Helen Money: One-Woman Cello Fury

Helen Money: “In Tune”
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As Helen Money, Chicago-based cellist Alison Chesley transforms a commonly known classical instrument into a mighty weapon for composing and arranging furious one-woman rock concertos. But unlike the explosive and menacing songs on her second album, In Tune, Chesley is unassuming in person, speaking softly in the basement chill-out room at the Empty Bottle in Chicago before performing later that evening.

The subterranean location seems fitting, considering Chesley’s ability to push the sonic boundaries of the cello and journey to the depths of the heart and mind. “I want to make the cello sound like anything but a cello,” she says. “I’m looking for that one feeling, and then I dig in and see what I can discover. I love that dark sound and going to a serious place where I can work with darker emotions. I have to feel what I’m playing.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Chesley became a cellist serendipitously. “In grade school, I had to pick an instrument for a part of a public-school music program,” she says. “I can’t remember exactly why, but I ended up picking the cello.

“Then I remember my dad buying me Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor. That’s probably one of the best cello pieces ever written, and I still don’t know how he knew to pick that out. I listened to that Dvorak recording over and over. Eventually, I came to love the midrange sound of the cello, and it’s unique from all instruments because it’s most similar to human voice. It hits you right in the chest.”

As she grew up, Chesley continued to mix in varied musical influences like the music of pop star Shaun Cassidy. But it was the epic rock of The Who and SST punk bands such as The Minutemen (which she covers on In Tune with “A Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”) that formed the nucleus for the style of aggressive rock-based and minimalist cello that she wanted to play.

In 1994, Chesley came to Chicago to study for her master’s in cello performance at Northwestern University. She met fellow musician Jason Narducy, with whom she eventually formed alternative-rock band Verbow. After recording two albums with Verbow, Chesley left the band in 2001 to embark on a solo career.

In addition to Helen Money, Chesley works as a composer, arranger, and instructor for Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. “I love teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music,” she says. “I had a student with multiple sclerosis who wanted to learn to play cello, and it was inspiring to see that type of determination from a student, because it makes me appreciate my gift and think back to when I was a kid and I used to hide in the backyard when I didn’t want to practice my cello.”

Chesley also composes for theater and film productions and has leant her talents to bands including Disturbed, Anthrax, Mono, and Russian Circles. Chesley says that creating music for other projects is “more about the dance,” where she focuses on complementing, enhancing, or responding to visual elements like actors or sets in theater or film.

The challenges change when it comes to her own music, where it’s up to her to decide where she takes the mood of a piece. “As Helen Money, I try to present an idea, tell a complete story, and have structure,” she says. “When I left Verbow, I wasn’t really interested in playing pretty cello. I didn’t want to be just a string player in a band. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to play with anyone because I was really curious to see if I could write and perform on my own. I also wanted to challenge myself to see if I could create a whole cohesive piece.”

The first Helen Money record, a self-titled album that she released in 2007, was about discovery. “I was thinking more along the lines of Bob Mould’s Workbook,” Chesley says. “So over time I added effects pedals and took the aggressive cello I was playing with Verbow to a different level.”

As for her sophomore album, Chesley says that she pushed herself to develop an idea. “I recorded my first album live, but when I started recording In Tune,I had just started working with Pro Tools,” she says. “I wanted to see if I could get away from relying on my loop stations’ pedals and worry about how to pull it off live later.”

For In Tune, Chesley took a different approach to recording. Working with engineer Greg Norman (Pelican, Russian Circles, Neurosis), she was presented with new challenges in the studio. “Once of the things I was cautious of when recording on tape was to figure out how to play things from beginning to end,” she says.

“Learning that was difficult. When I screwed something up, I wasn’t sure if I could do that again. But Greg helped by telling me to just get one good take, not four or five. Working like that in the studio was hard, but it allowed me to learn to be okay with mistakes, and I’m glad I did it that way.”

That edge and struggle can be felt on the album. Her placements of percussive plucks and violent pushes and pulls of the bow back and forth across the strings immerse the listener in songs that are rigid and gritty, sleek and graceful. It’s a jagged juxtaposition of metal textures and rock rhythms that’s terrifying as much as it is tender and vulnerable.

For example, as inspiration for her song “Untilted,” Chesley explains, “I was listening to John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama.’ I knew that song was about the girls who died in a bombing during the civil-rights struggle in the ’60s. I love that song because it’s so naked. Coltrane evoked a strong feeling. I wanted to do the same thing in the middle section of ‘Untitled.’ On all my songs, I’m searching for a feeling or a sound more than melody because I’m not very good at writing melody.”

“And that feeling is usually dark,” Chesley adds, “because I’m not scared to explore the darker emotions. I don’t mind being in a dark places. I don’t know why that is. For some reason, I don’t like music that you have to think about to appreciate. I’m hesitant to listen to albums like that. I like the rawness and immediacy of music that hits you quickly.”

Chesley wrestled with artistic uncertainty during the recording of In Tune and as she prepared to tour. “There’s so much music out there now that it’s easy to ask yourself ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? Why would anyone listen to my music?’” she says. “There are so many good musicians today that you really have to believe in yourself and be confident even when you have doubt.

“For me, I realized that if I’m not playing my cello or writing, then I’m not really happy and I get depressed. Being aware of this makes me realize that I should be making music even when I’m struggling with the fear that nobody will want to hear my music. Sometimes I play cello just for my own emotional health or to sort things out.”

Listening to Chesley work out her struggles and express herself on record is only part of the equation. Experiencing Helen Money live adds completeness to her albums. But after two years of performing on her own, Chesley feels that she is coming to the limits of what she can do on stage solo.

“I feel self-contained when I’m on stage,” she says. “I don’t move around a lot. It feels sparse. I like that I’m intimately connecting with the audience, but I’m hoping to make it a bit more epic. I’d like to play and share the stage with other musicians too. It’s a lot to deal with everything yourself, like driving to the venue, dealing with other bands when someone tries to move me up on the bill, and when things like my effects pedals don’t work right. At times like those, I really need to rely on another band member.”

Even so, Chesley’s solo performance that evening at the Empty Bottle erupted with power and strength, filling the venue with an undeniable force. Chesley’s performance was raw, naked, and revealing, and it provides inspiration by showing how a cello can rock, roar, and growl gorgeously when in the hands of Helen Money.

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N.A.S.A: Flying High With All-Star Collaborators On The Spirit Of The Apollo

On their debut album The Spirit of the Apollo (Anti-), DJ/producers Sam Spiegel (Squeak E. Clean) and Ze Gonzales (DJ Zegon), together as N.A.S.A. (North America South America), embarked on their own musical odyssey. As studio astronauts, the duo’s mission was to mix Spiegel’s love of North American hip hop and rock with Gonzales’ passion for Brazilian funk. Together they hoped to create a new musical galaxy filled with Earth’s rising and brightest stars.

From the start, The Spirit of Apollo celebrates humanity’s delicate interdependence with “The People Tree,” and then it ponders the perpetuating evils of worshiping the almighty dollar on “Money.” Both tracks juxtapose David Byrne’s soulful siren against the barbed spitfire rhymes of Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Blackalicious rapper Gift of Gab. As the rest of the album unfolds, the other collaborating crew members (Kanye West, Santogold, Karen O, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Tom Waits, Kool Keith, KRS-One, Fatlip, et. al.) send the 16-song shuttle ride surging towards a dance-floor party on the surface of the sun.

Though the journey isn’t conceptually cohesive track to track, the universal groove of the Spirit of Apollo still mines the depths of human emotion. Among the other party tracks, “Way Down” stands out as the album’s deepest trip to a dreary and emotional underworld as Barbie Hatch’s dark and cathartic croon, RZA’s nimble flow, and John Frusciante’s psychedelic rock riffs take your heart and mind through a compelling journey filled with pain, sadness, and loneliness.

A few weeks before the album’s launch date (February 17, 2009), Spiegel explains how the project began nearly six years ago, when he and Gonzales first considered combining their music passions. “We started talking about using the Apollo theme because that’s what we wanted the album to be about,” he says. “The album’s first collaboration with [Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer] Karen O created the song ‘Strange Enough,’ and then we added the Ol’ Dirty Bastard vocals. That’s when we realized that this album is all about avoiding the things that keep mankind separated musically and culturally. We focused on the unity idea because it’s the unexpected collaborations that bring the world together.”

For the last several years, Spiegel has sharpened his producing skills by scoring commercials and movies. And those experiences helped capture The Spirit of Apollo. “Scoring a picture is a very dynamic process; it has builds and falls,” Spiegel says. “I’ve really learned a lot about how to translate that to music. Being able to play and have a wider range of instruments has really helped widen my production palette too. When you’re confronted with different types of music, you’re forced to grow and open up a new part of your musical vocabulary.”

As a producer who has a long list of previous credits and collaborations, ranging from movie and commercial scores to album and remix production, Spiegel says that he began tapping his “list of favors” to accomplish his mission. “Calling in a few favors meant different things depending on who I was talking to,” he says. “Santogold was the very last song on the album, and we needed to get it finished or we would have had to push the release date back. She was on ‘Gifted’ with Lykke Li and Kanye West. She was telling us that her vocal chords were trashed and that she was way too busy touring, but I begged her to take time out so we could finish this song. She was generous enough to meet me in New York and record the song.”

Ever since his adolescence, Spiegel has been in love with hip hop. “This was the album that I was dreaming about making since I was a kid,” he says. “Even though it took a long time, it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. It was a very special honor to work with my hip-hop and rock heroes.”

Once he had his wish list of collaborators, Spiegel sent letters to the album’s hip-hop emcees. “We presented the music to the emcees by sending them the track with a letter about what the album was about, why they fit into the album, and what the song was about,” he says. “We already had the hook and melody, and sometimes each emcee would write with us in the studio. I ended up going all over the world to record this album. It was a big, crazy adventure.”

Spiegel received unexpected inspiration from folk/blues journeyman Tom Waits, who gave the project depth and support. “Waits was really into the project and wanted to support us by donating his services from the start,” Spiegel says. “I was going to pay him because I didn’t know him that well, but we became friends fast. He would call me with ideas for the album’s film and suggested other collaborations. He’s such an amazing and terrific person.”

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