Standing at just over 5ft tall, Kristin Hersh should strike a diminutive figure. But the woman behind the mic at Whelan’s on Monday night could have been two foot taller; such is her strength of character, commanding voice and dexterity on the semi-acoustic guitar.
The Throwing Muses and 50ft Wave frontwoman is no fragile flower; as she belts and growls through songs from her latest album, Crooked, she’s more like the ‘Gazebo Tree’ she sings of, commanding the rapt audience as only a woman who has been making albums since the age of 14 (30 years) can.
Live, Kristin is able to dip into the realm of the surreal with ease; telling us about a cross made of sticks that was found in a dead neighbour’s house, upon which was placed a fish she called Jesus (‘Fish’); another song was written after she discovered her hotel room had four inches of German bugs scuttling around on the ceiling; later, she tells us about the time she saw a woman die on a bus. Then there were the stories about when she moved to the country, and the other strange neighbour whose custom of staring into space inspired her to write.
‘People always say I write about women,’ she tells us. ‘But I am a woman, so….’ She pauses. ‘This is called -Hysterical Breathing’…and it’s about childbirth.’ She raises an eyebrow. Kristin Hersh is witty, self-aware and not afraid to poke fun at herself, a wrong fit for the -angry woman’ label attached to her and contemporaries like Sinead O’Connor back in the early 90s.
Kristin formed Throwing Muses with her step-sister Tanya Donnelly (later of Belly and now a solo artist) in 1981, signing to the UK label 4AD. Like their labelmates such as Pixies and the Cocteau Twins, they were part of the C60 soundtrack to indie teenagers’ lives, famed for their albums like The Real Ramona. In the 90s, Kristin and Tanya went on to pursue solo careers, and a new Throwing Muses album will be released later this year. Those teenage fans, now in their thirties and forties, were in strong presence at Whelan’s, greeting the older Hersh songs and Throwing Muses tracks with (polite) whoops and applause. Joining them were the new generation of Kristin Hersh listeners, who perhaps were on part drawn to Kristin’s music because of her CASH project, a subscription-based approach to releasing her work.
In a recent interview with Sinead Gleeson in the Irish Times, Kristin said she doesn’t see her work as having copyright – once it is made, it is out there for her fans to do with it what they please. She sought their opinion on what songs to put on Crooked; her most ardent fans are called -strange angels’. After the gig – which ends on two encores, -Pearl’, -Your Ghost’ and finally, -Bea’ – a humming queue of autograph-and-hug-hunters forms. Her listeners embrace their muse, paying her back in kind.