Helen Money, with Sea of Bones
March 20, 9 p.m., Free, BAR, 254 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 495-8924, manicproductions.org.
When one thinks of the cello, the second largest bowed string instrument in modern symphony use, classical music and orchestral works come to mind more than rock, indie or experimental genres. The instrument has gained in popularity among the indie rock set over the years, with bands like Cursive and Murder By Death having a cellist as a full band member and not just using the instrument for guest spots. The cello has such a rich, textured sound that complements nearly any arrangement of instruments. But on its own? That's where things get interesting.
Alison Chesley is a classically trained cellist. She has a graduate degree in cello performance from Northwestern University in Chicago. But you won't find her practicing string quartet parts or running off to join the symphony any time soon.
Chesley grew up in Los Angeles. She began playing the cello around age 8, playing classical music. After discovering a love of rock music in her 20s, and seeing many bands live including the Minutemen and other SST Records bands, she made the choice to go to grad school.
Chesley spent a good part of the '90s as part of Verbow, a band she started with Jason Narducy, that incorporated an unorthodox use of the cello. She's ventured further down that path of experimentation as Helen Money, her solo project, which has been her main focus since her Verbow days. She brings Helen Money to BAR on March 20, where she'll put all her training to good use playing songs off her latest record Arriving Angels.
The album is dark and pensive. Chesley's method of using effects and loops turns the cello into a musical force to be reckoned with. Chesley had been dealing with some difficult life events, like moving back to Los Angeles and losing her mother, before she sat down to make the album. "I have to be there with my cello in my studio," she says, of her writing process. "I'm kind of searching for a sound, and something that's connected with a feeling, and then I try to build a song from there." The result this time around is eight tense, deep, moody tracks that will challenge your belief about the cello's capabilities.
To recreate her recordings live, Chesley runs her cello through a set of effects pedals and phrase recorders more typically seen at the foot of a guitarist. "There aren't many songs where I just play from beginning to end and track it like that" in the studio, she says. Her ability to record and save musical phrases helps her recreate the songs very close to the recorded versions. Arriving Angels also features a bit of piano, and drums on a few of the tracks performed by Jason Roeder. "I'm curious about writing with piano some more, and with drums some more," she says. And while she relies heavily on effects, she's interested in pursuing the limits of what she can do with her cello by itself. "I feel like on this record, I started to go in a direction that I'm really liking," she says.
If Chesley plans to explore the sonic potential of her instrument, it will only add to the depth of what she is already able to convey. Her music is instrumental, but her songs say quite a bit. "I wouldn't want to try and write words to something. I would find that really hard," she says. Music is all about communication, but the method varies from artist to artist. "If I'm at a show and the musician on stage is communicating something to me, I don't care how they do it," she says. "As long as they're able to say something, that's the point." Judging by Chesley's excitement about working on her next album and experimenting with her sound, she has a lot to say.