Forgotten Artists – Hem

In our FORGOTTEN ARTISTS series this week. regular contributor Tim Martin returns with a piece about a fascinating band that bring a wide range range of musical influences to create a very singular sound…

I first came across Hem on a bootleg as a support act for Over The Rhine, around the time of their ‘Rabbit Songs’ album. That they could divert my attention from my favourite band says all you need to know about the quality of their music.

‘Rabbit Songs’ joined my CD collection and remains a regular play nearly 20 years later. I’ve seen the description “languorous folk music” used about Hem’s music and that reflects the sense of stillness in much of their music. Apparently Sally Ellyson answered an ad by saying that she was “not really a singer”.  When songwriter Dan Messé heard her demo tape of lullabies he found that she was in fact very definitely a singer. They went on to open their first album with ‘Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please’ and there is a lullaby quality to much of Ellyson’s singing. In common with Cowboy Junkies, Hem often supplement their basic line up with extra musicians, with some lush string arrangements complementing their songs.

While ‘Rabbit Songs’ is good, they really hit their stride with ‘Eveningland’. If I was reviewing it today it would get very close to a 10 out of 10 album. There isn’t a song not out of the top drawer. The strings of ‘Receiver’ and pedal steel on ‘Lucky’ are standouts in a record full of highlights. Issues with label DreamWorks delayed it’s release and, perhaps, lost Hem some momentum, but when ‘Eveningland’ finally appeared on Rounder Records in 2004 it built on the critical acclaim of ‘Rabbit Songs’ There was another label switch to Nettwerk for 2006’s ‘No Word from Tom’. The standout here is a cover of Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’. The album was a mix of covers, live songs, and new original recordings and, as such, is not as coherent an album as its predecessors. Fourth album ‘Funnel Cloud’ went back to mostly original songs from Dan Messé with contributions from guitarists Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis. Far more orchestral than previous work it still retained that stillness at its core. Ellyson’s singing sounded more confident than earlier albums here, particularly on songs like ‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’. In 2009 hem recorded an album of mostly instrumental music for the production of ‘Twelfth Night’ for the Shakespeare in the Park festival in New York’s Central Park.

Their final album was 2013’s ‘Departure and Farewell’. An album that took 5 years to make, it’s not clear if it was intended as an ending, instrumentally it is a simpler album than ‘Funnel Cloud’ but the songwriting, singing and playing are still up to the high bar they set for themselves throughout their career. ‘Tourniquet’ is the standout song, although, as with all their albums, ‘Departure and Farewell’ is best listened to as a whole.

Throughout their career Hem also released EPs made up mostly of songs that didn’t appear on albums and there are some great covers including Elvis Costello’s ‘(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’ and Randy Newman’s ‘Living Without You’ both from their first release ‘I’m Talking with My Mouth’ I can see why Over the Rhine wanted to work with them, as the latter band’s “quiet music to be played loud” thing applies equally to Hem. That they could maintain such a high level of quality over 15 years, 6 albums and 7 EPs is remarkable. Since 2015 Gary Maurer and Dan Messé have been involved in the Broadway musical of ‘Amélie‘.  There doesn’t seem to have been a formal breakup and their Facebook is intermittently active so the hope remains that one day more music will appear.

Lots of information about the band is at the All About Hem website

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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Alan Peatfield

Very good article on an excellent band. I was lucky enough to come across Rabbit Songs around 2003 ‘ish and caught them live on the back of that at Norwich Arts Centre shortly afterwards. The intimate setting was perfect for a wonderfully atmospheric performance and afterwards they were engaging company to chat with.

Dylan Tanner

Excellent writeup! I came across Hem pretty early (on National Public Radio in the US not long after Rabbit Songs came out) and got hooked right away. Their sound has always been so different from other bands in this space.

I sincerely hope Departure and Farewell doesn’t turn out to be the—like the title suggests—the last we hear from them. There’s an old clip of them on YouTube doing a take of “No Word From Tom” (a track that was never released—not the album of the same name) that showed promise, and I’ve been coming back “Better Days” (released only as a video to my knowledge) every now and then over the last year. Hope their music gets some attention again thanks to your article!

Paul Reece

I enjoyed their music so much due to finding them on the local college radio 88.5 in Atlanta and found most of my alternative music there! I heard them do an interview at the station and found out they were in town and they actually did a appearance at record store and I went to see them there as well as went to their small concert in Atlanta! I met them afterwards and they were so nice and I think Sally’s Voice was as beautiful as Kate Bush or my new favourite nowadays Florence Welch. I have done recycling since the late 80s at all of the venues in Atlanta and my great Dane that was somewhat famous and I spoke with them after the concert and asked if I could take a picture of them and they wanted to take my dog up on stage for the picture but the venue would not allow it so it was taken outside. Atlanta the traffic is difficult to navigate through and they were heading north and were sure of the direction so I carried them out of the perimeter and told them the way ticket to their next venue!!❤️ Wish I could share the picture! I just don’t know how! LOL!

Ian Rogers

Hem came to London around the time of their Eveningland album. I met the band after they played a song live on a radio station. They asked me if I was to come to their show that night and if I had any requests. I said that I was coming to their show and asked them if they would play the song ‘The Beautiful Sea’. They were surprised at my request and told me that they do not usually play that song live and if they do it would be on my head if it all went wrong! I said that I could not believe that they never played this song live as it seemed such an obvious song to play live. By the time of the show I all but forgot about my request, possibly thinking that they would not attempt the song for some odd fan like me. Then halfway through their set, they mentioned someone who requested the one song they never perform live. They then played the song wonderfully and dedicated it to me and it went down well with the audience. I rushed up to the stage and called Sally’s name and she shook my hand. I was very happy.