Hem

The jack pine doesn’t yield its seed willingly. Seasons can come and go and years—even decades—can pass, and the seeds remain locked in the cones. There is only one catalyst for this unusual tree to reproduce: fire. As flames rise to the tree’s crown, the cones open, bringing forth the seeds of new life. It’s a striking image, one that formed the basis of “The Jack Pine,” a song that is representative of Hem’s extravagantly bittersweet five-years-in-the-making album, Departure and Farewell. It’s also a perfect summation of this unusual chapter in the band’s life, which started as a breakup before becoming a rebirth—a point lost on none of the members.

“The metaphor of fire, burning everything to the ground for something to be reborn, was a powerful one,” notes guitarist/vocalist Steve Curtis, who originally wrote the song to mark the dissolution of his 15-year marriage. “But it proved to be prescient, not just foreshadowing the themes of the album but the things that were yet to come for us all.” Like a tall pine with the flames encroaching, the members of Hem believed—with varying degrees of certainty—that this album would be its swan song. “The original idea for the album was that we wanted to wrap everything up in a nice bow,” says Dan Messé, the band’s keyboardist and chief songwriter. “And a lot of the early songwriting was about that.”

The stage was certainly set for the band to go out on a high note. By 2007, Hem had recorded three well-received albums—along with a B-sides-and-rarities disc plus a handful of EPs—and had been rewarded with a dedicated following. Its songs, graced with the unmistakable voice of Sally Ellyson, had begun soundtracking an entire long-running ad campaign for Liberty Mutual. For a band that’s always thrived on being able to hire extra players—including entire orchestras—to realize itsgrandiose sonic visions of lushly arranged Americana, the time of prosperity brought new possibilities. “We spent a lot of time with Greg Pliska, the orchestrator,” recalls Gary Maurer, a guitarist who’s always acted as Hem’s in-house producer. “Dan always has specific ideas where the orchestra is concerned, and we really executed them. We had the money this time to work with really big groups. We’d have as many as 30 people in the room all at one time overdubbing to the basic tracks.” On top of that, the band was invited to write the score for the Shakespeare-in-the-park musical version of Twelfth Night, starring Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald, performed in New York’s open-air Delacorte Theater in summer 2009. Curtis even ended up onstage as a member of the musical ensemble. Despite Ellyson’s absence from the project, an album of musical highlights bore the Hem name.

But as work on Departure and Farewell continued, it was increasingly characterized by upheaval, riven with by the dissolution of two marriages, and punctuated by addiction, family loss and crisis. Eventually discord set in, making it even more likely that the band’s career would end here, and not with a grace note. "It turned into a much uglier goodbye,” recalls Messé, who, in the course of seeking help to function, ended up hooked on prescription pills for the better part of two years. The songwriter now reflects on the time of missed commitments, frustrations and dependence with regret. “It strained every relationship that I had. And the album almost didn’t get finished.” At his lowest point Messé wrote “Tourniquet,” which imagined his surrounding neighborhoods as instruments of torment. “Brooklyn, I’m broken – I’m breaking apart / Greenpoint pins down my hand, Red Hook pierces my heart / And my blood runs into the Gowanus Canal / Where it sinks to the bottom / And hurts like hell.”

Slowly, relationships between all the band members began healing as work resumed. “After we came back together, the feeling was a lot more loving,” Messé says. “We were all really appreciative of what each person brought to the project.” And in the process, the band, which seemed to be finished, has found new life. What was intended to be a swan song is now a hymn of rebirth. And even with growing families, the band still intends to tour. “Even as recently as 12 or 18 months ago I don’t think anyone would have foreseen this,” observes Curtis, a note of astonishment in his voice. “I think the best-case scenario was that we’d be able to email files back and forth enough times to get this mixed and mastered and released, then that would be it.”

Lurking behind all of the drama, and perhaps better for it, Departure and Farewell stands as the best, most heartrending work the band has ever done. “Would I have traded my marriage for a song like ‘So Long?’” Messé asks. “Definitely not. But given that my marriage was coming apart at the seams I’m glad to have that comfort.”

"Dan’s songs always manage to tap into that universal internal truth that feels like the most personal place,” Ellyson says. “This album is about loss, about the fear of loss and about the trajectory of life. And in this time in my life I’m very aware of all that, so it was one of the more emotionally resonating albums to record.”

“Hem is such a shared project,” Messé adds. “It’s intense. And we all want it to be the best thing we’ve ever done. It always had that ethos behind it.” This time around, the ethos is bathed in some new textures, with “Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing” employing a wind ensemble to evoke a New Orleans funeral, while “So Long” relies on a gospel vocal group, a first for the band. “Things Are Not Perfect In Our Yard” double-tracks Ellyson’s voice, another successful experiment, and “Traveler’s Song” includes a brass quintet.

In ironic juxtaposition, it may have marked Hem’s worst time professionally and personally, but it’s also the band’s best work to date. And in the process, the sign reading “The End” has been changed for one marked “To Be Continued.”

“We hope it’s not a swan song,” Messé says. “We certainly have more things we want to say. And we have more songs in the pipeline.”

“We really are a family,” Ellyson says. “We fight like a family. We love like a family. We stick together like a family. Nobody’s going to lose their place in this band because you don’t lose your place in a family. Even Dan couldn’t quite shake us free. I think that’s a real testament to the core of what Hem is.”

Little Silver

Little Silver is Erika Simonian and Steve Curtis, whose two voices square off in lockstep over the bed of their guitars. The band’s debut recording The Stolen Souveniris a bare and intimate window onto a small set of gorgeous songs, and in April 2012 they released Dress Up, a striking and spare interpretation of many of their favorite cover songs. Both albums are out on
their Record Park label.

Erika is a one decade veteran of NYC’s songwriter circle, with praise from The New York Times and a Lilith Fair appearance to her name, and Steve is a founding member of and writer for Hem, with whom he has sold over 85,000 records worldwide and performed all over. Hem’s trademark jewelbox lullabies are a central feature of Little Silver’s sound as well, though with the
help of Ray Rizzo on drums (Dawn Landes, Doveman) and David Tarica on bass (Mia Riddle), the band also reaches out, venturing into bold and experimental sounds.

The Stolen Souvenir was co-produced by Phil Palazzolo (New Pornographers, Ted Leo) and mixed by Brandon Eggleston (The Mountain Goats, Josh Ritter). Dress Up was co-produced and recorded by Gary Maurer (Hem). The full band is back in the studio this spring and summer to put together a longplaying record, and the both the full quartet and the duo arrangement will be on the road through 2013.

Fifteen years and nine albums into his career, Denison Witmer is familiar with the unexpected and often quixotic intersections that can take place between life and musical career. His newest album, The Ones Who Wait, is a reflection of this understanding of self and the growth that comes through life experience. It is an intimate reflection on the meandering path of life, on family and friendships, on death balanced with new life, on endings and beginnings. In Denison's own words, The Ones Who Wait is about "patience and reverence. Being mindful and open to what you're experiencing. A desire to take hold of what's happening in your life, yet trusting the mystery of it enough to let go and participate rather than dictate."

Much like any one of Denison's previous eight records, this ninth record started as a collaboration. He and fellow producer/engineer Devin Greenwood casually started working on an EP.

In the midst of this new start, however, Denison found himself pulled back to his native Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His father, who was diagnosed with cancer 3 years previously, had taken a turn for the worse. "My father was never the kind of guy who let people fuss over or take care of him," Denison says of that time. "But in the last few months of his life, there was this kind of acceptance and he allowed himself to be taken care of. He did it really graciously and generously. It was a beautiful thing to participate in and a gift to those around hm. Those are months that I would never trade for anything. I stopped making music. I stopped doing everything. I just spent time with him."

A few months later, his dad passed away. Denison grieved with his family, and remembered.

He returned to the studio with a new approach to the EP he had first started building the previous winter. What began as an EP grew into a full-length album, as Denison added songs that reflected the changes in the intervening year.

Denison's albums have always been markedly personal, each one a significant milestone in his life. But The Ones Who Wait marks a whole new level of intimacy with listeners. Getting married, starting a business, and watching his dad close the final chapter on his life have helped Denison tell his own story better, to be more delicate, and confident. Bringing things full circle, as he wrapped up post-production on The Ones Who Wait, Denison found out he was going to be a father too.

The sound of The Ones Who Wait indicates a new maturity in Denison's musical career, a subtle sense of confidence in his voice and music. His guitar and voice sit front and center in the sound, evoking a melodic warmth reminiscent of 70s-era singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. Denison reined in his well-established network of musicians to fill out the sound of the record, including CJ Camerieri (Bon Iver, Rufus Wainwright), Devin Greenwood (Norah Jones, Amos Lee), James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens), Charles Staub (Melody Gardot), and Rosie Thomas.

His songwriting, now trademark, is a finesse he uses to balance dark and light in the songs, lament and hymn. On "Hold On," Denison sings about "How a father always starts out as a son, how sometimes you're both, sometimes you're only one. How we manifest things far beyond our means. I do this for you. You did that for me."

A Lancaster, PA native, Denison first picked up the guitar at age 16, and was writing his own songs shortly after. Mentored by Don Peris (Innocence Mission) and influenced by Neil Young, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen, Denison forged a compelling ambient folk sound that CMJ called "deceptively powerful" and Pitchfork said was "lavish but restrained." Rollingstone.com called Denison their "favorite underrated singer-songwriter."

The Ones Who Wait is also Denison's first release for Asthmatic Kitty Records, whose employees and much of its roster have been long-time fans and collaborators with Denison. Asthmatic Kitty will also be releasing a "part two" of the record later in the summer of 2012.

Put all together, the album marks a big change for Denison: a life without his dad, a new label, a new worldview as a parent. As Witmer looks forward to the next phase of "the cyclical life" of writing-recording-touring, he is philosophical, as always, but confident about releasing an album in an overcrowded marketplace.

"I don't really have an agenda when I release my records," he says. "I just feel like I want to share something and give back to the creative community that I've taken from as a listener. My hope is that people can experience the music and it touches them in some way. I've been in this business long enough to know that you can't pick your fans. Your fans pick you. My biggest concern is I want people to feel like I'm being honest with them, and for me, to know that I've created something that I really believe in."

$20.00

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Hem with Little Silver, Denison Witmer

Thursday, June 13 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM at World Cafe Live Philadelphia