For the better part of a decade, Rachel Hirsh has been performing with the pop-rock outfit I Was Totally Destroying It, co-piloting the band on vocals, guitar, and keys alongside longtime local John Booker. But when the band slowed down and stopped touring in 2012, Hirsh began writing songs on her own terms. After a few slow-burn years of developing her solo material, Hirsh released her debut EP as Bruxes, Boys Will Be Boys, last fall. There, she opened up about her mental health in songs that brood behind gleaming production. From her Raleigh apartment, Hirsh shared her thoughts on some of the music that's shaped her own musical work.
BIKINI KILL, PUSSY WHIPPED (1993)
Like many women who grew up in the nineties, Hirsh got introduced to the riot grrrl ethos of third-wave feminism via the inimitable Kathleen Hanna.
I stumbled across them in the used-CD section at the Schoolkids on Franklin. The Singles was the first CD I got by them, I was twelve or thirteen at the time. It opened up my eyes to this whole new world of music. At the time, I was listening to the radio, because that's what you know what to listen to when you're twelve or thireen. The radio was nothing but nu metal at the time. Kathleen Hanna is definitely a really big inspiration to me, in terms of taking up a lot of space and being really vocal about her politics through music. The Girls to the Front movement is really awesome—having a really safe space for everyone at shows. She's just the coolest.
I stumbled on Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Le Tigre all at the same time, and then I was just insufferably cool about them. I just got way into nineties indie rock, and late eighties, early nineties punky stuff. That really shaped what kind of music I ended up wanting to pursue. I was like a crash-course feminist teenager, where I had no idea what I was talking about, but I believed in it with all my heart. I definitely still had a lot of weird musical missteps along the way—not missteps, but decided I liked random things that aren't cool on paper as a teenager, like you're supposed to do when you're figuring out what music you like.
THE SMITHS, THE QUEEN IS DEAD (1986)
The influence of eighties pop production and, in particular, Johnny Marr's guitar work, weighs heavily on the overall sound of Boys Will Be Boys.
I wouldn't say that I'm a huge Smiths fan, but I'm a huge fan of eighties production. I'm a big fan of shimmery guitars and snares that sound like they're being played in an empty warehouse. One of my favorite songs, period, is "How Soon Is Now." I wish I'd written that song.
I really like the glossy, synthetic, kind of dramatic sounds of the eighties. Which is weird, because I also love the super stripped-down, raw, nineties indie rock stuff, where no one really knew how to play their instruments and are just being loud. Balancing those two is really fun, but confusing.
I WAS TOTALLY DESTROYING IT, HORROR VACUI (2009)
This cut from I Was Totally Destroying It is the power pop high-water mark on the band's excellent third record.
I don't want to say that Bruxes is mine and Destroying It is John's, because we both collaborate with each other on those things. He wrote a lot of the music for Bruxes—not the songs, but the things that he plays, and was very integral to the production of the EP. Bruxes is definitely a more personal project for me.
In 2012, after Destroying It stopped touring, I got really bummed. I didn't know where to channel my energy next, so I just kind of started writing songs for myself just to kind of prove that I could still do it. Bruxes is like my weird "I've got something to prove" project. We're not super active—I'm not going on tour and playing a ton of shows or anything, but it's kind of my "I can do this" project.
NATALIE IMBRUGLIA, LEFT IN THE MIDDLE (1997)
This one-hit wonder is in Hirsh's repertoire with 120 Minutes, the nineties cover band she performs in with some of her Bruxes bandmates.
There are definitely worse ways to spend a few hours working than playing stupid songs with my friends. I'm pretty sure it was John Booker who was like, "We should totally do this! The nineties are coming back!" We were really excited about it, because that's our shit.
It's definitely not a cool thing to do—none of us are like, "Yeah, we're hot shit, we're in a nineties cover band," but it's nice to be playing music and look out and see the happy recognition flash across someone's face when you play their song from college or high school. It's a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling.
HANSON, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (1997)
Hirsh freely admits that she was once a massive Hanson fan. "Where's the Love" was the band's second single after its mega-hit, "MMMBop."
They were the first band where marketing worked on me. I was a bit young when it first came out—I was seven—so it kind of took a year or two after that to be like, "OK, I love Hanson now." It was the first thing where I totally bought into the hype. I bought books about them, I had merch, and I would freak out when they put out new CDs and stuff. I don't get fanatical about a lot of stuff. I love a lot of different things, but there are very few things I get fanatical about. One of those things would be Hanson. I loved them, and Backstreet Boys, and to a lesser extent, NSYNC at the same time. Those were really my, "I like boys!" bands.
I immediately bought tickets at The Ritz to see them in September. It's disturbing how excited I am. I guess I just didn't outgrow that love for them. I stopped paying attention to them after a while, because I turned into an insufferable Bikini Kill fan.
X-RAY SPEX,GERMFREE ADOLESCENTS (1978)
The band's frontwoman, Poly Styrene, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1991, and Hirsh spends much of her EP sharing her own experience with the condition.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2009. I guess the tip is "Write what you know," and I felt like I kind of burnt out on the kind of stuff I was writing for Destroying It. I was kind of like, "Maybe I should stop trying so hard and reel it back in and write what I know." And what I know is me, and all my bullshit.
Stripping everything down and admitting a lot to myself was very therapeutic. I am the most confident and strangely happy I've ever been right now. I'm legitimately happy right now. I'm happy, because I'm acknowledging that I'm unhappy, if that makes sense. I'm just being very honest with myself and everyone in my life. It's much easier to navigate life that way than pretending everything's OK and that there's nothing wrong.
It was a nice way to reach inside of myself and pull out everything that I was not wanting to admit to myself, and at the same time, reach out to other people and let them know, "This is actually what I'm like."
Poly Styrene's awesome. At the time, she didn't have the super-commercial look to her. She wore weird clothes and had braces and stuff. That was really cool that she was like, "This is what I look like, and I'm in a punk band with a saxophone, so deal with it."
KATE BUSH, HOUNDS OF LOVE (1985)
Hirsh suggests we close our session with the immaculate title cut from Bush's celebrated LP.
I want to sound like that. Hounds of Love is perfect. She's another unapologetic weirdo. This record is awesome because it came after The Dreaming, which people gave her a lot of shit for, because it was so off-the-charts weird. It was her artsiest record to date at the time. She started out as this very coquettish ingénue with [1978's] The Kick Inside, and then she put out The Dreaming [in 1982], and it was mad weird. She was interpretive dancing, and everyone was like, "Oh, Kate, you're crazy!" Then she came back with the most perfect record and it exploded. She had all this success, and she's just basically like, "Yeah, I'm a genius, everybody suck it."
I'm such a fan, musically and personally, of people who are unapologetic. I'm a big admirer of people who are true to themselves and just lay it out there.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hear Her Roar."