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 looking for.
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 continent.
"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 sensibility.
"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.