Taking Comfort in Beautiful Songs

Music Features
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Contrary to typical images the borough may conjure, backyards do exist in Brooklyn. In fact, on an overcast October Saturday, Hem’s core members are gathered on a patio behind a row house in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, brisk breezes summoning the season’s first sweatshirts and jackets.

This is the headquarters of Waveland Records and Hem Music, as well as the home of songwriter/keyboardist Dan Messé, his wife, Avra, and their almost two-year-old son, Reuben. As Dan, vocalist Sally Ellyson and guitarist/songwriters Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis circle around a patio table, a pregnant Avra sets out lunch inside for Reuben. Ellyson—just two weeks past her wedding day—excuses herself frequently to dote on the tow-headed tot, while Maurer smokes American Spirits and good-naturedly talks shop with Curtis. Hem’s music seems more influenced by domestic scenes like this than by any sense of ironic, of-the-moment trendiness. Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood, just a few miles away, might as well be another planet compared to the lush tenth-acre where Reuben gleefully pushes his toy lawnmower to and fro.

“I wanted to go back to a more innocent idea of what a song could be,”

says Messé, a Michigan native with an MFA in music performance and composition from New York University. “I was just so sick of writing and trying to be cool [in my previous band], or trying to write ironic songs. It just wasn’t me. I wanted to write songs like ‘Horsey’ [from 2001’s Rabbit Songs] I didn’t even know what I wanted the song to be about, but I knew I wanted a song called ‘Horsey’ just as a statement against writing ‘cool’ songs.”

Prior to Hem, Messé composed soundtracks for corporate road shows, industrial films and theater pieces. It wasn’t wasted time, he says, noting it helped him hone his musical craftsmanship and find his voice in Hem. For example, he was commissioned to write music for children’s theater: “These were shows that went out in front of 2,000 kids. I actually went and watched the way [the audiences] responded to music. It got me thinking, what is the elemental thing that draws humans to music? It’s amazing watching these kids because they’re totally incapable of being polite. So as soon as something doesn’t work, all of a sudden every kid in the theater is looking around and throwing shit … they’re no longer captivated. I wanted to write music that could reach adults in the same way.”

In a musical landscape populated by artists arming themselves with irony and attitude, Hem’s nakedly honest approach stands out. Rabbit Songs, the band’s first effort, made many critics’ best-of-2002 lists.

Evidence of how Hem’s music connects so deeply with listeners can be found in a personal story—that of my first child’s birth. Before heading to the hospital, my wife and I had the presence of mind to gather up a few much-loved CDs for the nerve-wracking hours ahead; one of them was Rabbit Songs. We’d already fallen in love with the recording over the previous months, but on that day it became forever tied to our lives as the soundtrack to our daughter’s first hours in the world.

And we weren’t the only ones making connections with Hem. When NPR’s Bob Boilen featured the CD, the band received reports of listeners overcome with tears to the point of having to pull over their cars. Even legendary record executive Lenny Waronker recalled being floored when handed a copy of Rabbit Songs by E. of the Eels. (Waronker signed the band to DreamWorks shortly thereafter.)

The band’s latest, Eveningland, proves that Hem’s ability to tap into bittersweet feelings is no accident. Messé’s lyrics—delivered by Ellyson’s dulcet voice and backed by richly intricate arrangements—continue to mine deep veins of heartrending poignancy. Hem’s songs provoke feelings associated with a father telling his son to be brave; with committed lovers sharing an embrace in the darkest hour of the night; with a new child arriving the same day one receives news of a parent’s passing … or in our case, with the appearance of our firstborn.

It’s Thursday night at 8:47 p.m. in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, a few days before Eveningland’s official release, and seven members of Hem (four core members and three touring musicians) are wedged into a carpet-walled, ninth-floor rehearsal studio carved out of an old industrial building. More than simply learning to play the songs live, the challenge the band faces tonight is how to approximate the orchestral glories of the recording.

Meanwhile, Ellyson is trying to shake loose the cobwebs from her voice after a season of inactivity. Upping the ante is the news the band just received—they’ll be opening for Wilco in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in only eight days.

“You ready to do a show in eight days?” Mary Moyer, the band’s publicist, asks Ellyson.

“No!” Ellyson says. “My voice is not ready. It’s all ‘awr awr awr.’”

After a few minutes, it becomes apparent how musical responsibility is shared. Messé acts as director, informing the group which song will be worked on next, requesting sections to be isolated and demonstrating glockenspiel parts for Dawn Landes, the singer/songwriter and studio engineer joining the band as an instrumentalist.

Curtis, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Cornell University and Messé’s oldest friend in the band, has been involved in Messé’s projects since they were both undergraduates at Minnesota’s Carleton College. He was the singer before Ellyson happened along, performing the “Burying Songs” cycle, which included a few pieces now in Hem’s repertoire. Within the band, Curtis seems tuned into Messé’s mindset; the side musicians therefore generally lock onto what he’s playing and how he’s playing it.

Maurer assumes a more active role, that of concertmaster. He advises musicians on the finer points of their playing, offers musical ideas (or shoots down ones he considers ill advised), and guards the mix and arrangement Messé has in mind. Unsurprisingly, Maurer has spent most of his adult life inside recording studios—even with rolling tape absent, he still acts like a producer.

“The problem with playing in Hem is that you can never f--- up,” notes Maurer, who, with his stubbly beard and shoulder-length hair, looks every inch the New York studio pro. “There’s so much doubling [of parts]. So if you f--- up, everyone knows.”

About the time Maurer makes this observation, I notice something I missed on Hem’s recordings. The songs, while seemingly simple and straightforward, are constructed with complex, often dense, arrangements. As the band rehearses “An Easy One,” one of Eveningland’s standout tracks, I can’t help noticing how much is going on at once.

During the verse, there are triad arpeggios on the glockenspiel, a single high note on Bob Hoffnar’s pedal steel, an electric guitar counter-melody, and root chords on the acoustic guitar and piano—all underneath Ellyson’s vocal melody. That the mix doesn’t sound at all busy is a tribute to the band’s musicianship, as well as their arranging skills.

On hearing the story of Hem’s beginning, those given to thoughts of fate, karma or divine appointment might raise a knowing eyebrow.

After moving to New York from Michigan to attend NYU, Messé met Maurer through studio work, and they “immediately connected, musically and personally,” he says. Although they all had active pursuits apart from being in a band, Messé, Maurer and Curtis would meet for drinks and talk about an Americana project driven by simple, emotionally direct songs backed by full arrangements.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” Messé now says. “Those should have been just drunken conversations.”

Then Messé found himself one day with $5,000 and a line on some inexpensive studio time, so he, Maurer and Curtis decided to pursue the dream—at least as a hobby or side project—and placed an ad for vocalists in the Village Voice. After a disappointing few weeks, the trio decided to pull the ad. (Messé now admits he heard some “perfectly competent” singers, but none who matched what he was hearing in his head.)

But Ellyson, then working as a television producer, spotted the ad in an old Voice and, egged on by some friends, decided to audition. Unfortunately, she didn’t find Messé in a receptive mood. When she called, he brusquely asked her for a demo, just to get her off the phone. Since Ellyson had never sung professionally, she didn’t have one, but she did have a cassette of lullabies she’d recorded for a friend.

Since Ellyson lived nearby, she asked if she could come over and dub a copy. Messé grudgingly agreed, and the visit quickly came and went. He had no intention of listening to the tape, but when he played what he thought was a different demo, fate intervened, and Sally’s gorgeous voice came floating out of the speakers.

I froze,” Messé says. “It was like being struck by lightning. I couldn’t believe it was that good. I played it over and over again. Friends would listen and tears would be streaming.”

Messé spent a full day in this enraptured state before finally calling Ellyson “as a fan.” “I said, ‘I don’t know if this will work out, but yours is the most amazing voice I’ve ever heard.’”

Now, “when I’m songwriting it’s her voice that I hear,” he says.

The next step may have been the most formidable: How to convince three adults with thriving careers to put it all on the back burner to join a band?

“All of us, except for Dan, were happy with our careers,” says Ellyson, who racked up producer credits at CBS’s 48 Hours and Court TV before stepping away to spend late nights in smoky bars behind a microphone. “I loved my job … I would work for 10 months without a break and would suddenly realize, ‘I haven’t had a vacation,’ and I didn’t feel like I needed one.”

As Maurer and Ellyson recall, they were pulled into the project step by step until it became all-consuming. The band laughs as Messé compares his role to that of a drug pusher. “First taste is free,” he says, grinning.

“How I started was not a choice really,” Ellyson says. “… it just kept on like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and bigger …” Screwing her face into a crooked grin, she adds, “Then I had to have three hits a day.”

As Hem gained momentum with a sold-out show at downtown Manhattan’s Fez, Steve Curtis found himself at a crossroads. Teaching and studying at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., he and his wife faced the prospect of relocating, as well as putting their academic dreams on hold for a while.

“I actually was involved with something that was a dream come true at that point,” Curtis says. “I was really happy doing what I was doing. Perhaps for that reason I was a more reluctant convert to this than others.”

In the final analysis, Rabbit Songs was the launching pad, Curtis concludes. “It was a band-making album, as opposed to an album-making band.”

It may be Hem’s destiny never to birth an album without a great deal of pain in the delivery. After nearly going bankrupt bringing Rabbit Songs into the world, the band faced similar anguish with Eveningland—albeit a different sort.

The band’s vision for the record was to summon the warm, lushly orchestrated sounds of the records they loved from the ’60s and ’70s. Albums like Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music; the countrypolitan records being produced in Nashville by George Jones, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton; and AM radio classics by The Carpenters and Bread were touchstones.

The band needed to flesh out the sound with a live orchestra, so they turned to arranger Greg Pliska, as well as to the Slovak National Radio Orchestra, based in not-so-nearby Bratislava, Slovakia. But the idea almost proved disastrous.

The band arrived in Eastern Europe with its basic tracks on master reels, only to discover they had no usable control room at the concert hall, and that the microphones were completely unusable because the facility was being renovated.

“Dan and Greg and I are sitting there listening to this incredible orchestra play our music and thinking, ‘We’d better enjoy this because we’re not going to get any of this on tape.’” Maurer says. “That day when we first realized that the equipment we heard was [supposed] to be ready to go wasn’t—that was one of the scariest moments of my life.”

Ultimately, the band was able to borrow the tools it needed, although things still failed to run smoothly.

“Even without the engineering problems and technical problems, we were tweaking arrangements,” Messé says. “It would take a whole day to tweak an arrangement because it wasn’t quite right. It’s impossible to really know what this is going to sound like until you actually hear it with an orchestra. We kept wanting to change stuff.”

“It drove them crazy,” Maurer adds. “An orchestra like that is not used to having their score changed … from take to take. They thought we were nuts doing it.

“I remember … Greg and I actually making a list of what we absolutely had to get done. We actually ended up with a short list of songs that we said, ‘OK, if we run out of time these are the three we’re not going to work on.’ And we ended up finishing everything, which we never thought we were going to do.”

Then, as the band members were mixing the record, they found out DreamWorks had been sold and that they were out of a label deal.

“I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach,” Messé says. Being on a nurturing label like DreamWorks was “like you’re a child and a dad is going to scoop you up in his arms and take care of everything.”

“I felt badly about [Hem] because I really do feel that they have their own sound and take on the world and certainly this country,” says Lenny Waronker, who co-led DreamWorks Records until it was sold. “The singing is amazing; Sally is fantastic. And the layers are just right on. There’s something really real, and Dan’s songs are amazing. So it was … a drag not to be able to follow that through because, had it worked, it would have been a great thing for the music business and people in general, who would hear it and like it.”

Hem manager Ger FitzGerald says that the chief reason a major label deal had been struck is that making Hem records costs so much money. “Even if they could make the money back,” says FitzGerald, “they had to have it in the first place.”

Eveningland ultimately found a home at Rounder Records, through a deal that put the label in charge of production and distribution while leaving marketing to the band. It’s essentially the same deal the band had with Bar/None Records for Rabbit Songs, FitzGerald says.

Despite the mandolins and pedal-steel twang on many of its songs, Hem isn’t a country band. If they are, they’re country in the sense that Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down” is country. It’s Americana in the broadest sense of the word—from Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac.

Ultimately, the pastoral imagery summoned is the greenery behind the Carroll Gardens brownstones, the bramble of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and the tree canopy on President Street, where Messé lives.

Although universally affecting, the songs are deeply personal, particularly this time around. “The Fire Thief,” Eveningland’s opening track, was the first song Messé wrote for his son Reuben, and it sets up what he considers the record’s narrative theme: taking comfort, whether in a spouse, child, friends or a beautiful song.

The beauty of Hem's music starkly contrasts the pain necessary to bring it into the world. In that, it has much in common with nearly every human pursuit. The children who break our hearts with their innocence and put us on the floor laughing with their silliness don't come prepackaged from a big box store. Delivery rooms everywhere are filled with blood and sweat and screams, but rare is the mother who complains when a new child is placed in her arms.

Hem doesn't produce "feel good" music, but as life extracts its tributes of blood, sweat and the occasional anguished cry, few artists deliver more hard-won solace with each spin of a compact disc. Even Messé sees it this way.

"More than anything, I wanted to be comforted," he says. "Life is very hard, but if I can write a beautiful song and Sally can sing it, I can feel better."