The alt-rock renegade talks about the artists and albums that have meant the most to her—from Philip Glass to Elliott Smith to the Legend of Zelda soundtrack—five years at a time.
Kristin Hersh has spent a lifetime battling music-industry sharks—sexist label execs, capitalist cutthroats, gun-toting club owners—first in her band Throwing Muses, which she founded in 1980, and then as a solo musician. She eventually learned to handle them and has the scars, and stories, to prove it. But right now, it’s the sharks with fins and teeth that concern her.
Hersh, 54, is out in Encinitas, California to watch her youngest of four sons, a professional surfer, compete. “I didn’t know a kid could even have that job,” she marvels. “He’s 17, but he’s still my baby. I bake him cookies to cheer him up and shit. So the idea that he’s in these ice-cold, deadly waves, swimming with sharks...” She trails off into laughter. “He says that sharks are healthier than rock clubs, which is true—but not if they’re biting your legs off.”
Hersh was just 14 when she co-founded Throwing Muses with her half-sister, Tanya Donelly. By the time she was 20, the Muses were signed to the iconic British label 4AD—the first American band to land there, paving the way for fellow Boston alternative rockers the Pixies. By 22, she had signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire, kicking off nearly a decade of strife with her major-label keepers. She says that her surfer son now confronts similar quandaries to the ones she faced, “seeing how corporatized your passion can become, and how hard you have to fight.” The antidote to selling out, she suggests, might be opting out—“Stick your middle finger up and live your passion”—even if that means working a day job to support yourself, in order to keep your art pure.
But Hersh is one of the lucky ones. She eventually got out of that major-label contract and took the band independent. With her hard-touring trio 50FootWave, she pioneered name-your-own-price releases and Creative Commons licenses. She raised her boys on the tour bus, reflecting her own unconventional upbringing: She spent her early years on a hippie commune in Georgia, and attended Woodstock as a 3-year-old. (“If I do have a memory of it, I made it up,” she says. “But there were a lot of festivals and face painting and high people and beads and shit then.”)
All these years later, her passion and her day job remain one and the same. In 2018, she released Possible Dust Clouds, her 10th solo album. Last month, Throwing Muses returned from a seven-year hiatus with Sun Racket. The record is lean, immersive, and groove-heavy, tapping the vein of hardscrabble psychedelia that defines their best work.
Here, Hersh looks back on the music that has soundtracked her defiantly unconventional path.