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Feature Thu Nov 12 2009
When talking musical influences with Helen Money, it's easy to forget her instrument of choice: cello. She references Bob Mould's Beaster, with its wall of sound and intense, thought-obliterating guitar work. She speaks of The Who and all the crazy rock bands she was exposed to in the '80s. "The stuff I like sounds like life or death," she reasons. And this coming from a woman with a picture of Jimi Hendrix taped to her cello case like he's a saint.
Helen Money (Photo by Alan Rovge)
Helen Money, aka Alison Chesley, is a Chicago-based solo artist. As Chesley, she teaches cello classes at Old Town School of Folk Music as well as composes music for film, theater, and dance, including the soundtrack to the award-winning documentary Indestructible. She's also an accomplished session musician, recording with the likes of MONO, Anthrax, Russian Circles, Bob Mould, Chris Connelly, and most recently, Broken Social Scene.
As Helen Money, she's an interesting juxtaposition: A seemingly mild-mannered woman whose music is loud, aggressive, and kaleidoscopic in nature. Watch as a room full of PBR-swilling hipsters and hard rockers hush and turn to watch Money play "MF," the opening track from her recent album, In Tune. It's a deceptive song, beginning with soft echoing bow bounces before ripping into far heavier turf. As with many of her songs, Money's delicate bowings and whispered pizzicatos break way into powerful looped riffs and heavily distorted shredding. She vacillates between the dynamics, head down and nodding.
Becoming Helen Money took about a decade. First California-raised Chesley had to graduate from Northwestern in the early '90s with a graduate degree in cello performance. Next, she met singer and guitarist Jason Narducy (now with the Bob Mould Band), with whom she formed acoustic group Verbow. "It was the first time I've been excited about practicing and losing myself in the music — I never felt that with classical music," says Chesley.
After Verbow dissolved, Chesley was asked to write a concept piece for a group of poets. It was the first time writing for herself--she'd written string arrangements for Verbow, but this was a completely different process. "I was curious if I could come up with something that people would want to hear," she says. It took, and in 2003, Chesley began working on her solo work. Her moniker would come from her hearing a DJs name (Honey Melon) incorrectly. She liked the mistake: "It sounded like rock to me." And it was separate enough from who Alison Chesley is that she could bring other people into the band and still be Helen Money.
Cello is an instrument that seems to inherently maintain listeners' interest. Still, how to transpose this into a compelling album, let alone live show, was a challenge. Besides her cello, which she plays live standing up, a full swath of loop stations and distortion and delay pedals to fill out her sound accompanies Chesley. "I guess I see my pedals as my backing band, rather than providing a backing track," she says.
If her effects were her backing band, they'd likely be a group of lank-haired, angry industrial headbangers. Her 2007 self-titled debut CD had its blackened edges, but it was balanced with a fair amount of mellifluous passages. The recently released In Tune, however, is far heavier and more dramatic; despite its title, the album is rather discordant. "Waterwalk" is a acidic bubbling track, while in the forlorn "Untilted," Chesley's cello makes reconciled decisions before angrily scrubbing them out. Dang if the song doesn't tell a story.
Chesley is surprised at how dark the album turned out. She added a cover of the Minutemen's "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing," in order "to lighten things up." The track is a prime example of Money's tendency to play her cello like a giant, full-bodied electric guitar. She finds a kernel of sound and develops it. "It's not scientific. I'm trying to hear a sound that makes me feel something and is interesting," she says.
"Really, I don't like cello music because it's cello. I'm more interested in what's being communicated. In fact, I'm probably interested in it sounding not like a cello."
In Tune might mark a new era for Helen Money. "Unfortunately, I'm realizing the limits of my sound. I think I've reached it, actually." The next step, she says, is to incorporate other people into Helen Money.
"But ultimately, it still has to be me."
Helen Money's In Tune record release show is Monday, Nov. 30, at 9:30 p.m. at the Empty Bottle (1035 N. Western). Free.