23 Sep 2023

Clear Pond Road by Kristin Hersh

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 23 September 2023

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American musician Kristin Hersh

American musician Kristin Hersh Photo: Pete Mellekas

The songs of Kristin Hersh have always felt otherworldly, so it perhaps wasn't a shock to learn that, for decades, they came to her subconsciously. In 2014 she told the Sydney Morning Herald “I have no memory of having written or performed any of my songs, ever.''

There were false diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, then eventually she was correctly identified as having post-traumatic stress disorder. When she received treatment around ten years ago, it revealed dissociative disorder. Hersh had another personality, which she dubbed Rat Girl, who had been writing and performing her music. 

After successful treatment involving psychotherapy and controlled eye movements, she can remain, in her words, “present the whole time”. She rightly rejects the notion that her condition aided her craft in any way.

Her last solo album Possible Dust Clouds was written following the successful treatment, and is defined by distortion and a degree of chaos. Its follow up, Clear Pond Road, takes almost the opposite approach, stripping her sound to its bare essentials.

Hersh’s band Throwing Muses were a defining nineties act, and central to that was her malleable guitar playing and intuitive word choices. The 1994 song ‘Your Ghost’, featuring Michael Stipe, is probably her most well-known, and absolutely deserves its place in the pantheon.

The new album is clearly the work of the same songwriter, with a fondness for alternating between spry fingerpicking, bold chordal chugs (as on ‘Ms Haha’), and a mix of the two, in tracks like ‘Constance Street’. She’s a player who uses the instrument to its fullest.

In conversation with Elliott Childs on Music 101, Hersh said while recording these songs she found they wanted sparser arrangements, paring them back to their essence. She included field recording of wind chimes and birds, which are not always noticeable but add to the sense of place. 

There are also ghostly, reverb-heavy moments like ‘Palmetto’, which, as she told Childs, is particularly personal, concerning she and her son fleeing what she calls a “stalker landlord”.

Clear Pond Road is a deceptively tranquil record, but, as with much of Hersh’s output, scratch the surface and you find the type of roiling chaos that made its way to the surface on her last solo effort. 

The way she speaks through her guitar - frequently overdubbed to create a jumble of string sounds - is as distinctive as always, and her rasp is still one of the best in the business. The songs have always been hers, it’s just that now she can remember them.