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It's Hem again

By Dan MacIntosh, December 2004

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Ellyson has been outspoken in the press about her love for lullabies, and there is also a distinctly motherly quality in the way she sings.

"When a mother sings a lullaby to a child, she's trying not just to comfort, but also to put a child to sleep," Messe notes. "It's quiet. So even the strongest emotion is sort of tempered. And for me, it's an incredibly compelling sound. And she just captures it naturally. That's her natural way of approaching what could sometimes be very dark songs. In lullabies, the imagery is sometimes very dark as well."

Speaking of children's music and art, Messe is unashamedly a big fan of the film "Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." Not only does he dig this classic Roald Dahl story, but he also - being a musician - appreciates its musical score. "Those arrangements are absolutely magical," Messe enthuses. "For Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse - who were the composers/lyricists on that - it was clearly a labor of love with them and that score."

Listening to the cinematic quality of its songs, especially the overall vibe of the new album, it's surprising that Hem hasn't been able to indulge its love of film by doing additional soundtrack work.

"We've never been asked," Messe admits. "When we signed with DreamWorks a couple years ago, that was definitely a part of the talks. I guess they call it synergy between the film and us because we write such cinematic music. But before that (synergy) could happen, they (DreamWorks) went under, so it hasn't happened yet."

Watching its initial major label home fold hasn't seemed to phase this band too much. Hem has learned to roll with the punches in this topsy-turvy musical world, instead.

Just as this new album came out on the band's own Waveland label first, and is now distributed by Rounder, its debut evolved from being self-released, to becoming a Setanta product in the UK, and onto Bar/None in the U.S before making its way to DreamWorks.

The band consists of Gary Maurer on guitar, Steve Curtis on mandolin and banjo, Catherine Popper on bass, Mark Brother on drums, Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel and Heather Zimmerman on violin.

Clearly, this group has learned to stand on its own two feet and not be too overly dependent upon the "music business machine" for its artistic livelihood.

"We were never a part of the industry before it wasn't in turmoil," Messe comments. "So, it just seemed like standard operation procedure for us: You're gonna sign with a label, and that label's gonna go under. We basically have always had to steward ourselves in the business, so it's nothing new for us. We've also been fortunate enough to have a lawyer who is also a big fan of ours and gives us better treatment and more attention than we probably deserve. And he's been very careful about the contracts that he lets us sign. And as a result, we've managed to hold onto all of our masters and really have control over our own destiny, for the most part. Even when we signed with the corporate behemoths."

This act is probably a tricky one for most "corporate behemoths" to handle, since it is a difficult-to-categorize band. It's not twangy enough to be called pure country, but it's also many times more expansive than your typical folk music collective. Similarly, it's equally tough to group its fans into any sort of a nice, neat group.

"There are some cities where the college kids have sort of found us, and there are other cities where it's a much older audience," Messe attempts to explain. "And there are some cities where we've done a lot of daylight shows, where there were little kids in the audience. I think our music appeals to a bunch of demographics, and we sort of delight in playing for all those different types of people."

"I would say the strangest show we ever did, happened when we were touring with Beth Orton," Messe continues. "We played on the floor of a casino in Reno. That was pretty odd. Pretty surreal. What's so crazy is that it was actually an incredibly successful show. You had these people sitting at the craps table, where every one of them came up and bought CDs afterward. Some of them said that we even gave them some good luck."

Messe, at least, probably felt right at home in such a casino atmosphere.

"I have a weakness for gambling," he admits. "My father taught us all how to gamble when we were kids. We needed to learn how to 'gamble right,' as he says. And by being in the music industry, that's probably as close to professional gambling as I'm going to get."

Despite this admitted weakness for gaming, the subject of gambling hasn't yet explicitly made it into Hem's music. "The song "Lucky" from the new album is a little bit about gambling," Messe adds weakly, though.

In case you're wondering, Messe is not the son of a professional bookie or something lowbrow like that. Instead, his parents are both psychologists. But they're also not musicians, either.

"They're music lovers, for sure," Messe says. "I was weaned on their record collection, and it definitely made me who I am today. And they've also never discouraged me from becoming a musician, which is another great gift that they gave me."

With this parental encouragement, Messe has been able to create musical gifts like "Eveningland." And in the same way that this release crosses multiple musical lines, it also blurs the borders - lyrically - between a sense of childlike wonder, and a more mature adult contemplation.

"I wanted to create a mythical place, almost like a fairytale place. But one where I could talk about things that were sort of dark," Messe explains.

"Eveningland" may detail a long day's journey into a particularly dark night, but it's also a unique place well worth visiting.

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