by “little green” (presumably sour) apples. “Nerve Endings” leads the listener into more shock—a black, caustic variety. There’s a faraway quality to Hersh’s voice that traces the edge of heartbreak; she could be crouching at the fringes of a bloody war scene, describing heavy casualties. “Day Glo” showcases Hersh’s power to shoot from whisper to bellow. Though she’s accomplished on the guitar and many other instruments, her voice, which has attained a velvety, gravelly depth, is her most intimate tool. Its sweeping vocabulary and capacity for nuance take her melodies and words to a sophisticated place. Here, she starts upside-down in the trough of a wave, “tumbled in anger by angry water”; “Day Glo” then shifts to a bathtub—and from there, into a hurricane. Hersh’s voice, chunky guitars, and Narcizo’s drums construct a crescendo, and the sound that cascades forth is like water careening down a storm drain. It’s a steamrolling, cleansing release. The song melts through a brief instrumental track (one of three on the album) into “Ice,” whose weary warmth steers the music away from abject darkness into patches of light.
There are ample lighthearted moments on this record. “Under the Gun,” “Wild Vanilla,” “Peggy Lee,” and “Sugar Baby” offer fun, provocative pop that doesn’t let listeners off the hook. And Hersh introduces more characters to her circus: the parrot lady from Lake Michigan; a shit-scared domestic god; Persephone and “the devil herself.” We find familiar Hersh subject matter: water, light, winter, journeys, myth, those in-between places, and dreams. In all, these fourteen songs are the work of a mature, accomplished musician. They’re also raw, occasionally brutal. Shock and vertigo emerge as major themes, but so do endurance and comfort. “In Shock” closes with a determined mantra—“We are wanted, we are wanted”—as one mouth finds the solace of another. “Winter,” the album’s epic twelfth track, could be retitled “Kristin Hersh Fight Anthem”; it begs for an arena and ten thousand lighters held aloft.
The words “pinned by a dream state” opened the album, and it’s in a dream state that Hersh leaves us. “The Thin Man” is a hypnotic, mythical tribute to a figure who’s heroic but human. “You rub your hands together, sparks fly,” Hersh sings in wonder. “Fireworks for you in the Scirocco/Fireworks for you in the ozone snow.” Colored light explodes in disparate landscapes, supported by bursting, distorted electric guitar and percussive staccato. But on top of the fireworks imagery lies another layer of meaning: Whether in a hot wind or a post-apocalyptic snowscape, fire works for this Thin Man. The lyrics bring to mind George Romero. In 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, people hot-wire a Volkswagen Scirocco, creating a hatchback war-wagon to combat the zombies. Fire worked for them in a Scirocco too. And as LTSLAS fades out in a flurry of “ozone snow,” Hersh has driven us through various battle scenes to a strange, beautiful place. The words “learn to sing like a star” were the subject line of some irritating spam email. Hersh transformed a taunt into something celestial.
A writer based in Jersey City, Kate Crane is writing a memoir about her father's 1987 murder.