Alison Chesley’s visceral and inventive solo project plays March 8 at the High Noon Saloon. (Photo by Jim Newberry.)
Become Zero, the 2016 album from cellist Alison Chesley’s solo outlet Helen Money, opens up a chasm where light and despair wash freely over each other. Chesley builds up her instrument into multi-part arrangements using loops, and often employs grimy distortion that deliberately points to the influence of metal (the project often ends up touring with metal and noise-rock bands, including Shellac, Sleep, and Russian Circles) while sticking close to a core of low-end melody and churning rhythm. She’s an expert at paring down and pulling back: In the middle of “Radiate,” the scratch and thrum and sludge of Chesley’s heaviest passages give way to moments of climactic calm.
Across Helen Money’s four albums, Chesley has gradually introduced drums (from Jason Roeder of Neurosis and Sleep), piano, and an assortment of electronics and samples. She also released a collaborative album in 2015 with former Swans vocalist Jarboe. At her most ambitious she’s never cluttered things up, only strengthened her grip on the project’s incisive language. Even outside of Helen Money,Chesley has long experience threading the cello into rock music without sacrificing its character and range: She co-founded the Chicago band Verbow in the early 1990s with Jason Narducy (also of Split Single and Bob Mould’s current band), has recorded with artists ranging from Scout Niblet to Mono, and played on Mould’s 2014 tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of his Workbook album.
Chesley is currently working on the next Helen Money record, and is re-familiarizing herself with Chicago’s music scene after moving back there from Los Angeles. Ahead of her March 8 show at the High Noon Saloon, opening for The Messthetics, Chesley spoke with Tone Madison about where Helen Money has gone and where it’s headed.
Tone Madison: It’s been about 12 years since you’ve put out your first record as Helen Money. When you first started this project, what were you looking to accomplish and how do you find that that’s changed over over the years?
Alison Chesley: When I first started this, it was kind of because I had stopped playing in Verbow, which is a band I was in before I did Helen Money. I wanted to keep playing intense music like I had been doing in Verbow. But it’s really hard to find that as a string player in rock. A lot of bands think of strings, at least at that time, as adding kind of the frosting on the cake. And I wanted to be part of the batter. I wanted to be part of the overall sound, like with Verbow. I was in there with the guitars and, and part of the big textural sound that we were making. It’s also hard to find bands that were hard that would want to have cello.
So I thought, “Well, I’m going to try and write some stuff, see what can I write, where I can kind of channel some of that energy.” That’s how it started. It’s kind of organic in a way. Some of it feels conscious, you know, it’s going from record to record making conscious decisions. Another part of it just feels like as I keep writing and playing things, I just tend to want to write and try other stuff, or explore something I’ve already done…I don’t know how planned-out it was.
Tone Madison: It’s strange that there’s this paradigm in popular music that really sidelines instruments like the cello, even though it’s so sonically rich.
Alison Chesley: I was really very fortunate when I played with Jason [Narducy, of Verbow] in that he didn’t put limitations on what I could do as a cellist. He said, “Hey, try a distortion pedal, try delay.” He totally saw me as part of the overall sound. And I think a large part of that was due to how Bob Mould wrote for cello on Workbook. He got the cello right in there in the mix. He didn’t have, I don’t think, a lot of preconceived notions, or he didn’t put a lot of limits on how he was going to write for the cello on that record. So I think Jason kind of adopted that approach. I wasn’t putting limits on myself either. But that’s not the norm.
Tone Madison: A few years ago, you even played on Mould’s Workbook anniversary tour. What was it like kind of getting into the guts of that material and working with it for a while?
Alison Chesley: Well, it was just really amazing to be on stage with him and I was also on stage with Jason who was playing bass, so it was like two of my favorite musicians, and musicians who also had such a huge impact on my life. Being on stage and playing with them was just amazing. Just observing Bob on stage and how works and how he approaches playing live, it was really cool to be next to him watching him do that. As far as the songs, I did know the parts pretty well. The music I had been doing with Jason when I was in Verbow, those cello parts were kind of like what I was doing with Bob. So that felt kind of somewhat familiar, but the big difference was that he was actually standing next to me. So it was great. It was, it was really great. I love him and I got a chance to be on this new record with him, Sunshine Rock. I’m on one track, and I also helped Bob navigate scoring the string parts for the orchestra. I just feel really lucky to have met him and you know, still be part of world.
Tone Madison: Over the course of these four albums that you’ve released as Helen Money, how have you changed how you look at the scope of the project and what you’re able to do with it sonically and compositionally? It seems like on each, each record you’re definitely pushing into just different territory in terms of the ideas that you’re working with and, and the way that you compose and play things.
Alison Chesley: After doing the first one [released in 2007], it was kind of new for me and having a loop pedal and that kind of expanded things. Now I have like three phrase-saving pedals and all these effects pedals I play with live. And I think I integrate them really well into my show. You know, it doesn’t look like I’m flying a plane up there, although it feels like it. And then I decided to bring drums in because I wanted to hear other sounds—and piano. I started to bring those other sounds into what I was doing with the cello, because I was pushing my cello and I always like hearing my cello through pedals because that creates new sounds. And now I wanted to hear other instruments, so I felt like piano and drums made the most sense to me.
I feel like Become Zero was pretty successful…I feel like I achieved with those instruments, and just me, what I wanted. Now I’m almost feeling like I want to dial back a little. I was feeling, “I gotta make this bigger. I gotta have people on stage with me.” And now I’m almost like, “Well maybe it’s okay that it’s just me. Maybe I’ll try and write quiet stuff that’s really intimate.” That’s kind of where I’m at a little bit right now, even though I still want to do the loud, heavy stuff, because I enjoy playing that, and it’s fun, it’s a release, and I like that energy. But I’ve become curious lately about things that are maybe more subdued, really just being me up there and being OK with it. So that’s kind of what I’m thinking about. I’ve got five songs done for this new record and have got three or four left. So that’s kind of where my head’s at right now.
Tone Madison: With Become Zero, you’ve talked a bit about the themes that you wanted to explore and the personal experiences that informed some of the writing of the record. What was it like crafting something that has this whole gamut of extreme emotions wrapped up in it? Because there’s definitely these elements of tragedy and hope and points in between.
Alison Chesley: I think for me that’s what I tend to go for, because I like music that’s kind of emotional and dark and introspective, even if it’s loud—more in-your-chest than up-in-your-head stuff. I try to find a way to say it that’s interesting and also, I don’t know how to put it, but actually really saying something and isn’t just something I’ve done before or falling back on a stock technique or something. I want to communicate something the best way I can, so I guess I just kind of tried different ways to do that. I don’t sit down and think, “Well, how am I going to express that this really pisses me off?” I kind of sit down and just try and find a sound. I try and find a sound that says something to me and then I go from there. Probably whatever I’m thinking at the moment or whatever is on my mind or just in general things that I am occupied with, that kind of comes through, a sound will speak to me and I go there and I try and develop it so that I’m saying something.
Tone Madison: There are these complex concepts and sonic elements that come into what you’re doing, but it is really accessible and there’s always some kind of direct through-line that, that someone can latch onto—the in-your-chest part, as you might say. Is that, is that something that you’re kind of cultivating deliberately?
Alison Chesley: Yeah, I mean, I want to feel something and I want to communicate that. When I go to a show I want to feel something. If I feel like the person on stage is telling me something and they’re not trying to be clever and they’re not doing something that I’ve heard a million times, I want to hear what they have to say. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to communicate something that feels true to me, and hopefully it resonates with people.
Tone Madison: Do you find that that approach helps you cut through to different audiences, especially when you’re playing live in all these different contexts where at least some of the crowd might not expect to see someone who’s doing what you’re doing, whether it’s with Shellac or Sleep or what have you?
Alison Chesley: Maybe. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I often think it’s the cello, because it’s such a communicative instrument and the range of the cello is the same as the human voice. So I feel like people are just so open to that instrument and I feel very fortunate that that’s the instrument I play. Obviously, I’ve seen cello playing that says nothing to me, but maybe it’s the combo of the instrument and how I’m communicating through it.
Tone Madison: Even though you’ve been doing this for a while, there’s still a lot of audiences who aren’t necessarily used to seeing somebody playing cello in a setting that’s not classical music and doing it in the way that you’re doing it and making it the driver of the compositions. I don’t think people gravitate to it for the novelty, and yet there still aren’t a lot of people who are doing quite quite what you’re doing.
Alison Chesley: I think, I wonder also, Scott, if I’m not afraid of stuff that’s just beautiful and hopeful, and maybe that resonates with people too. When we were growing up, my parents did a lot of really great things for me music-wise. My dad bought me a record of the Dvořák cello concerto, which just is an incredibly complex and powerful and beautiful piece of music. At the same time, they enjoyed Muzak. We watched the Lawrence Welk Show when we were kids and there was this cellist on the show, her name was Charlotte. And I loved Charlotte when I was like eight or nine. I thought She was so cool. I’ve sure changed since then—my tastes have changed. And I went back, I thought “I’m going to go look at an old video,” and she was playing “Moon River,” and I was transfixed. I thought, “My God, this is such a beautiful melody and the cello is sounds so gorgeous.” And I still love that stuff, you know, just a beautiful melody that makes you feel something. I’m a sucker for that.
Tone Madison: How do you find your approach to playing live is changing, especially as you write new material that you incorporates more instruments? Drums have been a part of your recordings for a while now, but I’m just wondering how you find the live experience changing and if there are things that you want to try to do differently when you’re playing live.
Alison Chesley: I try and remember when I write that I want to write stuff that I enjoy playing live. I still would like to find a musician or musicians to play live with. Logistically it’s kind of hard at my level to be able to tour with and afford to tour with people, so I’m okay with keeping it just me. I’m kind of curious now about how simple I can make it. Like, I would, I think when I wrote “Blood And Bone,” I was kind of wondering, “Can I write a piece where it’s just me and a cello and perform that?” I have done that in a couple of songs, but I wouldn’t say they’re very complex or anything I’d want to play live. But I’m curious about that getting it as close to bare-bones as possible.
Tone Madison: When it came to the piano that you incorporated into Become Zero, how did you approach writing and arranging those parts?
Alison Chesley:I think I came up with the piano chords first and I just liked them. On the record. Rachel Grimes plays them…I was practicing the Bach’s Fifth Suite, which is a piece I really love. It’s very dark. He tunes the cello’s top A string down to G, so that it makes the cello sound even darker. I believe it’s in G minor. In Bach there are lots of winding melodies that kind of flow into each other. You don’t know where one ends and one begins. I thought, “God, I wish I could try and write something like that.” So after I came up with the chords, I thought, “Oh, you know, I’ll introduce the cello pretty simply and then maybe I’ll go off and I just kind of improvise over the second half of the song.” And then I added another cello and I just kind of had them all winding around each other… I wanted to arrive at a certain point, so it felt like the piece had a climax and then ended, so that took a little thinking through. But otherwise a lot of it was improvising.
Tone Madison: Do you find that you have a lot of opportunities to play in a more improvised way?
Alison Chesley: No, I don’t actually. I mostly do my own stuff. I would love to be able to do more of that. But I find that when I sit down to maybe practice technique, I want to start writing. So I have a huge admiration for musicians who devote the time to learn their instruments enough to improvise. And I would like to do that but I don’t have a lot of opportunities to do it. I just moved back to Chicago and there’s lots of musicians there I could do that with.