Reviving the Lullaby: Under the Blanket With Hem

Single-handedly re-creating the lullaby, Hem’s pastoral sound evokes buried memories and timeless melodies. “You can take comfort now,” sings Hem’s Sally Ellyson in “Firethief,” one of many soothing tracks on Eveningland, the band’s latest album. That’s more than a lyric: it’s a mantra, a promise, and essentially a working aesthetic for this gifted Brooklyn ensemble whose brand of Americana sounds more romantic, more emotionally rich, than the norm. They aim to take you deeper into the heart of American music, reaching deeper into your heart in the process. The ecstatic response to Hem’s 2002 debut, Rabbit Songs, and their latest release suggests that more than a few heartstrings are indeed being tugged. Many listeners, it seems, need comfort these days.

“That’s the theme of the album,” said Dan Messé, Hem’s keyboardist and primary songwriter. “I think at our best, in my best songs and Sally’s singing, we achieve some sort of ability to comfort. That’s definitely what we’re looking for.”

The warmth of Hem’s music doesn’t derive just from its bucolic imagery or thoughts of family/romantic togetherness and childhood innocence. Simply discovering music like this, finding a band that goes against the commercial grain and weaves its own unique musical tapestry, feels somehow reassuring. Single-handedly re-creating the lullaby, Hem’s pastoral sound evokes buried memories and timeless melodies.

“Singing was like recreation in our house,” said Ellyson, whose parents sang her and her siblings to sleep nightly during childhood. In church and on car trips with her family, she learned standards like “Down in the Valley,” “White Choral Bells,” and “The Ash Grove.” Regarding such songs, she added: “Dan and I have a great deal in common in terms of what we love in music. We love old music, the songs that evoke this heartbreaking sadness and…hope. Those songs are the ones that get you in the gut.”

Ironically, we almost never heard Hem’s focus, the dulcet voice of Ellyson, who lacked both vocal training and designs on a music career. Comfortably employed as a TV producer on shows like 48 Hours, she answered a two-week-old Village Voice want ad for a singer (placed by Messé) only after being badgered by a friend.

Messé, dispirited from hearing scores of singers who failed to match his vision, told Ellyson to send a demo. “But I didn’t have one,” she noted. “So he said, ’Well, just come over to my house and sing some songs by the piano.’ Now that I wasn’t ready for. But I realized I’d made these lullaby tapes of songs that my parents used to sing my sister and brother and I to sleep with every night.”

Ellyson delivered such a tape, but Messé didn’t hurry to play it; in fact, he did so only accidentally, intending to listen to something else–and Ellyson’s voice bowled him over. Messé quickly contacted her, thus filling the Hem lineup, which includes guitarist/producer Gary Maurer and guitarist/vocalist Steve Curtis.

“It completely changed how we made records,” Messé said of Ellyson’s arrival. “When we started working with her, Gary and I were immediately like, ’anything that gets in the way of Sally’s voice has to go.’ So we started carving out…these huge troughs for Sally’s voice to inhabit, where no other frequency was getting near it. What we found, though, by doing that was that we were able to have these really lush orchestrations without it sounding like a wall of sound.”

The resulting blend of enchanting vocals and inspired arrangements landed Rabbit Songs on numerous 2004 “best of” lists. Songs like “All That I’m Good For,” “Stupid Mouth Shut” and the aching “Lazy Eye” enthralled many listeners. “It’s like being sung to by your mother, basically,” Messé remarked of Ellyson’s voice and Hem’s nostalgic sound. “I have a two-year-old son who’s in love with Sally. [“And vice versa,” Ellyson interjected with a laugh.] All he wants to hear is Sally singing. He literally wakes up and says, ’Sally sing! Sally sing!’ And then he sings along.”

Regarding Messé’s evocative compositions, Ellyson also waxes enthusiastic: “It’s a real gift that I get to be the first person to sing them. One of the things I always loved about my parents’ singing is that it was just this subtle, beautiful experience.  I tend to be drawn to that type of music. Meeting Dan and hearing his songs for the first time, I remember feeling like, oh my God! These are the most beautiful songs! I couldn’t have asked for more perfect songs that fit my taste and what I love.”

 Messé, meanwhile, admitted to autobiographical inspiration for his tunes: “But I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter. It’s much more that I’ll take something that happened and turn it into a metaphor that makes sense for me. I like to keep a lot of myself for myself and my family. I don’t create a personal mythology.”

Instrumentally, Hem’s two discs are primarily acoustic, with Messé’s delicate piano playing adding a texture that mirrors Ellyson’s tender vocals. Elegant strings also grace the CDs, especially Eveningland. Gershwin, Kern, and Leonard Bernstein count as influences, as does Aaron Copland.

“Copland was a huge influence,” said Messé, “especially in the arrangements. If you listen to ’Half Acre,’ that’s basically a big rip-off of Copland. He created what we considered the American sound to be.” Ellyson agreed, citing the romance, the innocence and the magic of Copland’s heyday.

To capture such magic on disc, of course, requires not mere desire but studio wizardry–another area where Hem inspires awe. When Michigan native Messé moved to New York to attend NYU, he met Maurer through studio projects, connecting with him both creatively and personally. Over drinks, the two of them then brainstormed with Curtis–a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Cornell–about a simple but melodically rich Americana project. None imagined the distance they’d travel once Ellyson arrived.

“We had a crash course with Rabbit Songs,” said Messé. To match the warmth of Ellyson’s voice, he and Maurer embraced analogue–tape and old microphones. (“You’re dealing with old-school producers here!” joked Ellyson before praising their meticulousness.) Messé confessed that an abundance of electric guitar on Eveningland may have shocked some fans. “There’s not a single piece of wood, string or electronica that can’t add something,” he remarked by way of disclaimer. “I would never say we wouldn’t record with a certain instrument–but we lean toward the acoustic stuff.”

In that regard, working in Europe with the Slovak Radio Orchestra illustrated Hem’s ability to meet daunting challenges and put the music first. “We knew we wanted to have an orchestral sound on this album,” said Messé. Unfortunately, orchestras and concert halls from the first half of the last century were either unavailable or nonexistent. However, Greg Calbi, who does the band’s mastering, shared with them a project he’d been working on with the SRO. “And it was exactly the sound we were looking for,” Messé continued. “It sort of evoked the countrypolitan music we loved or the Muscle Shoals sound. So Greg got us in touch with the liaison over there, and before we knew it, we were on a plane.”

The visit to the Slovak Republic was anything but smooth, though, noted Ellyson: “We got there, and there was no recording studio!”

“They were renovating the control room,” Messé explained. “So the first day, we played through some of the arrangements we had. And we went out for this congratulatory dinner. We were all saying, ’Oh, this is gonna be awesome. It sounds great!’ So we come the next day, ready to record the stuff we heard, and that’s when we discovered there was literally no way to get it onto tape. Gary basically created a studio from scratch, made from old eastern European equipment. No one slept. It was crazy.”

When asked how they kept their heads through this ordeal, Messé and Ellyson simultaneously shouted, “Vodka!” Fortunately, Maurer’s studio savvy proved a saving grace, and the Slovak Orchestra’s sublime work now weaves its way through the tracks on Eveningland. On rustic gems like “My Father’s Waltz,” Curtis’s “Hollow” (“probably my favorite song on the album,” said Messé), “Strays,” and “The Beautiful Sea,” the strings add elegance and textural richness to songs already emotionally potent and timeless. Miraculously, the songs still sound effortless.

Also, there’s a cinematic flavor to Hem’s music which is no accident; the band members think in cinematic terms, and both of their albums contain short instrumentals much like film cues. “When I listen to this album, I have a movie in my head,” said Messé. “All great albums feel cinematic to me.” Ellyson echoed that sentiment: “I feel like personally, when I hear the music, I can see it in films so easily. So many times lately, I’ve been turned onto music through a movie, rather than through the radio. Marrying these two art forms can be powerful.”

No Hem fan will be surprised if the band is asked to score a film someday, or if one of their songs underscores some particularly poignant celluloid moment. Hem songs are very romantic: you can well imagine a love-struck couple sharing a tender moment as Ellyson’s voice caresses the ears. Ellyson has also revealed herself to be a gifted interpreter of other people’s songs. An unexpected highlight on Eveningland is a cover of “Jackson,” long a standard for Johnny Cash and his wife June.

“We needed to put something out in England because England had Rabbit Songs a year before America did, so we decided to do a little EP of covers, just to keep our profile up,” said Messé. “And my friend Tom Bodean had just given me a mix which had ‘Jackson’ on it. There’s that dialogue between Johnny and June Carter, where he brings his wife up and she’s talking, and he goes, ’Y’know, I love to watch you talk.’ She says, ’I’m talking with my mouth, it’s up here,’ because, you know, he was looking at her breasts. And I just loved that phrase, ’I’m talking with my mouth.’ It’s straightforward. I mean, there’s a sexual undertone, too, but I think it’s really, ’I’m being as straightforward as I can, the most important part of myself.’ And so we decided to call that album I’m Talking With My Mouth. So of course, we had to cover ’Jackson’ if we did that. And we went about reinventing it. As soon as we heard Sally singing it, we realized this fun little song was actually very melancholy.”

Other interesting covers on I’m Talking include Elvis Costello’s “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Valentine’s Day.” But unquestionably, it’s Hem’s originals that have captivated fans the most. “We hear from people a lot who give birth to our music, or they get married to our music,” said Ellyson. “It seems to me that’s one of the best compliments we get. For a lot of people, the largest experiences in their lives, they choose to have our music accompany them.”

Adulation from both fans and critics can sometimes heap pressure on a band; is it a source of inspiration or anxiety for Hem?

“I don’t think it’s either so much,” said Messe. “We’re really our own harshest critics. If I have a lyric in a song that doesn’t ring true, Sally won’t keep her mouth shut about it. And with the sound, Gary and I will have a screaming argument until we realize what needs to happen.”

“By the time it’s out, we’ve all fully embraced it,” added Ellyson. “So if the world thumbed their noses at us, sure, we wouldn’t be overjoyed, but we wouldn’t second-guess ourselves.”

“We want more than anything to keep doing this,” said Messe. “We’re not making the most commercial music…but we made a decision that we were gonna follow our hearts. It’s definitely a struggle, but we just sort of cling to each other and this sound that we’ve created together—and hope that it’s gonna be a strong enough raft to carry us along.”

Hem performs at Off Broadway on February 9.

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