Strange Angel

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By David Bowman

Published March 3, 1998 2:45PM (EST)

A few weeks ago, Kristin Hersh, singer and leader of the now disbanded
Muses, released her second solo album, "Strange Angels." It's both startling
in its brilliance and touching in regard to American culture -- touching
because, as product, this record is unclassifiable. You'll never hear Hersh
on pop radio. The songs are completely acoustic, yet they're too austere
for folk. Think Patsy Cline meets John Cage. Although Hersh is an arty,
postmodern diva, Dawn Upshaw isn't going to be covering Hersh songs like
"Gut Pageant" in recital anytime soon.

A guy phones this unclassifiable Hersh at her desert home and she answers by
warning, "You might have to listen to some crying babies. Laughing babies."
There's commotion in the background -- she's got three kids, but only baby
Wyatt is still a rug-rat. Where do the babies-plural come from? Maybe the
virtual ChaCha
are visiting Hersh as well. (Not that Hersh makes a big deal
about motherhood like Madonna or Courtney Love, posing with their
offspring in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, etc., as if the kid was life's
equivalent to a Grammy.)

Hersh lives in the Mojave -- Captain Beefheart's desert. Hersh herself is
the feminine counterpoint to that American original, although she claims,
"The good Captain seems brainier than me." Adding, "Captain Beefheart seems
to do things on purpose and I do things on accident."

Hersh may be capricious, but not accidental. She only lives in a place
Pioneer Town (yes Pioneer Town -- populated by bears and roadrunners and
coyotes -- "dignified, real coyotes, not L.A. ones that eat cats and
garbage") because her husband, Billy,
fell in love with the land when she came here on a photo shoot. "I thought
he was crazy -- I've never had that reaction to a particular kind of nature
before." She pauses.
"But I found it's nice what it does to your brain to live in the middle of

But then, it seems all Hersh does is live in her brain. The kids and baby
keep her too busy to sit down at the piano or pick up a guitar. "I don't even
have time to eat or shower. So I just keep practicing in my head. And the
words are kind of an instrument that is played by syllables; that's what it
sounds like," she explains. "I gradually come to realize those syllables are
words and sentences." Hersh doesn't take the songs out of her brain until
she's ready to cut the record. "If I don't demo the songs and freeze them in
a certain stage of evolution, they keep editing themselves. And they come out
real clean when I finally play them."

Indeed, the songs are so unfettered it's like they were produced by Mr.
Clean. Most
striking is the way her unschooled voice is captured on the album. It's pure
and delicate the way only a hillbilly voice can sound perfectly pure and
"I don't think I sing really well -- but I think I can tell the truth with my
neck," she says, echoing her song "Pale": "Before I go to you I never wash my
neck ... 'Cause when the music starts it goes straight to my head."

She cut the brain/head songs of "Strange Angels" at singer Joe Henry's
Los Angeles garage
studio. "I was bummed about the Muses breaking up and I just wanted to crawl
into a cave to make my record. I was telling Joe this, and he said, 'Just
come over every day, and I'll push the buttons.'"

So she went. Her family is close with the Henrys, and she worked "civilized
hours" making the disc. "My husband took care of the baby. The 6-year-olds
played together. Then we had dinner." She laughs, then says, "It was cozy and
adult." Then it got even cozier -- she had to attend a family gathering in
Rhode Island, so she finished the album there, recording in a studio inside a
horse stable. "The horses come up behind you and look over your shoulder while
you're recording."

Rhode Island was where both Hersh and the Throwing Muses were born. "When I
was 14, I started the Muses out of boredom." She shared guitar and vocals
with half-sister Tanya Donelly. By the time she was 15, she had become
passionate about songwriting. "The songs would come at all hours of the
night, and they would play me
instead of me playing them. I become obsessive about songs, which works for a
certain kind of fan. That carried through to our first records."

She says the group was both "stupid" and "optimistic": "We thought we were a
party band playing happy music for people." What the Throwing Muses
really were was insane. They sounded as if they had never heard a rock 'n'
roll band up close before and had to invent the form based on what they
caught from the radios of Camaros that sped by their rural homes late at
night. The Muse's poppy songs are a little too dark. Their
girl-group anthems are Betty Boop on crank. And when a Muse song manages to
bop happily from start to finish, it sounds as if Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney
had sneaked into Abbey Road Studios one night to recut the vocals on "Dear
Prudence" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey."

As Hersh led the Muses through the junk-bond '80s, she had the first of four
sons. Then got divorced. Then divorced her band in 1991, after the Muses
"The Real Ramona," a breakthrough album that seemed to promise a
Nirvana-like future. "I just didn't want to be in the music business
anymore," Hersh
reports. "I wanted a more timeless approach to creating the songs. When you
are attracted to ear candy it's because it sounds cool today. But it will
date your record in about five years." Then she gives another infectious
laugh. "I don't know what I was thinking, imagining that anyone would be
listening to the Muses in five years, but I still didn't think it was fair to
make the songs trendy. It was like putting makeup on a good face."

The Throwing Muses reformed a year later without Donelly, after drummer
Narcizo heard some demos Hersh had recorded and told her, "Let's just admit
we don't give a shit and record them, and be that kind of a band for as long
as we can."

So they did. But by '96, the dough went south. "We literally didn't have
enough money to tour or make another record, which is pretty much what a band
does," Hersh laments. "We had to admit that we were ending, at least for the
time being."

They started a farewell tour, but Hersh was five months pregnant, and her
midwife nixed the European leg of the tour. "I wasn't allowed to sing or play
until Wyatt was born." Months after that she recorded "Strange Angels," both
her second solo and second acoustic album. "I always had a brat attitude and
thought acoustic music was wimpy -- which it often is. People don't have a
lot of respect for the instrument. They think, 'If I can't play I'll just
play in the background and no one will notice.' I demoed the first acoustic
songs (her 1994 album 'Hips and Makers') hoping my husband would get off my
back about them. The success of that record took me by surprise."

This first experience recording with acoustic guitar made Hersh fall (as in
"head over heels") for the thing -- how it sounds, how it feels. "I adore the
way an acoustic guitar relates to my body," she says, as if she is describing
a lover. "It uses muscles and air to make sound, and I think that's very
dynamically effective. When you play hard, everyone relates to it. The
audience doesn't need you to look sweaty and intense and turn up the
distortion or lean on the volume pedal. Instead, you can be delicate, and
they can relate to that."

Although she loved the acoustic sound, she first betrayed the "Strange
Angels" cuts with overdubs of bass and drums. But she realized they were all
too top-heavy. "I had to erase all the overdubs because the songs really wanted
to be left alone."

The songs retained their original askew purity. They may be a
million miles away from the dreaded "ear candy," but they're not elitist. "I
always thought I made pop music. I think people use the word 'pop' to mean
'stupid,' or an excuse to be stupid. That's unfortunate. We don't have much
respect for music when it comes to popular culture."

Although Hersh has been exiled into the post-Nirvana ghetto known as
"indie," our heroine has no ax to grind against corporate record companies: "I
don't disagree with the way the music business is set up like a lot of
musicians do. I think if a record company pays for a record to be made, they
can own it. It's OK. If you care about your stuff, you want it to grow up
and be given away. You're lucky if someone pays you to make a record."

She sure does hate that ear candy though -- she uses the term at
least a
dozen times in the span of one conversation, always in the negative. "You can
trick people into buying almost anything," she says with disgust. "That was
my argument with Warner Brothers. I'd say, 'Why do you sell crap?' And they'd
say, 'Crap sells.' But it only sells because they sell crap. If you have so
little respect for the listening public, why don't you trick them into buying
something good?" She gives a tired sigh. "But they just said, 'The risk is
too great. We know they just swallow sugar, so we'll pour it down their necks
and we can pay the bills.'"

It's those necks again. Hersh may never
wash hers, but "Pale" ends with the singer confessing, "When the music
starts it goes straight to my hips." Ah, hips and makers ...

"I think I have a reputation of being wacky or difficult just because I
care about the
music," Hersh laughs. "But being this way works for me." She laughs again.
Then once more. "If they knew how nice I was, they would probably feel freer
to ask me to play the game harder."

Hersh's speculations on her reputation bear a double take. She's "wacky or
difficult"? There are miles between those states, i.e. miles between "I love
Lucy" (wacky) and Joni Mitchell (difficult). On "Pale," Hersh sings, "You'd
better bring your fucking knife/Till we see eye-to-eye." Now that's a
difficult woman singing. Picture Hersh hunching down -- blade in her
fist -- ready to slash it out with some Warner Brothers suit. But then the song
goes: "Cause I'd rather cut your buttons off than be caught in a lie."

Well, Hersh is no homicidal knifewoman -- she's just a hallucinating
artist writing songs in her head.
"Must've been on mushrooms when you wrote that pile of junk," she sings. "Got
rock candy brains and that head of yours, full of holes."

Uh-oh. Heads again. Brains. All Hersh's mentions of heads/brains/ear
candy make a listener know that surely her skull itself is filled with
Godiva chocolates.

And at least one fucking knife ...

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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