Liberty Mutual has never looked so smart. Their recent television commercials feature a voice so pure and mysterious that Thursday night television viewers want answers. Sure, their minds don’t get flooded with dreams about insurance, but in between My Name is Earl and The Office, millions of people are wondering about that “voice on the Liberty Mutual ad.” They know, once again, who Liberty Mutual is. They have no idea who Sally Ellyson is.
But to get to know Ellyson, who is the lead singer for the Brooklyn-based band Hem, you first have to get acquainted with the man who gave her a chance. That man is Dan Messé, who, in the spring of 1999, could have cared less about Liberty Mutual or any commercial. Messé and fellow Hem members Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis were worried about finding someone to sing their songs for their first album, which eventually they would name Rabbit Songs.
“Originally we were going to have a different singer for every song,” Messé explains during a phone interview while getting ready for a recent show in San Diego. “But when I heard Sally’s voice, it encompassed everything I wanted to do, musically, male and female.”
Ellyson, who had seen an ad in The Village Voice, sent a demo tape consisting of traditional lullabies to Messé, who was dreaming of making a perfect album on a limited budget. Messé, who originally had no intentions of listening to the tape Ellyson handed him, knew his plans were about to change when he heard Sally’s voice for the first time. After a day of listening to a stranger singing various lullabies, Messé quickly contacted Ellyson and soon she was singing his songs.
“It was literally like a painter seeing a color he had never seen before,” Messé says. “As soon as I heard her sing our songs, it crystallized in my mind my voice as a songwriter, which wasn’t mature until I heard those songs in her voice.
When I got together with Sally for the first recording session, I think originally the budget for Rabbit Songs was $5,000 or something. As soon as we went in the studio and I heard the vision I had in my head come to life, it was one of those moments where you realized you were going to risk everything you had to make it a perfect thing. And so I think the ultimate cost of Rabbit Songs was like $80,000, and I sold everything to do it. And that’s what our track for all of our albums is like—we tend to risk it all and hope that if we put this much care into our music that people will love it as much as we do.”
Messé, who had now found his voice, a remarkable unfound lead vocal, had no worries that it was a female with no experience.
“She had never even sung into a microphone,” Messé adds. “Can you believe that? She had never been on stage; she was an absolutely raw talent. It’s remarkable to me that someone could go through 30 years of their life and have that talent and not be discovered. How does it get missed? You tell me.
I really feel like so much about this band – that is was literally fate. Like she decided to do this just at the moment where I was finally coming into my own voice as a songwriter and Steve was just moving into town and Gary was engineering other people’s records. Like everyone decided, ‘I’m going to quit waiting around for something to happen and I’m going to start doing what I want to do now.’”
And although Messé wasn’t specifically writing songs to be sung by a man, the fact remained that some of his words did talk about a woman from a man’s perspective. A problem for most egocentric rock stars, but not for Messé or the rest of the band.
“We thought a lot about changing the pronouns of these songs, because even though I write girly songs, I’m straight. So we decided, for the most part, we’re not going to worry about it. Sally will sometimes change the pronouns as long as it doesn’t affect the rhyme, and that’s fine.
And I think that my perspective is not necessarily the most masculine perspective anyway, so it’s not a stretch for these songs to be sung by a woman. But I’ve also loved that in folk music, there’s a long tradition of a female singing a song where the narrator is a man. And when I write now, it’s her voice that I hear.”
It’s been seven years and four albums since Messé first heard Ellyson’s voice, the most recent project being Funnel Cloud, which was released this past September. Glide recently had a chance to speak with Messé about Hem and its current happenings.
Funnel Cloud seems to be a more confident album.
I feel it is. It is my favorite album. In some ways it’s like having children—how can you not love it and put all your heart and soul into it? And I think you’re right, this is certainly a more confident album as a band. Normally Gary and I spend a year editing and copying vocals and rearranging and mixing and blah, blah, blah. And this album, it took only two months. And we really made a concerted effort to mix this as live as possible. So even when we had these pretty intense arrangements, we put everyone in the room and we just played the song and tried to capture the magic when it was brand new.
How does a short song like “We’ll Meet Along the Way” become so powerful?
It’s funny, and I’m glad that you said that. That’s the last song we wrote for the album. And in some ways, there is a lot in there. We’re sort of responding to a lot of the other songs in that song. That song sort of responds to “He Came To Meet Me” and the references to other lyrics in that lyric as well. And it also sort of sums up the mood of the album and the themes of the album, which is sometimes the bad things in life, the disasters, they move you forward. You can’t not move forward in life. You try to stand still, which I spent most of life trying very hard to do, and life doesn’t let you do that.
Your music seems like it should be in a movie.
That is one of my favorite compliments ever. That’s really what we aim for—we have a movie in our heads and it’s very visual. In our lyrics, we try to not do a lot of “we love you baby, why’d you leave?” We try to make very discrete images and it should play hopefully like a movie. And the instrumentals are the soundtrack to the things that are not written.
I would be shocked if Hem didn’t do a soundtrack in the future.
I’d love to, that would be so exciting.
Do you consider yourself the main songwriter of Hem?
I think I’m more like the artistic director. Many of the songs are collaborated on with Gary. And Steve is a great songwriter in his own right and we collaborate rarely, but we tend to play off each other. Like if he writes a song, then I’ll write a song that deals with a similar thing in another perspective. But Hem has always been where all of us overlap, and Sally, too. So, there is a shared vision and we’re interested in a lot of the same themes. But, I suppose I am considered the main songwriter.
Does your first album, Rabbit Songs, feel very far from home these days?
I love the old albums. I’m not one to listen to my own music a lot, but I have children who love listening to them, so I hear them a lot. And I’m still proud of them, which is saying something because I usually hate everything that I do.
How do you duplicate that dreamlike sound on every record?
I’m not sure, I think that ultimately we write songs to comfort ourselves in very dark times. And life is never short on drawing you those times. The songs of Funnel Cloud were written during the worst year of my life. My dad died, I lost my apartment in a flood, I got robbed—it was one of those years where everything bad happened. And a lot of those songs were written for comfort and to express like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?” I think that any genuine music is going to have a certain genuine feeling that is undeniable.
Hem is very intense on stage—it seems like you don’t take anything for granted.
It does seem like every show could be the last show. Every day I wake up and we get to play this music together, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. Why would you do this to yourself if you didn’t feel that way? There are many easier lifestyles.
Since Sally never had any prior stage experience before joining Hem, how does she feel about performing now?
She talks about how she was raised in the Southern environment where it’s not cool to bring attention to yourself. And she said to this date she doesn’t feel comfortable on stage. But, I think she loves singing this music. And she interprets the music in a way where it has opened my part. She’s a part of our lives, she’s the Godmother to my children, so we’re family at this point.
And Sally is pregnant now.
Yeah, she’s about three months away from having a kid. You should see her—she’s a sight to behold on stage.
Catch Hem on tour this fall. For a list of tour dates, please visit: hem.com.