A one woman-one cello show extravaganza! We talk with Helen Money about classical beginnings, her punk phase and the new album Become Zero.
She appears on the stage dressed in simple black from head to toe, her skinny but strong arms decorated with a single leather bracelet, her short hair obscuring her face while she leans over her instrument and plays standing up, surrounded by wires, pedals and all necessary and unnecessary electronics.
This classically trained cellist originally from Los Angeles whose real name is Alison Chesley, spent the first twenty years of her life almost exclusively listening to classical music – until Destiny (in the form of the album Who’s Next by The Who) got in the way. It was only after graduating from Chicago’s Northwestern that Alison shifted to the field of rock music, and started building a career as a “rock cellist” on the Chicago scene. Over the years, Alison participated in the creation of over a hundred albums, and collaborated with artists like Bob Mould, Poi Dog Pondering, Mono, Broken Social Scene, Disturbed, Portishead… The turning point in her career occurred in 2007: even though she was offered full scholarships to study composition at the prestigious (They say it is prestigious. We don’t have a clue.) Mills College in Oakland, Alison refused, deciding to compose by her own rules; that’s when she started a solo career and published her first album, Helen Money. Ten years, countless tours and three albums later, !Kokoška got its claws on an interview.
Kultur!Kokoška: Introductory question: how did you come up with the name of Helen Money?
Helen Money: I don’t quite remember. I do know that I wanted what I do to have a name that wasn’t mine. That would allow me to make it bigger than just me. There’s a bit more mystery to it than my name and I can add other musicians to the mix and still call it Helen Money.
K!K: What, ultimately, made you decide on the switch from the classical music field to rock music?
HM: It was an organic process. I studied classical music seriously since I was young, but in my twenties I took a detour into the rock world. Cut my teeth on The Who and went from there. I was fortunate enough to do this during the 80s, when punk music was big so I saw bands like The Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, lots of the SST bands. It was a good time to be going to shows. So all that stuff was in my head when I moved to Chicago to go to grad school. While I was [there], I met Jason Narducy at the coffeehouse I was working at and he asked me to play a show with him – I said yes. The music was really aggressive and visceral. Right up my alley. We took a lot of inspiration from Bob Mould’s record Workbook. We ended up opening for him – he asked us to tour with him and produced our first record as Verbow. That’s when I made a conscious choice to be a rock musician and set aside the classical world.
K!K: Do you feel that having an “official” classical music education (and degrees) helped you in any way during the course of your career?
HM: Having good technique has certainly helped my sound, which is one of the most important aspects of playing to me. I’m also glad I have the discipline I learned being a classical musician. And I love the literature. It helped form my taste for beautiful, dark, epic music.
K!K: Your audience is a unique mixture of both classical music and punk/rock/metal fans. Which works (or composers) would you recommend to a fan who is not familiar with the classical music repertoire? And which bands (or musicians) would you recommend to a fan who is not familiar with the punk/rock/metal genre?
HM: For classical I would say Shostakovitch string quartets if you want to get dark and visceral. I love Bach also, of course the cello suites, but anything really. Mahler. You have to develop a taste for it but it’s worth it. For punk rock, I love the Minutemen – hands down my favorite. And Bob Mould’s Workbook, his stuff from [the band] Sugar has really influenced me. There is a lot of rock music I don’t know – I came to it so late, I have a lot to learn myself.
As a composer, Helen Money directs herself toward minimalism, mixing it with a variety of sound effects – mostly distortions – typical for rock and metal. The result is highly effective: energetic, seductive, emotional. Even though she could not be more different from Dmitri Shostakovitch, one of her central role models (regarding the conditions in which they lived and worked), same melancholic threads can be found in all of Alison’s creations, enriched with a healthy amount of aggression. Become Zero, released this September, is her fourth solo album, and it shows significant progress and maturity compared to previous work. Written after the loss of both parents, although Helen claims that it is not the subject of the album, the entirety of Become Zero is infused with a sense of grief. As such, it is perhaps her most successful album so far: here, rage and noise of effects processors give way acoustics and elegy. In an interview with The Guardian, Helen described the philosophy behind the title:
I didn’t really write the record about my parents, but it was the air I was breathing. As I was writing the material, I thought about how my dad passed away pretty slowly, over the course of a year, after my mom had gone. With my mom, it was just sudden. She died in her sleep. We didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. When someone leaves like that, they become nothing. We don’t know where they’ve gone. It almost is like they become zero. […] Gandhi talks about [becoming zero] too. I didn’t realize this before I used those words, but to him, it means to be humble. And your ego is zero. I like that sentiment too.
K!K: How would you describe your journey as an artist from your earliest published record to today?
HM: I think I’ve dug in deeper to the dark side of things. And I’m becoming more comfortable with writing for and incorporating other instruments. Especially drums and piano. I’ve also started to perform live with Will Thomas, the co-producer of my new record. He plays drums, piano and sampler so this is a really exciting and new thing for me.
K!K: Our favourite tracks from your new album are “Blood and Bone”, and “Machine”, which both feature a departure from the sound of your previous albums. What pushed you to turn “outward” on Become Zero, and incorporate instruments other than the cello in your work?
HM: I started to do this on the last record, Arriving Angels. While I love the sound of the cello, I get impatient for other textures. That’s why I use so many effects. But that goes only so far. The drums and the piano really open up new possibilities for me: they are both dark and percussive and work great with the sound of the cello.
K!K: What bands/works have you been listening to lately?
HM: I feel like I never listen to enough music. I’m always glad when my friends and people at shows tell me about new artists. I do love Brian Eno’s Lux record. Also, Tim Hecker is great. I happen to love the music of all the bands I’ve toured with – Russian Circles, Shellac, MONO all have great new records out.
K!K: Over the course of your career you had the opportunity to work with many different artists. Who challenged you the most, and helped you grow as an artist and a musician?
HM: That’s a great question. I learned something from all of them. All the bands I tour with; everyone I’ve recorded with. Probably the biggest lesson is to be positive. To be kind and to just do your thing, whatever that is. With all your heart.
K!K: This is your first tour with Russian Circles. What has been your favourite experience on the road so far?
HM: There are so many. Touring is such a strange experience and the only people you share it with are the ones with you on the road. I have been fortunate to tour with some of the kindest, sweetest bands and they are among them. And they absolutely kill it every night they play. It’s been awesome.
To sum up: why does Helen Money matter? Why are we writing about her?
Because, unlike other classically educated colleagues who, like her, have decided to bridge the gap between genres (the first examples that come to mind are 2Cellos and Vanessa Mae, as well as Nigel Kennedy (that man is the OP – original punk – and he doesn’t give a damn about what he does), and thereby gain significant popularity with both the media and audiences, Helen is actually doing something right. Helen Money is important because she actively creates a (post-)rock repertoire for her cello. That’s the difference. And that’s what matters. She does not lazily adapt someone else’s creative work, but produces her own musical vocabulary, designed specifically for the expressive possibilities of her instrument, and then – expands them.
Those interested in how her performances look and sound like, can see her on a European tour with Russian Circles, before she heads back to the United States. Most recently, we were able to catch her in Belgrade’s Elektropionir: this was her third time to perform in Belgrade. Certainly not the last.