Along with her creative chord chemistry, evocative lyrics, and unique vocals ranging from softly melodic singing to impassioned screaming, Hersh's signature contributions to alternative rock include being one of the first artists of that genre to address the complexities of marriage and motherhood in varied themes about every day life.
Born in Atlanta on August 7, 1966, she was raised in Newport, Rhode Island. Hersh, who has four sons, is married to her business manager, Billy O'Connell. Hearing her father, W. J. Hersh, play guitar when she was growing up led her to start writing songs at a young age. As a teenager, she formed Throwing Muses in the early 1980s with stepsister Tanya Donelly and other high school friends.
Hersh began singing and writing most of Throwing Muses' powerful, poetic songs in changing tempos, with Donelly also singing and writing some of the songs. The group was eventually signed by the British 4AD Records label after a few years, and also on Sire/Reprise Records by the second album. They began touring around the U.S. and Europe while releasing intense rock albums, as Hersh composed songs she said would "write themselves"1 without her conscious control, as though channeled from her psyche.2 Some of the publicity about Hersh has discussed how her music with the band at that time served as "salvation" from her bipolar disorder,3 but in general she has said that she has made a truce with her inner voices, visions, and ghosts over the years4, rather than fight the melodies that wake her up in the middle of the night.5
The band became a trio when Donelly left the group after 1991's The Real Ramona. In 1994, Hersh began an additional career on Sire/Reprise as an acoustic solo performer, beginning with Hips and Makers, an album sparely arranged around her vocals, guitar, and a cellist, in contrast to the volatile, electric sound of her Throwing Muses project. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. made an appearance on this first solo album. Hersh's solo songwriting style is vividly imagistic, focusing some of the relationship subject matter on her family.
While Hersh's work reflects her personal experience,6 she has stated she writes from a point of view outside of her personality so that her lyrics are not literal, autobiographical diary entries.7 Noting the contention of feminist author Susan Faludi that "anger is not something that's an admirable trait in woman, whereas the angry young man is a hero," the New York Times pointed to Hersh's explorations of "rage, aggression and mental chaos" as evidence that there were at least a few female female rock music artists by the early 1990s pushing against gender role boundaries to express more than simply vulnerability or defiance in their work.8
But anger has played only a very small part of the broad, sometimes tender emotional and psychological range of her songs; Hersh has mentioned before that the "angry young woman" fascination of rock journalists is cartoonish, not a three-dimensional view of women, nor what she aimed to achieve with her music.9 By the mid-1990s, writers acknowledged that the breadth of her "fierce, quirky, and imaginative" lyrical style included explorations of "emotional and physical love" combined with "elliptical puzzlement."10
After receiving some airplay for songs on the Throwing Muses University album in 1995, Hersh moved to Rykodisc for her next Throwing Muses album, Limbo, and her 1998 solo album, Strange Angels. She then primarily worked on solo material released on 4AD until her 2003 Throwing Muses self-titled album on the same label.
Her parents' Lookout Mountain heritage influenced her to record a solo album of Appalachian gothic folk tunes in 1998 -- Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight. Performing traditional songs was a rare covers excursion for the prolific songwriter, although she was no stranger to these tunes, having heard many of them played by her father when she was a child.11 In fact on other solo releases, Hersh has cowritten with her father two songs, "Uncle June and Aunt Kiyoti" and "Houdini Blues," also recording a third that he wrote on his own, "Sinkhole."
Hersh and her family began to move every few years to different parts of the United States. Her experiences in each location informed the emotional landscape of her songs. An example is how living for a period near Joshua Tree, California, impacted on the lyrical imagery in 1999's Sky Motel, an album on which she performed most of the instruments.12
Hersh's solo touring over the years has included co-billings with similarly minded artists like Vic Chesnutt, Grant Lee Phillips, and her longtime musical influence John Doe. While continuing to release solo albums into the 2000s, she formed a new, hard punk trio called 50 Foot Wave in 2003 when longtime Throwing Muses drummer David Narcizo was unable to continue performing on a full-time basis due to other commitments. Much of her touring and recording plans for 2004 through 2005 center around the new trio.