Cellist Helen Money (aka Alison Chesley) creates music that enrichens the full being, the totality of a soul’s range of emotions often seeming to hang on each bow stroke. Her unorthodox approach to “doom cello” on her critically acclaimed Arriving Angels record (as well as a tremendous recent collaboration with none other than her royal majesty of awesomeness Jarboe) plus a lengthy career working on dozens of records supplying more texture to the music of artists as wide ranged as Anthrax, Bob Mould, Disturbed, Mono or Russian Circles, has netted her the sole opening slot on black metal/post-rock darlings Agalloch’s upcoming tour as well as a growing body of awestruck fans.
It was a real pleasure to speak with Chesley about the impact and “feeling” of meaningful music, mortality, touring and other subjects.
Your last record… I’ve wanted to interview you for awhile. It’s awesome to see the approach you’ve taken. The presentation especially. I love how it’s not a novelty or a goth rock thing. Y’know how people market things these days. It seems to really be about the music for you.
Thanks. Yeah, I guess I’m coming more from a punk rock place, maybe. Y’know, the whole black t-shirt Bob Mould type thing.
Yeah, certainly. Verbow! Yeah, it seems to be the brainier types like you or Neurosis who can work with Albini or Mould, rather than some thrash band. I mean, not to generalize.
How did it feel to get this tour underway with Agalloch? It shows their willingness to have diverse bills.
Yeah, thanks. For one, it’s just gonna be the two of us. So that’s pretty awesome. They’re really nice guys. I’ve been in Europe a lot lately. It’s gonna be nice to play here. We’re going all the way to Denver but it’s mostly West Coast. I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’ll be really focused and heavy, in a really good way.
In a situation like that where your fans or theirs maybe pay attention to the music more instead of going to a show for party rock or something, how much more aware are you of the audience when you perform?
Pretty aware. I played a show with another metal band and this woman came up to me and said ,”I just wanna feel something when I hear music.” I kinda feel like that’s what Agalloch’s audience wants. It’s not all in their head. And that’s kind of where I’m coming from too. So, I wanna play for people like that. I desperately think about that. I think they get where I’m coming from and it’s great to play for people like that. I think people are willing to listen if they like Agalloch. They’re open minded listeners and will listen to different types of music. They’re not as snobby and can appreciate things. That’s kind of the best audience to play for.
Absolutely. I just saw Yob and it was amazing. You feel in the sound together, instead of like worshipping the “shred” guitarist. Though you have fanboys and fangirls of your skills, Alison.
I’m not a shredder. I’m more into sound. I don’t have really fast chops or anything. I try and write fast and shredding (chuckling). I can’t do it. I like more sound and groove. That’s more what I like, I think.
Your structures and presentation, the whole thing is evocative and unique. You’ve probably answered this before somewhere but did you always feel pulled to this kind of subversion of chamber music or your own path with the istrument? I also didn’t know you’d worked on the last Anthrax record!
Yeah, Charlie their drummer lives right outside of Chicago. I was living in Chicago so it kind of made sense. He needed a cello player and we had some mutual friends, so that’s how it worked out. But yeah, I’ve always been attracted to music that’s kind of visceral. Even when I was playing classical I was into the heavier composers. Stuff that was kind of deep, I think. Mahler, for example. And so I started to listen to rock music but was pulled to that too. Then when I moved to Chicago I was still a classical player, even though I went to rock shows. Then I met Jason Narducy and he was into Bob Mould type stuff, like Workbook.
The intro “Sunspots” to that record is so beautiful. Go on?
Yeah. It just felt really good and I thought I’d love to do it on my cello. I’ve always been drawn to this kind of music but I didn’t get to play it until I was older.
Your stuff can be so percussive.
Yeah, I really like that rhythmic part a lot.
I think you show people the possibility that you can tour and not have it be an almost cliche rock formation.
Yeah, two guitars, drums and bass.
It’s probably more affordable!
I’ve gotten a lot of great opening slots and part of the reason might be that I’m easy (laughing). I don’t take up a lot of room and people wont have to move their stuff. That’s probably part of why I’ve gotten so many great tours.
(laughing) Don’t be so humble.
I know, yeah. I mean, I think it’s aso because…my music is kind of broad. It could be a good thing to hear before, y’know, what you came to see (laughing). But I think it’s easier to tour when it’s compact like that. I don’t have to set up rehearsals.
When writing Arriving Angels, maybe I’m projecting here…some of the sounds were so powerful and I imagine came from a deep place. I mean also the instrument is so resonant. You can pull one note on a cello sometimes and it hangs in the air like an omen. Really hits your core.
Did it take a long time to write that record or did you have to feel it fully before you could move on from it and know that it was done?
Well, I’m a really slow writer. And both my parents passed. They were older. My dad was in his nineties and my mom was in her eighties. So it’s kind of like I was writing it in a tough time. There were some days it was really hard to go into the studio and focus. But, um, I think in general I’m a slow writer. I tend to think of things that are kind of dark. As a writer that’s where I’m usually going and what I’m trying to listen for. Not necessarilly a pretty melody but something more then that. And as you say, that’s the nature of the cello as an instrument. It’s just gorgeous. It hits you right in the chest. It’s the same range as a human voice. It’s an incredible instrument to play on.
Do you think you’re drawn to those sounds more for processing those kind of feelings or because it sounds so cool?
I don’t know. I’m not quite sure. I want to feel like I’m saying something. It’s kind of hard to be objective.
My dad would play Dvorak sometimes and I’d have these nice memories of the lighter pieces playing in my parents house. I also just lost my dad.
Yeah, I can relate to what you were saying. But I feel like the light and dark of life has really been pushed to the forefront since then for me, the interplay. It’s weird to not have them and feel untethered, in a way.
Yeah. I don’t think you culd tell someone what it’s like. I think you have to experience it.
Unfortunately. I bet a lot of people don’t think about it.
You can kind of prepare for it but you have to go through it. It’s really heavy and I think the other thing that happened since my parents passed away is I feel my mortality more. I don’t remember feeling that when I was younger. You had a light and your whole life ahead of you. Not that I’m depressed now but I’m more aware of it. I feel the reality that it’s gonna end at some point.
Yeah, I don’t wanna waste time. It’s weird. I’ve been bothering my friends on Facebook and telling them they should be proud of their accomplishments and they should keep following their dreams and shit (chuckling).
Yeah. I’ve noticed that about my friends my age, too. Posting stuff like “I want to thank all my friends who I’ve worked with.” I wonder if we’re all in the same kind of place.
When I was younger I felt like, not that they count “more” now, but when you’re younger you feel more unlimited with time. I’m 36.
Oh! You’re young! (laughing)
Haha, I guess you spend your earlier years sort of finding out who you are. Now I feel, I guess, ready to do my more “adult” work.
Totally. I felt like I really didn’t know I wanted to play this music until my early thirties. I was kind of adrift my whole twenties. But going out and going to shows, finding out what music I really liked. I think I had to do that. But I just thought about something you said. I think you entioned Dvorak.
I don’t like to write pretty melodies but I don’t like to write anything devoid of hope. I like dark but not bleak with nothing there to grab on to. There has to be something there, a little bit of hope. Otherwise I can’t go there.
Yeah when a band is complete nihilism they are usually just trying to prove they are hot shit (laughing). It doesn’t connect with me as much.
Yeah. I agree.
How’d you end up working with Profound Lore? I’d love to hear you talk about that.
That’s ok. My friend Bruce Lamont. He’s in Corrections House and this band Yakuza. I knew him in Chicago and was looking for a label. He suggested Chris. I emailed Chris and he got back to me right away. He’s just a really straght ahead guy. When you email him he emails you right back. He does what he says he’s going to do. And I like the bands on his label. Fortunately, he’d heard of me. I’d finished the recording with Steve and he liked Steve, so…that’s kind of how it came to happen. It’s a great label, I agree.
Thanks for your time today. Do more East Coast dates!
I know. I’d love to.
Um, I wanted to say…after this tour are you gonna keep touring Arriving Angels awhile or write more stuff?
I’m probably going to stay home for the summer. I need to write another record and I’m kind of in the middle of it right now. I wanna finish writing the material for that, get in the studio and get it out. It’s kind of hard to do it for me when I’m going back and forth a lot. I’m sure I’ll have more dates in the Fall. Hopefully with some new music then.