The jack pine doesn’t yield its seed willingly. Seasons can come and go and years—even decades—can pass, and the seeds remain locked in the cones. There is only one catalyst for this unusual tree to reproduce: fire. As flames rise to the tree’s crown, the cones open, bringing forth the seeds of new life. It’s a striking image, one that formed the basis of “The Jack Pine,” a song that is representative of Hem’s extravagantly bittersweet five-years-in-the-making album, Departure and Farewell. It’s also a perfect summation of this unusual chapter in the band’s life, which started as a breakup before becoming a rebirth—a point lost on none of the members.
The metaphor of fire, burning everything to the ground for something to be reborn, was a powerful one,” notes guitarist/vocalist Steve Curtis, who originally wrote the song to mark the dissolution of his 15-year marriage. “But it proved to be prescient, not just foreshadowing the themes of the album but the things that were yet to come for us all.” Like a tall pine with the flames encroaching, the members of Hem believed—with varying degrees of certainty—that this album would be its swan song. “The original idea for the album was that we wanted to wrap everything up in a nice bow,” says Dan Messé, the band’s keyboardist and chief songwriter. “And a lot of the early songwriting was about that.”
The stage was certainly set for the band to go out on a high note. By 2007, Hem had recorded three well-received albums—along with a B-sides-and-rarities disc plus a handful of EPs—and had been rewarded with a dedicated following. Its songs, graced with the unmistakable voice of Sally Ellyson, had begun soundtracking an entire long-running ad campaign for Liberty Mutual. For a band that’s always thrived on being able to hire extra players—including entire orchestras—to realize itsgrandiose sonic visions of lushly arranged Americana, the time of prosperity brought new possibilities. “We spent a lot of time with Greg Pliska, the orchestrator,” recalls Gary Maurer, a guitarist who’s always acted as Hem’s in-house producer. “Dan always has specific ideas where the orchestra is concerned, and we really executed them. We had the money this time to work with really big groups. We’d have as many as 30 people in the room all at one time overdubbing to the basic tracks.” On top of that, the band was invited to write the score for the Shakespeare-in-the-park musical version of Twelfth Night, starring Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald, performed in New York’s open-air Delacorte Theater in summer 2009. Curtis even ended up onstage as a member of the musical ensemble. Despite Ellyson’s absence from the project, an album of musical highlights bore the Hem name.
But as work on Departure and Farewell continued, it was increasingly characterized by upheaval, riven with by the dissolution of two marriages, and punctuated by addiction, family loss and crisis. Eventually discord set in, making it even more likely that the band’s career would end here, and not with a grace note. "It turned into a much uglier goodbye,” recalls Messé, who, in the course of seeking help to function, ended up hooked on prescription pills for the better part of two years. The songwriter now reflects on the time of missed commitments, frustrations and dependence with regret. “It strained every relationship that I had. And the album almost didn’t get finished.” At his lowest point Messé wrote “Tourniquet,” which imagined his surrounding neighborhoods as instruments of torment. “Brooklyn, I’m broken – I’m breaking apart / Greenpoint pins down my hand, Red Hook pierces my heart / And my blood runs into the Gowanus Canal / Where it sinks to the bottom / And hurts like hell.”
Slowly, relationships between all the band members began healing as work resumed. “After we came back together, the feeling was a lot more loving,” Messé says. “We were all really appreciative of what each person brought to the project.” And in the process, the band, which seemed to be finished, has found new life. What was intended to be a swan song is now a hymn of rebirth. And even with growing families, the band still intends to tour. “Even as recently as 12 or 18 months ago I don’t think anyone would have foreseen this,” observes Curtis, a note of astonishment in his voice. “I think the best-case scenario was that we’d be able to email files back and forth enough times to get this mixed and mastered and released, then that would be it.”
Lurking behind all of the drama, and perhaps better for it, Departure and Farewell stands as the best, most heartrending work the band has ever done. “Would I have traded my marriage for a song like ‘So Long?’” Messé asks. “Definitely not. But given that my marriage was coming apart at the seams I’m glad to have that comfort.”
"Dan’s songs always manage to tap into that universal internal truth that feels like the most personal place,” Ellyson says. “This album is about loss, about the fear of loss and about the trajectory of life. And in this time in my life I’m very aware of all that, so it was one of the more emotionally resonating albums to record.”
“Hem is such a shared project,” Messé adds. “It’s intense. And we all want it to be the best thing we’ve ever done. It always had that ethos behind it.” This time around, the ethos is bathed in some new textures, with “Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing” employing a wind ensemble to evoke a New Orleans funeral, while “So Long” relies on a gospel vocal group, a first for the band. “Things Are Not Perfect In Our Yard” double-tracks Ellyson’s voice, another successful experiment, and “Traveler’s Song” includes a brass quintet.
In ironic juxtaposition, it may have marked Hem’s worst time professionally and personally, but it’s also the band’s best work to date. And in the process, the sign reading “The End” has been changed for one marked “To Be Continued.”
“We hope it’s not a swan song,” Messé says. “We certainly have more things we want to say. And we have more songs in the pipeline.”
“We really are a family,” Ellyson says. “We fight like a family. We love like a family. We stick together like a family. Nobody’s going to lose their place in this band because you don’t lose your place in a family. Even Dan couldn’t quite shake us free. I think that’s a real testament to the core of what Hem is.”