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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