Kristin Hersh has made one of the year's most acclaimed acoustic albums, but don't expect the 27-year-old singer and songwriter to toss her band--Throwing Muses--for an unplugged solo career.
The dark-haired mother of two shudders at the idea of becoming an acoustic pop star.
"I do appreciate this (attention), but the band is home to me," she says. "I like the smell of stale beer and cigarettes."
The upbeat, often jocular Hersh has garnered respect from rock's underground since the early '80s through Throwing Muses' surreal pop sound. On her own in the acoustic "Hips and Makers," her first step outside the Muses, she exposes her raw talent in spare numbers with little ornamentation.
The songs are nevertheless intense, with Hersh's throaty-then-airy voice dipping in and out of the unassuming guitar work. Her lyrics often are biting and painful, with sarcasm hidden in seemingly sweet moments.
The album, which features Michael Stipe on one track, is being supported with a solo tour that includes a stop tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
"I didn't mean for it to be a solo album," says Hersh, who recorded it in a horse barn down the street from her home in Newport, R.I. It was done in three days with producer Lenny Kaye, guitarist with the groundbreaking Patti Smith Group in the '70s.
"I wanted to record the songs I'd written after falling in love with the acoustic guitar on the road with the Muses. I would bring it to my hotel room every night and play. The simplicity and physicality of that instrument invited very intimate, small and gutsy songs, which I was really attracted to. But as far as I knew, people at large only listened to big, glossy pop music. This was little, raw and weird."
Taking her new material on the road without the comfort of a full band proved unnerving for Hersh at first. "I was terrified! The thought of having people sit and stare at me for an hour and a half sounded like a nightmare for them \o7 and\f7 me. So on stage, I would take out my contacts and get really drunk so I couldn't see the audience.
"It's gotten easier since I realized I'm not responsible for other people and equipment, and I just set a piece of wood in my lap and play. I'm not a performer with a capital 'P.' I just adore the music."
"Hips and Makers" revolves around Hersh's personal life, and she "thought maybe it was inappropriate for publication because I don't believe in making music talk for you. It should be the other way around.
"But I could see my life picture splattered all over it. I had to take a giant step back and listen, and it didn't seem to suffer from my life being in it. It wasn't brought down by it and still seemed magic. Talk about your ego! I thought I was the only person with a dorky little life. Well, duh, it's universal!"
Hersh was born in Georgia but grew up in Newport, where her hippie parents, both teachers, played Patti Smith, the Doors and Neil Young at home. "I didn't have to buy those albums but did have to deal with the fact that they were actually cool even if my parents liked them."
Her father taught her to play guitar at age 9, and by 14 she'd started Throwing Muses out of the local hard-core punk scene with her step-sister Tanya Donelly, who left the Muses a few years back to form the band Belly.
Hersh was placed in accelerated courses through high school and entered college early but left after her junior year when she became pregnant. Around that time, the band became the first U.S. group to sign with Britain's eccentric 4AD label, which released the Muses' first two albums. The group switched to Sire Records around 1987 and since then has released five more albums. Hersh already has made most of the Muses next album and plans another solo acoustic record.
Her upbeat persona seems the antithesis of the defeat that surfaces from time to time in her music. The contrast has spurred descriptions of Hersh that range from bubbly housewife to dark artist.
"I'd rather be called a perky housewife over suicidal poetess anytime," she says forcefully. "I have bipolar disorder and am diagnosed as schizophrenic. A lot of people know it and use it to say I'm \o7 that \f7 kind of poet. I can't say enough that being sick is humiliating and has nothing to do with being a good poet or musician.
"So anytime they want to call me a giddy housewife, it's just fine with me. I've never been anything but goofy."
\o7 * Kristin Hersh plays tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $17.50. (714) 496-8930. \f7