If Kristin Hersh were an aspiring media star, the events of the past two years would give her an ample supply of tell-all fodder for the gossip mill. A new Cher- or Madonna-in-the-making could get a lot of mileage out of a tale such as Hersh's--a story of hardship and loss, with just enough of an upbeat note at the end to make it suitable for mass retailing.
But Hersh is the main singer and songwriter with Throwing Muses, an adventurous, defiantly art-for-art's-sake alternative rock band from Newport, R.I. Neither her music, nor her approach to publicly discussing her personal life, is calculated for mass retailing.
In a phone interview from a tour stop in Colorado, Hersh, 24, briefly sketched the outline of recent history--the band's and her own.
Her troubles started in the summer of 1989 when she and Andrew Going, the father of her young son, broke up. An ensuing court battle over their boy, Dylan, ended in a joint custody agreement. Primary "possession" of the child, now nearly 5, was awarded to the father, partly because of the travel demands of Hersh's career as a rock musician.
Then came a second court fight, this one an ongoing financial wrangle between Throwing Muses and its former manager. Hersh and her two longtime band mates, singer-guitarist Tanya Donelly and drummer David Narcizo, say that the business split with Ken Goes (who also manages the Pixies) came as an emotional shock and an economic blow.
The combination of Hersh's personal troubles and the band's business problems threatened to break up the critically acclaimed Muses. "There was so much going on at the time," Hersh said. "It was probably the worst that ever happened to me. I didn't remember why I was in the band." Judging from the raw, harrowing psychodramas that have been a Throwing Muses staple ever since the band's brilliant 1986 debut album, Hersh's worst could have been rough indeed.
But Throwing Muses, whose members are old school friends, hung together and recorded a strong and--for these confirmed undergrounders--surprisingly accessible new album, "The Real Ramona."
"The project itself took me out (of personal problems) in a good way," Hersh said softly. "Hard work is good for it--hard work with meaning behind it." Lately, her personal life also has taken a turn for the better: In December, she married Throwing Muses' new co-manager, Billy O'Connell, and a baby is due in August. The visibly pregnant mom plans to tour until a month before the birth, then to take the infant on the road with her for another round of shows in September.
Of the troubles that arose during the past two years, Hersh said "I can't let these things happen to me again," the wan, tired tone in her voice perhaps reflecting the exigencies of being on the road while six months' pregnant. "I've learned a lot in some hard ways. But I don't feel they've brought me down. I feel I'm beyond them now."
Donelly, also 24, figures that the old friendships within Throwing Muses helped keep the band together during a difficult year in which, she says, the group's survival was a "daily" issue.
"Everyone in the band felt kind of raw," she said in a separate phone interview. "You forget why you're doing it. All you know is you're so hurt all the time. (Breaking up) was talked about. It would've been a lot easier to bury this"--if not for the ties between band members. "Plus, we don't know how to do anything else."
Donelly and Hersh have been friends since they were 8 years old. They grew up in Newport, R.I., an oceanside showpiece for old Yankee money. The two future Muses were not heirs to any old money, though: Hersh's father teaches philosophy at a small college, and Donelly's dad is a plumber. At 14, Hersh and Donelly began writing songs together and started an all-girl band.
Narcizo, another schoolmate, was one of the nascent Muses' biggest fans, then became their drummer. The three scrubbed-looking white teen-agers recruited Leslie Langston, a transplanted black Californian with dread-locked hair, to play bass (Langston left the group in 1989, and the Muses have replaced her with Fred Abong, another Newporter who had become a fan and friend of the band).
Throwing Muses got its first exposure on the independent British label, 4AD. A 1986 debut album, "Throwing Muses," sent England's rock press into a tizzy of superlatives, with Melody Maker pronouncing it "the finest debut album of the '80s and a very beautiful, contorted mystery."
While the album and a subsequent 1987 EP, "Chains Changed," have not been released in the United States, they helped Throwing Muses win a U.S. deal with Sire/Warner Bros. records. The band's American releases include a 1987 EP, "The Fat Skier," and three albums, "House Tornado" (1988), "Hunkpapa" (1989) and this year's "The Real Ramona."