Cello experimentalist Alison Chesley is set to launch a US tour in two weeks to support her second album under the banner of Helen Money, In Tune (review here). Her label debut for Radium/Table of the Elements, In Tune builds on the creative success of 2007’s Helen Money, on which Chesley showcased her talent for composing rich cello-based pieces around a multitude of effects. On In Tune, as she explains in the interview following, she attempts to up her songwriting technique and steer away from relying to heavily on her array of pedals.
A solo instrumental performer, Chesley as Helen Money crafts an engaging and hypnotic atmosphere on In Tune, and given the progress and confidence displayed from one album to the next, I’m already looking forward to her third outing. In the meantime, Oct. 31-Nov. 30 tour dates are posted on her MySpace, and she was kind enough to take time out for the phoner transcribed here after the jump. Please enjoy.
Who is Helen Money to you? Is she an alter ego, is it a band identity? Is she your Alice Cooper?
It?s a band. I guess I want it to be able to become whatever I want it to be. I don?t really envision it being anything more than centered around what I?m doing. Maybe I?ll involve a couple other people on my next record. When I play Milwaukee, Jon Mueller from Collections of Colonies of Bees is playing a couple songs with me on drums. I wouldn?t want to call it Alison Chesley and Friends (laughs). I hate that. Like The Alan Parsons Project. Helen Money is a little more removed from me personally. I like that. It can be what I want it to be, not just me personally. And it?s a more rock-sounding name, I think. More than Alison Chesley. Because it?s a cello, I think it?s easy to connect that with folk music or classical, and I didn?t want people to make that association.
Do you see yourself fitting into any specific genre? On In Tune, there?s rock, there?s classical. You could lump it into a catch-all like prog, but where do you see yourself?
That?s a really good question. I have a hard time describing what I?m doing. I guess I come out of really liking music by Bob Mould. I really like rock. I like The Who, Bob Mould, Joe Strummer. I also like Mahler and Chostakovitch. I don?t think I come from an experimental place, which I kind of end up calling it. Experimental rock. I think I?m coming from more of a rock place and just a place where music is more visceral and has some melody and emotion to it, which I think a lot of rock can have. Like punk. It?s really classic rock in a way. I?m not into doing long solos or stuff that can be associated with prog rock.
It?s interesting because you have to some point say, ?Well, experimental.? It becomes the only option left.
I just did a show opening for Mono and this band Maserati. Both instrumental bands. I feel like that?s my audience. Whatever they?re calling what they?re doing. It?s dark, visceral music that has melody to it. I don?t know what you call that.
At what point did you start building the effects collection? When did you say, ?Maybe I can do something more with the cello??
I remember when I started to play rock music was when I was playing with my friend Jason. We started this band Verbow. It started as Jason and Alison, then we called it Verbow when we got a drummer and a bass player. Jason, I met him in ?93 when I moved to Chicago, and he asked me to play some songs with him, he was doing a solo thing. But his solo thing was more along the lines of Bob Mould?s Workbook stuff. He wanted me to play differently. He didn?t want me to play string accompaniment, he wanted it to be more aggressive. That was the tone we set, and he said to me, ?Why don?t you try a distortion pedal?? So I got that, and then he said, ?You should try a delay pedal.? He encouraged me to do that and once I realized I could plug into a pedal, it was like, let?s just find some stuff that makes sense with the cello and sounds cool. That?s how I got started with that.
There?s a lot of percussion from the cello on the new record. In terms of layering and making the songs, do you have that in mind at the start? How does that build up for you?
On the Minutemen song, for sure, their drummer was really good. The Minutemen were when I grew up. When I was in my 20s, I was living in L.A., and I grew up there, so I would go see The Minutemen play a lot. I wanted to do a cover and I thought I?d do one of their songs because they?re short ? everything on the album is really long ? and also I feel like that was a big part of my life and my musical life growing up. When I was listening to that song, I thought, I can?t just do this without any kind of drum beat. This is an integral part of the song. That?s when I realized I needed to incorporate that. That?s where that came from. And then, also, I just feel like I want and try to bring some kind of rhythmic element other than just the cello, the bowing and stuff. Something a little harder that doesn?t sound like a cello. I feel like on this album I wanted to get more acoustic cello, to get away from using all these effects, but I also wanted to try and get sounds that were a little different and didn?t sound like the cello at all.
Is there a difference in the process studio live? Is it loops either way, or for the record, was it layering in ProTools or whatever?
I try and interact with my pedals and use them as a tool and not rely on them. I?m trying to build songs on this record. I wanted to build songs that were complete songs and not just relying on looping. What happened when I was composing them, I was composing them and getting them down in ProTools, and then figuring out how to do them live. In the studio, because I had four days in there, at Electrical, and I was doing it on tape, I found that it was a very different process. It was different from playing live in that I had to get a good take on a lot of songs from beginning to end, whereas live, you make mistakes and stuff and people don?t generally notice; it?s more about the feel. And then also, I created all these different parts that I couldn?t play live but that I could do in the studio. Some songs on the record, like ?Waterwalk? and ?Everything I am Thinking,? I haven?t figured out how to play those live yet. A song like ?Too Heavy,? that one I actually pretty much recorded in the studio like I perform it live. But some of the others I feel like I was trying to get away from relying on those pedals so much and just compose the songs.
Was that something coming off the last record you specifically wanted to change?
Yeah, I?m totally limited by my pedals. If they ever didn?t work at a show, I?d be screwed. I also wanted to see if I could go beyond them. Not rely on my effects to convey something, and not just loop. I don?t want to be someone who?s out there just looping. I find that can be very uninteresting. It can be cool, but it?s really easy for it to be monochromatic and uninteresting. I wanted to make songs that were a little more complex than that. Maybe at some point I?ll want to play with live musicians so I don?t have to step on my pedals to get that one part of the song. That?s where I was going with this album.
I don?t get ?monochromatic? from the record at all.
That?s good, I didn?t want it to be that way. It?s weird. It?s very odd how you see the songs and how they?re perceived. Not to judge people or music or anything, but I know that I have watched performers who play that loop, and I?m aware of their looping. Or seeing someone with a laptop on stage with a backing track and thinking, ?Oh, that?s a backing track.? I don?t want people to feel that way when I play. I want to feel engaged with what I?m doing and my equipment and the audience. I want all that. If I have a backing track or a part on my loop station, I want to feel like I?m interacting with it or that it makes sense as part of the song, it?s not some static thing I?m playing over. It basically is, but I?m trying not make it sound like that (laughs). If possible, I don?t know.
Are you bored of playing by yourself?
No, not at all. I love it. I really love it. I think at some point it would be really fun to play and have other people on stage with me. I think you get so much out of that. But I don?t think I?m there yet. I like the opportunities and I think it?s cool to have the chance to just be up there with myself and it feels really personal if I can communicate with the audience in that way. I really like that.
At the same time, Chicago has such a scene built up of darker experimental music that there?s no shortage of people to play with.
I know. Definitely. Part of it too is I?m so used to doing it by myself. I?m sure there?s stuff right in front of my nose I don?t even see. Right now I?m just in the middle of trying to get this record out there and promote it. After I get back from this tour and when I start writing again, I?m gonna look for other people to work with, but I want to try and keep it Helen Money, but maybe bring a little bit of something else into it. It?s hard too when it?s right in your back yard. Sometimes it?s hard to appreciate things.
About the tour, is there any show in particular you?re looking forward to? Are there places more receptive to what you?re doing than others?
I can?t wait to play the Brooklyn show. I love those guys and I think that?s gonna be really fun, to share the stage with them. I can?t wait (laughs). I think their music?s the same vibe as what I?m doing and I?m really looking forward to that. I?m just looking forward to everyplace. I?ve only really toured for my stuff once before and one thing I really liked was how every city?s different. Every scene is different, all the people are different. I really enjoyed that, so I?m really looking forward to meeting the people at these clubs and playing for new people. I can?t wait to get my record out there (laughs). I feel really good about it and I?m really happy to be on this label, and I?m really looking forward to being able to sell my CD to people and have them listen to it. Every city is going to be different, and I know I can?t decide in my mind what it?s gonna be like. I?m gonna just try and do a great show and hopefully people will get it and like what I?m doing and more people will hear this record than the last one.
What are the plans for after the tour? I saw you?re playing the Asymmetry Festival?
Yeah, in Holland. I?ve never played in Europe, and I?ve got my friend Joe Lally in Italy. I might try and do some shows with him there. I?m getting some help from people as far as contacts, so I might try and do a little two or three week tour over there. I think that?ll be really fun. I?m just going to continue to promote this record, but hopefully start thinking about the next one. I?ve got a studio here in Chicago that?s a nice place to come write, I live in a great neighborhood, I?ve got a great boyfriend, so I feel like I?ve got a great life and I want to get my music out there and hopefully meet more musicians that maybe I?ll play with and do shows with.Chicago, Helen Money, Radium