Interview: Helen Money
I don’t really see myself as genre-crossing. My music has quite consistently been me, and that’s the darker side of things. I was embraced by the metal community and I feel that’s my core audience. They are a very open-minded audience and willing to go with you into other places that aren’t what other people would consider traditionally metal.
Alison Chesley’s work as Helen Money is many things – powerful, visceral, loud – but her latest album, Atomic, taps into something new, introducing a stripped-back sensibility that demonstrates the cello’s ability as a storytelling instrument in a way that few recordings ever have. We got in touch with Alison to discuss this latest work, as well as how her cello has become her voice and the simple pleasure of connecting to others in a world becoming increasingly fractured.
E&D: Congratulations on the new album, it’s wonderful. It feels like a departure from the past few releases. Is it still tapping into the same emotions and technique, though?
Alison: The emotions are still there. I like dark, I like serious, I like going to places that are contemplative. I don’t write happy stuff so that’s never going to happen but I think how I’m expressing it on this record is maybe a little different. I consciously tried to explore using other instruments and kind of downsizing as far as the amount of tracks I’m doing, making it a little more intimate.
E&D: Do you feel that intimacy helps to make this record a bit closer to the experience of you playing live?
Alison: That’s an interesting question and I’m not really sure how to answer it. I know there are more moments in the show now where I bring it downward it’s more subdued, but it’s still intense, so that’s a little different, I think.
E&D: The times that I’ve seen you, there’s a sense of solitude or separateness that comes from watching you perform. Is that something that you experience when you’re performing?
Alison: No, in fact on stage I feel connected to the audience through my music. That’s when I’m happiest; onstage, or when I’m talking to people after the show. It’s a little lonely travelling as I’m by myself. There are other bands, but I don’t have other band members. It’s the writing process, everything else that’s involved apart from standing on stage that feels a little solitary but when I get on stage, I feel very connected to something bigger.
E&D: What about when it comes to the collaborative process? Is there a sense that you have to maintain that sense of isolation given that it’s your project?
Alison: Yeah, I feel like I have to generate the material. It has to be my voice. However, there are some important people that I’ve worked with for a while and one of those would be my boyfriend, Michael Freidman. For the songs that have drums, I’ll often ask him for ideas. I’ll show him what I have and ask for some drum tracks that I can work with and we’ve been doing that for the past couple albums at least, maybe three. And then my good friend Will Thomas, who produced Become Zero, in the studio with him he would take my sounds and sample them, add texture and another layer to my compositions. This record, he did give me a couple of pieces he had composed on his modular synthesiser, ‘Something Holy’ and ‘Nemesis’. I used that as I was writing my pieces, and that’s more of a collaboration than I’ve done on any of my previous records. I’m hoping to do more things like that with him as I really love what he brings to my music.
E&D: How did you work that with Will? Were you using his pieces as a framework?
Alison: Yeah. You’ll hear on ‘Something Holy’ there’s a really high, ethereal part. He generated that on his modular synthesiser and I wrote the string parts to go with it. And then on ‘Nemesis’, that drone that’s going throughout is something that he came up with. I just chopped it up a little bit and then wrote to that. He gave me an idea and I immediately heard something.
E&D: You’ve worked in so many genres throughout your career, from classical to avant-garde and metal. Do you feel there are clear distinctions in technique and construction between those styles?
Alison: That’s interesting, I don’t really see myself as genre-crossing. My music has, I feel, quite consistently been me, and that’s the darker side of things. I was embraced by the metal community and I feel that’s my core audience. They are a very open-minded audience and willing to go with you into other places that aren’t what other people would consider traditionally metal. As far as classical, I don’t really play much classical these days but that’s how I was brought up, how I learned my instrument. I don’t spend much time there. I love that music and I love to play it every now and then but I feel like I spend a lot more time doing my thing. Once in a while, I’ll play with other musicians. For example, I played with Bob Mould at the end of last year, 2018, he asked me if I would help him transcribe some arrangements for strings on his last record, Sunshine Rock, and then I also had the chance to perform on one of the songs. He wrote all of the parts. I see that kind of relationship as also being within my wheelhouse – very intense, emotional, visceral music so that doesn’t feel like much of a departure for me.
E&D: When was it that you started to feel yourself drifting away from classical towards something closer to what you do now?
Alison: Classical music was most of what I listened to up until my early 20s. My brother and sister were more into listening to current music, and my brother turned me onto The Who. I think I was 22 at that point and when I heard it, something just connected. After that point, I tried to seek out more music like that. I spent all my time going around the rock clubs of Los Angeles, going to see bands like The Minutemen and The Meat Puppets, and I’d go see bigger bands like The Who. All that felt very different from me as a cellist. Then when I moved to Chicago to be a grad student, I made friends with this guy Jason Narducy and we connected over our mutual interest in these bands. I liked the bands he liked, and vice versa, and he said, “I’m doing a solo show, would you like to play with me?” I was kind of hesitant because usually when someone wants you to play strings on their work, it’s kind of the frosting on the cake. It’s not that interesting. We got together and he wanted me to play the rhythm guitar player, or the lead guitar player. He wanted a wall of sound and he was playing stuff like Workbook, Bob Mould’s album – really intense, powerful stuff, and I thought, “My god, I’m playing the music I like. Finally!” I was in grad school and I realised that this was what I really wanted to do. We got opportunities – Bob Mould actually heard us perform when we opened for him, and said he wanted to produce our next record. We got the chance to work with him and so I said, “Okay, this is what I’m doing.” I finished my grad degree and that’s the last time I seriously played classical music. That was a long time ago.
E&D: Have you composed for anything else outside of your solo work? I did hear you’d written some work for dance.
Alison: Yeah, I composed a couple of pieces for a theatre company here and I’ve written some music for film. Not extensively but I have. I did a project recently with Steve Albini. We came up with music for a horror movie (Girl On The Third Floor) and that was super-fun. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with other bands in Chicago but mostly I focus on writing my own music.
E&D: Do you think having that other side helps you in the construction of your solo work?
Alison: Definitely, and I would like to do more of that. I always like to learn from other musicians and about their process, and I think it’s good to push myself in that way.
E&D: Do you get to learn while on tour as well? I’ve caught you with Shellac and Earth, so those are fine people to learn from. Is that enriching in terms of your development?
Alison: Oh absolutely. I learn so much about myself from playing my music and sharing it with people. I always learn something from the bands I open for. It’s really inspiring. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to open for some amazing bands, and I learn something from all of those bands, and from the audiences I play for. That’s one of the bigger perks for me, just meeting people. Some of the things people say to me are just beautiful. It’s hard to tour and it’s always hard to leave home but once I’m there it’s just a wonderful experience.
E&D: There’re people like yourself, Jo Quail and Bela Emerson out there – all fantastic solo cellists. What do you think makes cello stand on its own so well?
Alison: One thing about the cello is that it has an incredible range, and pretty much everywhere on the cello sounds good. Other string instruments like viola and bass, the proportion of the instrument in relation to the string length limits how well they are able to resonate. The cello is perfectly proportioned and the range is right near where the human voice resonates, so it hits you in the chest. That’s why, I think, that when people hear cello it’s so moving to them. The range of the instrument just connects to something so visceral. That’s why it’s such an expressive instrument.
E&D: Given where the register of the cello lies, I guess it makes sense that it is your ‘voice’. Do you feel any urge to work with other instruments?
Alison: I’m very connected to my cello, it’s just basically my best friend. I’ve been with it so long, since I was 8. It is the way I connect with a part of myself, but I love the piano. I enjoyed writing for piano on the past few records, I love how that sounds with the cello. The harp piece I wrote, I really enjoyed that. I really enjoy hearing other sounds, and I like getting inspired my other musicians who aren’t cellists. I like pushing my cello to make different sounds but it’s a cello, no matter what. I make sure that when I make a sound on it, the base of it is the cello and it’s a good sound. That’s important.
E&D: Do you ever have to keep that in mind? You’re known for your use of distortion and, as you said, it’s enabled you to play like a guitarist, so do you ever have to rein things in so you don’t lose that core sound?
Alison: No <laughs> No, because I always go back to it. Even a distorted cello still sounds very different from a distorted guitar.
E&D: How do you chart your development over the past few albums? What do those represent to you?
Alison: Well, this is my fifth record. I think I’ve become a better writer. It’s very hard for me to be objective. I’m just trying to keep going, keep writing and to push myself on every record to say what I want to say in a more succinct or powerful way. I hope that I’m getting better at that with each record.
E&D: Do you think that you were able to fully express everything you wanted to with this record?
Alison: No, I feel like I’ve just started to explore this more stripped down side of things and I’d like to continue that. I’d also like to continue writing stuff that’s big and powerful and loud, so I think I have a lot to learn with that. One thing I’m going to do is, Will Thomas and I have started writing some more, just the two of us, with the modular synthesiser, cello and piano, and I think that’s going to be really interesting as it won’t be Helen Money material, it’ll be the two of us. I’m looking forward to seeing what that’s like.
E&D: What is Helen Money to you? Is at a band, or a concept… where does Alison end and Helen Money begin?
Alison: It’s kind of the same thing. Some people call me Helen and I don’t even say, “Oh no, it’s Alison” and I call myself Helen from the stage. When I picked the name, I picked a different name from mine for a couple reasons. One thing was I didn’t want people to think this was going to be folk music – I wanted it to have a band, ‘rock’ kind of name. The other was because I wanted to be able to invite other people in and I figured if I had a stage name I could do that. I didn’t want to do ‘Alison Chesley and special guests’. In some way, Helen Money probably lets me try things and have this identity where I can make whatever I want.
E&D: What else is in the works apart from Atomic and the work with Will?
Alison: That soundtrack with Steve and Tim (Midyett) is coming out soon but apart from that, I’m just focusing on the work with Will and promoting this record. It hasn’t even been released yet so I’m hoping the next year will be a lot of performing this material.
E&D: Could you explain the concept, or concepts, behind Atomic?
Alison: There are a couple of things that I think were happening for me. My parents passed away maybe 8 years ago. They were both older but now it’s just my sister, my brother and me. We had to move on to a different part of our lives together, involving my brother moving to Northern California in the Redwoods. My sister and I would go and visit him there. He loves nature, he loves the solitude and quiet. Being up there with him in that environment helped me to connect to that part of our world. Then also I was thinking that the connection I had with them, the connection with my family – my fiancé’s family has been very supportive to us, so I have a new family now – how we’re all connected to each other and at the same time, I was reading this book about Lucretius. I believe he coined the term ‘atom’ and he believed that we are all made up of the same stuff – the rocks, the stars, everything, we’re all the same. We come from that and we go back to that. Reading that and experiencing that incredible nature, and experiencing all the love and support around us, I felt that’s what was happening with me when I was writing the material.
E&D: It’s a beautiful concept, and it does tie in with what you were saying about how you’re happiest when performing live, when you have that connection with everyone. There’s a physical connection, even, through sound waves.
Alison: Exactly, and I feel that people like us, who love music and come together, it’s a powerful thing to go to a show and hear someone on stage open up their heart. To share that. That gives me a lot of hope. It’s a strange time we’re living in but the fact that we can come together and share that is a very hopeful thing.