In the early 1980s - dark times for quality rock - Kristin Hersh was a central figure in the direction the genre would take.
She was a key link between 1970s idols such as Patti Smith and Debbie Harry and the indie rock chicks to emerge in the late 1980s - Kim Deal, Kim Gordon and P. J. Harvey. Without Hersh and her contemporaries, we might not have Cat Power, Shirley Manson, St Vincent or even Grimes.
In 1980, when Hersh was just 14, she and her stepsister, Tanya Donelly (later of the Breeders and Belly), formed their own band, Throwing Muses, at high school in Newport, Rhode Island.
They developed a cult status with their self-released post-punk guitar music on college radio, and British record label 4AD signed them in 1986. The band's songs and growing popularity among those eschewing so-called "cock-rock" convinced the label to switch its gaze to American bands. The indie label went on to sign the Pixies and the Breeders, and later the National. The Pixies, cited by Kurt Cobain as a major influence, got their start supporting Throwing Muses.
Despite their influence, Throwing Muses were never commercially successful, something that continues to affect Hersh. Asked when she might bring her band Down Under, she laughs. "When someone buys us plane tickets. I think integrity and poverty go hand in hand."
However, Hersh is coming to New Zealand with her solo show An Evening With Kristin Hersh, which will be enough for her devoted coterie of fans, even though Donelly (who left the Muses in 1991) won't be joining her.
Throwing Muses' latest album, 2013's Purgatory/Paradise, shows that at 47 Hersh has lost none of her extraordinary talent for songs that are at once tough and remarkably tender.
Her lyrics can be dizzying, even frightening, but her songs are delivered with joy: rich melodic hooks and waifish vocals. Fussy hipster bible Pitchfork, which slammed the Pixies' 2014 comeback album, gave Purgatory/Paradise 8/10, calling it "gorgeous". Sunray Venus, Freesia and Morning Birds 2 are three standout tracks on an album of 32 sharp and beautiful folk-tinged rock songs.
How does Hersh do it? It's well known she is eccentric. She has battled mental illness for decades and considers herself a "vessel" for music, "receiving" songs rather than writing them.
But speaking on the phone between errands ("I'm buying dead mice for my son's 12 snakes"), she goes further.
She describes how a radical treatment - Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing - has cured the effects of an incident that changed her life when she was knocked off her bicycle by a car at 16. "That was the first time I remember or I noticed that I was hearing songs that were separate from me," she remembers.
She says she has no creative process - at least, not one most musicians could relate to. "The songs [I write] just are, that's all I know. I can only liken it to children. I didn't invent my [four] children, they just are ...
"I've never been able to control [the songs]. If I tried to, they would have been stunted or perverted somehow."
But there have been big changes in the past year: "First I was diagnosed as schizophrenic and then they changed it to bipolar, and I never really bought that. For years I was told I was bipolar but I wasn't. I actually suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. And when that was treated last year, it revealed dissociative disorder, which means another personality.
"That personality was music, which is why I have no memory of having written or performed any of my songs, ever."
She says for 31 years, a separate personality created and played all her music. Her "bizarre" treatment, which involved psychotherapy with controlled eye movements, worked.
Now, she says, she is able to "be present the whole time and it's a different experience. It's not any flatter, it's just more absorbing and safer. [Making music] used to be a cliff dive into oblivion for me."
Hersh has dubbed her other personality "Rat Girl", the title of her 2010 book. She is now confident "there's nothing actually psychologically or biochemically wrong with me. PTSD can befall anybody and to separate into a traumatic personality is not that uncommon. But it was a relief to find I don't have to look for it in my children".
She resists any suggestion her condition somehow helped her and rejects the romantic idea that people with mental illnesses have artistic super-powers.
"I don't want to think that blurred vision is clarity in any way; that sickness is health. And yet it could be in our categorisation of seeing, our definition of what is broken, that is the problem."
As for celebrities using unhinged behaviour to make themselves seem more interesting: "Rock stars I know that pretend to be 'a little crazy' so we think they are 'artists' are just liars. It's a sick thing to lie about. It's not compassionate, I suppose."
Hersh is a person of intellectual acuity and clarity. Take her view on the artist-audience exchange. "Enthusiastic listeners", as Hersh calls them, often have trouble understanding a musician's way of expressing the world. "They can have a hard time shutting down their brain and letting their viscera accept the impact of music. Lyrics are sensory words, colours ... they're not communication; it's like painting. It's a different way to experience our sociability."
The Words & Music tour, in which Hersh plays a song then reads a passage or recites an anecdote, provides a rare forum for fans.
"It's the closest I can come to letting them step inside the bubble of a song with me," she says.
Letting fans in is not easy for Hersh; she has long been torn between the desire to reach people and the problem of appealing to them.
She firmly believes that when you try to appeal to people, you dilute the clarity of your vision: "It waters down output to have an ear to the marketability of your product. Even if it's just in production or publicity, some cancerous element is going to creep in and ruin what you do.
"As a shy person I'd like to think that I could sit on the roof and play to the stars and that it would count," she says. "But I haven't found that to be true."
And yet she wants to tell stories that appeal as widely as possible. "I don't like songs to be [just] self-expression. Even though I've lived the story I prefer to go beneath the story to find some kind of bones that we find universal, otherwise I would be [only] speaking to my demographic and that would be so awful."
She credits audiences with "working harder than musicians" at gigs. "The listeners do a huge amount of work. Beyond getting out of work and skipping dinner and paying five bucks for warm beer and standing in a club, they do this work that is all about taking someone else's ride and trusting it."
Hersh's ride has never been further from the mainstream - and she was never close to it to begin with, despite helping create the alternative rock movement that mushroomed in the early 1990s.
In the mid-'90s she bargained her way out of a contract with Warner Music and went independent. In 2008, a handful of artists and Hersh's ex-husband Billy O'Connell created CASH Music, a kickstarter-funded, non-profit web platform allowing artists and small labels to share and promote music with fans. It allowed Hersh to self-fund her music.
"We opted out of [the] recording industry because we disagreed with it and we felt morally bound to no longer participate. So we did that 'climbing up on the roof and playing to the stars' thing.
"When we became listener-supported we could record and release music without participating in the industry, not that we were ever good at playing the game. Purgatory/Paradise was the first record we ever made that we were completely happy with.
"As much as we wanted to dance on [the music industry's] grave, we were going to be the first foot soldiers to fall, and I watched some of the best musicians in the world starve and die. It's an ugly war, like all wars."
For someone so tough on the music industry, it is a surprise to hear her say today's ultra-commercialised pop culture is a dramatic improvement on the 1970s and 1980s.
"It was more insidious when we were growing up," Hersh says. "It's so dissipated [today] that you choose not only your genre, your decade, if you want to go exploring, and you choose your subcultures much more easily now.
"Shelf space and payola does not determine what we listen to any longer, all that went into fooling us to thinking we were bandwagoning with everybody else.
"We have our own little villages again, even though they are spread out globally. I'm so attracted to that, I have to say. It finally happened, it finally blew apart!"
An Evening with Kristin Hersh:
Wellington: 28 August, Bodega
Tickets from Ticketmaster
Auckland:31 August, Q Theatre
Tickets from: Q Theatre Box Office
Kristin Hersh appears five times at Christchurch's Writers and Readers Festival Word.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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