Interview: Cellist Alison Chesley on Helen Money's Long-Form Turn

Photo by Jim Newberry.

Helen Money - Atomic

Cellist Alison Chesley has a commanding stage presence. With her solo project, Helen Money, she has opened for tours by heavy acts such as Earth and Shellac, which finds her standing alone at centerstage, surrounded by those bands' large backlines.

A daunting task for a solo artist, but audiences respond to the massive sound she creates, using her cello to emulate the extreme distortion and feedback of an electric guitar played through a giant stack. That sound pervades Chesley's records as well, as does her confidence and command of her instrument.

Chesley first started bringing her cello onto rock stages in the 1990s when she began working with guitarist Jason Narducy, first as Jason & Alison and later with their band, Verbow. In 2007, she released her first Helen Money record, which has become her main project, though she has been called to play on records by bands such as Anthrax, Mono, Russian Circles, Broken Social Scene, and Bob Mould.

On her newest record, Atomic, Chesley has begun to move away from the riff-based song structures that were prevalent on her previous records and instead has created a series of patient pieces that feel like movements in a long-form composition. Atomic alludes to doom metal, drone, and ambient music, using the cello as the central player—though sometimes joined by piano, harp, and drums—for what feels like Chesley's most personal work.

Atomic is out today, March 20. For more information, visit the Helen Money website here.

Helen Money - "Midnight"

You've toured with many heavy rock bands, like Earth and Shellac. What is it like getting on stage in front of their audiences as a solo cellist? What kind of expectation do you feel from the audience?

It feels good. I feel like I'm able to connect with people on stage. People are automatically, like, "What the hell?" And a lot of people like the cello. I constantly have people saying, "Oh my god, the cello is my favorite instrument." I think that's because of the range, it's very similar to the human voice and really connects with people on that level and hits you in the chest. So, I think people are really receptive to it and I'm starting out ahead when I go up there.

The audiences I play in front of, they're mostly metal fans, and I feel like they're ready for anything as long as they feel like you're really saying something. They want to hear something powerful and that moves them. That's what I like to hear and what I try and write.

Has your musical concept always been based in rock music?

No, I did classical all the way up until I was in my early 30s. I started to go to rock shows in my 20s. I got turned on to The Who, The Minutemen, and The Meat Puppets and things like that. I went to shows all through my 20s but I was still playing classical music. I liked the darker stuff, like Shostakovich, Dvořák, Bach, and things like that.

It wasn't until I went to grad school and I met my friend Jason Narducy and we were both really into Bob Mould and The Who. He had a whole different concept of how the cello was going to work with the guitar—more percussive and aggressive, creating a wall of sound with his guitar. Then I was like, "I can play this shit. This is awesome!" Before then, I hadn't thought about playing the music that I really liked.

How did that change the way you thought of what you could do with your music after that?

Jason gave me the freedom to come up with parts. I guess I just found my own way. He did say to me, "You have to play through a distortion pedal," and he gave me a Rat. Then he said to use delay and I had this Boss delay pedal and it just sounds great on the cello. That was how I started effecting my instrument.

We formed a band called Jason & Alison and we got to open for Bob Mould who said, "Hey, I'll produce your next record." Jason wanted to bring a bass player and drummer into it and we became Verbow, and we put out two records. After our second record, we mutually decided to part ways and I still wanted to play that kind of music even though I was on my own.

I got a chance to do some music for some poets, one of whom was doing her stuff about Jimi Hendrix, so I did a deep dive into Hendrix, reading all about him, and we made a record together and never released it. I felt like my job was to create this music that wasn't Jimi Hendrix but evoked his spirit. While I was doing that, I learned how to use loop pedals so we could play live, and then I just started to write my own stuff and that's when Helen Money started. The first record was in 2007.

Helen Money's Chirp Factory Session performance

Early on with Helen Money, you seemed to be making music that was more obviously riff-based, with more classic song structures. On Atomic, I get the sense that you've moved on from that approach. The music is more massive and feels to me like a single, large-scale piece.

It's nice that you're noticing, because I've struggled with that. I feel like the music I played first was very structured, like rock songs—intro, verse, chorus, bridge—and that's how I tend to think of songs. I like structure, but I did want to get away from that and wanted to push myself a little bit. I started to get curious if I could write for my instrument without all these effects on it and write some songs that are more subdued.

When I started to write for this record, that's where I was starting. I just wanted to scale down a little bit: Can I pull off a song without having to bring in so many different parts? I feel like that's a real challenge for me. I'm really curious about that.

I'm also curious about how I can bring in more instruments. Could I actually write for a group of people? What if I sit down to write and just play whatever I'm hearing, like the harp part on "Coppe"?

Can you tell me about the recording process for Atomic?

On my last record, I recorded with my good friend Will Thomas in Los Angeles at his home studio. For this record, I wanted to work with him again. Most of the songs were done with him at his studio. He created a lot of the atmospheric sounds in there, like for "Nemesis," he created the drone on his modular synth.

Maybe four of the songs I did with Sanford Parker at Decade Studios [in Chicago]. Sanford added some sounds and mixed those songs and Will mixed the rest, so it's kind of a blend of those two. I recorded with Will in August of 2018 and then I recorded with Sanford in March of last year.

Helen Money - "Become Zero," live at Complex, August 9, 2016

What's your writing process like?

Generally, it's just me trying to find a sound that I like and then developing that. I'm a slow writer and I try a lot of things. I use software and demo things. It's kind of hit-and-miss.

How do you know when a piece is done?

I don't tend to re-work stuff a lot. I know when I've got something good and it feels right. Once that happens, I don't tend to mess with stuff and go back and revise. I want to go onto the next thing. It's a visceral feeling.

That said, there's other times like on "Marrow," I wrote it and thought it was weird—why am I opening a song with the piano? But I kept going back and listening to it and thinking, "I really like this song. I really want to put it on the record." Sometimes it's really hard to be objective.

How much improvisation is involved in your music?

Not very much, if at all. I have a lot of admiration for people who improvise and I wish I did that better, so I'm trying to work on that. I guess when you're trying out stuff and getting sounds, you're improvising a little, but once I find something, I stick to that.

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