NPR All Things Considered - July 10, 2022

Robert Siegel: This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

LN: And I'm Lynn Neary. Sometimes it takes more than just talent to create a work of art. Sometimes it takes a lot of luck. If not for luck, Hem, and its debut CD "Rabbit Songs," wouldn't exist. Their story starts a couple of years back when songwriter Dan Messe and some of his musician friends decided they wanted to make a CD. They didn't have a singer, so they put an ad in the "Village Voice." A lot of people responded, none of them very impressive, so they pulled the ad. Then one day a young woman named Sally Ellyson called Dan. Not expecting much, he tried to get rid of her. Send me some demos, he said. All Sally had was a tape of some lullabies.

Sally Ellyson: Several of my friends were having babies and so I had made tapes to give them for Christmas, cause I'm cheap, of these lullabies. And I had one left, and I just basically called Dan and said let me come over and make a dub in your tape deck and you can have the songs and that'll be it.

Dan Messe: So when she called me up I was so taken aback. She had apparently looked up my address on the Internet--

SE: You told me your address, you liar!

DM: I think she was stalking me! So, when she came over she made the tape dub and I got her out of the apartment as quickly as I could, and I wasn't ever planning on listening to the tape, and I actually went to listen to another tape, and I pressed the wrong play button, and this voice came out over my speakers. It was the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard in my life. I couldn't believe it.

["Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please" plays]

DM: I remember taking that tape and listening in my Walkman. You know, you can't believe that someone had never sung professionally with a voice like that, and she'd never been on the stage before.

LN: And how did you know that it was what you needed for the music you were trying to make?

DM: I actually didn't. I remember when I first called her up, I was like I can't believe how beautiful this voice is, I can''s the most beautiful thing I've ever heard, but I'm not sure if it's right for us. And then we got together, and when I first heard her sing one of the songs that we'd written, then I knew.

LN: What song is that?

DM: The first song we had her sing was "Half Acre," and it was like the song had been brought to life all of a sudden. I was so used to hearing it with my own Kermit the Frog voice that I was...I didn't realize what was there until it was sung by her.

["Half Acre" excerpt plays]

DM: That was the song that really...that was the first song where I finally sort of realized what it was that I was doing. Like I've always loved everything from the Carter Family to Aaron Copeland to George Gershwin, all these great creators of American sound, and it just sort could hear the Copeland strings, you could hear the sort of children's song melody.

[More of "Half Acre" plays]

LN: You've said, Dan, you've said that lyrics, that basically this music is really lyric driven. That you would give up a beautiful melody if a lyric didn't fit it. Is that really true?

DM: Oh absolutely. And I struggle so much with lyrics that I struggle and struggle over them.

SE: And he's pretty hard on himself with lyrics because he'll show me a song sometimes with these sort of fill-in, fake lyrics...

DM: And it's always these nonsense words.

SE: That's not true. They're not nonsense.

DM: And Sally falls in love with them and I then I try and give her the final lyrics and she's like, oh, I hate them...

SE: Oh, I miss this line! I miss this line! I mean, really...

LN: Have you ever kept any of the lyrics that Sally has really loved?

DM: I apparently hope not.

["Stupid Mouth Shut" excerpt plays]

LN: I wanted to ask you about the lyrics in one song that I sort of really like, "Stupid Mouth Shut" is the name of the song, and this is how it opens. "The sidewalk bends where your house ends like the neighborhood is on its knees." I think that's a great line, so I just wanted to ask you a little bit about how you came to write that song in particular.

DM: I'm sure a bad relationship, like all of my songs. That actually was one of the few songs that I wrote that was lyrics first. That line came to me, and I fell in love with it. I think that might be my favorite opening line of any of my songs.

[That line from "Stupid Mouth Shut" plays]

LN: When you write now, do you specifically write specifically with Sally's voice in mind?

DM: Absolutely. I can't even imagine another voice doing them. When I write I hear her voice in my head. It's a remarkable thing, like she's sitting on my shoulder the whole time.

[Excerpt from "Leave Me Here" plays]

DM: She has these great nooks and crannies in her voice that you know exactly where to find them in the melodies, and so they just come out. Perfectly.

LN: What's that like for you, Sally?

SE: I think because I love Dan's music so much, every time he brings a new song to me, I'm brutally honest. And luckily, I honestly, every song he's brought to me I just love so much. I love the slow, beautiful, languishing songs, so we think very much alike.

LN: And Dan, I understand you went bankrupt making this CD?

DM: Yeah, I mean it...we just sort of lost our heads, and we knew it was going to take a lot more than the budget that we had. At the same time, we wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to do one thing in my life that there was no compromise with. I wanted to love it for the rest of my life, no matter what.

LN: And in your mind, is it perfect?

DM: Absolutely not.

LN: Dan Messe and Sally Ellyson of Hem. Their CD, perfect or not, is called "Rabbit Songs."

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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