Against the tide of hipster fashion, the Brooklyn band Hem has found a comfort zone for what its members describe as “alt-country, pop-rock orchestral lullabies for adults.” The group’s third album, No Word From Tom, is a mix of covers (including the early R.E.M. classic “So. Central Rain”) and reworked originals, with a few curios thrown in. Singer Sally Ellyson, an erstwhile Court TV producer, and chief songwriter Dan Messé sat down to discuss their band’s humble origins and how it has taken off since.
Hem formed because of an ad in the Village Voice. Was Sally the obvious choice for singer from the beginning?
Messé: The original idea for Hem was to have a different vocalist for every song, and after placing this ad, we were just besieged by demo tapes. About two weeks after I pulled the ad, I heard from Sally, who said, “I’m not really a singer, but thought I’d give it a try.” I had heard that, like, a hundred times before and thought I was done with it. She had just sung some lullabies into a tape recorder. She came over to dub it in my tape deck. I put it on high-speed record and got her out the door in five minutes.
So how did Dan come to his senses? Messé: I heard it accidentally. I pushed play on the wrong side of the tape deck and heard the song “Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please,” and I remember thinking, What the hell is this?! It was like this voice I had heard in my dreams all my life.
The first song on No Word From Tom is a lullaby. Was that on Sally’s original tape? Ellyson: Yes, and well . . . you’re not supposed to say bad things about your own album, so I just won’t say anything. Messé: I love that one, Sally! Ellyson: I just sound like I’m running out of breath, and I can’t stand hearing it!
Why did you rerecord some of your own songs for this album? Isn’t it a little early in your career to start doing that?
Messé: We always approach music from a folk perspective, where songs are always evolving and changing. Songs we’ve been playing five years now are completely different from when they started. Ellyson: They’ve really become new songs.
A label that gets attached to you is “countrypolitan.” Is that a fair description?
Ellyson: Countrypolitan is really something we played around with on Eveningland [Hem’s second album], the full orchestra with the sort of country front man. But it’s not definitive of Hem as a band. Messé: We’ve always loved countrypolitan artists like Ray Charles and Glen Campbell, and they’ll always affect our sound, but no more so than Disney movies or blues or Aaron Copland.
Your music doesn’t seem to have much in common with Brooklyn’s hipster rock scene. Have you consciously steered clear of it?
Messé: Besides finding Sally, the one thing that really helped me find my voice as a songwriter was giving up trying to be cool. The idea of getting rid of irony in our music was one of our big goals.
So has the community embraced you, lack of irony and all?
Messé: When we finished Rabbit Songs, our first album, we printed about 500 copies and handed them out to friends and decided to book just one gig at Fez, to see how it would go live. We showed up, and there was a line around the block. And that was when we realized that people could potentially love it as much as we did. In the beginning, every industry person told us this would not sell. But I think there’s a human need to just want to hear beautiful songs.