“Hiiiiiiiiii!” Kristin Hersh gushes. “Aww, you have cold cheeks ….”
No, it's not my cheeks she's worried about — 2-year-old Bodhi (the youngest of her four sons) has just wandered in from the beach, and he's pressing up against his mom, trying to divert her attention away from the phone. Reached on the morning of New Year's Eve, Hersh is lounging at a rented house on the New Jersey shore, where she, husband/manager Billy O'Connell, and their brood are enjoying a holiday vacation far away from Los Angeles, the metropolis the longtime East Coasters have called home for the past couple of years.
Aside from an occasional cough — the lingering remnants of a nasty bout with the flu — the 38-year-old singer/songwriter is cheery and relaxed as she talks about her family, the numerous places in which she's lived over the years, and settling down in L.A. and dealing with that city's desperate obsession with celebrity, all the while punctuating her anecdotes with a giggle or hearty laugh. It's exactly the kind of easygoing scene and disposition you might expect from Hersh these days if you're moderately aware of the trajectory of her career and the so-called “maturation” of her style.
You probably know the common story: Founder of iconic college-rock band Throwing Muses, which she started with half-sister Tanya Donelly more than 20 years ago, Hersh ditched the amped, jagged guitars for good in the mid-'90s (give or take a Muses reunion or two) for a solo acoustic career that landed her newly gentle compositions in placid coffee-shop CD players more often than dive-bar jukeboxes, even if below the pretty melodies her peculiar, lacerated lyrics never ceased to reveal a deeply troubled soul.
Surely, there's gotta be a cup of ginger-peach tea and a yoga mat within reach as she gently ushers young Bodhi into the arms of his dad. After all, it's practically etched in stone that artists must surrender the rock as they approach or surpass the big four-oh, choosing instead to stake out mellower lifestyles and musical terrain.
Yeah, except Hersh is twisting up that predictable script like M. Night Shyamalan with a distortion pedal via her blazing new trio, 50 Foot Wave. Along with Muses bassist Bernard Georges and drummer Rob Ahlers, Hersh is dropping onto both tape and the heads of audiences easily the most blistering, frenzied sonic assaults she's ever yanked out of her brains and guts. Last spring's startling six-song, self-titled EP was the band's raw, brazen preamble, and the story really intensifies in March with the release of 50FW's debut long-player, Golden Ocean.
Put simply, both self-released discs rip; they're filled with scorching riffs, spleen-rattling bass rumbles, fierce drumming that thwacks like a baton to the kneecaps, and dynamic arrangements that shift faster than Michael Schumacher on the back stretch at Monte Carlo. And then there's Hersh's voice — always more husky and coarse than sweet and pretty, here it sounds like she swallowed a box of tacks and chased 'em with a fifth of Maker's Mark. When she snarls, “You know what? You know what? You know what?/ Shut the fuck uuuuuppppppppppp,” on Golden Ocean's “Pneuma,” then follows it with a guttural shriek, you can practically hear her throat being shredded like hapless Jack's in An American Werewolf in London.
“I have seen Hips and Makers fans running out of 50 Foot Wave shows with fingers in their ears,” Hersh chuckles, alluding to her comparatively mild 1994 solo debut that put her on a course to becoming a darling of the All Things Considered set. “But for the most part, style tends to take a back seat to substance with the people who have been following me for a while. They definitely seem willing to take the ride and trust us enough to play good notes and not be insincere with them, to not whine at them, to not be egomaniac rock stars at them. I mean, some of them actually show up when we play, and that's really cool.”
A lot of those people have caught wind of 50 Foot Wave's happenings by way of Hersh's long-running Web site (and label), www.throwingmusic.com. There, she's been pursuing a grass-roots approach to developing a fan base by providing loads of 50FW music at low or no cost (in fact, you can stream the first EP in its entirety for free just as soon as you're done reading this) with the ultimate intention of drawing people to the live shows. A few years ago, bypassing the music industry in this manner was practically impossible, but with iPods and other MP3 players becoming as prevalent as cell phones, Hersh's means of doing business is quickly becoming the model for truly independent success. Especially for artists — e.g., Throwing Muses in the early '90s — who've been through the major-label wringer.
“Muses broke up when we were making [1991's] The Real Ramona — the business was so horrible, between the producer and the label they were trying to break us up,” Hersh recalls. “It was, y'know, 'Take the pretty girl out of the band and give her pop songs and buy her a Grammy.' But that's the way it works. You have to let them dress you and make you up, and that goes for the studio, too — you have to have a producer that ensures you don't sound like anything but goo they can pour into the radio. So we've tried to remove all of that by doing our own thing, by just giving the stuff away, by asking people to burn CDs and share the music, and then we just hope they show up at the shows. It's a more honest way to make a living, I think.”
For the most part, Hersh has been keeping a fairly low profile during the past year of heavy touring, relishing those periodic occasions when much of the crowd — especially when 50FW is serving as an opening act — has no idea she's “that one girl from Throwing Muses” or “that freaky chick who does the haunted acoustic stuff.” She says it's better when people think she and her cohorts are a hungry young punk band from L.A. (an assumption that's easy to make considering the feverish passion with which they record and perform). And it's better, she explains, when people don't ascribe any vibes from her past work to her current efforts.
“I wanted the band to be fun, and I'm not known as fun, y'know? I mean, I am, but nobody seems to think so! I didn't want anyone to come down on 50 Foot Wave as being all arty and dark. Yeah, I'm yellin' and screamin', and it sounds angry sometimes, but that's kinda fun, too. It's not all, like, frustrated … or depressive.”
Indeed, for all of its rage, 50FW's mood isn't nearly as discomfiting as Hersh's solo offerings (she's still engaged in that career concurrent with her new outfit); her long struggles with bipolar disorder and other mental maladies — which have been both a godsend and a nightmare in terms of her creative abilities — have been well-documented, and she's just now learning how to get a handle on it all.
“I think it's become a little bit easier to not get freaked out by the process,” she says. “It used to really upset me and make me feel like a crazy person. I mean, I heard music other people didn't. I thought it was there in the room, and apparently it wasn't, and it would play pretty loudly at times, so while I was copying it down I was thinking, 'Just go away, just go away,' and this has been decades of that, it still happens.”
“For most of my life I would gladly have given it all up for sanity, to know that I was mentally clear,” she continues. “Oh my God, I still would! But the decision I've made is just to refuse to let it affect my thinking or my psychology or my mental clarity. So I really wanted this to be fun. But don't get me wrong, it still has its moments — it's not fun with a capital 'F'!”
And, Hersh admits, even after more than two decades under hot spotlights, and despite the sterling live reputation that 50 Foot Wave has already generated in its short but fervid existence, she's ever grappling with the difficulties of taking the stage.
“I'm still petrified, but it's beyond shyness. I'm simply not oriented that way. I would be great at mailing songs out and getting paid for it, but there's no such job as that. Before I play every single night I think, 'I really shouldn't be here, some huge mistake has been made!' I'm thinking, 'I gotta go home, I gotta do this, I gotta do that, I've got four kids, the dogs need to go out, I'm not nearly drunk enough,' and then I do it and it's exhilarating. This particular band is an intense workout — all our muscles are taut, I'm screaming at the top of my lungs and running around the stage, Bernie and I are trying to follow Rob's fills on a dime … we are absolutely exhausted after every show.”
Hersh exhales deeply, as if just talking about it has worn her out, then begins to laugh.
“I swear it's not because we're pushing 40! I could not have done this at 18.”