- Kristin Hersh: Cleveland was her perfect American home.
Kristen Hersh's bus is broken down by the side of the road somewhere around Monterey, California. Cast adrift by flooding that took her Cleveland home -- as well as propelled by what you might call an unconscious yearning -- Hersh has literally made the road her home for the last 18 months.
"It's not an easy life. It can be an easy life if you want to suck. But I've got something better to do than suck," Hersh says via her cell phone, while her husband/tour manager, Billy O'Connell, attempts to fix the bus. Hersh apologizes for missing our scheduled interview time, but she was busy calling for help -- to no avail.
Like the orchid-hunting Chris Cooper character from Adaptation, Hersh is ruled by an obsession: The music must be served, whether that means starting the band 50 Foot Wave, just so she could play the album she heard in her head, or taking a string quartet out on tour despite the expense. "As a very shy, asocial person, it doesn't make sense that I would engage in such an endeavor," admits Hersh. "That's why it's an obsession, mostly because it's so damn confusing."
This is a woman who, as a teen, was hit by a car, twisting her ankle underneath her leg, and her first worry was how she would stand up in front of her band. From alt-rock trailblazer Throwing Muses through today, Hersh has honored the music for more than 25 years.
But there's another reason why Hersh and company are stranded in California: money.
Her family -- including four sons -- have been vagabonds since their one-year-old house in Collinwood, near the Beachland Ballroom, flooded around the same time as Hurricane Katrina. It was particularly devastating because the family had been moving around for most of the previous 15 years. "It was our favorite place in the world," says Hersh of Cleveland. "It was very sad, because it's the perfect place to raise kids. We found America. We did, and it was taken away."
They were in London when it happened. Their neighbors broke in, rescuing family pictures, some furniture, and several guitars. But two floors were flooded, and the ceiling caved in. After a time-consuming reconstruction, Allstate refused to pay more than half, and just like that, the family lost its savings, retirement, and the kids' college funds.
Hersh's usually garrulous spirit loses steam. Her voice gets soft and cracks, as she relates the story. "Our insurance adjuster said we had a case against them, right before he quit because he said he couldn't live with himself. But who can afford a lawyer?" she asks. "I don't like to complain because I didn't lose my future like a lot of people did in floods. I'm still at work, but I'm homeless, living on a bus -- indefinitely, at this point."
But touring also requires new product. Since 2003, there's been a Throwing Muses reunion album, released concurrently with a solo album, The Grotto. Those were followed by a series of EPs by 50 Foot Wave, a loud rock band formed with drummer Rob Ahlers and Throwing Muses bassist Bernard Georges. Now she's supporting her latest solo release, Learn to Sing Like a Star, which follows The Grotto like night follows day. "I went into this recording session deciding that I would mimic that beloved atmospheric treatment [of The Grotto], and it sounded so stupid," she admits, referring to her latest disc. "It sounded like I couldn't play."
So Hersh went the other direction. She fashioned a big, string-fueled album whose crisp, clean lines and anxious energy harks back to 1992's Red Heaven, the Muses breakthrough. On tracks like "Nerve Endings," her raw, ungainly vocals -- choked with a vulnerable vitality that's deep, almost guttural in its honesty -- offer a poignant counterpoint to the taut chamber-pop. These songs aren't narratives so much as mood-soaked impressions that skate over evocatively churning arrangements.
Hersh is playing live with a string quartet as well as her 50 Foot Wave bandmates, producing a very big sound. Hersh notes that songs such as "Spain" and "Your Dirty Answer," both off 2001's solo acoustic release, Sunny Border Blue, sound particularly good nowadays. "It's probably for similar reasons. I remember I described that album as 'The Monkees, if something really bad happened to them,'" she says. "It's straightforward time signatures that get uglier and uglier the more you peel back the layers of overdubs, and then when you get to me, it's just horrible."
Of course, it's not a natural business decision to tour with a string section when you're broke. But Hersh has never let commercial concerns -- even when at risk of hunger -- dictate anything. "This is the obsession I'm talking about," she explains.
Suddenly she gives a yelp as the bus engine leaps to life. "The songs were not done until I heard this big production treatment, and the tour could only be that, or the songs aren't being given justice. So right now, we're choking on the poverty that results. I have my whole family out on tour, and poor Billy is covered in grease from working on a bus engine because I have to hear this sound.
"It's beyond crazy and into stupid," she laughs. "But it sounds so good. Wait till you hear it."