Interview with Hem
Brooklyn-based folk outfit Hem have made quite a wide-reaching impression since they first released their debut Rabbit Songs back in 2002. With a rich catalog of albums, EPs and compilation appearances, they have continually raised the bar of excellence and expectation for themselves and for their fans with each subsequent release. However, after a tumultuous season in both their personal and professional lives, there was a time when it seemed that Hem might’ve sung their last song. But somewhere amidst the heartbreak and confusion of that time was birthed a perseverance to continue creating and a new found respect for each other. The result is their beautiful new album, Departure and Farewell, releasing April 2 on Waveland Records.
Ahead of Departure and Farewell, Hem has joined with NoiseTrade to offer 2 brand new songs from the upcoming album, as well as their inspired Funnel Cloud album in its entirety. Rootsy, dreamy, orchestral and lush, Funnel Cloud is enough to make you a Hem fan for life, while “Tourniquet” and “Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing” will sufficiently get you through the next month or so until Departure and Farewell is released.
Here’s their charming new video for “Tourniquet”:
I recently talked with Hem’s founder and defacto ringleader Dan Messé to get a little more info on Departure and Farewell, as well as discuss his thoughts on Funnel Cloud and their penchant for picking fantastic cover songs.
NoiseTrade: Funnel Cloud showcases a few different sides of what we had already come to expect from the Hem we met on your first three full-length releases. Where exactly did the inspiration come from for the cinematic songwriting, the more upbeat tempos and the 21-piece orchestra?
Dan Messé: On Funnel Cloud, we were inspired very much by our experiences with DreamWorks Records. More specifically, that was the first album we did AFTER DreamWorks was sold to Universal and we were released from our contract. The great Lenny Waronker, who originally signed us to that label made sure that our masters were returned to us, and he told us to keep moving forward no matter what. We just felt that we could repay his belief in our music by making our most ambitious album to date.
NT: Funnel Cloud features some fantastic guest appearances from James Iha (The Smashing Pumpkins) and Amy Helm (Ollabelle). How did these connections come about and what did each artist bring to the project?
Dan: New York City (and Brooklyn in particular) is a surprisingly supportive place to make music. Our connection with James came from recording in his studio (Stratosphere Sound) and him being one of the first individuals who believed in our sound. Lately, we’ve been working a lot in Saltlands Studio in DUMBO, which is located in a building bursting with other bands and producers. Sometimes – like when we’re putting together a chorus – it’s as simple as walking down the hallway and seeing who’s around who wants to sing.
NT: Hem's music has always had a certain dreamlike quality to its sonic landscapes. Do you attribute that to the way the melodies are written, Sally's swoony vocal delivery, the deft instrumentation, a combination of all three or something completely different?
Dan: Hem is a pretty great example of the power of collaboration, and the cinematic/dreamlike quality of our music is a direct result of what we each individually bring to the project. If I had to break it down, I’d say it starts with the tension that exists between a dark, heartbroken lyric, and a very pretty (usually major key) melody. Then Sally’s voice might just be the most comforting instrument going these days, and she can deliver a sad song in a way that sounds almost hopeful. Finally, we are suckers for a great arrangement, and we’re just as inspired by Copland and Gershwin as we are by The Carter Family and 70’s pop songs – that’s a pretty broad palette from which to draw – and we are fortunate enough to collaborate with arranger Greg Pliska who is able to realize our most ambitious ideas.
NT: Tell us a little bit about your exciting new album, Departure & Farewell. What got you back into the studio and what do you hope Hem fans will be pleased with and surprised by? Dan: I think I’m even more grateful that we ever got ourselves out of the studio. We began this album back in 2007, and it’s taken over 5 years to complete. Originally, we had thought this might be our final album, so we were interested in tying up all sorts of musical and lyrical themes. For example, the song “Last Call” was written as an epilogue to the other ‘barroom songs’ in our catalogue. It begins almost exactly like “When I Was Drinking” (the first track off our first album Rabbit Songs) and then there are lyrical nods to that song, “Lucky,” “The Pills Stopped Working” and “Pacific Street” throughout.
It’s been a tumultuous 6 years for the band – both great and terrible – and many of the ups and down are reflected in the songs. In the end, not only were we able to complete this album, we were able to come back together as a band with a renewed appreciation for each other and the music we’re able to make together. I guess that makes Departure and Farewell both a breakup album as well as a reunion album.
As for surprises within the album itself, we have never created a more ambitious sonic palette – from the super hi-fi, to songs that sound like field recordings, we’ve tried to draw from all the music that we love to create something new. We play with vocal arrangements more than ever in these songs. Harmony has never been more important on songs like “The Jack Pine” and “The Tides at the Narrows” (thanks to Tall Steve Curtis and Dawn Landes). We also play a lot with choirs and smaller vocal ensembles (like the gospel trio on “So Long”). Finally, we even go so far as to play with Sally’s voice by multi-tracking it on “Things Are Not Perfect In Our Yard.”
NT: From Elvis Costello to Johnny Cash to R.E.M. to Ray Price, Hem has always had a special knack for channeling amazing cover songs. What goes into choosing them and are there any special new ones in the arsenal?
Dan: Between albums, we usually try to record an EP featuring cover songs as a way of exploring new sounds for the next full-length album. For example, when we recorded our cover of Johnny and June’s “Jackson,” it helped us move toward the lush sound of our album Eveningland.
How we pick cover songs is more random. Sometimes, it has to do with being asked to contribute to a tribute album, like when we recorded “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for the Rolling Stones tribute. Mostly though, it comes down to songs we love that we think we can make our own somehow. Lately, in rehearsals we’ve been warming up with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Sally does a mean Robert Plant…