HEM at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Monday (October 16), 9 pm. $12. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Extreme weather events are now so prevalent in North America, it's only natural that more references to hurricanes, floods and burning forests would appear in the work of contemporary artists.
But it still seems a bit unusual to see a tornado on the sleeve of the new Funnel Cloud (Nettwerk) album by New York's Hem, a group best known for haunting twilight lullabies and lushly orchestrated countrypolitan slow-dancers.
While the members of Hem haven't been doing any independent research into the correlation between global warming and the increase in hurricane activity, their funnel cloud references, however metaphorical, along with the song The Pills Stopped Working, make their recent release appear more topical than anything they've previously done.
"Our use of the funnel cloud imagery definitely wasn't a conscious thing to make a statement about climate change," explains spellbinding singer Sally Ellyson from a stop in Nashville, "but that's an interesting point.
"If seeing the sleeve of our new disc causes someone to make that connection, or if that's the message they take away from hearing our song, that would be great, because I think people need to pay more attention to environmental issues and how we affect what's happening all around us."
Evidently, the whole funnel cloud concept occurred to Hem pianist/ songwriter Dan Messe completely by chance on his way to Ellyson's wedding just after the release of 2004's Eveningland (Rounder) disc. At the time, Hem had no idea what they might do for a follow-up album, but the destructive Hurricane Ivan would provide the necessary inspiration.
"While Dan and his family were driving to my wedding in Virginia, Hurricane Ivan was bearing down on the coast, and just over the Potomac River Dan saw five funnel clouds touching down. It was a hint of impending disaster on an otherwise beautifully sunny September day.
"When he got home, he found his house had been flooded, and then his father passed away shortly before Dan's second child was born. Going through all those life changes in a very short period of time had a strong effect on what he wrote for the new album.
"But there is an upside to all of this. What I think these songs are saying is that while unexpected events can bring about dramatic changes to our lives, they also serve to move us forward and help us grow as people."
Like Messe, Ellyson has been experiencing some radical changes in her life over the 32 weeks of her pregnancy. It turns out that the imminent birth of her first child played an important role in bringing Hem to Toronto for their first headlining gig.
Since they're touring with a full 10-piece orchestra, the good news is that they'll be able to perform songs from each of their three studio albums, Rabbit Songs, Eveningland and Funnel Cloud. The bad news is they won't get rich doing it.
"We don't believe in making any money for ourselves," chuckles Ellyson, only half joking. "We always seem to be sinking everything we earn into the next project. Because we knew we wouldn't be able to do any shows for a while after my child is born, we really wanted to play a few shows with a small orchestra. It's something we've wanted to do for a long time.
"Our management warned us about how much it would cost to tour with a band this size, but we didn't care if we wound up with nothing in our pockets at the end of it. We needed to do it anyway.
"We want to make each of these shows a special event, to give people a real sense of the fabric of the songs as they were originally created. And we're also very much looking forward to coming back to Toronto."