Jewel-Toned Insides: Talking with Throwing Muses and Tanya Donelly
December 17, 2013 | by Peter Terzian
The debut album by Throwing Muses was released in 1986, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. Back then I had a friend who listened almost exclusively to artists on the British independent label 4AD, and I wanted to have musical tastes as esoteric as his. He told me that Throwing Muses—who lived in Boston, like we did—was the label’s first American signing, and I bought their record without having heard a note of it, only moments after a clerk in the Harvard Square branch of Newbury Comics slipped it into the “new releases” bin. I reasoned that since the record had come from England, and Boston was the easternmost major port in the United States, I was probably the first person in America to buy it, and for a long time I went around saying this. At that time my friends and I played a lot of I-heard-them-before-you-did—I saw R.E.M. in a tiny club with only fifteen other people before they were famous—and naturally there was a little of this involved, but my proprietary feelings toward Throwing Muses were more personal. I had finally found the music that was meant for me.
Back in my dorm room I studied the inner sleeve of the record trying to make sense of the lyrics.
Follow the road, swallow a snake, find shoes in the corner, run away.
Rent go ob ed a no face way shoes jealous fuck you stand up
Sometimes an obvious meaning broke through. “Home is a rage, feels like a cage”: I understood that. But even when coherence was just out of reach, the music completed the logic of the songs. I heard the anguish and frustration in Kristin Hersh’s thin, quavering voice. The instruments churned and chugged, or mapped out herky-jerky rhythms, and frequently broke into a wild, cathartic hillbilly dance.
He won’t ride in cars anymore
It reminds him of blowjobs
That he’s a queer
And his eyes and his hair
Stuck to the roof over the wheel
Like a pigeon on a tire goes around
And circles over circles.
I had never before heard a song with the words queer and blowjob in it. But I had just come out of the closet, and this song, “Vicky’s Box,” somehow made me feel acknowledged. The wheel and the pigeon were mysterious, but they felt true. It was as though the band had detected the dark, metallic sadness that I was so urgently trying to believe wasn’t there.
“Kristin puts a lot of pictures in front of you, and you draw your own conclusions about how they all fit together,” David Narcizo, the drummer for Throwing Muses, tells me during a recent Skype conversation. “You also don’t have to if you don’t want to. I used to liken it to early R.E.M. and Cocteau Twins. I didn’t know what they were saying, but there are moments in those songs when I would think, I totally feel that. You get a sense of something genuine, but you don’t have to define it.”
Hersh formed Throwing Muses in the early 1980s with her stepsister, Tanya Donelly, while they were teenagers growing up on Aquidneck Island on the Rhode Island coast. Both played guitar and sang; in the DNA of Hersh’s early songs you can detect traces of such inventive and intuitive punk bands as the Raincoats and X. The sisters recruited Narcizo, a childhood friend, to play drums, and Leslie Langston, a local musician, to play bass. Hersh was the primary songwriter; Donelly contributed one or two songs per album.
An impressionistic timeline:
1987: Throwing Muses play a surprise Saturday afternoon show at the Rat, a grubby basement club, and I watch while standing on a chair at the side of the room. The ceiling is so low that I can touch it. The band performs a few new songs, and this is when I first hear Hersh’s “Cry Baby Cry,” a clarion call against despair that still has the power to remind me of why it’s good to be alive. The room swells with sound, and for a moment I have the exhilarating sense that I’m actually inside the music. “The whole point of doing a show is to turn a room into a church,” Hersh says twenty-six years later when I interview her by telephone, and I remember how that concert gave me a feeling of transcendence that I had never felt inside a real church.
1988: At Newbury Comics (I lived at Newbury Comics), a bossy friend whose every word I hang upon sees me pick up House Tornado, the band’s new, second album, and says, “You’re not going to buy that, are you?” I sheepishly let it fall back. I’ve started frequenting Boston’s dance clubs, and my friends and I are fans of arch and polished British bands like Pet Shop Boys and New Order. It takes me a while to learn that I don’t have to take sides.
1991: I read a glowing review of a new Throwing Muses album, The Real Ramona, and regret that I ever turned my back on them. I buy all the albums that came out while I wasn’t listening.
1992: Donelly begins writing more songs and leaves to form Belly, her own band, which includes two brothers with handsome surfer looks. I so eagerly await the appearance of their first album that on the night before its release I have a dream that one of the brothers asks me to be his date to the launch party. Meanwhile, Throwing Muses regroups as a three-piece, with new bassist Bernard Georges.
1994: Hersh’s first solo album, Hips and Makers, appears. Her songs have by now taken on a yearning sweetness. Nonetheless, when I play the single “Your Ghost,” for my guitar teacher, because I want him to teach me the fingering, he has difficulty figuring out the time signature. “Who’s that singing with her?” he asks me. “Michael Stipe,” I reply. “Oh,” he says, “well, no wonder.”
1996: I pretend I am sick, employing some dramatic fake coughing, so that I can leave work early and buy a Throwing Muses album called Limbo on the day of its release at an HMV in midtown New York that is now a Build-A-Bear Workshop. (And maybe, since it’s barely lunchtime, I am once again the first person in America to buy it.) Not long after, the band leaves behind the world of corporate rock. Living in different parts of the country, they tour and record together less frequently—their next album doesn’t appear until 2003.
2011: Hersh, an early adopter of the pay-what-you-wish model, posts solo demos for a new Throwing Muses project on the CASH Music Web site. I am immediately convinced that they are among the best songs she’s written.
Purgatory/Paradise—the band’s first album in ten years—comes with a downloadable commentary track during which Hersh and Narcizo chat about the music while it plays in the background. There’s a heartbreaking song called “Dripping Trees.” “You a clean spark or a twisted parody? Well, look at me,” Hersh sings. “These wicked memories—it all comes down, eventually.” The melody sounds like something tumbling earthward, in slow, sad, stately spirals, and yet still landing perfectly on its feet. “This is such an ‘us’ song,” she says on the commentary, and laughs. “It’s so us because you can’t tell if it’s saying something good or something bad … Anthemic and pathetic at the same time.”
Hersh’s songs traditionally have dramatic time shifts partway through. On Purgatory/Paradise, it’s as if the songs broke apart and the pieces started mingling. (For example, the third track is called “Sleepwalking 2.” “Sleepwalking 1,” its sonic cousin, is the twenty-seventh track.) “A bridge will show up as a chorus or as an instrumental later on,” she explains, “or a song will show up again but not really. Some of the songs are thirty seconds long, but they’re not unrealized for that.” The result is a little like a landscape as seen from a passing car: a hill, a valley, a dense patch of trees, another hill, a stretch of wide-open field, another valley. Narcizo describes Purgatory/Paradise as a fusion of Hersh’s band and solo sounds: “I hear within this record a little more of her personal acoustic feeling. Our other records were always vying for your attention—in a good way. This one is more delicate. It sits down next to you.”
Hersh says that this is the album that they can die after making, and for this she credits the fact that, being now listener-funded, she can take five years to record and revise. “We had this lump of granite, about seventy-five songs written over the last decade, and we just erased and erased until we had thirty-two.” The result has “a nice, Velvet Underground, flow-y feel. We didn’t want to sound too experimental. When you’re erratic you can hurt people’s feelings, and I’m not about that.” She has said that she writes songs after first hearing them as auditory hallucinations. “The music that I’ve always heard is not the music I’ve put down on records, because what I hear would freak people out. It would sound like alien sounds. So I’ve always tried to be nice and package it—not with lipstick, but maybe with a bow.”
Purgatory/Paradise comes packaged as a book designed by Narcizo’s graphic design firm, Lakuna, and published by HarperCollins. (The CD is tucked inside.) The album takes its name from the intersection of Purgatory Road and Paradise Avenue on Aquidneck Island, and the murk-green cover is a close-up Narcizo took of a local landmark called Purgatory Chasm, a long cleft in a high rock ledge overlooking the ocean. “I was going for a kind of Hardy Boys look,” he says. But the endpapers are warm gold, and the book’s pages—filled with essays by Hersh and photographs by Hersh and Narcizo—are overlaid with bright tints. “I wanted it to look like fruit. You peel off this dark husk and get all these jewel-toned insides.”
I point out to Hersh that twenty-seven years is true longevity. “It’s also poverty,” she says. “If you’re never in, you’re never out. We never made much of a living but we’re still here. We were happy over the past decade to play for each other and the sky and whoever showed up, because that’s what music really is. You can’t count the number of people paying attention. That certainly doesn’t make it matter, and sometimes it makes it matter less. You just have to measure the impact, and that can be measured even if there’s nobody there.”
Since Belly broke up in 1995, Donelly has released solo albums at a leisurely pace—her last came out in 2006. Meanwhile, she began a career as a postpartum doula. “This is something that nobody likes to hear,” she tells me over the telephone, “but I was happy disappearing into my own life for a while. But a few years ago I had this epiphanic week where I realized, I think I’m retired! Am I retired? I’m not doing music any more! And it made me panicky and made me think I didn’t take ownership of my own endpaper. It just happened to me.”
In 2009 the musician and novelist Wesley Stace invited Donelly to take part in his semiregular Cabinet of Wonders variety shows, where musicians, writers, and comedians perform together onstage. “Afterward we would all hang out and everyone would say, Hey, we should do something,” she says. “And I classlessly took them up on it.” The result is the Swan Song Series, an ongoing project launched in August that is turning out to be as epic in its own way as Purgatory/Paradise. Four of a projected five digital-only EPs have been released, with another on the way in January. Each is comprised of collaborations—with Donelly’s musician husband, Dean Fisher; with former Throwing Muses and Belly bandmates; with friends from the Magnetic Fields, the Breeders, and Buffalo Tom, among other groups that rose out of the Boston music scene; and with fiction writers. So far the series has featured two ravishing songs cowritten with Rick Moody, and another with lyrics Donelly adapted from an original short story that Mary Gaitskill sent her. Contributions by Tom Perotta and Paul Harding are in the works.
“[Donelly’s] lyrics have become breathtaking,” Moody writes in an e-mail. “These songs are about conflicted and elegiac adulthood, parenting, long love, disaffiliation, grief, loss. They are in the Leonard Cohen category, at this point, in terms of how pinpoint their accuracy is about adult things. My wife, Laurel, and I actually begged her to sing her song ‘This Hungry Life’ at our wedding recently, even though it’s a wistful thing, for just this reason. Because we wanted to decorate our nuptial event with her kind of pinpoint accuracy.” A few minutes later, a corrective e-mail arrives, stating that Laurel quarrels with that last line. “She says, ‘It’s the most moving song I’ve heard in my life and I was honored she sang it.”
Donelly’s music is often described as brighter and poppier than Hersh’s, but that comparison overlooks the long struggle with anxiety and doubt at the heart of her songs. Her albums often end in crashing apocalypse. “Judas My Heart,” the finale of Belly’s King, is about “a lady who walks everywhere on her hands, doesn’t trust where her feet want to take her.” Beautysleep closes with a dove falling into the sea. “I can’t stop the fallout,” she sings at the finish of Whiskey Tango Ghosts.
The flipside is that so many of Donelly’s lyrics are directly consolatory. There was a period when I spent a lot of time listening to a slow, hallucinatory song from Beautysleep called “Another Moment,” a letter to someone having to face things they’re not prepared to. “Time to move your sorry bones up off the floor,” she sings, “time to make sure the current pauses at your door.” The “you” in this song must be a downcast partner, I thought. After a few more listens, I began to wonder if the “you” was actually the singer. “It was!” Donelly says when I ask her. “That’s a song to a mirror. What’s funny is that I had at least four of my close friends come up to me and say, Are you talking to me?”
It may be in the nature of creative work that you’re always quitting and never quitting. When I ask Hersh if she thinks that the band might be able to record more frequently in the future, she says, “Either that or never again.” Narcizo imagines Throwing Muses working in the manner of a European art collective, releasing “stuff”—songs, essays, whatever arises. (He’s currently planning the reincarnation of his musical side project, also called Lakuna.)
In interviews, Donelly has intimated that, per its name, the Swan Song Series is the last music she’ll release—a kind of prolonged retirement party. But as we talk, it becomes obvious that new collaborations keep lining up and that the project is self-generating. “I still have more songs than volumes at this point, so after the EPs we’ll be trickling it out song by song,” she says. I happened to speak to Narcizo the day after Donelly visited him in Rhode Island. “When I told her I was going to do more Lakuna stuff,” he tells me, “she said, Oh, I’ll take one of those for Swan Song. I said, What’s the deal with that—is it done? She said, It’s never ending, I’m just going to keep doing it.”
Purgatory/Paradise is out now. Donelly’s Swan Song Series can be downloaded here.