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Members include Steve Curtis (graduated Carleton College; doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology, Cornell University), guitar, mandolin; Sally Ellyson (born in Richmond, VA), vocals; Gary Maurer, guitar, mandolin; Dan Messe (graduated Carleton College; MFA, music performance and composition, NY University; founded group), keyboards, glockenspiel, accordion, harmonium, songwriter. Addresses: Distributor--Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Website--Hem Official Website: http://www.eveningland.com.
Hem is a gentle Brooklyn-based band whose music doesn't fit easily into any genre but has been noted for being a comforting sonic blanket. The band embraces the Countrypolitan sound, a country music subgenre noted for infusing roots music with lush orchestrations.
Founded in 1999 by songwriter Dan Messe and Gary Maurer, a producer and engineer, the duo enlisted the help of Steve Curtis to create a sound that was based on traditional American music, but with a contemporary flair. The impetus for the creation of the group was Messe's growing frustration with songwriting. "It was literally so much pressure to write cool songs," he told the Arizona Daily Star. "By 'cool' it had to be really generic and nothing that could be made fun of. You had to make fun of other things. And I just wanted to write, as a reaction to that, songs that could totally be made fun of---that were totally open emotionally or totally childlike and innocent."
The trio needed a vocalist, and placed a classified advertisement in the Village Voice. As the band's official biography stated, "An onslaught of bizarre demos followed suit and so the ad was pulled." Weeks later, at the prompting of friends, Sally Ellyson responded. Messe asked for a demo, and Ellyson responded with a tape of lullabies recorded for a friend. Ellyson, a native of Richmond, Virginia, had moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist and documentary filmmaker, and had been working as a television producer for CourtTV and the newsmagazine 48 Hours. Messe was impressed, and Ellyson was hired.
With their vocalist in hand, they began working on what would become Rabbit Songs. Mauer engineered the project. His resume included working with artists including Jon Spencer, Luna, Fountains Of Wayne, and The Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha.
Their first album was a pressing of 500, funded wholly by the band and distributed freely to friends and family members. Convinced their music was not commercially viable, the band planned a one-off appearance to end Hem. "We all thought it would be a nice thing to do for ourselves and then be done with it," Messe told the Hollywood Reporter. "When we showed up for the show, there was a line around the block of people who we didn't even know. People had given it (the record) to other people. We realized then that there was an audience for what we wanted to do."
The band had reached a crossroads. "It wasn't supposed to happen this way," Messe said in an interview with Paste. "[The idea for Hem] should have been just drunken conversations."
Curtis had to decide what to do about his academic career. At the time, he was working toward a doctoral degree in ethnomusicology and teaching at Cornell University. "I was actually involved with something that was a dream come true at that point," he told Paste. "I was really happy doing what I was doing. Perhaps for that reason I was a more reluctant convert to this than others." He felt that in the final analysis, Rabbit Songs "was a band-making album, as opposed to an album-making band."
Reviewing Rabbit Songs, the Edinburgh Scotsman found that the "songs about long drives, train journeys, wide open spaces, log cabins, and the sad-eyed romances that happen in these places" created "wistful country ... [a] gentle cushioning of piano, pedal steel, lightly brushed drums, fiddles, harmoniums, glockenspiels. ... There's heartbreak here, but it's heartbreak with a soft, unbitter smile on its face, that knows that tragedy has always happened." Darryl Morden in Hollywood Reporter thought that "in many ways, HEM recalls the Cowboy Junkies of more than a decade ago, who also knew that musical whispers demand sometimes even more attention."
DreamWorks re-released Rabbit Songs in 2001, bringing the band additional critical and popular acclaim, and the band began working on its second album. By 2002 the band was enjoying even more success, thanks to continued word of mouth. Messe told the Birmingham Post, "People just take it upon themselves to spread the word. One person has it, and he'll share it with three of his friends, and they'll share it with three of their friends, and before you know it, it's in people's heads."
The band followed with an EP of covers it frequently played live, I'm Talking With My Mouth. The songs included Bruce Springsteen's "Valentine's Day" and "Living Without You" by Randy Newman. There are three different pressings of this disc with different tracks.
Hem was signed to DreamWorks in 2003 and began recording their second album. For this studio effort, Hem supplemented the core group with four studio musicians, Catherine Popper (upright bass, backing vocals), Mark Brotter (drums), Bob Hoffnar (pedal steel guitar), and Heather Zimmerman (violin), plus the Slovak Radio Orchestra, whose lush sounds were key for Messe. He told the Denver Post, "You're going to want to put strings on anything, whether it's a pop song or a rock song or a folk song. I'm a longtime fan of George Jones because the sound on those records is so amazing. We wanted that sense of the surreal in our music, too."
As work was being completed, DreamWorks was sold and shuttered, so the band opted to bring out Eveningland on its own Waveland label, with distribution to be handled by the venerable Rounder Records. Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, a split EP shared with The Autumn Defense, was released in 2004 to tide fans over until Eveningland was completed. The three Hem tracks included live versions of "Half Acre" and "Pacific Street," along with a previously unreleased track, "St. Charlene."
When Eveningland was released in 2004, critics were as enthusiastic as they had been about Rabbit Songs. Sarah Mauet, writing in the Arizona Daily Star, described Hem's Eveningland as "hushed acoustic lullabies that nestle somewhere between Ray Charles' 1962 album 'Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music' and the 1980s sounds of the Cowboy Junkies ... Much like a lullaby that is whispered and hushed despite the emotional subject matter, Hem leaves room for listeners to have their own emotional reactions to the music." The band members' various influences---George Jones, The Carpenters, Dolly Parton, and Bread, among others---could be heard throughout the recording.
The Denver Post's Ricardo Baca felt that Hem's music "sincerely tells stories of sadness within the confines of a sweet, compact lullaby. And that, combined with Sally Ellyson's voice, is what has attracted a legion of cult followers to the band and its unique brand of neo-countrypolitan."
Messe told Paste that he strives to create comfort in creating this music. "More than anything I want to be comforted," he said. "Life is very hard, so if I can write a beautiful song and Sally can sing it, I can feel better."
by Linda Dailey Paulson
Founded by Dan Messe and Gary Maurer in Brooklyn, New York, 1999; added Steve Curtis and Sally Ellyson; recorded and self-released Rabbit Songs as a one-off project, 2000; DreamWorks re-released Rabbit Songs, 2001; began touring internationally, 2002; recorded EP I'm Talking With My Mouth, 2002, and reissued it in 2003; signed to DreamWorks, began work on second full-length project, 2003; split EP with The Autumn Defense, Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, 2004; DreamWorks was sold, band completed Eveningland on its own label, with distribution by Rounder Records, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Rabbit Songs Waveland, 2000; reissued, Setanta, 2001, 2002; reissued, Bar None, 2002; reissued, DreamWorks, 2003.
- (With various artists) This Is Next Year: Brooklyn-Based Compilation Arena Rock, 2001.
- I'm Talking With My Mouth (EP of cover songs with three different pressings, each with different track listings), Waveland, 2002; reissued, Setanta, 2002.
- (With various artists) Almost You: The Songs Of Elvis Costello Bar None, 2003.
- Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (Split EP with The Autumn Defense), Arena Rock, 2004.
- Eveningland Waveland/Rounder, 2004.
- Amplifier, November-December 2004.
- Arizona Daily Star, February 3, 2005.
- Birmingham Post (England), October 1, 2002.
- Denver Post, January 21, 2005.
- Hollywood Reporter, August 7, 2003.
- Paste, December 2004-January 2005.
- Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), September 21, 2001.
- Time Out: New York, November 4-11, 2004.
- Hem Official Website, http://www.eveningland.com (June 28, 2005).
- Additional information was obtained from publicity materials provided by Rounder Records.
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