Helen Money (aka cellist Alison Chesley)’s new album Atomic is crushingly heavy, dark and oppressive. It looms like a dark cloud before breaking into waves of hope and — buried in there, but definitely in there — melody. It’s in turn, maybe even simultaneously, sparse and lush. The classically warm cello sounds ice cold in places. It’s a mass of glorious contradictions.
The album was written and recorded over a couple of years, way before the current shit storm that we’re having to endure began. And yet, it resonates heavily.
“Not to elevate myself, but I feel like a lot of times artists tap into this kind of zeitgeist,” Chesley says, via a phone call from her current Chicago base. “I definitely feel like, when I wrote this record, I was thinking of connection. How connected we are with the earth and how connected we are with each other. So for this to be happening right now, it throws that in stark detail — how delicate the balance is between everything. I feel like we’ve pushed the Earth a little bit here and it feels like it needs a break or something. But it’s really about connection. We’re all made of the same stuff and we’re all connected.”
Atomic is Chesley’s fifth album under the Helen Money name, and it was produced in two parts: here in Los Angeles with Will Thomas, and in Chicago with Sanford Parker. It was written over a couple of years and recorded in 2018 and 2019. The album displays, Chesley says, her own growth when it comes to songwriting.
“I know on this new record, I’ve tried to make it a little more intimate than the ones in the past,” she says. “I think I feel I’ve been able to strip things away a little bit, see if I could have less parts, maybe compose structures that aren’t pop song structures — that’s kind of the world I came out of. So yeah, just get a little more like, make the textures a little more transparent.”
After reading a Stephen Greenblatt book called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Chesley became inspired by the Roman poet Lucretius and the philosophy of epicureanism.
“It’s a story of the discovery of Lucretius’ writing on the nature of things and how it really helped to bring about the Renaissance period and enlightenment,” she says. “Jefferson read this text on the nature of things. So that’s how I heard about this philosopher. Basically, he didn’t believe that the gods controlled everything. He believed that we all interact with each other. We’re all a bunch of atoms, and interactions. We come out of what’s already existing, and when we die we go back into what’s existing. There’s no afterlife or god, this is all we have right now — this is it. That connected with me — my parents passed away about five or so years ago, and then my brother, sister and me were trying to keep connected after that. So this is all what I’ve been thinking about and it really resonated with me.”
On the subject of staying connected, Chesley has moved between Los Angeles and Chicago for years. Her siblings both reside in Northern California, and she still enjoys moving between the different areas to feel their differences.
“It’s different but they’re both very community-centered places,” she says. “Thankfully, they’re both progressive places. As far as being here in Chicago, the one thing I missed about it in Los Angeles was how accessible everything is. It’s very easy to go out and hear music. You can go hear jazz at the Hideout or the Constellation. Sometimes you don’t even pay a cover. There’s stuff happening all the time and it’s very easy to access it. I miss that in Los Angeles.”
Like most of the world, Chesley has been working in lockdown for the past few weeks, though the rollout of this new album has kept her busy.
“I’ve been keeping in touch with people to do press, and also these quarantine concerts — I did one for Experimental Sound Studios,” she says. “It seems like I’m keeping connected that way. But I really miss playing for people. I love connecting with my audience, I love meeting people after the show. So I really wish I was able to be with people and sell them my record in person. I miss that a lot.”
In addition to the release of Atomic, Chesley has been working on a soundtrack to the movie Girl on the Third Floor alongside longtime musical collaborator Steve Albini plus Tim Midyett.
“Shortly after I moved back here [to Chicago], I feel like I approached Steve about doing music for a soundtrack,” she says. “He asked if I’d be interested in playing on it and of course I said yes. I’ve known Steve for a long time — I toured with Shellac and I worked at Electrical Audio [Albini’s Chicago studio complex] as a session player. So I have a really good relationship with him. I knew it would be fun and I trust him. I met his friend Tim and the three of us just went in there. Steve was directing everything. It was his baby. He had the ideas and came up with the riffs, and we would improvise a lot of times on his ideas. It was really great.”
Sadly, current events have resulted in the soundtrack being delayed until the fall. Still, between that, Atomic and ongoing leave streamed shows, there’s plenty of Helen Money to be excited about.
“I just look forward to the day when I can play for people again,” she says in conclusion. “I grew up in L.A. so it has a special place in my heart. I can’t wait to get back out there.”