Alison Chesley is a cellist and composer who makes music under the name Helen Money. She released her latest album, Atomic (the follow-up to 2016’s Become Zero), just as Chicago went into lockdown in March 2020. She plays a three-night residency at the Empty Bottle from June 17 through 19.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
Become Zero dealt a lot with grief, but Atomic is more about moving forward. What do I do? What are my family’s relationships with each other going forward? How are we connected to where we live?
[When the pandemic hit,] my label, Thrill Jockey, was very supportive. They figured out a way that I could promote the record at home. That meant doing a couple of things here in my studio, streaming a performance, talking on panels with Will Thomas, who produced it with me, about the process. That was really helpful—and I felt, in a sense, it got out there. After that, I thought, “OK, now we’re going to be here for a while. How do I navigate this?”
The first thing that I did was to connect with nature. I got into watching the birds in my backyard, putting up feeders and a fountain. There’s a park near me where I’d go for walks. And I took this huge solace from connecting with nature in Chicago. I live just west of Lincoln Square, so I can walk along the river, and it was very comforting to me.
Then my world just got smaller. At some point, I stopped reaching out to as many friends to try and connect, because it was too hard. And I kind of focused on family. Now it feels like we’re all emerging, and it’s so super interesting. I feel like we’re all going through this together.
I did play a show at Constellation in August—Mike Reed did an amazing job of getting his place up to code. And that was right when things started opening up again. I even wrote on my set list, “First post-COVID show.” It was the first time since March that I was able to play in front of people. And then we all went back into lockdown after that.
But a year without music venues, without audiences, without seeing other people play has really made me realize how important that is for me, living here in Chicago—how deep the scene is here, and how connected we are to each other and how we feed off each other. It was that way when I came here in ’92, and it’s still that way. I feel really grateful for the people who come to the shows, for the venues that are here, and for the other musicians I get to play with and see play.
I’m really excited for these shows at the Empty Bottle, because I get to play with three of my favorite musicians: Sam Wagster, who I’ve known a long time and is going to be playing pedal steel; Nora Barton, who is also a cellist; and Billie Howard, who’s on piano and violin.
When we were locked down, I went on the roof of the Empty Bottle and played a show. So what a great thing, to celebrate being at this club that gave me a place to play when there really wasn’t any place to play. When I was first coming up with Helen Money material, they always gave me a place to play then too. I almost feel like the past year I was in a coma, and I’ve woken up out of the coma. I have my life back, and I just appreciate it so much.
During lockdown, I started following people online more. I was able to actually collaborate online with a musician I have always admired, Thalia Zedek, who started the band Come and is also on Thrill Jockey. She reached out to ask if I could do a couple arrangements for her. If it wasn’t lockdown, maybe she would’ve had a local musician, but because everyone was doing this remotely, it became an opportunity.
And then Jason Narducy, the guy who was in my very first band in Chicago, Verbow, reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do arrangements on a couple of his songs for his new album with Split Single. That was really cool for me, because I haven’t done anything with Jason since probably 2010. It was a really nice way to reconnect. And because I’d invested a little money in my setup here at my home, I was able to just record here and send the files.
It was interesting that people were buying music during the pandemic; they were seeking out stuff. Music brought people a lot of comfort and release, and so they were buying music and they were streaming.
I knew that people were buying my record, which is really awesome. And when I was streaming performances, people would be there watching. I’d be upstairs playing my set in my bedroom, and my husband would be downstairs, and he’d say, “God, I saw all these people, all these hearts and smiles and reactions.” In that way, I still felt I was connecting with people, even though there weren’t people in front of me. I’d get nervous—I think the way to really enjoy streaming concerts is to not feel like it’s trying to take the place of a live show. It’s just connecting in another way.
I’m actually going to be doing material from all five of my records during these shows. The Atomic material still feels current to me, and getting back into the other stuff has been really interesting. There’s a song on Become Zero called “Blood and Bone,” which I’m really excited to have Nora and Billie play with me on. I’ve always done it with my loopers, so it will be great to have them play—and it’ll all be live. Sam’s going to help me play some songs I haven’t played before, “Something Holy” and “Radiate,” which are really hard for me to perform by myself.
There’ll be like a core from Atomic, and then I’ll bring in other songs from the other albums, different ones each night. It’s a lot to pull together, but I think it’ll be really fun.
I’m still gathering all the material for the shows, so I’m just gonna make sure a lot of people know about them. For me, they’re going to be super special. I remember when I did that show at Constellation in August, and I walked through the door—I love that club—and I got chills. “Oh my God, I’m in a club!” So I’m hoping everybody will be really happy to be together at these shows. v