Women You Looked Up to Growing Up: In Praise of Kristin Hersh

There are plenty of things I rue from my teenage years but falling in love with Kristin Hersh’s music isn’t one of them. 

The first track I heard from her group Throwing Muses was ‘Furious’, taken from 1992’s ‘Red Heaven’. I didn’t know anything about the band but I immediately connected to its bluesy wall of sound, its energy, and the way in which she managed to totally live inside the words.

I dug deeper into the band’s back catalogue and they fast became one of my favourites. At the same time I voraciously consumed interviews with them and found a newfound respect for Hersh that continues to grow to this day. 

One of the first things most people discover about Hersh is her history of mental illness: being (mis-) diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar, and most recently receiving treatment for post-traumatic and dissociative disorders. She spoke about this frankly, at a time when the stigma around mental health was much stronger, and has been quick to dispel any romantic notion of suffering for your art. Where many attempted to intertwine her illness and creative output, she strived “to be normal.”

She’s also had to contend with other personal and career hardships: being in a serious bike accident that left her ‘hearing’ songs, losing custody of her youngest child, having a brain tumour, divorcing her husband of 25 years, and being sued by her former manager. Yet in public she’s always remained positive, refusing to descend into negativity or bitterness.

It’s a positivity that’s allowed her to adapt and change, from writing a successful memoir (2011’s ’Paradoxical Undressing’) to a children’s book (2007’s ‘Toby Snax’). More significantly in 2008 she co-founded CASH Music – which stands for Coalition of Artists & Stake Holders – in order to release her own music and control her career outside of the traditional music industry. 

Artist-led models such as this are becoming increasingly common but at the time it was a relatively pioneering attitude. She saw it as being firmly rooted in honesty towards music but also as a ‘moral obligation’ to protect other women from an industry that manipulates and wants certain things from them. “All the women that you throw under the bus when you play that game kissing up to rich white dick is not harmless,” she recently told The Guardian. 

This industry distrust never becomes dogma and she’s perfectly willing to change her mind when faced with the right circumstances (“Rigidity doesn’t serve open mindedness,” she observed). Having vowed never to sign to another label, she joined the roster at Fire Records in 2018. It’s a decision that allowed her to spend more time in the studio, releasing solo album Possible Dust Clouds and Throwing Muses latest long-player Sun Racket.

In not compromising her artistic vision she’s had to make difficult decisions but she’s also signalled to other musicians, and fellow creatives, that it is possible to work and achieve outside of the norm. That’s a take-home message from which we can all learn.

Photo Courtesy of Adi Goldstein

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