As the headliner at Saturday's sixth annual Traditions Festival in New London's Hygienic Art Park, Kristin Hersh has plenty of appropriate material from which to mold a compelling setlist.
After all, despite her indie- and alt-rock cred as the main songwriter/vocalist/guitarist for Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave, Hersh has released eight solo albums, many of which are steeped in acoustic balladry and archival stylings. And since Traditions is a festival focused on the storytelling aspect of music, particularly as it applies to all forms of American roots music, Hersh could then cherry-pick ideal tunes in anticipation of her performance, right?
Only one problem. Hersh hates planning her sets in advance.
"I never know what I'm going to play on any particular night and I just don't prepare too many songs ahead of time. It's a pain in the ass," she says, laughing, over the phone from New Orleans, where her manager/husband, Billy O'Connell, teaches at Loyola. In conversation, Hersh's voice is warm and charming - as though the Atlanta native is about to break into a verse of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South."
Hersh says she likes to take the stage, feel out the venue and the crowd, and play to the characteristics and energy implied by each setting.
"In this context, with the storytelling aspect of the festival, I might even do a reading," she says.
Why not? In addition to her prolific and e'er-exploring musical output, Hersh is the author of the well-received memoir "Rat Girl," wherein she candidly and self-effacingly discusses her remarkable 18th year in which she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, became a mother and saw Throwing Muses become rock stars.
Interestingly, Hersh, now 46, described the two creative activities - music and the written word - as respectively having very different effects on her. She's long described music as a very dark force that she simply cannot deny, one from which songs sort of spontaneously explode regardless of her will.
"I've gotten to where I'm thoroughly at peace with the way music works for me - with what it is - but it's very, very intense," she says. "It's hard to love something that much - something that's a spontaneous impulse that demands so much of your personality. But I've reached a point where it's only dark if I decide to view it that way."
The writing of "Rat Girl," on the other hand, was a contrasting experience. "The book absolutely did not fly out the way songs do," she says. "There was a definite therapeutic value (to writing it), and I've heard from so many that there is a kind of sweetness to the tone that has helped some bipolar individuals who might need a story to cling to as they move beyond the initial stages after their diagnosis."
Hersh's latest solo project is actually a fusion of both disciplines. "Crooked" is, yes, a studio album of songs but, at the same time, it's a book with not just artwork and lyrics but also Hersh-penned essays on each tune. As well, each copy of "Crooked" includes a digital code that provides access for the purchaser of a variety of online bonuses ranging from videos and song outtakes to sample chapters of a new memoir and apps that allow fans to remix each song.
It's a deliciously ambitious interactive and multi-media project that indicates an evolving and visionary DIY strategy that empowers her own career without having to deal with record labels.
"I've struggled in a business where, for years, we knew the band would die as soon as our crappy equipment died," she says. "The labels have a vested interest in your progress, but unless you're doing an in-store or you're onstage, that's where the interest ends. Over time, you begin to feel the distance as your popularity fades or changes. The industry will corrupt you if you don't play along - and ("Crooked") is a solution that was parsed out over the years by me and others. I had to do it."
It's important to note that, along with her solo work, Hersh is happily busy with both Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave. The former have been working on a massive, 40-plus song album funded by fans, and 50 Foot Wave released an EP called "With Love From the Men's Room" earlier this year.
As for which of her many songs end up in what project, Hersh laughs and says, "I don't write anything on purpose. I wish I did. Basically, whichever guitar I pick up to play probably dictates whether it will be a solo song or one for the Muses or 50 Foot Wave. If it's an acoustic, it's gonna be a solo song. If it's the Les Paul or the SG, it'll be Throwing Muses, and Stratocaster means 50 Foot Wave. Oddly, I didn't figure this out for years."
As for the being on the road, there is one significant constant. Whether solo, out with the Wave or the Muses, Hersh has no need of a road crew. Her four boys routinely accompany her on tour.
"If they can carry out the garbage - and they do - then they carry a guitar amp," she laughs. "They're strong boys. They've always traveled with me. Musicians have a nice lifestyle and it's romantic, but it's not always very healthy. Over the years, they've been nurtured by aunts and uncles all over the world. We've had Hell's Angels in the crowd who brought them coloring books, and the great part about the whole experience is they absolutely did not grow up judging anyone; they have no concept of sexism and racism. We've been very lucky."