Singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh recalls the first time she started hearing songs. They came to her in the wake of a serious accident.
Knocked off her bike by a car when she was a teenager, she wound up in the hospital with a concussion.
“I never understood what it was [when the songs started coming],” she says in a recent phone interview. “It didn’t take me long to realize that other people didn’t hear them. To call them hallucinations never made sense because I believed in them. My [ex-] husband could tell there was a song before I could hear it. There was something happening that I couldn’t measure except in sound. It did resonate with some people. Music isn’t for everyone, but it is for some people. I published the songs and continued to do so.”
Treated for a series of illnesses that she says doctors have alternately diagnosed as bi-polar and schizophrenia, Hersh says she only recently recovered.
“I always said that I was just a musician,” says Hersh, who plays the Music Box at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11. “It’s music. It’s music. It’s music. That’s what it was. The alternate person was writing the songs. That’s who had been writing the songs all along. The crack in my skull let me hear that. I went through the process of integration. Now, I’m both personalities. I’m Kristin and the songwriter. For most of my life, I had no memory of having written the songs and played them ever. Now, I’m present for playing them and writing records, but I haven’t written a song since. Maybe I’m not a songwriter anymore, and I don’t need to do that. I don’t know.”
Even if she never writes another song, Hersh will have left behind a remarkable legacy. When they were still teenagers, she and best friend/stepsister Tanya Donnelly started the Muses, which they’d rechristen the Throwing Muses. That band would achieve critical acclaim during the ’80s and into the ’90s, issuing art-punk album that showed off Hersh’s poetic sensibilities. While the Muses still tour and record, Hersh, who also fronts the power trio 50FOOTWAVE, devotes most of her time to her solo career.
The solo acoustic tour that brings her to the Music Box comes in support of her new album, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace
, a double CD/ book combination. The book/album includes “true stories” and “songs of love and loss.” She plays all instruments on the 24-track release that she recorded in Rhode Island with engineer Steve Rizzo. Her son Wyatt, who is on the autism spectrum, inspired many of the tunes. The album title reflects his fascination with a coyote-inhabited abandoned apartment building behind the studio.
“There was no way to capture how magical that was,” she says when asked about the coyotes. “We’d follow their footprints in the snow. It was really beautiful and scary. It’s a scary place to be. It’s dark and abandoned. There was something genuinely creepy about it with the human detritus and the wildness and the cold. Wyatt would film it and when he refused to go back in, the roof caved back in a week later. It was genuinely a scary place. He needed it, so I tried to stand next to him to keep him safe. We were used to the yelping of the coyotes, but I had never seen them living in a human space before. They’re really intriguing and intelligent.”
Hersh wrote the songs during the past five years, a period she describes as particularly dark. Songs such as the lilting “In Stitches,” a song with layers of vocals and acoustic gutiars, reference the emotional trauma she endured during the time period.
“It was a dark time but in that lean-to way where it’s raining, and you can feel the rain, and you get wet, but it provides safety and you feel lucky to be alive,” she says. “The text that informs the sonic sensibility oddly was the transcript of a conversation with a friend. He said that my band mates and I only tell stories about dying and we think it’s really funny. He was right. It was reflected in the music and that lean-to idea where you take your life very seriously but you don’t take yourself seriously."
Other tracks such as “Detox,” a song that starts with a thick bass riff before the distorted guitars kick in, sonically suggest the trouble she’s endured.
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” she says when asked about how the music reflects her personal life. “My husband just left one day after 25 years of marriage. The songs are talking about that. The kids and I are just checking each other’s breathing. We truly believed that people were good and we didn’t hurt each other unless we were hurt or unloved and now we know that’s not true. The most important person in the world just shattered us. Two of the sons won’t talk to their father. It’s a mess. It’s too personal for me to go into. Unfortunately, that’s colored some of the songs on the record, and they were written before all that happened. Unfortunately, that’s how songs work. They sense the change before you do.”
She says the raw guitars reflect her pain as well.
“I would say on ‘Shotgun,’ which is how the record ends, the guitar is just screaming in pain more than I was able to,” she says. “I was so weak, but the guitar is never weak. I lost so much weight that I could barely stand up, yet the guitar is still muscular. Guitars are just stronger than people.”
For the solo shows, Hersh says she plays whatever she feels like playing. And at that point, she has hundreds of songs she could play.
“I also read from my books,” she says. “A song will remind me of a passage that will remind me of a song and then I stop for awhile. I play 50FOOTWAVE songs and Appalachian folk songs. The shows are all different in that I think good songs are all different from each other.”
An Evening with Kristin Hersh, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $20 ADV, $22 DOS, musicboxcle.com.