Kristin Hersh Reflects on Throwing Muses’ 10th Studio Album Sun Racket

Photo Credit: Steve Gullick

Boston-based alt-rock band Throwing Muses have been known for decades for both unusual lyrics and unexpected musical choices. On their latest album Sun Racket, the band’s 10th studio album and a followup to 2013’s Purgatory/Paradise, lead singer and guitarist Kristin Hersh, drummer David Narcizo, and bassist Bernard Georges deliver the same musical and lyrical quirks the band has mastered, but in a way that departs from the band’s past discography as much as it does from convention.

In contrast to some of the band’s early hits, like 1991’s fun, beachy “Not Too Soon,” Sun Racket has a decidedly dark vibe to it. Hersh’s low, growling voice, the slow, trance-like electric guitars and use of minor keys create a somber sound closer to mid-nineties contemporaries like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.

Each song paints a little vignette from Hersh’s life, putting a poetic spin on everyday situations with abstract but vivid imagery. “Milk at McDonald’s,” for instance, describes the day a man known as the “bee guy” came to her house to exterminate bees in her child’s room, reflecting on the absurdity of humans and animals coexisting: “Every killer bee in the kids’ room/Every coyote in the freezer/Gone and gone.” The next track, “Upstairs Dan,” recounts the time she was rescued by a lifeguard, convinced as she held hands with him under the water that they were going to drown together. She tells the story in a way that sounds almost like an (albeit dark) fairy tale: “Helicoptering rabbits/The street cold as its mist/Omnipotence of boy/Drowning hand in hand with Daniel.”

Water is perhaps the most consistent theme throughout the album — sometimes used literally, sometimes metaphorically. “If I were under you/I’d be underwater/And lighting matches under water I found you/Dark blue,” Hersh sings in the opening track, “Dark Blue.” In “Bywater,” she sings of a goldfish in the toilet who is actually Freddie Mercury, “a mustached amputee heading out to sea.”

The album was recorded in New Orleans, LA, San Francisco, and New England, and many of the images are inspired by these varying locations. LA, in particular, is behind the album title. “The imagery is so California all over this record,” says Hersh. “California is not always shiny the way people think of. LA is often really rough-hewn, and I like the clatter of that. I like the brightness of it that is unapologetic but is not necessarily man-made.”

While the band is known for disorienting time signature changes and unfamiliar chord progressions, the songs on Sun Racket are intentionally steady, repetitive, and hypnotic; Hersh describes them as drone-like. “For the first time in this band’s life, the songs were asking us to just grind out this mood,” she says. “We had to just throw up our arms and do the right thing by the songs, and after that, it’s not my concern if anyone pays attention.”

Hersh describes her music as having a life of its own, which often overrides her own plans for the production. “I always know exactly where I want to place every mic the day I step foot in the studio on the first day — which mics I want to use, which amplifiers, where the kick-drum is going to go — I know everything, and I realize within the first hour that I’m completely wrong,” she says. “I do this every time. This is approaching 40 years of recording. I had good ideas, walked all over the songs, and dressed them up for picture day, and you end up with a little kid who doesn’t look like he does in the picture.”

Most of Hersh’s sonic experimentation happens in what she describes as an instrumental atmospheric layer in her songs, where she incorporates heavy distortion, giving the music a “ghostly element.” In songs like “Kay Catherine,” drawn-out, warped harmonies give the music a dreamy, psychedelic feel.

Hersh has been playing in bands since she was 14 and started Throwing Muses with her stepsister Tanya Donelly in 1981 in Newport, Rhode Island. They signed with Warner Brothers subsidiary Sire in 1987, but Hersh eventually bought herself out of her contract to eschew what she viewed as a lack of artistic freedom, especially for women, in the music industry.

“I was no longer willing to participate in an industry that is degrading to women,” she says. “They said, ‘there are tons of girls who will whore themselves out to have your place,’ and I said, ‘great, let me go. I want to be a real woman, and real women are humans. We have intelligence, work ethic, and passion; we are not 2D images that are manipulating men with fashion.'”

For Hersh, her work has always been in service to the music itself. “In the musical world, you’re tasked with not thinking ahead; you’re tasked with focus,” she says. “I love that the songs are always worth listening to, are always smarter than you. First thing I had to do as a real songwriter is shut up; songs say what they need to.”

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Musique Boutique: Maggie Herron, Tanya Donelly & the Parkington Sisters, and Norma Tanega

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

Before the darkness of the pandemic descended, you could see jazz pianist Maggie Herron every Wednesday through Saturday at Lewers Lounge, tucked away in a corner of the elegant Halekulani, a luxury resort in Waikiki. Over the course of an evening you might hear the classically-trained Herron performing standards like “I’m Beginning to See the Light” or “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” or perhaps something from a musical, like “Whatever Lola Wants.” There are modern songs too; her albums have included the likes of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” and the Beatles’ “I Will,” as well as original material.

The Lewers gig went on hiatus when Halekulani closed for renovations due to the pandemic, with the plan of reopening next year. Then Herron was dealt a harsher blow: her daughter, Dawn, was killed in a bicycle accident this past April. Mother and daughter were co-songwriters, and had been working on material for Herron’s next album. Mourning her loss, and housebound due to the pandemic, Herron decided to complete her album, and Your Refrain is an eloquent tribute to their creative bond.

The album is not without its humorous touches. “I’m not feeling very well” is the album’s opening salvo in the first track, “What Not,” but it turns out to be a light-hearted number about the joys of lethargy. “I just need to spend my days lying on this couch,” Herron sings, making that sound like a pretty good idea. The lively “He Can’t Even Lay An Egg” is a fun number with typical blues innuendo, about a strutting rooster who falls down on the job in other ways. Herron’s husky voice is well suited to this cheeky tune. The playful “I Can’t Seem to Find My Man” is in a similar vein.

On the other end of the spectrum are numbers like the beautiful love song “Touch,” with a lyrical acoustic guitar solo from Jim Chiodini. The album’s covers serve as further tributes to Herron’s daughter. Dawn loved the work of Joni Mitchell, and Herron’s simple arrangement of “Both Sides Now” (Herron on piano, Dean Taba on bass) brings out the underlying melancholy. The resonant “God Bless the Child” is enhanced by a smooth tenor sax solo by Bob Sheppard.

And the title track is the heartbreaker. “Your Refrain” is a song of loss, a song of holding your loved one close even when they’re no longer present: “Without breath, without sound, you still remain.” Herron’s piano is complemented by a string arrangement that adds to the melancholy mood. It’s a song about holding on, in the face of sorrow. But it’s not the end of the story. There are other songs the two have written that Herron has yet to record, so we can look forward to more work from this songwriting team in the future.

When Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, the Breeders, Belly) was asked to record a covers album for American Laundromat Records, she initially demurred, thinking, how can you improve a song that’s great already? But then she realized she could bring in other artists as well, opening up the possibility of creating something truly special. So she tapped the Boston-based Parkington Sisters to join her, and their resulting self-titled album offers a diverse mix of songs, with some unexpected choices.

The Go-Go’s (“Automatic”) and the Pretenders (“Kid”) are some obvious picks. The use of violin, viola, and cello over the electric guitars of the original gives “Automatic” a warmer, richer feeling, while the mid-tempo “Kid” has a more wistful cast to it. Singers love to cover Leonard Cohen, and the Donelly/Parkington version of “Dance Me to the End of Love” has an ethereal, somewhat spooky quality (Maggie Herron covered the same song on her A Ton of Trouble album). They draw on Kirsty MacColl’s arrangement of “Days” (itself a cover, as MacColl was covering a Kinks’ track), their lovely harmonies a perfect match for the song.

There’s a move into classic rock, with the group taking on Wings’ “Let Me Roll It,” with a performance that scales back the volume of the original, but is just as emotionally powerful. Then there’s Echo & the Bunnyman’s sweeping “Ocean Rain.” In the hands of Donelly and the Sisters, it’s far more languid, and ultimately uplifting. And I actually prefer their version of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “You Will Be Loved Again,” which also spotlights the musicians’ exquisite harmonies.

“Hear the unloved weeping like rain/Guard your sleep from the sound of their pain” Norma Tanega advises in “You’re Dead,” the lead off track from her 1966 album Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog. More recently, you might recognize it as the theme song for the FX series What We Do In the Shadows, about modern-day vampires. The spare instrumentation and Tanega’s cool, dry vocals give her bleak observations (“Don’t ever talk with your eyes/Be sure that you compromise”) a world-weary matter-of-factness: This is real life. Deal with it.

Prior to Shadows, Tanega’s best-known song was the title number of her debut album (newly reissued in a limited-edition run on sky blue vinyl by Real Gone Music). It’s an upbeat number reminiscent of “Feelin’ Groovy,” with quirky lyrics rooted in truth. Tanega wanted a dog, but, unable to keep one where she was living, she did the next best thing – getting a cat and naming him Dog, a pet she’d then walk around town like a real canine.

It’s part and parcel of Tanega’s idiosyncratic approach to her music. “The folkies don’t like me and the rock ‘n’ rollies don’t like me,” she said in an interview, a quote that pinpoints the difficulty of slotting her into any one category. You’ll hear folk and pop all right, along with jazz, country, blues, avant garde experimentation, and unusual time signatures that keep you off balance. Tanega had a relationship with Dusty Springfield, who recorded a number of her songs; compare the poetic folksiness of Tanega’s “No Stranger Am I” with the crisp sheen of Springfield’s version. Another nice surprise; “Hey Girl” is Tanega’s arrangement of Lead Belly’s classic blues “In the Pines” (aka “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”). Worth rediscovering.

ONLY NOISE: On Loving the Beatles As a Black Woman

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Stephanie Phillips finds a way to relate to the Beatles – even though, as a black woman, their version of Britishness didn’t reflect her own experience.

Whether it was the power chord-driven emotional roar of Olympia’s Sleater-Kinney or the proto-riot grrrl wail of X-Ray Spex, as a young black girl who who spent all of her free time devouring new music, these musicians made my little teen self and all of my complex emotions feel seen. Yet, growing up in England in the ‘90s, there was one inescapable group that epitomized the way the country liked to see itself: The Beatles. As four white men who first made their name first reinterpreting the work of black artists, The Beatles were as British as the Empire itself – a glorious example of the British bulldog spirit and post-war triumph. In a country that, at the best of times, treats people like me with complete disregard (and at the worst has seen grown men making monkey noises at my ten-year-old self), how could I possibly feel connected to the four men they’d chosen as their ambassadors of Britishness? I wrote them off for as long as I could, deeming their work too misogynist, too irrelevant, or too old. So I was as stunned as anyone when The Beatles became one of my biggest influences as a musician and lover of music history.

The Beatles were so ubiquitous I can’t recall where I was when I first heard their music. Maybe I had to sing it as part of the alternative, contemporary songs portion of service at my church. It could have been background noise whirring from another TV special as I obliviously played with my brother as a kid. There’s always a chance the Fab Four blared out over tinny speakers at the local supermarket as I perused the perishables aisle with my mum. You were never introduced to The Beatles, they were just there, woven into the fabric of everyday life, an immovable presence in the British musical canon, one which no one would openly question.

Almost because of their popularity, they are also one of world’s most misunderstood bands. The source of the misinformation is usually middle-aged, know-it-all male fans – the kind who only drink real ale and, after a few pints, speak too loudly on the opinion that modern music is rubbish. These tiresome messengers of the drab bring the Four down to their level of mediocrity with their lacklustre covers of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and their insistence “Hey Jude” is the best Beatles song. It’s not, by a long stretch. This left me with the impression that the Beatles’ music only sounded sickly, sweet, and terribly dated.

The sad dad army wreaked havoc on the Beatles’ legacy and that’s even before you get into the steaming layers of toxic masculinity surrounding the band. Each member has had to answer to how they treated the women in their lives and we all know the stories of violence and macho aggression that are associated with John Lennon. How could I love a band who perhaps didn’t love women like me? I didn’t know how to get over these barriers. I decided I couldn’t and gave up, following my path into the exhilarating world of riot grrrl.

The author as a teen.

My early twenties were spent lying in my room listening to Giant Drag, Le Tigre and The Long Blondes, expanding my tastes by finding bands that were connected to them and repeating that same process. Looking back it was inevitable my aimless mission to devour all the music would eventually lead me to The Beatles; much like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it was obvious that many bands would be inspired by or connected to the Beatles’ in some way, especially with the music industry continually pushing them to the forefront. Given my disdain for the Beatles’ association with British culture, it seems apt it that American bands eventually drew me into the Beatles’ genius. The Pixies, Breeders, and Throwing Muses all covered songs from the White Album; some were b-sides lovingly recreated, others were carefully reinterpreted takes on the original.

The Pixies’ cover of “Wild Honey Pie,” for instance, took what was a short, frenzied, carnival-esque snippet of a song and transformed it into an art rock scream fest. The Pixies used the repetitive nature of the song to further amp up the passion at the beating heart of the track. It was a brilliant homage to the kooky original, which was one of a collection of songs that illustrated the Fab Four’s love of all things odd.

The Breeders recorded a slower, moodier take on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on their debut album Pod, while Throwing Muses released on haunting version of “Cry Baby Cry” on their 1991 single “Not Too Soon.” All in all the mysterious lyrics, complex time signatures and raw attitude spoke to me. I needed to know more, so I sought out the album.

The pressure to automatically revere a band instantly sucks all of the joy out of the listening process, like force-feeding yourself chocolate cake – it’s good, but you’d prefer a smaller slice on your own time. Taking The White Album in note by note, the world of The Beatles started to reveal itself to me. Far from being the unlistenable nonsense I always associated with them, the album was challenging, deep and experimental without showing off. I finally understood the melancholy outlook of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and its untamed classic rock guitar noodling. There were manically upbeat songs like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey,” sparse proto-goth tunes like “Dear Prudence,” and garage blues punk on “Helter Skelter.” I listened to the album over and over again, taking in the incredible number of influences and genres that made this epic project. The album wasn’t coherent – the songs rarely followed any pop structure, and had unpredictable twists and turns. I was fixated with these sounds and finding out how they came to be. With each listen I heard so many of the bands I already loved in this one album. Turns out, I had been listening to the Beatles far longer than I’d realised, and I had to admit I’d been was wrong about them. They were a missing part of my music history puzzle.

If I was wrong about this album, I had to reason I might have been wrong about the rest of their music, so I kept listening and searching. There was a lot of ground to cover – decades worth of recordings, documentaries, films, rereleases and a lifetime’s worth of coverage. I devoured it all and came out the other end a Beatles devotee.

I had to admit that their cheeky, laddish attitude was addictive to watch, and a lot of the praise they were given is arguably true. I found as much beauty in their early recordings as I did their backstory. The reason their work resonates with so many is because their songs were simple and about universal themes of love and lust. The desperate appeal to an inattentive lover on “Please, Please Me” is sadly relatable. When I heard the crack in John’s voice on middle eighth of “This Boy” it hit me as hard as as any of the most eloquent poetry on heartbreak and loss. When The Beatles got it right they managed to create a world where anyone, no matter their background, could live vicariously through them. That’s when it clicked. The real winning element of the Beatles goes beyond their songs and exists in their story as a group.

And yet, I know so many black people who struggle to connect with the band, that feel disconnected from the white culture the band represent, and are far too aware that the Beatles built their reputation by imitating African American soul and R&B. I felt the same and it is true. The Beatles connection to whiteness and England is rarely discussed. It was a huge barrier that made liking the band seem insurmountable. The gatekeepers of rock and roll had told me that this was the greatest band in modern history, erasing the contributions of the genre’s black pioneers, and that was extremely off-putting. But the more I listened, I heard the influence of black musicians, like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Motown acts like The Marvelettes. The Beatles could interpret any music style to their own benefit, and were emotive and adaptable songwriters, but unlike Led Zeppelin or Eric Clapton, they did not try and pass off black innovation as their own. The Beatles covered their favourite songs, put their own spin on them so as not to rip them off completely, and pointed fans in the direction of artists they were inspired by. Their effort to do so still resonates today, considering many white musicians fail to meet these basic requirements.

As a black female creative who often struggles to buck up my confidence and go out into the world, listening to The Beatles gives me the strength to imagine what I could be. It reminds me what I could create if capitalism, white supremacy and misogyny weren’t rooting for me to fail. Because despite the numerous books and documentaries declaring so, John, George, Paul and Ringo were not geniuses. Their ten year soap opera of a story gave me permission to dream of what could happen if I had everything – the money to buy whatever I wanted, the time to write, the confidence provided by millions of adoring fans. Perhaps when teenage girls screamed themselves into delirious frenzy at the sight of the boys, they weren’t just caught up in teenage lust, but were hungry to be any part of something as alive and powerful as rock and roll.

In a world where black bodies are policed at every available moment and black joy is looked on with suspicion there is rarely an opportunity for black people to dream freely. It’s why I always tell my friends about the power of The Beatles, though my sales pitch often falls on deaf ears. Who would believe black people could find respite in the words of four white guys from Liverpool? Though it’s likely that was not their intention, their enduring music gives me space to fully realise myself. I can sit back and take in the best of Revolver or Rubber Soul while imagining who and what I could be as a musician, a music fan and a black woman.