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Hot for Teachers

New York’s Hem Crafts Countrypolitan Cool That Warms the NPR Heart

By Mikael Wood | Posted 11/17/2004

Hem plays Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern Nov. 20.

Sally Ellyson sweeps into a Sixth Avenue Starbucks around the corner from her New York-based band Hem’s rehearsal space on West 27th Street, sliding into the only chair left in the place. That the chair is currently in the employ of her band mate Dan Messé hardly bothers Ellyson: Hem is like her family, she says, and when families the size of hers are on tour they spend all day riding in vans smaller than this coffee joint, so she’s used to it.

Ellyson’s in a mild tizzy because her look has recently been described by a New York magazine as professorial. Red-haired and kindly and fond of tweed jackets and wool scarves, Ellyson’s look couldn’t be encapsulated any more accurately. “Maybe ‘sexy librarian,’” Messé offers, not outlandishly, his scruffily bearded face a mere handful of inches from Ellyson’s, which is now slightly blushed. Maybe. But professorial is still better.

The same goes for Hem’s music. Formed in 1999 by Messé, a Carleton College grad then scoring Lehman Brothers industrial films—“They’d ask for, like, Chariots of Fire or The Last Emperor,” he laughs—and New York studio whiz Gary Maurer, the band play a lush brand of loosely country-identified music with plenty of room for elements of musical theater and Tin Pan Alley and Aaron Copland and folk rock and chamber music and what Messé rightly calls “fairy tale melodies.” It’s a careful, calculated swirl of sound, anchored by Messé’s piano and Maurer’s guitar but designed to support Ellyson’s singing, which evokes an earthier, more resonant version of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler, or that lady from Sixpence None the Richer.

The music is professorial in its quiet authority, the seamless way it synthesizes its various strands of Americana into a tender, intuitive whole. Also, it’s a little nerdy. At a gig at New York’s Bowery Ballroom a few nights after the Starbucks meeting, Hem draws more gently swaying couples than Barry Manilow. When Ellyson proudly announces that a false start near the end of their set is not the result of her “fucking up” for once, it’s a bit like hearing your third-grade teacher tell her husband to shove it on the faculty-lounge telephone.

Messé and Ellyson are aware of this image, and if they feel it’s unfair they also can’t really be bothered to care about it. “I make music for my family,” Messé says. This is convenient, because several times they’ve threatened to be his only audience. Messé and Maurer met in 1992 in the day-to-day course of their respective day jobs; they bonded over their shared musical tastes, then proceeded to have “conversations for the next five or six years” about what kind of musical project they’d do together. Messé says he’s a big believer in knowing when the time is right to do something, which is why Hem didn’t actually play for seven years. Once guitarist Steve Curtis had joined the group, and the three found Ellyson through a classified ad in The Village Voice, the band began work as a studio concern. They finished a record called Rabbit Songs in 2000, then figured they’d play a few live shows in New York to try to sell the thing.

“American labels just didn’t get it,” Messé says of the record’s Sondheim-on-horseback glow, explaining that a number of labels admitted they loved the record but didn’t know how to market it. Eventually, Setanta, an English label, got it, releasing Rabbit Songs to healthy critical acclaim and mild commercial success in the United Kingdom in 2001. New Jersey indie Bar/None followed suit, giving the disc a proper U.S. release the next year. Then, last year, DreamWorks got wind of the band through Eels frontman E, who’d seen the band and recommended them to DreamWorks head honcho Lenny Waronker. The label signed Hem and reissued Rabbit Songs before sending them into the studio to record an album of new songs. An exciting new chapter in the band’s existence had begun—but halfway through recording DreamWorks folded.

“That was disappointing,” Ellyson deadpans. “They were really great about it, though,” Messé adds. “They could have made getting the record back really difficult and they didn’t.” That record is 2004’s Eveningland, another sumptuous collection of high-gloss lullabies that wears its (partial) major-label budget like a fake-fur coat; check Bob Hoffnar’s melted-butter pedal steel and the spun-sugar string arrangements, courtesy of the Slovak National Radio Orchestra. (Yes, the one from Slovakia.) Messé and Ellyson laugh at some of the e-mail they’ve gotten from puritanical listeners enraged by the album’s transgressions. For example: They use a drummer!

“I don’t think of Rabbit Songs as a folk album,” Messé says, perplexed as to where these people got the idea that Hem was devoted to anyone else’s idea of roots music. Ellyson adds that though she shares some faves with the band’s NPR-listening, Amazon-shopping crowd, her formative years were spent digging indie-rock acts such as Built to Spill, whose Doug Martsch she once met at a show and acted like a total freak toward.

It’s nearing noon, so Messé gets up and says he has to go set up for rehearsal. Ellyson sticks around for a few minutes and says how lucky she feels to be a part of this band—that when people ask her what it’s like to sing Messé and Maurer’s songs she always wants to say that she feels just like they do. “I’d just be singing along in the crowd,” she says. “I’m just lucky because I get to sing them first.” A little professorial chuckle. “Is that bad?”

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