Most Honest Self: A Conversation With Mel Hsu ’13 About ‘Call Home the Crow’

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On February 22, Mel Hsu ’13 and Josh Smith ’11 came together with a cohort of their friends—students and recent alumni—to play an intimate living room show on campus. Although the concert was ostensibly a Mel and Josh reunion, it also marked the official release of Hsu’s second album, Call Home the Crow, comprised of music written for her senior recital. Hsu and I agreed that instead of having an interview, we wanted to just talk as friends and have a conversation in the spirit of Hsu’s music: honest, slow, and maybe even vulnerable.

Mel Hsu: There’s just a lot in my head right now. At this point, I have no idea what to do next with this thing. But in a lot of ways, Wesleying seems more intimate than Facebook because it’s a community that I know, as opposed to this giant abyss.

Gabe: Which is why I thought we could just have this as a conversation. I have a few questions, and we can just abandon them as we go.

MS: I’m excited for the slow-going-ness of this. Right now I’m feeling really anxious, so I’m excited to have a slow-going conversation.

G: Let me pull this up in iTunes, because I put the new CD on my computer as soon as I got home from the living room concert, actually. The album is called Call Home the Crow, and it was your senior recital concert. Did you write each song individually, or did you the write the concert as one long piece?

MS: Let me think about this for a quick second. I feel as though it became more cohesive as the songs were written. When I began, I had no idea what was going to happen, and so it wasn’t a full work until probably the Monday before my recital.

G: Your album is 10 songs long, but it’s not like pop music—you didn’t have 10 singles and decide to put together an album out of those individual songs.

MS: My process was very much driven by the space and the people that I knew I wanted to work with before I graduated. So the first thing is the Chapel. I wanted to create music specifically for Memorial Chapel and try and find a way to do justice to the vastness and almost haunting nature of it. I guess the haunting nature of the way that sound carries in that space, and the way that there’s some charge that builds—rewind. I knew it was sort of once-in-a-lifetime, I kind of had one shot to be able to do that, I guess. And so for the people, a lot of the songs were written because I had specific people in mind I wanted to write them for.

I met the string players, and so a lot of the writing I did for strings only could develop once I met these two. We had put it together for Spring Awakening earlier that year, and the moment I heard them, I said I needed to form a recital around them because of the grit and the soul which they brought to their playing. From there it grew into “Okay, I want a choir. Who can I ask and how can I write for them?” And then songs developed as I found people, people whose styles really captivated me and I wanted to celebrate and capture before I graduated. That’s my process.

G: You have one song in particular on the album called “For Buddy.” You had performed with Buddy Wakefield at his poetry performance in Crowell Concert Hall earlier that year—was that the piece that came out?

MS: I had the honor of playing with Buddy my sophomore year, and while Buddy was on tour, he was asking for local musicians to come play with him, and he very purposefully did not tell me what to prepare. The moment I got on stage, he said, “Play as though you are alone in your room at 2 AM, and stay in a major key.”

And that experience, playing that with him, was incredibly magical because it was very much so not planned. And it was a moment of catharsis—rewind. The poem I was backing up is, how do I say this? To me, it captures a catharsis in forgiveness that was incredibly powerful to me at the time. And so when we recorded that, we actually—Jared [Paul ’11], my partner in crime who’s my engineer—Jared and I plugged all his equipment into the CFA music studio stairwells and he set up mics down three flights of stairs and put me on the second floor by myself and put up, I guess, he set up a room outside the stairwell so he could be listening and left me in the stairwells alone.

How do I explain this? That song made its way in, that piece, as the most naked and live recording that we have on the album. It’s the only one that’s just me and completely unedited, just one take. I personally felt like I really need to honor that vulnerability that comes with being honest and moving through catharsis and forgiveness. I’m not sure if that made sense. I’m trying to be articulate about this.

G: When you were in the staircase, recording “For Buddy,” how did you repeat what you did at the concert? Was it all improvised?

MS: It was the same piece I played with Buddy two years ago, my sophomore year. Parts of it are improvised, but the basic melodies remain. I really wanted to say thank you to Buddy for really encouraging me to come as I am and just find strength in vulnerability and imperfections. What am I saying? I know what it is. It’s so easy when recording to keep redoing takes and keep editing and to keep, you have so much control over how you’re presented. And I just am remembering what Buddy is saying, what he asked me to do in playing as if I were alone in the middle of the night, and being able to share that most honest self. And so there’s definitely parts of “For Buddy” where I hit the wrong chord or missed the time, there’s a point at which I just got myself into such a headspace that I just wanted to start crying, or did, and the ability to look at that take and say, “Okay, I’m going to present it and not be scared of showing the most vulnerable state I can be in.”

I just really appreciate that you listened so deeply, and you just looked at it, and you just get it.

G: When I am listening through Call Home the Crow, and this is something I also heard in This Living Room, you don’t use words a whole lot. There are a lot of oohs and aahs and it’s very ethereal and, not angelic, but not earthly. Why is this sort of verbal non-language your preferred medium?

MS: I tend to feel limited and inarticulate when I try to speak. This shows, I don’t know, it’s hard to me to really pinpoint exactly what it is I’m trying to express. And I didn’t want to limit the experience of the audience, and I also wanted to be outside of this world that we know and outside of the way we understand human, or verbal, interpersonal verbal communication.

Also because I come from a family where English is not their first language, and so it’s been an incredible process of translating some of my work to my mom or my grandma or my dad, but I wanted it to stand on its own without them necessarily feeling a level of removal or distance because they don’t feel the connotations of some words in English the way that I do.

For me, the Chapel has always felt outside of the common world. The moment you step inside, there’s some change, I personally stopped going to church when I was a sophomore in high school, but I’ve always been fond of the Chapel because someone at some point wanted to build something to try and understand or celebrate something that is much larger than us. And that’s always fascinated me. That feeling, when you step outside the Chapel, is way beyond human language. That’s why I didn’t want to limit anything with these little boxes of words we think we know.

Am I speaking slow enough? This is a good pace for me to be speaking.

There was something I was thinking on to add on the first question about the process. A lot of it, now that I think about, in other words, it’s my giant, elaborate excuse to spend as much time in the Chapel before I graduate as possible, and by the time the recital ended, I felt very ready to graduate. I felt like I had done exactly what I had hoped to do at Wesleyan, and I have an entire community at Wesleyan to thank. It was everyone there who helped transition me out of Wesleyan in peace, which is not really relevant to the question you asked.

G: How has your music changed in the year since you first performed it?

MS: That’s an incredible question. Well, I’ve made a very personal decision to not listen to any of the music through the summer after I graduated. I knew the fall would be a tough transition and I knew it would be incredible to start working and start editing this music as I was transitioning into my new life in Philadelphia. It was an amazing experience to be in my new living room editing with Jared and hear my friends come through the speakers and fill the room. How has it changed?

G: How has it changed in its meaning to you?

MS: Give me a quick second. Can I talk about the process of releasing it? I did not want to release it on Facebook, and I still have not. And the music itself is still important to me, but the medium of having this album to share with friends has made me feel—let me rewind. I spent the past three months writing letters to the people in my life that I wanted to share this music with, and I very intentionally wanted to handwrite every letter and hand make every CD because it was my way of wanting to feel close to the people who I have not seen for a very long time. Because now, we have all kind of dissipated across the country, across the world, and it was—the music almost became irrelevant in a way, it became a vehicle through which I could reach out to my friends and let them know I was thinking about them and I very intentionally wanted to thank every person who has supported me and brought me to where I am now.

And so, how do I say this? The meaning of it has become more about—okay, I’ll make a quick analogy. There is this very secret desire, maybe not so secret, of emerging artists, often of wanting their work to become like an Internet sensation really fast. It’s this like more-more-more mentality. Since I got to Philly, I would have breakfast and conversations with my housemate Sam Long ’12, about—so many analogies! It’s not going to sound super coherent, but I trust you’ll find a way.

I have two analogies, and you can pick and choose from them. The first being— ugh, my brain. I think about the YouTube viral video as a very large quilt that is held together at its seams by staples, like the fact that it was built or made, that is the speed at which it could disintegrate or not exist anymore. I remember an important morning in Philly when I was in the kitchen with Sam and we were talking about how we wanted to build a life and a career for ourselves on our own terms, so even if our quilt remained small, we wanted our seams to be tight as hell. Like golden thread, made out of our own hair. We wanted a tight community.

What was the question? I’m just going to keep talking. The other analogy is this one afternoon I was writing letters in my grandma’s room, she was on her bed knitting, and she has always wanted to be a singer and musician ever since she was young, but the war broke out in Taiwan right when she was starting music lessons. She’s been one of the most supportive people in pushing me along. I remember I’m writing my letters, and we have a couple of hours of silence between us. My grandma is just my best friend, she gets what I’m trying to do, but she pauses and she just says out of nowhere in Chinese, “You’re trying to grow your roots, aren’t you? The roots are the part that no one can see, but you need really strong roots so your branches can grow and you can grow flowers.

And I think what this album has become for me is my way of really taking my time and hand-sewing all those seams together to build a foundation for the years to come. I was not expecting that a year ago. But my grandma nailed it on the head, and I think releasing this album has made my priorities very clear to me on what I want going forward and what’s important to me and what I’m not going to sacrifice as I keep making music. In a lot of ways, there’s always going to be more people who could hear music, but it seems like there’s an infinite amount. I am more moved than humbled when one person has listened deeply than a thousand have half-assed, skipped through some songs. That’s just where I’m at right now. Which is why I’m so geeked out, I just don’t know how to do promotion at all, because I can’t keep writing letters. The other thing I was going to say is that it’s available online, but if my preferred medium of exchange, if anyone wants to preorder a CD, I will personally write them a note and mail it to them. I’ll do it. That’s what I want.

I was going to say just one more thing, which is that this album is the best way I know how to say thank you to the Wesleyan community that has really made my life what it is today. All the people who came out to early WestCo open mic days, and people who came to living room shows, people who would give me a hug or incredibly encouraging words in Usdan, even if we didn’t know each other, I just could not have done this without every single person who has been there for me. I just really want to say thank you. It is an honor and a pleasure to be able to finally share this with Wesleyan. That’s my final word.

You can download all of Call Home the Crow on Bandcamp, or buy it directly from Hsu by contacting her at melanielhsu(at)gmail(dot)comI encourage you to listen to it thoroughly and then tell her what you think—she loves when you do that.