Not one to mince words, Kristin Hersh lets life speak for itself — brutally and honestly. She describes her songwriting process as a beast of which she's hardly the master, a force that comes — sometimes unwillingly — to wring beauty and vividness from pathos and pain. It may be creative agony for her, but everybody loves a tortured artist.
Two decades ago, when she was only 14, Hersh founded the Throwing Muses with her stepsister Tanya Donnelly (ex-Breeders, ex-Belly). Diagnosed first with schizophrenia then downgraded to bipolar disorder, Hersh — as primary songwriter — fueled the Muses' dynamic with visions spawned from a mental state that lived at the unlucky intersection of reality and hallucination. While the band's post-punk sound pleased critics and attracted a cult following of depressive college kids, the hugely influential group nabbed only a footnote during the rise of alterna-whatever (and later, grunge). The Throwing Muses disbanded in 1997, unable to support themselves by touring and selling records. Even so, Hersh had established a reputation as a powerful, from-the-gut songwriter whose voice could split between sensitive, troubled pixie and throaty, bellowing grande dame of anguish.
Sunny Border Blue, Hersh's fifth solo album and the first on which she tackled all the instruments, arrives on the heels of 1999's critically praised Sky Motel. The album is an emotionally wrought, fully realized journey that peels away more of Hersh's life than most artists dare to share. Now 34, married, and the mother of three, Hersh has new sources of material. “Candyland” probes the custody loss of her son; “Spain” slides from Iberian vacation soliloquy into a furious, mistaken accusation of a husband's infidelity. A sublime, country-touched version of Cat Stevens' “Trouble” rivals the best from Cat Power's Covers Record. But Hersh's signature ambivalence between the exquisite and the excruciating is perhaps best captured on “Ruby”: “Everybody was so pretty there/ and up and jumping around/ and easy./ It's easy to sleep with idiots and prophets./ Leaves me wondering/ ruby or iridescent cough drop?” Melding Muses-era bristle and holler with a timeworn maturity, Sunny Border Blue grabs you with pop hooks, lo-fi singer/ songwriter finesse, and a female voice that still demands to be heard.
Kristin Hersh die-hards and those who mourned the Throwing Muses' breakup have cause to celebrate this weekend with Gut Pageant, a reprise of last year's reunion in Boston. The mini-fest features three solo Hersh shows at Noe Valley Ministry, a meet-and-greet lunch with Hersh and Muses members, an afternoon sound check, a Muses reunion gig at Slim's with an unannounced special guest (last year it was Bob Mould), and a Sunday continental breakfast. Package tickets allow entrance to one solo show, the lunch, sound check, reunion gig, and breakfast. Now's the chance to meet both Hersh and a band that defined an alternative when there was none.