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The All About Hem Interview

In Boston, MA on May 6, 2005 for their show at The Paradise Lounge, Hem graciously sat down for an interview with the All About Hem staff of one. Crammed around our little table was Steve Curtis, Sally Ellyson, Gary Maurer, Dan Messe, and me (Christina). Sincere thanks again to the band for their time, support, and general fabulousness.

A few preliminary notes: Occasionally the interview recording was unclear and I couldn't figure out what was said. Those places are noted with my best guesses in curly brackets. Also, every so often we'd veer off topic or get interrupted for some reason, but to make the interview easier to read I skipped over those times that broke the flow and didn't usually note them here. The interview is edited a little for clarity, i.e., editing out partially finished sentences and words like "um," "yeah," and "like." Other than these cases, I did my best to accurately transcribe the interview without any errors (even when I wanted to change my words so I'd sound less dumb). If you notice any errors or have any other comments, feel free to send me an email.

Sometimes we mention specific songs, and if you want to see their lyrics, you can find them by clicking here. At a certain point you may also want to investigate the life of Rabbit Songs, which you can do on the discography page.

Now, the interview. I hope you enjoy reading it even a fraction as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Christina: How do you guys go about writing songs? I know a lot of them are individually done. Do you write them and then bring them to the group?

Steve Curtis: It's definitely become much more collaborative as the years have gone on. We still definitely have songs that one or the other of us writes, but {we then will, as it's coming together}, kind of run it past the rest of us.

Christina: Because you're on the road?

Steve: We're on the road and we just work more like a unit, a group now, together.

Christina: Makes sense.

Dan Messe: There definitely is a songwriting community in Hem. I think that there are different songwriting relationships. Like if the song is written by Gary and I, it's usually Gary will have a musical idea that I'll take and then I'll write a lyric to it. If Steve and I collaborate on a song, which is rarer, usually he does all the music and I'll just do the lyrics, whereas Gary and I will usually collaborate on the music as well.

Sally Ellyson: But you usually do all the lyrics for Gary's and yours.

Dan: Right, right. But with Gary I'll also collaborate on the music. But again, every song is different, I suppose. Everyone has something to say in everyone's songs, including Sally. Sally definitely contributes to the songwriting process in that she...

Sally: Gives feedback.

Dan: Right. She has good taste and she knows the Hem aesthetic and she knows what sounds good in her voice, which is a big part.

Sally: Yeah, sometimes there are too many words and I'm not going to sing that many words. I mean, sometimes I just think that the words sometimes aren't right that I'm singing, and I don't think that's right. You have to keep writing until you get it right.

Gary Maurer: Sometimes with Dan's songs, he'll bring it in and play it, and we'll actually play it before it's sort of done, to sort of clarify what you were thinking, and then boom! A week later it's done, and okay, that's what it is. Whereas with other songs like "My Father's Waltz," {it's the flip side of the coin}, it's a different thing.

Dan: Yeah, it's definitely true that some songs take a year to finish and some songs take an hour. Some songs are much more inspiration driven and some songs are much more crafted. And then there are songs that get written later in the course of writing an album where you're really filling in themes that you want to talk about in the album. All of a sudden the themes of the album become clearer and the story of the album becomes clearer and then you realize well, we really need a step here. The album needs to go somewhere else, so let's think about where it could go musically or lyrically.

Christina: Is that how the instrumentals came about? Because I know both records have the instrumentals.

Dan: The instrumentals are usually some of the last things to get written. But they're not afterthoughts. We always know that we want these moments musically.

Sally: Are they really the last?

Dan: Oftentimes, yeah.

Steve: But they are ways of fleshing out a corner of what we want for the album, like where we want the album to be. We've got songs here, here, and here, and instrumentals have worked really well for us. Like with Eveningland, two of the hardest themes of the album are defined by the instrumentals, and that's very intentional.

Dan: Usually we want to create a musical world that the album is going to encompass. Both Eveningland and Rabbit Songs share a lot of the same world, but they definitely go in different directions on some of the themes. And so for Eveningland, we know we wanted that huge, {peaceful}, cinematic world that the instrumental "Eveningland" sort of defines. But we also want to show some of the corners of the world still exist as like the more Rabbit Songs "Cincinnati Traveler," which is really like a Civil War or Appalachian sort of song. For me, songs always start with titles. My idea or lyric notebook is just pages of titles, really, and you can really get an idea for the story of what I tell on an album from that. And usually what happens is that the songs that don't get written, I'll use those titles for the instrumentals.

[Everyone laughs]

Steve: Or someone else will use them.

Dan: Like, Steve. "Cincinnati Traveler" was--

Gary: It was my birthday present, for heaven's sake!

Dan: It was a present. Gary's a big--

Gary: That title, Dan gave me that for my birthday. We were going to write the song together, and then--

Steve: Dan sat on it and sat on it and sat on it.

Gary: Steve stole it, basically.

Christina: Did you [Gary and Dan] write one that ended up being--

Gary: No, we never worked on it.

Dan: Well, because, he [Gary] is a real Civil War buff, and Cincinnati was Grant's horse and Traveler was Lee's horse, so I thought putting those two words together, it..."Cincinnati Traveler" sounded like a great old-fashioned song, and I'm going to write something about these two horses. I don't even know what I was going to write. But anyways, I sat on it for a year, and then--

Gary: And then Steve steals it.

Christina: Steals it?

Dan: Well, basically, Steve wrote this gorgeous, gorgeous Civil War era melody.

Christina: And it sounded right.

Dan: And it just seemed right. I actually was the one who even suggested that he take it, and he...he...

Christina: Agreed.

Dan: Agreed.

Steve: I assumed the mantle.

Christina: Gotcha.

Gary: So basically I'm a song short.

Christina: Yeah, that's what I'm gathering.

Gary: That's how it worked out.

Dan: I plan on writing a lyric to it. But now I'll write the lyric to Steve's melody.

Christina: To that song, or you mean to--?

Dan: Yeah. I'll write a lyric. I always feel like that song has a lyric. We don't know what it is yet, but there's a...

Gary: You're honing in on it?

Dan: I'm honing in on it.

Christina: Have you guys written new ones? For a new album yet?

[People nod]

Christina: Play one of those! [Dan had asked me earlier about songs on the night's setlist, and I was just doing my part to help!]

[Between everyone laughing, the band says no, no, no]

Dan: Again, we all have different processes and especially when we're collaborating, every song is sort of...

Christina: Different.

Dan: Different. But to me they start with titles, and then after titles, they're going to be little lyric ideas. Like for "Fire Thief" it was just the first two lines. I knew that those two lines had to be there. Or for...what other songs? Like "Pacific Street," a line like "the way a station can tempt you to stay." After titles, I'll have some lines that I know I want to use, and then I'll fast forward to the titles somehow. But basically, the songs form in these sort of crystallizing...these little seeds that sort of weed up.

Christina: Lyrically you mean, or musically too?

Dan: Both, usually. It's the same thing musically. I'll have some music sketches that I think are different songs, and then they'll wind up being the same song, just a chorus and a verse. Or I'll have an idea that I won't be able to do anything with until Gary plays me some idea, and I'm like, "You know what? If I combine these two ideas, then we can..."

Sally: "My Father's Waltz" was originally instrumental.

Dan: Yeah, but "My Father's Waltz" was--

Sally: And then I said, "You have to write a song. I want to sing this song." So, he wrote the song.

Dan: Exactly.

Christina: Does that have any relation to "Waltz" on Rabbit Songs? Or is it just the word "waltz" in the titles?

Dan: We like waltzes. I think that at least 50% of our songs are in three-quarter, or six-eight. Probably more than that.

Gary: I would agree.

Dan: One of the early titles of the second album was going to be--

Gary: Waltz.

Dan: No, three-four.

Gary: Three-four, yeah.

Dan: It was quickly changed. It lasted for about a day where I was like, "Yeah, this is a great title!"

Christina: I guess, you're talking about on Eveningland, all the strings and how it was more grand and cinematic, but I guess you haven't been able to do that on tour, obviously. Has there been any desire to--

Gary: Forty extra people will not fit with the band.

Sally: We can't afford to do that either, unfortunately.

Christina: Yeah, but I've seen some shows where bands bring the backing track of the instruments that they can't bring. Has there been any desire to do that?

Gary: No.

Dan: There's something about making music...

Sally: With real instruments.

Dan: With real instruments.

Gary: That's actually one of most fun things about playing in Hem is that we don't ever really worry about trying to sound like the record. The four of us especially--

Sally: I think we do, though. Sound a lot like the record.

Christina: I think you do too.

Gary: We can play four different versions of every song, basically. We know all different versions of it. It really makes it fun.

Sally: I think we make do with what we have and then start making the sound with what we have.

Gary: I don't think it's about making do, though. It's not making do.

Dan: No, yeah. Our aesthetic and our ego has always been a very folky {kind of ego}. Songs are not these precious things that are left untouched. They're constantly changing.

Gary: They're not set in stone or something. They're like living things.

Dan: Yeah, we change--

Gary: They can be whatever they are.

Dan: Yeah, so whether it's how long a solo is or whether or not we're going to write a different verse or something, or change something altogether, like what we do with "Idle" or "Betting On Trains." The way we're playing them these days is very different. The songs should constantly be changing and evolving.

Christina: The lyrics have stayed pretty constant, at least for the recorded songs.

Sally: Except "Carry Me Home."

Christina: But the way you sing it now is the way that it is on the album--

Gary: On the record, yeah.

Dan: Yeah, once they're on the album they pretty much stay the same. Or if it does change, it's very hard because once Sally knows something in a certain way it's hard to change it. She's thinking about ten million other things besides my new idea for a rhyme that I want her to sing. I have ten different versions of some of these songs, but I'll be lucky if I get a little change in once in a while.

Christina: That makes sense. I guess while--

Sally: Actually we don't really change at all, we just [makes a flat line hand signal].

[Everyone laughs]

Christina: Well, it sounds like you do.

Steve: Yeah, lyrics are one thing.

Christina: But the music is different, right. I guess while I have Eveningland in my head, one question people ask me a lot is what is the chandelier on the cover of the album? Where is that a picture of?

Sally: I think it's to evoke the idea of evening. The idea of "in the evening." It's night, but there's just something about the word "evening."

Christina: They look like stars to me, that's what they reminded me of, looking at the chandelier.

Dan: The question is where is that actual chandelier? Or--

Christina: Both. Where is that actual chandelier and then also--

Dan: I think it's a chateau in France, actually, of all places, believe it or not. It's this photographer--

Sally: To evoke the idea of evening, the world as being in the evening.

Dan: There's a lyric in "Fire Thief," the end of "Fire Thief," which is sort of the theme-defining song of the album. "Leave the light on." Obviously, fear is a big theme for both albums, I think, and I always like to approach things from the view of a child, especially now that there are children in our lives. You know, children who are afraid of the dark and need the light on. But also the fact that, in "Fire Thief" you're basically saying, I can't hide from you. I'm going to see. You're going to see me the way I really am. So the whole idea of light is an important idea in the album. So, it's not just the chandelier, there's on the back of the album another light. Behind the CD is another light. So they're...

Steve: Not bright light.

Dan: They're not bright. Exactly.

Christina: I guess now that you bring up "Fire Thief" -- Sorry, I keep asking Dan questions, that's not very nice of me -- What does the fire thief mean? Not the song per se, but that phrase. Is that something you made up, or is that an actual phrase used that I'm not familiar with myself...

Dan: No.

Gary: Prometheus.

Sally: The Prometheus myth.

Christina: Oh, duh! Then I should be familiar with it.

Dan: No, no duh, no. The original idea for the song, which I thought was really clever-clever, but it took a bad idea, was that it was going to be another song like "When I Was Drinking" about the idea where you seek comfort, whether it's alcohol or whatever, wherever you seek comfort. Prometheus steals fire for comfort, but ultimately he gets his intestines eaten out for eternity and chained to a rock. It's like--

Sally: He steals fire from the Gods and--

Christina: Yeah.

Dan: So there's this comfort seeking behavior could also lead to...

Christina: Your intestines being pulled out.

Dan: Exactly.

Gary: For eternity.

Dan: Ultimately I realized that there was a better idea for the song, which is just ultimately, life is hard enough, and let's just find comfort where we can, and let's not worry about our intestines being picked out.

Steve: For the time being.

Gary: That'll happen soon enough.

Sally: And then we have light.

Christina: I guess a question for everybody: How hard was it to transition -- totally switching topics -- to transition from the jobs you had before this to being in the band? Was that kind of just an organic process as Rabbit Songs took shape and you realized--

Sally: I think it was slow enough that it...I mean, different people...Steve basically left when he was almost finished with his thesis. You finished your thesis, right? You almost finished writing your thesis to become a professor of musicology. But you [Steve] might have had the largest transition. He {and his wife moved} to New York, bought an apartment. Gary--

Gary: There was no transition for me, hardly.

Sally: Well, you were more of an active producer and then slowly stopped.

Christina: Did you tour? You weren't a touring musician before.

Gary: No.

Sally: He was a producer. He was producing a lot of other really big and well-known musicians. So, he just sort of slowly did that. For me it just sort of slowly happened. For a while I had two jobs, doing television and my job at the same time. I thankfully just transitioned right out of it. It was somewhat organic. What do you think?

Dan: It wasn't just all of a sudden we woke up and our life was different.

Christina: Yeah.

Dan: It took a year to make Rabbit Songs, during which time we became very close personally. And even then, we didn't realize that it was going to be...

Sally: {All over.}

Christina: You thought it would just kind of be in New York, and--

Dan: We still thought that there wasn't going to be a real life for it because just the few experiences we had had with outside people listening to it, like a few A&R people who had heard it dropping by the studio, were mystified by it. They didn't know what to make of it. They weren't encouraging, I guess is my point.

Christina: Yeah.

Dan: So we really didn't realize that there was...I mean, we knew that we loved it, and it was a dream come true for us, but we didn't quite...

Christina: Know if you'd be able to get it to other people who would love it.

Dan: Or other people, or that there would be an audience for it outside of a small, sort of elite, friends and family sort of thing.

Christina: Yeah.

Steve: It wasn't undertaken as something that would take over our lives. It was undertaken as something much more like a project on the side to do.

Christina: I know in a lot of interviews you guys, or at least Dan, has talked about musical influences from the 60s and 70s, but are there any more contemporary artists now that are influencing you at all? Inspiring you?

Steve: Besides Britney Spears?

Christina: Yeah, besides her. She's a given.

Steve: Yes, she's obvious. She's an obvious answer.

Dan: There are artists that we love that continue to make great art like Tom Waits. We're constantly buying albums. I wouldn't say that even if an artist that I love like, uh...I don't know who. I don't know who I love.

[Gary or Steve]: Newsom?

Dan: Oh yeah, right, that's a perfect example. That Joanna Newsom album, it's lovely and wonderful, but it's not influencing me in the slightest. It's not like I aspire to write like that. I couldn't write like that. Or sing like that. Or I wouldn't want to make a record that sounded like that.

Sally: I think there are a lot of albums that we all love, but I don't know about...

Christina: Influencing you the same way, yeah.

Sally: I mean, I think we all love Ben Folds, but--

Dan: Another perfect example.

Sally: But we're not influenced, but more loving. [Sally says something else that I can't hear well enough to even guess at it.]

Dan: You spend your 20s trying to get away from your influences because it's just the whole anxiety of influences is too hard. It can totally stop you from writing. It's a very stifling thing when you think about them, and you just have to sort of break free and really feel like they...It's like, the strangest stuff that comes out of you is sometimes most you. The stuff that you don't recognize is most...

Sally: Alien.

Dan: Alien. I'll be like, "There's no way I'm going to get away with that" and, I'll look at it again and I'll be like, "Well, maybe." And then maybe a month later I'll get up the nerve to show Gary -- "What do you think of this? Is this ridiculous?" And he'll be like, "I don't know, what do you think about it?" I think you have to take chances in being yourself. But it's all about separating yourself from your influences. I find it much easier to separate myself from an influence who's been dead for 40 years than someone who's making records and is a peer of mine even though they're great.

Christina: That makes sense. I guess totally switching topics again, do you guys have a favorite song to play live? Or [looking around at everybody] different songs?

Sally: We have a lot.

Gary: It changes a lot.

Christina: Are they the same as your favorite on the album?

Sally: I think on the new album it's "Receiver," and I like the group playing that, but I've really been enjoying playing "Lucky" a lot lately.

Gary: I love playing "Idle" right now. It's really fun for me.

Sally: Yeah, "Idle."

Dan: Yeah, I think "Idle" is my favorite one to play live right now too.

Steve: I still like "Carry Me Home." It's lasted a long time.

Dan: Yeah.

Gary: Yeah.

Steve: It's lasted and lasted and I still love the song now. Is "Carry Me Home" still your favorite?

Dan: On the new album? [Dan indicates no somehow.]

Steve: Maybe "Lucky?"

Dan: No, I think it's actually "Fire Thief."

Christina: What about on Rabbit Songs?

Dan: I mean, it's...

Christina: "Half Acre?"

Dan: "Half Acre" and "Sailor" are always going to be my favorite songs on that album.

Sally: Same here.

Dan: Those are two of the songs that really defined--

Sally: Who we are.

Dan: I think we really found our voice, I think, something our own. That was really our own. And something that was not just me as a songwriter or Sally as a singer or Gary as a producer. It was really like a combination of these...

Christina: Of you guys together.

Dan: Together. We became much bigger than the sum of our parts. And I think those two songs are the best example of that on the first album. On the new album, I think...Again, there's something about the arrangement of "Fire Thief," starting with these little simple "do-do-do-do-do-do" and then those crazy strings come in, and...

Gary: "Fire Thief" might have been one of the first songs that...Well, not the first, but I remember when you [Dan] played me that, it was totally a piano song--

Dan: Right.

Gary: And you said, "I don't want this to be a piano song." And then Steve and I sort of figured out this really simple little guitar part. I really like it. It's very good.

Dan: A lot of the--

Gary: I mean, chordally, it's a very piano-y song, but when I hear it on the record, I'm like "God, that's weird. What is that? I love that."

Dan: A lot of these songs were written on the piano we tried to take out. Like "Receiver" is another one. We really tried to get them off the piano. The piano is an amazingly melodic way to write. You write on a piano, you get to these great melodies, but very square, in terms of in a box. It just feels like that. Whereas a guitar or a mandolin or a violin, it feels to me much more free. I don't know.

Gary: Flexible.

Dan: Yeah, it really does. I think it is flexible. It's riff driven as opposed to--

Steve: It flies around more.

Dan: And it's more rhythmic, which I guess is your point. And I wanted these songs to be a little more rhythmic. So getting them off the piano was a big step for us.

Christina: But then putting them back on the piano to play live.

Dan: Right. Exactly. It's--

Gary: Back home.

Dan: Definitely. And again, the piano parts I play into these songs now are nothing like the original songs. I don't even remember what those were. I have recordings of them somewhere, but...

Christina: Now you mentioning recordings reminds me of your [Sally's] original tapes that you made and how you [the band] put little excerpts on the albums. ["Lord, Blow The Moon Out Please" on "Rabbit Songs" and "Now The Day Is Over" as a hidden track on "Eveningland."] A lot of people have asked me where they can hear the full versions. Are there any--

Sally: We'll put them out eventually. We just haven't done it yet.

Christina: Like on an album? Or your website? Or...

Sally: We'll probably do an album eventually. We haven't gotten around to it yet.

Gary: I have the tape around somewhere, I just have to find it.

Sally: I have one of the copies.

Dan: There is so much to do. Right now we're trying to figure out do we go make the next record? Do we spend a year touring in Europe? We can't be everywhere at once, and really that's what you need to do. It's just very hard to balance what you need--

Sally: The benefits.

Dan: Yeah. What you need to do to further your career, which basically is tour all the time, and what you need to do to further yourself as an artist, which is make albums all the time. It's very at odds with each other, and what you need to do as a human being is--

Sally: You want to make more {records}, but that takes money. Money matters. And you want to spend time at home with your family.

Dan: Right, and see your family. I think we've all realized that if we were going to do this with our life, we needed to make sure that we don't live the traditional life of musicians where we're all divorced seven times, and you know. We really want to take care of our families and those relationships. As much as we are family to each other, we're also--

Sally: We all love our wives and husband.
Continued on Page 2 --->

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This site is fan run and is not affiliated with Hem in any way. You can visit Hem's Official Website here. You can contact me at christina@allabouthem.com