It’s as Brooklyn as Aaron Copland and George
Gershwin, and as American as Johnny Cash or The Carpenters. Hem’s
debut album was written when composer Dan Messe was living on
Cobble Hill’s Warren Street – hence the album’s title, "Rabbit
Songs" – inspired by the meaning of the word warren, a place
where rabbits live.
When Messe teamed up with two musician friends, Gary Maurer and
Steve Curtis, in the spring of 1999, the three men had neither
a group name nor a singer. Their goal was simply "to make
the most heartbreakingly beautiful album we could," Messe
told GO Brooklyn.
At that time, they didn’t even think of themselves as a band.
Messe was writing music for industrial films, theater and other
bands. Maurer was a producer-engineer for other bands. And Curtis
was working on his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at Columbia University.
"We were all working on other projects," said Messe.
"We had thought of the album as a side project." They
did know, however, what kind of sound they wanted to produce.
"Every once in a while we’d do a demo of music I was working
on," said Messe. "We wanted to have a very arranged,
orchestrated approach to country, folky, lullaby music – an alternative
sensibility, very lush and very spare at the same time."
After laying down tracks in the studio, Messe and his friends
decided they needed a vocalist.
"At first we thought of bringing in guest singers for every
song," explained Messe.
He put an advertisement in the Village Voice, but after finding
himself deluged with hundreds of responses, he withdrew the ad.
Then, a few weeks later, he got a call from Sally Ellyson, who
told Messe that she wasn’t really a singer, but she had been
encouraged by friends to answer the ad.
"It was a story I’d heard a hundred times before,"
said Messe. "I just said, ’Send me a demo.’" Ellyson
had no demo, so she decided to sing into Messe’s answering machine
a lullaby her parents had sung to her when she was a child. This
song later became "Lord Blow the Moon Out Please,"
the first track on the CD.
"We were blown away. As soon as we heard her voice, we knew
that was what we were looking for. We started writing songs for
her," said Messe.
An album that had begun as a side project ended up with not only
Ellyson as vocalist, but also an 18-piece orchestra that created
the "lush, grand sound" Messe and his friends were
That sound did not come cheaply. The band spent the summer of
2000 recording late nights and selling their possessions to cover
the cost of the orchestra and studio time.
"We created the album as a labor of love. We gave up our
lives for it," Ellyson said.
The large orchestra was only one case in which the band would
make no compromise. "Rabbit Songs" was produced totally
on tape, and mostly live, with no digital studio wizardry.
In fact, there’s something both old-fashioned and startlingly
original in Hem’s music. Led by Messe on piano and glockenspiel,
with Curtis and Maurer switching between guitar and mandolin,
the album has a pristine beauty, gentle harmonies and lilting
melodies that are as wide and wonderful as the great American
"We wanted to explore all of American music history using
our own voice," Messe said. With influences as far flung
as Ella Fitzgerald and contemporary alternative bands, Hem’s
music is an exotic blend of traditional country and folk that
sometimes reaches classical proportions.
The name Hem is itself a proud declaration of an old-fashioned
"Hem was the original name of [our song] ’Lazy Eye,’"
said Ellyson. "It came from the line ’I can still see the
hem of your dress/and the comb as it’s parting your hair.’
"I really became attached to the line," said Ellyson.
They mostly sold the CD to friends, who heard about it by word-of-mouth.
In June 2000, it was released in the U.K. and this year made
its way back to the United States. By last August, it had become
a top seller on Amazon.com and they were wrapping a tour with
British singer-songwriter Beth Orton. Hem’s cover of Elvis Costello’s
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" will appear
on "Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello," an Elvis
Costello tribute album to be released Jan. 21 on Glurp/Bar-None.
Now that the group is tasting real success, Messe said, "We
want to expand our palette a little more – bring in more texture."
Despite its unlikely debut, there’s no doubt about what Hem has
become – an alt-folk band with the potential of really rocking
the contemporary music scene.
Hem’s "Rabbit Songs" (Waveland/Bar
None, $16.98) is available at www.bar-none.com and www.amazon.com.
For information about upcoming Brooklyn performances go to their
Web site at www.rabbitsongs.com.