Belfast Telegraph

Q&A: Hem

The New York-based band will be bringing their Americana music to the Elmwood Hall for this year's Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's

By Andrew Johnston

You're making your Northern Ireland debut next week. After being together for nearly 15 years, is it rare to play somewhere new

[Dan Messé, piano]: Well, it's rare to play someplace in that neck of the woods that we haven't played before. Every time we went to Dublin or Limerick or wherever else they had us, we kept saying, 'Get us to Belfast,' and it never happened. But we've never been road warriors. We love playing out live, but have never figured out a way to make money on tour.

You stated after the previous album, 2009's Twelfth Night, that Hem might have run its course. What made you think that, and what changed your mind?

Bands are usually knocking around for a while because everyone loves what they're doing, and then all of a sudden money gets into the equation and it changes everything. We tried to set up Hem to be as egalitarian and as fair as possible, but some members weren't happy that I make more from the songwriting, or Sally [Ellyson, vocals] makes more because her voice is used. But when we started writing songs for what was the final record, we fell in love with what we had. We hope now it's not the end.

Tell us about the personal problems that affected you during the recording of your album Departure and Farewell

Well, I got a pretty nasty pill habit, which poisoned every relationship in the band. So, before I sought help for it, we weren't even going to be able to finish the album. Then, in early 2011, after I managed to save myself from that, I started the long process of trying to repair just the relationships – not even the band – and then it seemed like it would be possible to finish the record.

Your music doesn't lend itself to images of typical rock band excess. Is Hem an escape from the turbulence of your everyday lives?

I've always written as a way to comfort myself, I suppose. And it certainly helps that Sally has one of the most comforting voices around. One of the fallouts from the addiction was that my marriage fell apart, and the song So Long, which closes the album, was written as a goodbye to my wife. Would I have traded my marriage for that song? Absolutely not. But given that my marriage was over, I take solace from the fact that song exists now. I hope other people find comfort in our music as well.

Hem have been branded everything from folk and indie to rock and jazz. But how would you describe your music?

If I had to give you words for it, I would say genuine and timeless – in that the songs could be played in the 1910s and people would understand them, and hopefully still be understood 100 years from now.


Hem play the Elmwood Hall on Saturday, October 19, as part of the Music Club at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. For full ticket and booking details, visit

Watch the video for Hem's 'Not California

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