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Hem spins tales in "Funnel Cloud"

By Jason MacNeil, November 2006

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"I wanted to reject that," he continues. "I feel we're incredibly lucky both as a band and as people, and yet we're still able to fall prey to the way the media romanticizes certain wealth and privilege. For me, it had a way of making me feel bad about my life. The line 'And I'm the one who wants to be with you tonight...,' I'm talking about my wife and my life. That soft-focused consumerism shown on those shows maybe isn't the most healthy thing to aspire to when real life can be pretty sweet and magical."

The song also features a guest appearance by James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins fame. Messe says having Iha on the album was a feather in his cap.

"James has been a friend of ours for a while," he says. "I've known him for years, and he's been a huge supporter. With 'Rabbit Songs, there were A&R people constantly hanging around, and they hated it. They were like, 'This is too pretty. This will never sell.' James would say, 'I don't know what you're talking about! There's an audience for this.' It just meant the world to me. Even if it's just him going 'Na na na na na na' on 'Not California,' it means a lot to me to hear his voice there."

Another song that has a silver lining off of "Funnel Cloud" is the warm, nostalgic and yet melancholic "Great Houses Of New York," a song Messe had as a title for a long time.

"I tend to get inspired by titles, and I feel that they're really evocative," he says. "That's the title that has been around for a couple of years. Every time I thought about it I was like, 'There's a great song there. I don't know what it is, but I know there's a great song there that I want to write.'"

"I was driving north of here," he adds. "There are neighborhoods like Tuxedo Park where there are all these great houses that the Roosevelts, Astors and Rockefellers lived in, and yet, that world doesn't exist anymore. There was something incredibly poignant to me about this world that was once the center of the world in terms of power, art and culture, and now it's a museum. I guess for me, I've always been much more attractive to after the party's over than the party itself. You can tell at one point it was a glorious world, and I wanted to capture that idea. It's worth being reduced to ruins as long as you have that moment where you were truly great."

Although Messe and Maurer often co-write, Messe says that the songwriting process isn't as simple as sitting down and putting pen to paper.

"I feel like the craft is easier in that I know what my songwriting voice is now and in terms of the collaboration I have with Gary," he says. "It's a pretty efficient thing at this point. Is it easier? I don't know. I feel like I'm sallow maybe nine months out of the year, and I'm convinced I'll never write another song as long as I live. Then in those last three months, somehow those songs come out again. For me, every song I write, it feels like it's going to be the last song I ever write. I've got nothing left."

Hem spent a good part of 2006 on the road behind "Funnel Cloud," but is currently on a break from the road. Lead singer Sally Ellyson is expected to give birth sometime in November so no shows are on the near horizon. The group finished up its touring schedule in late October by opening for Beck at a small intimate gig.

But despite the lack of shows, Messe says touring in support of the new album was a revelation of sorts. Only once previously (a New York concert as part of Lincoln Center's Songbook Series) had the large studio ensemble been realized on stage.

"We went out with a little chamber orchestra, which is the first time we've ever done that," he says, his voice almost beaming. "We were able to do all of the arrangement ideas that we had worked on for the record in a live setting. Up until that time, we had always almost considered ourselves this studio project. We would always have to think hard about how to translate that vision into a live setting. I think we did a great job, and I think it's always interesting for the audience to hear how we create the arrangements that are still orchestral even as a folk ensemble."

Hem will stay off the road in early 2007 while Messe and Maurer work on some side projects. A Christmas song is also in the works and is being recorded. Messe says that Hem is expected to get back to the drawing board for album number 5 in mid-2007 by writing new material.

Overall though, Messe seems to have found the perfect home for his music as well as his personal life. And he's taking neither for granted.

"I know there's going to come a time when the kids are gone, and the house isn't as in good shape as it is now," he says. "It will be kind of sad, but at the same time those memories of those glory days cast a powerful spell."

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