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Hem Biography

Last updated: 09/05/2006

Sally Ellyson - Vocals
Dan Messe - Piano, Glockenspiel, Celeste, Harmony Vocals
Steve Curtis - Guitar, Mandolin, Harmony Vocals
Gary Maurer - Guitar, Mandolin, Harmonica, Harmony Vocals
Bob Hoffnar - Pedal Steel Guitar, Dobro
Mark Brotter - Drums, Percussion
Heather Zimmerman - Violin
George Rush - Bass
Dawn Landes - Harmony Vocals, Glockenspiel

Band Biography Part III - Funnel Cloud

Hem's third studio album, Funnel Cloud , features songs of such carefully crafted, dream-like beauty that it's almost impossible to place exactly where they've come from or even in what era they might have been recorded. You can hear a subtle country twang, the storytelling simplicity of great folk music, a touch of Tin Pan Alley sophistication. They at times recall the emotionally stirring sweep of movie music from an age when the best pictures were shot in Cinemascope and orchestras crowded onto sound stages to perform the scores. These tunes are so immediately involving, sometimes so soothingly familiar, that you'll insist you know them - and love them - already. Hem exists very much in the here and now, but always manages to evoke the timeless.

The seven-year old quartet- vocalist Sally Ellyson, pianist Dan Messé, guitarists Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis - hails from Brooklyn, New York. However, they conjure up such vivid, often pastoral settings and restless, lonesome characters in their songs, you may suspect that they long ago discovered some fantastic, secret portal in an old borough building that instantly transports them from their urban environs to a wide open prairie far, far away. Although Messé, Maurer and Curtis individually and jointly contribute material to Hem's repertoire, their vision is remarkably unified. As Ellyson, who channels all their imagery, explains, "Each song is its own world. They really show an amazing ability, that I don't think everyone has, to create a world in song after song that you can become so connected to, that brings you such deep feelings -- pain, joy, sorrow."

Funnel Cloud is Hem's most lushly orchestrated work, yet it's also the group's most pop-oriented effort. The immediate standout is "Not California," a compelling tale of displaced lovers that was already featured earlier this year on NPR's All Songs Considered . Heart-tugging verses glide into an instantly memorable chorus, and it all builds to a gorgeous, string-laden finale. "Too Late To Turn Back Now" has an early-seventies country-rock feel; its background strings recall the brilliant charts that legendary arranger Paul Buckmaster created for Tumbleweed Connection-period Elton John. "The Pills Stopped Working" is a mid-album showstopper, a rollicking number featuring honky-tonk piano, wailing harmonica, gospel-like vocal harmonies from guest singers Amy Helm of Ollabelle and former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha, and a soaring horn section. Says Ellyson, "We're experimenting and having fun and you can hear that on the record."

The majority of material on Funnel Cloud moves at an elegant slow-dance tempo, all of it held together by Ellyson's miraculous voice. She has the pristine, comforting quality of a singer from a classic animated Disney movie, yet the stories she tells can be as disquieting as David Lynch's Blue Velvet , in which unimaginable dangers lurk behind a bright, primary-color façade. For example, over the subtly portentous arrangement of the title track, Ellyson gently describes the moment before a pastoral scene is obliterated by a tornado: "Over the horizon, the same thing every day/Until a painted backdrop rises up and blows a world away."

That one lyric serves as a central metaphor for the album -- a transfixing moment of stillness before romantic or physical disaster strikes - but it came straight out of real life, when Messe was on his way to Ellyson's wedding in Virginia: "The day before, I stopped at a state fair with my wife, who was pregnant, and our child. It was the most perfect day you could ever imagine, the most perfect country fair on the most perfect summer day. Then all of sudden, there was one cloud in the sky and it got bigger and bigger and bigger until they were evacuating the entire park. Five tornados touched down in that area. There were funnel clouds all around us."

Earlier this year, Hem collected cover songs, outtakes, live cuts and demos from the last five years - including an inspired version of the Fountains Of Wayne's "Radiation Vibe" -- on a compilation disc, No Word From Tom . They decided to add a few new tracks, but had little time to do it, so they went into the studio with a sense of spontaneity that informed the subsequent sessions for Funnel Cloud . As Curtis recalls, "We approached No Word For Tom thinking we were going to get together and make something quick and dirty, keep our fans happy, get in and out of the studio, have some fun making music. We'd get everybody in to play at the same time and see what happens when the tape starts rolling. That not only proved to be efficient, it was a great deal of fun and musically exciting. Three or four months later, when it came time to make this record, we felt very comfortable with each other in the studio, very comfortable with the recording process. We began with fewer known goal posts; it was very much a record that happened in the studio. A lot of the writing happened there, a lot of the arrangement ideas came together as we were playing together, eighteen musicians at the same time. I never had so much fun in the studio; there was just magic happening."

The seven-year old group has never enjoyed the luxury of a Hollywood soundstage, but did manage to squeeze their longtime arranger Greg Pliska and all eighteen pieces of the Gowanus Radio Orchestra - strings, brass, wood winds -- into a studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to record Funnel Cloud . Says Messé, who co-produces Hem with Maurer, "It's not a giant live room. We had people playing on the balcony; Gary just stuck people everywhere. The first two songs we did were 'Hotel Fire' and 'Reservoir.' As soon as those two were done, it was like this incredible uncorking of a bottle and all these other songs started finishing themselves, one after another."

"One of the big differences in getting the tracks on this record," adds Maurer, "is that Dan and I did a lot less directing. We just know what each other is going to do. We played a million shows with each other, and as when we were making No Word From Tom , you really don't have to say much. There were at least eight songs that we hadn't even rehearsed before."

Since its inception, Hem hasn't employed any technological shortcuts to achieve its sound; it has been perhaps the most truly independent-minded of indie bands. Co-founder Dan Messé was so committed to a made-by-human-hands approach that he began selling off his possessions to finance the recording of Rabbit Songs , the band's 2001 debut. Messé's act of faith did not go unrewarded; the reviews of Rabbit Songs were nothing short of rapturous. Rolling Stone called it a "a passionate and beautiful folk-pop record"; Time Out London described it as "fragile pastoral is rare, rich, sad and innocent, yet warm to the touch and wet with desire." The Associated Press simply declared it "an exquisite album." After Rabbit Songs was featured on NPR's All Things Considered , Hem steadily built a passionate national following.

Messé and Maurer - working musicians, composers and producers -- had long wanted, in Messé's words, "to do this dream project that combined all of our favorite influences, from the Carter Family to Aaron Copland to the Rolling Stones." They enlisted Messé's college buddy Curtis to join this quixotic adventure and the trio, likeminded songwriters but not lead singers, decided to place an ad in the Village Voice for vocalists to help them realize their vision. That seemed to yield nothing. Then, well after the listing had expired, Messé got a call from Ellyson, who was a television producer at the time. She'd never sung professionally, but did have a cassette of lullabies she'd recorded for a friend's child. As Messé, skeptical of her talents until he put on her tape, told the Boston Globe, "I couldn't believe that voice existed... We all sort of feel like it was The Wizard of Oz . Like the exact right person showed up at the exact right time to get us home." Snippets from that tape are included at the beginning of Rabbit Songs and at the end of 2004's Eveningland .

"It was so pretty," says Ellyson of the material her new band-mates were writing, "so not like what was in vogue at the time, it was something we liked and something we were personally attached to, but didn't know if anybody else would be. We weren't really making an album to become a band. We were making something for ourselves. At least that's what I was told - otherwise I never would have done it. Then, because we'd given friends copies of Rabbit Songs , we had a show, our first real show - and it sold out. Then we had another show - and that sold out too. It turned out that people loved this little thing we had given to them and made copies for their friends. It was a grassroots movement and that spurred us on to start playing regularly, then people started talking to us about actually releasing the album."

Since then, Hem has developed a large and loyal international audience, playing shows with artists such as Elvis Costello, Beth Orton and Wilco, and at venues ranging from alternative rock mainstays like Schuba's Tavern in Chicago to the stunning glass-walled concert hall of Jazz At Lincoln Center, overlooking Central Park (where they had enough room to bring along an entire orchestra.) Yet their sensibility has changed little since the days when Messe's "dream project" just existed in his head.

"The themes that have captured our imagination since Rabbit Songs and Eveningland still seem to capture us, "Messé admits, "even though we're at a different part of our journey - like the idea of taking comfort where you can find it, the pull of the past and how you can get stuck in it, the fear of going forward, and the way life has a way of moving you forward no matter what. This album is very much about that. Funnel Cloud is really kicking us forward. I feel like we go back to the same themes, just with different perspectives."

You'll want to go back there as well, to the big, beautiful, sometimes scary world that Hem has found and continues to intrepidly explore. Funnel Cloud , you'll discover, can be literally transporting. - Michael Hill

Band Biography Part II - Eveningland

Less than two years ago, Hem self-released their first album Rabbit Songs. The band outgrew their cult following as critics from Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and NPR, among many others, praised the debut. The New York Times called them, "one of Manhattan's most promising...bands," and Magnet said, "American music doesn't get any better than this."

In 2003 the band was signed to Dreamworks and recorded their second album for the now defunct major label. This anticipated sophomore recording, Eveningland is out now on Waveland/Rounder Records. Hem will be touring the U.S. beginning in November. Please see reverse for a full schedule.

Recording for Eveningland began at Stratosphere Sound in New York City. Then the band flew to the Slovak Republic to record with the world famous Slovak Radio Orchestra. As bandleader Dan Messé explains, "I cannot imagine a more intense way to begin recording an album. From the moment we landed, the challenges, both musically and technically, were far beyond anything we had encountered before. It was an all-consuming, disorienting and ultimately magical time for us." Co-produced by band mates Dan Messé and Gary Maurer, Eveningland updates the rustic charm of Rabbit Songs by adding lush and textured arrangements to the mix.

Messé admits, "These songs have more of a relationship to the `60s and early `70s. We're all in love with that Countrypolitan sound." The album ranges from the intimate, nostalgic feel of "Pacific Street" and "Receiver" to the bold and lush arrangements of "Firethief" and "Hollow." The result is an album that feels both immediate and timeless.

The eight-piece is establishing themselves as one of the most distinctive and emotionally rewarding bands in American music. Entertainment Weekly described the music as "...beautifully recorded, warm sounding instruments" and described singer Sally Ellyson's voice as possessing "an understated confidence that wows with serene confidence."

Band Biography Part I - Rabbit Songs

In the spring of 1999, songwriter Dan Messé (piano, glockenspiel, harmonium) teamed up with producer/engineer Gary Maurer (guitar, mandolin) and decided to make a record. He hoped that it would stylistically interweave their interest in traditional American music with more of a contemporary aesthetic. Dan and Gary's mutual friend Steve Curtis (guitar, mandolin) became involved and all that was needed was a singer.

The band placed an ad in the Village Voice. An onslaught of bizarre demos followed suit and so the ad was pulled.

Shortly thereafter a woman named Sally Ellyson called Dan in response to it, cautioning that she wasn't really a "singer". To get her off the phone Dan asked for a demo, skeptical to say the least. This home-made tape of Sally unaccompanied, singing versions of traditional lullabies, was spare, deceptively uncomplicated and as spine-tingling as anything Dan could have hoped for. The band that would now call itself Hem had found its singer.

Having started off as a low-budget collaboration between musician friends, the Rabbit Songs sessions seemed to take on a life of their own. As the album began to take shape, the band realized that they were creating something special. Dan commenced selling off most of his personal possessions so he could afford the 18 piece orchestras, and the luxury of being as painstaking as they wanted over the arrangements of each song. No samples, no synths, no Pro-Tools mixing and no digital studio wizardry were employed. Rabbit Songs is an old school album, recorded the old school way. Gary, a seasoned studio engineer, has worked with a host of artists and bands including Jon Spencer, Luna, Fountains Of Wayne and James Iha.

A fragment of the home-made tape Sally made for Dan serves as the starting point for Rabbit Songs' historical exploration of American music. The music is lush and filled with eclectic harmonies: a mandolin enveloped by an eighteen-piece orchestra, a pedal steel accentuated by a glockenspiel, underpinned by the guitar in an elaborate framework. And through it all, Sally's beautiful voice shaping each word.

Rabbit Songs is a labor of love. As you listen, we hope you will understand why band members were bankrupted to complete it.