Kristin Hersh has some simple advice for aspiring musicians in the 2020s.
Echoed in the title of her 2015 memoir, Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt, the forthright command reflects Hersh’s fierce independence. Her advice is what it is, she explains, “because this industry discourages music itself, while encouraging narcissism, exhibitionism and greed—a Pandora’s Box of ego—when you need to shake off ego in order to let music speak.”
This weekend, Hersh plays solo in Palo Alto on her current acoustic tour. Now in the fifth decade of a storied career, she knows the dangers she’s talking about better than most.
The songwriter and guitarist grew up in Rhode Island in the 1970s, where fate in the form of her mother’s remarriage made kindred spirit Tanya Donelly her stepsister. At age 14, the two women co-founded the indie rock band Throwing Muses, which rose to deeply unexpected fame in the late ’80s as the first American band signed to the iconic British label 4AD. Throwing Muses would go on to gain fame in post-punk alongside other darkly ethereal 4AD groups like the Pixies, the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil.
Hersh has stayed on the road as a musician and writer ever since then, launching a prolific solo career, a noise-rock trio called 50FootWave and several acclaimed books.
“I’ve been holding my breath since I was 14, waiting for this ridiculous industry to collapse. Now I’m holding my breath waiting for the dust to settle,” she says. Ceaseless pressure from the industry to dilute her intense sound and intricate lyrics led her to fight her way out of an oppressive Warner Brothers contract by the early ’90s.
“Now that any music we hear comes out of an industry which only risks promotional money on lowest common denominator output, we need to take responsibility for curating our own soundtracks,” she says. “Fashion isn’t music, sexism isn’t music, product isn’t music…and measuring units sold isn’t measuring impact. I’d rather sell one record to someone who listens a million times than a million records to a bunch of people who listen once.”
But living up to such ideals requires serious hustle. Hersh has toured relentlessly to support herself and her family over the decades. She has found creative ways to cut the middlemen out of her career, at times selling her guitars to make albums. She recently spent five years writing her latest book, Seeing Sideways: A Memoir of Music and Motherhood. It serves as a follow-up to 2010’s highly acclaimed Rat Girl. Seeing Sideways chronicles raising her first child at 19, as well as three others—including for one memorable stretch on a tour bus.
In Hersh’s world, rock ’n’ roll and conventional motherhood are far from being mutually exclusive.
“Mothering and songwriting are the same to me,” she says. “You step back and honor a body; feed and care for it, throw your life down for it, but you don’t create it. And you don’t tell it what to be: you listen.”
Ironically, this selflessness has driven Hersh to a life of off-the-beaten-path adventure traditionally reserved for men.
“I spent the pandemic in New Orleans, which is a rich place for idiosyncratic endeavors,” she says. “Very supportive scene for doing your own thing, inventing your own language and mode of expression. They’re familial, so they honor the freak flag without calling too much attention to it.”
Touring again, she finds her life is still full of unexpected twists.
“When the booking agents were finally allowed to work again, I was sent out for months at a time without any days off. I think I ended up in Croatia. Maybe Serbia, which was cool! Never been sent there before. Anyway…I’m still on the road, and mixing an album at the same time, which is goofy, but I live in a swirl of music anyway.”
As that swirl of music brings Hersh to California, fans can look forward to some 50FootWave noise rock paradoxically rendered acoustic.
“I’m actually enjoying what happens to dynamics when you pull a song away from noisy painting and bring it back to quiet pencil sketch,” Hersh says.
Best of all: it doesn’t suck.
Fri, 8pm, $20
Mitchell Park Community Center, Palo Alto