In the wake of heartbreaking loss, experimental cellist Alison Chesley explores the process of dying on 'Become Zero'

As a child growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley, Alison Chesley hated her cello lessons. She’d do anything to avoid them.

“I hid in the backyard when my teacher came over once. I hid behind the bushes. I don't know why I thought they wouldn't find me,” Chesley said recently by phone. “It's such a solitary process to sit there and practice, and I remember just wanting to go out and play with my friends. I didn't want to sit there by myself and practice. … I remember going up to my dad once, and I said, ‘Dad, will you be mad at me if I quit?’ And he said, ‘No, Alison. But we'll be very disappointed.’ And that was enough to hook me. I'm like, ‘OK, I can't quit.’”

These days, Chesley is filled with gratitude for her parents’ “wonderful gift” of cello lessons. Now an accomplished cellist based in Chicago, Chesley is known for Verbow, her mid-’90s alt-rock band with Jason Narducy, and for her collaborations with rock and metal bands like Shellac, Russian Circles, Neurosis and Sleep, as well as her experimental rock records released under the name Helen Money.

Chesley wrote Helen Money’s 2016 album, Become Zero, after losing her mother and then her father, and those losses suffuse the instrumental record with dark explorations on the process of dying and death’s emotional impact. On the album’s title track, drummer Jason Roeder pounds a propulsive, tribal beat that Chesley mirrors with a sharp and quick attack on her layered, distorted cello. Then, as the tension and volume rise, the instruments abruptly cut out, leaving only the trail of an echo.  

“My mom died very suddenly. She died in her sleep. [‘Become Zero’] ends so suddenly, and that's kind of what that piece reminds me of — how all of a sudden someone's just gone,” Chesley said. “Whereas my dad, it was a much slower process. We saw him grapple. He knew he was dying, and we saw him go through that.”

While writing the alternately ethereal/mournful and visceral/cathartic song “Vanished Star,” Chesley thought about her dad, who met Chesley’s mom at a Lawrence Welk show on a pier in California. “When he was dying, my dad had dementia, so he would see my mom in the house. He would say, ‘Oh, I saw your mom the other day. She's still beautiful,’” Chesley said. “It was really moving, and I thought, ‘You know, it's like they're trying to dance together, but she's not here. He sees her, and at some point they're going to be together [again].’”

Since the release of Become Zero, Chesley has worked on a score for a horror movie with Steve Albini (Shellac) and Tim Midgett (Silkworm), and she has five songs written for the next Helen Money record, which she plans to record with Chicago engineer and metal musician Sanford Parker (Nachtmystium, Minsk).

For the current Helen Money tour, which stops at Ace of Cups on Tuesday, March 5, Chesley is performing solo, and as she recreates pieces from Become Zero onstage, her parents are often on her mind. “I still think about them when I play those songs,” she said. “Sometimes I'm sad, and sometimes I just feel peaceful about it.”