Woman to Woman
he problem with today's music, as Throwing Muses' lead singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh sees it, is simple: too much warp-speed guitar wanking and crotch-grabbing braggadocio and not enough thoughtful, intricate strumming and quiet introspection. Or, in the language of the Chinese cosmology that the singer is prone to spout, "too much yang and not enough yin." It's the mission of Hersh and her fellow Muses to deliver music that has less of a male swagger and more of a feminine mystique.
"People want all music to be yang: forward-moving and fast," asserts Hersh. "But I think our music is very yin, very female, and I'm not sure anyone has really thought about that. Maybe why we sound quirky to people is that all these strings of subtleties are very female. We don't have 4/4 time and anticipated melodies. We don't move up to a climax and then down to a denouement. Our music isn't like that. That isn't natural to me, and I won't play a lie."
What the average listener picks up on more than the "yin" of the Muses music is its skewed pop sensibility. Song structures are fractured and vocals cryptic, but one still can't shake the feeling that this is a band that was weaned on Top 40. Even minus the trappings of mainstream pop like monster hooks or bouncy melodies, the band's tunes are rarely less than mesmerizing.
When compared to the defiant obscurantism of past albums, the pop approach of the Boston group's latest LP, Hunkpapa, is sometimes downright conventional. Take, for starters, the instantly hummable "Dizzy," which is rightly scoring all kinds of progressive and college radio play. Hersh says she swiped the song's infectious chorus from a tune that her father penned years back, and then just tacked on a melody and a set of lyrics. Just as memorable as the catchy chorus is the song's cinematic narrative about a young Comanche who runs off with her white lover. Hersh says it was fun trading her usual introspective lyrics for the oddly poetic, B-movie scenario on "Dizzy."
"I like the fact that the song has no inspiration whatsoever," explains the vocalist. "It's all craft. I really don't have any right speaking for a Comanche woman. But that's all right. It's still a good pop song."
As for Hunkpapa's other cuts, there are a few of the allusions to child rearing that we've come to expect from young momma Kristin. Hersh, who had her son Dylan three years ago when she was twenty, has written evocatively of the paranoia of parenthood on tracks like "Hate My Way," from the Muses' first self-titled LP. The singer claims references to Dylan often creep into the lyrics without her even realizing it.
"On some songs, I won't even be aware that I was referring to motherhood for months," notes Hersh. "I actually wrote `Hate My Way' long before I became pregnant. I often feel like the songs affect my life more than vice versa. I'll figure something out after the fact, or I'll write about something, and it will happen in my life six months later. I think the songs are much smarter than I am."
Hersh began writing songs when she was nine, and by fourteen, she was jamming on guitar with step-sis Tanya Donelly. With Kristin warbling, Tanya picking guitar and Kristin's father penning tunes, the Hersh clan rocked like a scaled-down Partridge Family. "We played and wrote all day long," recalls Hersh. "I think I could have become obsessed with a lot of things at that age, but music was the most powerful."
In time, Hersh and Donelly had started up their own all-gal power pop outfit called the Muses. Between Muses gigs, Hersh took courses in classical guitar and music theory at a local college. But when compared to the band's spirited workouts, passionless classroom exercises, such as playing duets of folk songs with her instructors, left the singer cold.
"I wasn't a particularly inspired student," acknowledges Hersh. "It's just that the band seemed to be measuring fire. The band had all this power and could do anything. It hurt my feelings that you could reduce guitar to something wimpy."
Hersh soon dropped out of these stodgy studies to devote herself full-time to the band. But before the group could carve out a place for itself on the cutthroat Boston scene, the singer felt that the Muses were in need of a makeover. This took the form of a personnel shakeup--which brought drummer David Narcizo and dreadlocked bassist Leslie Langston into the mix--also a change in moniker. "We didn't think the name the Muses was such a good idea because muses were goddesses, and we figured that people would think we were pretentious anyway," Hersh has said.
The first effort by the newly-christened Throwing Muses was roundly ignored by U.S. labels, but snatched up by Britain's exclusive 4AD Records. This gave the group the lofty distinction of being the first stateside act to be signed by the label, which houses such Brit bigwigs as the Cocteau Twins. Ever since their debut LP, the Muses' star stature has ballooned in England, where Hersh has popped up as the cover girl on rock sheets like Melody Maker and Sounds. Even so, the singer admits that she's not completely comfortable with having such an adoring U.K. fan club.
"I enjoy [the attention] there, but I'm not so sure that it's good for us here," reasons Hersh. "I just don't know if I'd trust a band when all I knew about them was that they were the darlings of the British press. There are stigmas attached to that."
It was this U.K. attention that convinced Sire to sign the band in 1987. The group's first release on the label, The Fat Skier, won some enthusiastic blurbs in music tabloids, but praise for the Muses LP from last year, House Tornado, was more muted. The band was further humbled when it toured behind House Tornado with Boston buddies the Pixies and critics sniffed that the opening band upstaged the Muses. "There were comparisons, but we didn't mind because we've been friends with the Pixies all along," shrugs Hersh. "Besides, who wants to follow a bad band?"
With the more consistent Hunkpapa, the Muses recovered in short order from their recent slump. The notice the group is getting for gems like "Dizzy" is encouraging to Hersh, who's hoping that just maybe listeners are becoming more open to a progressive pop sensibility.
"I think people are starting to realize that most of today's pop music isn't speaking for our times," theorizes the vocalist, "and that it doesn't have anything to do with an art form or even an entertainment form you can learn from. And that is so rude to do because pop music is a wonderful medium. I think people are starting to appreciate that again.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.