NPR All Songs Considered - July 1, 2022

Hem formed in the Spring of 1999 when songwriter Dan Messe and producer Gary Maurer decided to make a record together. Their mutual friend, guitarist Steve Curtis agreed to help. But they needed a singer. Messe says, "We had originally thought to make 'Rabbit Songs' using a different singer on every track. To this end, we put an ad in the 'Village Voice' looking for a singer."

The band was soon besieged with demo tapes, but none of them were what they were looking for, so they pulled the ad. A couple of weeks later they got a call from Sally Ellyson. Messe says, "She told me she wasn't really a singer - had never even been on stage before, but people had encouraged her to give it a try. I had heard all of this a hundred times before, so I just asked her to send me a demo tape just to get her off the phone."

"Sally went on to explain that she didn't have a demo, but she did have a copy of a tape where she sang some old a-cappella lullabies. She said she could come over to my house and copy the tape on my stereo and 'was I available to do this right now?' I was so taken aback that I just said yes, and she came over. I copied the tape on high speed and got her out of the apartment as soon as I could, never intending to listen to it. Later in the day, I went to play another tape, pressed the wrong button, and listened dumbfounded as the most beautiful voice I've ever heard came pouring out of my speakers."

"The amazing thing about Sally's voice is that it seems to have traces of so many other singers within it, but still sounds utterly original. She's been compared to everyone from Sandy Denny and Joni Mitchell, to Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. I personally love the way she underplays the emotions in the songs. There's this charged sort of tension when Sally sings them with such restraint and detachment. I can't really explain it except that she allows these emotionally hyperventilating songs some room to breathe."

"I think the sound of the album really comes out of our influences, both as writers and as producers. We've always loved these old, creaky, one-microphone recordings (like the Carter Family). Also, in terms of the writing and arrangements, our influences cover Bill Monroe to Aaron Copeland to The Rolling Stones. So we'd write a high-lonesome, old-timey song and immediately want to hear a full orchestra behind it, or we'd write this modern pop song, and want to strip it down to just mandolin and upright bass."

"Any label/moniker that potentially allows someone to discover our music is okay with us. We do feel intensely grateful whenever a reviewer uses the terms 'mythological' and/or 'cinematic' in talking about us. We certainly set out to create a personal mythology in our songs (the way favorite albums can seem like a window into someone's secret world). Probably the only way to communicate such an intimate language is to be as visual and cinematic as possible."

"I'm always amazed when people say they don't really listen to the lyrics. The only thing that keeps me going back to a favorite song is a great lyric, no matter how hooky the music is. For me, these songs are almost completely lyric-driven. I would easily give up the greatest melody in the world if it meant I couldn't fit in a phrase I really loved."

Of this song, "When I Was Drinking," Messe says, "Without giving too much of myself away, I realize that I have a lot of songs about addiction. I think it can be a pretty good metaphor for the pull that the past can have on someone."

I transcribed this interview, but the copyright for it is not mine. If you notice any errors in the transcription, please let me know.

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