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Hem: A new ‘Departure’ for neo-traditionalist folk rockers
Shortly after my interview with Dan Messe, conducted by phone while he waited with his cat to see his veterinarian, I received a follow-up text in which he thanked me for the interview and told me that his cat had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Like I said, life is hard ” he concluded.
Mr. Messe, the co-founder and musical leader of the band Hem, has indeed had a hard few years. He successfully battled through serious addiction and endured the end of his marriage. After a run of several albums, EPs, and even the score for a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that resulted in a Drama Desk Award nomination, it appeared to everyone, including the members of Hem, that the band’s time had likely come to an unexpected end.
Four years after their last recording, the “Twelfth Night” score, Hem came together to finish their long-in-the-works record, “Departure and Farewell.” Instead of serving as their farewell record as they had originally expected, it came to represent the ending of a period in the band’s life.
“It was definitely saying goodbye to a lot of things, my marriage and a whole period of our lives,” said Mr. Messe. “We seem to be in a different place at this point.”
Hem began in the late 1990s, when Mr. Messe joined with Carleton College classmate Steve Curtis and producer Gary Maurer to record together. The trio placed an ad for a singer in the Village Voice, and among the many recordings they received was one of Sally Ellyson singing lullabies. She soon joined the band, and work began on the first Hem record, “Rabbit Songs.”
The Brooklyn-based band produces what Mr. Messe calls a “cinematic vision of pastoral American music.” Lately, Hem has been far from alone in its interest in traditional Americana music, and Hem’s Brooklyn has become an epicenter of the recent resurgence of Americana.
Mr. Messe both feels part of the current scene and is proud of Hem’s role in it.
“In some ways we probably flatter ourselves by feeling we were one of the earlier adopters of this movement,” he said. “Certainly we really are inspired by older forms of music, especially the American canon of George Gershwin to the Carter Family to ‘60s folk to [Aaron] Copland. It’s a really fertile place right now.”
Though the urban borough seems an unlikely incubator for artists of this genre, Mr. Messe explains that it is precisely the urban nature of Brooklyn that feeds his interest.
“I’m from a rural area in Michigan,” he said. “One of the reasons why I’m able to create this pastoral cinematic world is because I can dream about it as I live in a very concrete place. I tend to romanticize things, and I’m able to take back my idea of home in this bucolic wonderland I grew up in and create this music. It’s a function of living in an urban environment that I’m able to do that.”
Yet while Hem’s music is deeply based in the American folk tradition, it is still current and forward looking. This balance is what drives Mr. Messe in his songwriting.
“How we relate to the past is the central question of what Hem is, and when I write it’s about that tension,” said Mr. Messe. “I’m obsessed with the past, both literally the musical past of America and its sounds and forms, but also my own past. I’m very much an archaeologist in both those terms, but the past makes me want to run forward all the time.”
For someone who devotes so much time and effort to thinking about the past, Mr. Messe is currently spending a lot of time thinking about the present.
“Even now with this album, which I think is our best album, there’s much more to say. I’m not sure we’ll get a chance to make another record because of the finances of the music industry, so every moment is very meaningful and in the present,” explained Mr. Messe. “Every time we get to do a show feels like it could be our last show, so it feels like we’re always present and grateful.”
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