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Metal out of wood

Cellist Helen Money brings rock sensibility to the cello


Alison Chesley, a wandering samurai cellist who performs under the name Helen Money, will play an instrument not often heard at Mac’s Bar Wednesday.

Chesley has performed in recitals and played plenty of Bach, whom she still loves, but metal and punk rock is closer to her heart.

She has always been drawn to music that is epic, openly emotional, brooding, unfussy — from Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to The Who, Black Flag and Hüsker Dü. She usually plays alone, with electronic doubling and pedals, building towers of sound that crumble into chunks or dissolve into a haze.

Floating alone in a genre of her own making, Chesley has let herself in for a lot of soul-searching, trial and error and false starts.

“I struggle with the form,” she said.

“Do I have to write a verse, chorus and bridge? Can I just write something that repeats over and over? Do I need to write something heavy for people who like my heavier stuff?” But freedom and uncertainty fuel her music’s dark energy.

“I love how the metal audiences let you bring whatever you are,” she said. “There’s more room to experiment and be myself in rock than in classical music.”

It took a long time for Chesley to find a way to express herself honestly on the instrument she loves. She grew up in Los Angeles and started playing the classical cello in third grade.

“I remember watching a young woman in the junior high orchestra. She was very beautiful, playing cello, and there was something about that big instrument that just captured my imagination,” she said.

The cello is not a lightweight instrument, in classical music or any other genre.

“The range is pretty much the same as the human voice. It hits people right in their heart,” she said. “I feel incredibly lucky to be playing it.”

As an undergraduate in the 1980s, she was “kid of adrift for awhile” until her brother turned her on to The Who. The Who’s unabashed, operatic emotion, high energy and melodic craft hit a sweet spot.

“It felt like they were talking directly to me,” she said.

She gravitated toward rock, then toward punk rock and the spoken word of Henry Rollins and “L.A. Blueswoman” Wanda Coleman.

She stuck with her classical cello studies, but saw no way to bridge the chasm between her beloved cello and the music that mattered most to her.

About that time, she heard “Copper Blue,” the brick-house-on-rocket-thrusters debut album by alternative rock band Sugar.

“It blew me away, one of my favorite records ever,” she said.

Guitarist/singer Bob Mould of the seminal punk rock group Hüsker Dü wrote all the songs on the album and co-produced. Chesley found that Mould’s first solo album, “Workbook,” used cello extensively.

“He wrote all the cello parts, and he wrote them the way he’d write for a guitar or a bass — very aggressive,” she said.

While at Northwestern, she met a musician at a coffee shop, Jason Narducy, who was also into Mould. Narducy was covering some “Workbook” songs and writing some music of his own and needed a cellist. They started writing the cello parts together.

“The light went on — oh my God, I can play the music I love on cello,” she said. “I can write this stuff all day.” The duo ended up opening for Bob Mould at a Chicago club. Mould liked what they were doing, asked them to tour with him and produced a recording for them. Chesley appeared with Mould on David Letterman to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of “Workbook.”

Chesley was at a crossroads. She stopped playing classical music professionally in 1994, except for the occasional wedding (where the guests have no idea of the sonic storms she is whipping up most of the time).

She feels that the metal-post-rock world has adopted her wholeheartedly.

“That stuff is so visceral,” she said. “Somehow they get what I’m trying to do. I’ve never really connected with the arty pop kind of audience.”

Chesley’s third recording, “Become Zero,” works its way through operatic phases of pain, anger and reconciliation. It also points to a new direction for Chesley, into quieter, more reflective music. One track, “Blood and Bone,” hints at a Bach passacaglia and adds a drifting piano line. “Radiate” is an epic tapestry that ends with a pinging processed cello, a tribute to Chesley’s father, who worked for NASA.

“It was a really intense period when both my parents passed away, and I know that had to come through my writing — struggling with being alive and letting go,” Chesley said.

The looming, static quality of Chesley’s music often gives the impression that she is pushing against a massive wall. The gauzy waltz at the end of “Vanished Star” is a haunting glimpse of the other side.

“When my dad was seriously ill, he’d say things like, ‘I saw your mom and she’s still beautiful,’” Chesley said. “I imagined they were trying to dance together, but they couldn’t, because he was here and she was not. At the end, they’re together and they dance.”

Helen Money

W/ The Messthetics, The Plurals $12 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 6 Mac’s Bar 2700 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing (517) 484-6795 macsbar.com


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