Throwing Muses Biography
Last updated: 07/27/2001 12:55:31 AM
Kristin Hersh was born in Atlanta and raised by freethinking hippie parents. The Hersh family moved to Newport, Rhode Island when she was 6; Her father was a professor whom she describes as "a cross between Dr. Who and Jim from Taxi." (Rolling Stone #703 March 9, 1995) When Hersh was 11, her parents separated. Her mother, a teacher of the learning disabled, married the father of Tanya Donelly, who at the time was Hersh's best friend at school. So it was that Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly were stepsisters and grew up together in Newport and began to assemble a band by age 15.
"The band was totally my idea," says Hersh. "We were 14, and I was a pain in the ass about it. Tanya didn't even want to play anything for a year." (Rolling Stone #703 March 9,1995)
A few years later, they added David Narcizo, who was originally a snare drummer for a marching band to their lineup. Narcizo had known Hersh and Donelly since first grade, but it wasn't untill junior year in high school that he was invited to join the band, then known as the Muses, after he invited the band to play at a party at his parent's Victorian house. The band began to play around Providence, the same scene where the Talking Heads began.
In college, Hersh was majoring in archetypal psychology and philosophy at Salvé Regina, while going the Rhode Island School of Design performing with the Muses in Boston every weekend. She dropped out of school during the fourth quarter of her senior year, in part because she was pregnant with her first child, Dylan, and kept fainting in class. After that, the band moved to Boston and added basist Leslie Langston.
After the move, the Throwing Muses were the first American band signed to the prestegious indie Brittish label 4AD. Their record contract brought the Throwing Muses the chance to play the music they wanted and market it to a crowd that was interested. They released their first record Throwing Muses, and an EP Chains Changed, both critically hailed. They signed to the US Sire Records in 1987, in a move that the band called naive.
"We didn't know what a producer was," says Narcizo, "and we were too afraid to tell the record company. So we just pretended, and behind their backs we'd be like 'What's he gonna do? Don't we just play the songs?'" (Rolling Stone #703 March 9,1995)
The Throwing Muses' first full length record with Sire was House Tornado, which was a record with compiled strained, complex compositions with sudden stops and starts, and the often convoluted counter-tonal arrangements that were brilliant, but at times gratuitously difficult. House Tornado is a record that is as far away from mainstream as possible.
The Muses' followed House Tornado with the less intricate Hunkpapa which was seen as an atempt to be as mainstream as the Muses could get. It featured the hookey Dizzy which turned out to be disasterous for the Muses.
"I wrote the song 'Dizzy' to play the game," shrugs Kristin. "We did this record 'House Tornado' which was just on this other planet, really insular and complicated and female. At the time we just thought we were a rock band, but everyone heard 'House Tornado' and flipped out, especially our American label who said: Why do you have to sound so much like Throwing Muses?' We didn't know how much we weren't The Bangles and they didn't know how much we weren't ever going to be The Bangles. So on the next album, 'Hunkpapa', we thought: 'OK, we’ll give them a stupid song, then they'll sell a Throwing Muses record instead of a Phil Collins record.' So we did this terrible song and remixed it in this terrible way, and all these lame jocks started shouting for it at shows. So we quit playing it. It taught me a lesson." She looks up, blue eyes wide. "We were so nice, we kept thinking: 'Hmmm, we're hurting Warner Brothers' feelings'." (Vox #89 March 1998)
Kristin married Billy O'Connell in 1990, who was the label manager at Sire but went on to be the band's manager.
The Real Ramona was released in 1991 showed musical changes for the Muses, with it's simpler rock sound and pop hooks. The production quality is more ambient, where songs are simpler and less fragmented. Kristin Hersh called it a deliberate return to the simpler, more basic sound of the Muses' earliest work, that she felt was somehow lost. Another factor was the addition of bassist Fred Abong, who replaced orginal basist Leslie Langston who got married and moved to San Francisco. Fred Abong was formerly a drummer, and his playing has a more punchy and linear feel to it. The Real Ramona also marks the first time on a Muses album the the whole band contribued to a song - Two Step.
After six months on a non stop tour supporting The Real Ramona that went through he U.S. and Europe, an 8 month pregnant Kristin returned to Rhode Island in the summer of 1991 just in time to give birth to Ryder James, her second son. At this time, it seemed that the Throwing Muses future was up in the air up as Tanya Donelly decided to leave the band and start her own. Donelly's departure came as her songwriting had increased. She claims that on earlier Muses recording sessions, Kristin would come in with around 25 songs and she would come in with around four. However, after many years she had found that she had become more prolific. On tour she would joke "So if anybody wants to buy some really good pop songs..." After a brief stint as an original co-founder of the Breeders, with the Pixies' Kim Deal, Donelly wanted more creative controll.
At this thime there was also a messy legal dispute with their first manager, Ken Goes, combined with income tax problems. Hersh claims, "I just hated the music business and hated being in the band." (Rolling Stone #703 March 9,1995)
Exiting the Throwing Muses, Donelly took with her basist Fred Abong and formed Belly, leaving just Kristin and David Narcizo who eventually decided to regroup. "Dave and I were all set to start over ourselves," says Hersh in Option Magazine, "and had decided to call our band 'Khuli Loach' (a small worm-like fish) and then one day we were looking through this Oregon Music Directory and there was an ad for a band named Khuli Loach! You'd think there'd be another Throwing Muses somewhere, but Khui Loach?!" Thankfully, they went on as Throwing Muses. The band regrouped and borrowed ex-muse Leslie Langston to play bass on Red Heaven.
In 1994 Hersh released her first official solo efort, Hips and Makers. The album was originally recorded as a gift to her husband, and then turned out to be the begining of her solo career. The album is full with haunting laments and proud declarations with lamenting of an occasional cello. The album starts off with a duet with Michael Stipe from REM on Your Ghost. Hersh on the collaboration:
"Michael made up his own lyrics: "You were in my dreams/ You were driving circles around me". I was telling Michael it hadn't occurred to me the song was about a dream. He said: 'Oh my God, I'm sorry.' I said: 'You couldn't know. I have kids, I don't sleep.' (Vox #89 March 1998)
The rewards that Hips and Makers brought was enough for Kristin and her husband Billy to buy a house and move back to Newport, so Kristin could be close to her son of her first marriage, Dylan. Even though she had joint custody of her son, a court decided that she is not allowed to change his place of residence from where his father lives, Rhode Island.
Throwing Muses added former roadie Bernard Georges on bass and relesed University in 1995. University was completed a year prior, but the band waited to release it. Durring this time Kristin was promoting Hips and Makers while the rest of the band worked day jobs. David Narcizo worked in an antiques shop where he polished picture frames, and Bernard Georges worked at a bike repair shop where he wasn't trusted with anything that didn't come with training wheels or a banana seat. David claims that he did not mind the time off. "Kristin's record was definitely my favorite record of last year," Narcizo says "I definitely care more about what happens to Kristin than what happens to the band." (Rolling Stone #703, March 9th, 1995)
Hersh talks about the wait in Rolling Stone, "We have never really had a record out since Nirvana changed everything. They were alternative music's Beatles: They opened the door to making alternative no longer a rude word to say. We had always been called alternative, but it meant that we were an alternative to real music." (#703, March 9th, 1995)
University is seen as a return to the melodic and rhythmic complexity of former muses albums such as 1988's House Tornado. The songs lyricly, however, are more pleasent where Hersh regains controll instead of looses it. It also offers another round of squeeky clean production that shows hints of The Real Ramona.
Limbo is the last record of new material put out by the Throwing Muses, and is exacly where the band will stay, after they slumped to financial problems. It is, none the less, a brilliant album that is finely polished, but still haunting and personal.
Hersh's second solo efort, Strange Angels strikes a more conversational tone. The songs tend to blend into one another, creating a flow to the entire album. It was recorded at Stable Sound, Portsmouth, Rhode Island and the LA studio of fellow songwriter Joe Henry, it is sparser than its predecessor Hips and Makers, but at the same time more upbeat. "With Hips And Makers I just pretended I knew how to make an acoustic record and there it was" Kristin remembers, "This time everything seems a little more intricate and self-assured." (excerpt from press release)
"As hard to describe as it is to ignore, Hersh's siren-like appeal only seems to grow the deeper she burrows in her own cozy little world as mom, wife and songwriter." (CMJ New Music Monthly, March 1998)
Strange Angels was followed by a mail order and internet-only release Murder, Misery and then Goodnight, a collection of traditional Appalachian Folk songs, taught to Kristin by her father during her childhood. Murder, Misery and then Goodnight was recorded in just six days after the sessions for Strange Angels, and was arranged and produced by Kristin.
"This is for my kids. It's a bunch of songs my parents sang to me when I was little. My mother, "Crane", and my father, "Dude", grew upnear Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee where these sounds are pretty much in the air. I was born southern and raised Yankee; I lost my accent by age eight and it only shows itself when I'm sleepy or drunk or singing these songs, because I don't knowany other way to sing them." (from the Murder, Misery and then Goodnight Press Release)
Murder, Misery and then Goodnight turned out to be the last album that Kristin did fully acoustic. In 1999, she released Sky Motel which marked the disapearence of her musical muse. Her songs usually preyed upon her, demanding to be written, but not this time. Kristin rejoined producer Trina Shoemaker who worked on University and Limbo. The album is rich and is a sonic collage of dreams, yearning and a different, more personal form of honesty.
"You know how I usually hear songs rather than making them up? Well, that didn't really happen for a year or two, apart from one song right in the middle of the record called 'Cathedral Heat.' Most of the others, I guess, I wrote on purpose. It was fun. I really enjoyed it because for me, there always used to be a negative aspect to songwriting. I never seemed to have any control, it was happening to me, rather than it being my choice to make and enjoy music. I always felt like the songs were using me, chewing me up and spitting me out. Sometimes they gave me the impression that I was crazy. Now I feel like the future isn't just happening to me, and I feel lucky and happy -- obnoxiously so, at times. I guess what I'm saying is I know more about the songs now. " (from the Sky Motel press release)