Helen Money takes the cello to new territory

“I really feel at home in a rock club,” says Alison Chesley, who performs as Helen Money.
Travis McCoy
“I really feel at home in a rock club,” says Alison Chesley, who performs as Helen Money.

Everything you need to know about Alison Chesley’s relationship with her cello you can glean from YouTube. In one live performance video after another, almost always in rock clubs, the classically trained musician abuses her instrument.

She bows her cello, taps its strings, plucks them like a guitar god in the middle of a hellacious riff. Using a series of pedals she controls with her feet, Chesley can loop and layer melodies, conjuring textures both refined and raw. She looks like a symphony player and sounds like a heavy-metal titan.

That intensity, which often packs the potency of a full band, is on vibrant display on Chesley’s new album under her stage name, Helen Money. Produced by Steve Albini, “Arriving Angels” is her third solo album in six years, and handily her most accomplished.


“I felt like the third record for me would be a big one as a musician and a writer,” Chesley says from Chicago, where she lives, in advance of her show at T.T. the Bear’s on Tuesday. “I felt like if I could write a third record and feel good about it, I’ll feel like this is really what I’m doing for a living. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I’m glad I did.”

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As with her two previous recordings, “Arriving Angels” is an instrumental album that skirts the fringes of various genres. Chesley’s music gets all manner of labels: experimental, rock, doom-metal, classical. Her songs have elements of each style, united only by Chesley’s minimalist compositional skills and a portentous sense of gloom.

“I wasn’t sure what would happen with the songs, but they just ended up getting darker and darker,” she says. “I’ve always liked music that’s interesting and complex and dark, and inwardly I’m a pretty serious person. And I like going to that kind of place. So I guess it makes sense that that’s what would come out.”

This was not how Chesley, who’s 53, had imagined her career as a cellist would evolve. During her graduate work at Northwestern University in the early 1990s, Chesley met a fellow musician named Jason Narducy at a coffeehouse where they both worked. They had similar tastes in music — both were into Bob Mould — and Narducy was putting together a band and wanted a cello player. Chesley was hesitant but then realized just how aggressive the music was.

“Usually what people have in mind when they say they want a string player is not the kind of music I want to play,” she says. “It’s often like frosting on the cake. I’m not really interested in that.”


Narducy wanted someone to beef up the sound, and Chesley relished the prospect. They eventually formed an alt-rock band named Verbow, signed to Epic Records, and toured with Mould (who also produced their debut, 1997’s “Chronicles”), Frank Black, and Liz Phair.

Once Verbow dissolved in the early 2000s (and has since sporadically reunited in various formations), Chesley struck out on her own as a studio musician and leader of Helen Money. (She might be the only cellist who has played on records by both thrash-metal gods Anthrax and indie-pop duo the Aluminum Group.)

Helen Money’s latest album features drummer Jason Roeder, from the long-running post-metal band Neurosis, who compares the interplay between his drum parts and Chesley’s cello playing as “pretty much like the relationship between a hammer and a paint brush.”

“The drums lock step in a very rudimentary and simple way on the recording, and the cello work provides most everything else,” Roeder writes in an e-mail. “There is lead cello and rhythm cello, plus a myriad of other [melodies]. Alison ties it together very well.”

Usually, though, Chesley uses just her cello to create heavy soundscapes that are far removed from her classical training. It’s just as well, since she never felt entirely at ease in that realm.


“Classical music is very competitive, and I always got really nervous when I performed. I always had a good sound, but I was never as dedicated to it as other players,” she says. “It was a very imposing thing, practicing six hours a day and trying to get into an orchestra. I think I gravitated away from that.”

“I really feel at home in a rock club with the audience there,” she adds. “That scene is a lot more comfortable and accepting to me. I feel more able to be myself.”

Chesley teaches students to make ends meet, and some of them are aware of just how out there their instructor is.

“I have an 11-year-old [student] who gave me a little card that said, ‘To the most awesome cello teacher ever,’ ” Chesley says. “She watches me on YouTube.”

Given her classical pedigree but also her rock ambitions, Chesley is in a prime position to encourage her students to pursue either path.

“The reason I’m able to play my cello like I want to is because at some point I had to practice, and a teacher made me work on my technique,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be secure financially, but I’m really glad I’ve experienced all of this. It’s very rewarding to write my own music. I don’t know that I ever would have experienced that if I had gone the other way.”

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.