Facing the Unknown
Hemma’s latest EP sparkles in lifelong musical journey
The way Hannah Hebl talks about music makes you believe she knows something that the rest of us don’t. She doesn’t just play music, she metaphysically embodies it. In her world, music is elemental like water or wind – it’s spiritual and transcendental. The key to existence. All around us, music is a very human way of communicating the unknown and healing the unforeseen. And it works its magic through us.
“It’s such an ethereal thing, to channel a song. They’re mine until they’re yours, and then they’re ours.” – Hannah Hebl a.k.a. Hemma
“Channeling has become a new term that resonates more readily than writing,” Hebl says. “I am losing touch with the idea of owning the songs that materialize through me. It’s such an ethereal thing, to channel a song. They’re mine until they’re yours, and then they’re ours.”
It’s a beautiful way of looking at it from someone for whom music is a lifelong endeavor and an eternal chase. Hebl and her siblings were part of her family’s band – The Hebl Family Singers – throughout much of her childhood, recording in studios, advancing the craft, and getting a profound musical understanding very early on. Over time, she started plunking around on guitar and piano, learning songs from the radio or movies by ear, and deepening that connection day by day.
And eventually – after many years of taking it all in, digesting ballads from films, Broadway musical numbers, Tori Amos, Prince, Janet Jackson – she struck out on her own under the name Hemma, which is Swedish for “home.” In 2013, she recorded her debut EP Hallelu with the prolific local producer Jaime Hansen at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio.
“I wouldn’t have a shred of artistic bravery were it not for Jaime pushing me off of a ledge when I was 20,” Hebl said. “His moxie was contagious. I learned to trust the intuition of my ears.”
In the following years, that intuition had her traveling to places like San Francisco for art school, Montreal to study contemporary dance, Minneapolis, and now back to Eau Claire for its wide spaces and city/country balancing act. The songs never stopped coming though. Hemma’s streaming pages are glittered with voice memo sketches, a single here and there, hordes of demos, a cappella covers, tons of little lo-fi gems.
Finally, around this time last year, it became time to record some new songs with fresh energy – and really record them: a six-track, atmospheric and soaring collection of folk songs called Tomorrow River. Admittedly a little nervous to get back into a recording studio, Hebl enlisted the help of producer Shane Leonard and engineer Brian Joseph to guide the process.
“For a while, Hannah and I would go play tennis together and spend some time talking about the songs, recording methods we liked, players who would fit the sound, and studios,” Leonard says. They landed on Honeytone Studio, a converted Victorian house in Neenah. The space not only has tons of cool gear to use, but a kitchen, bedrooms, and a dining room – a real home-feeling place where Leonard says “everyone could really hunker down and exist together without distractions.”
The studio added a living, breathing quality to the songs, too. With a close ear, you can hear clinks of silverware, dogs barking down the street, real gritty stuff on the outer edges of each striking song. In the studio, Leonard and Joseph worked gently and meticulously to capture each moment of realness at the source.
“Brian was witness from the outside, Shane experienced the songs from within, and I got to swivel between the two without feeling overstepped or misunderstood,” Hebl said. “This was a really beautiful chance and challenge to face the unknown, and the reward is a rich and riveting record – something that feels alive and sounds a little different with each listen.”
Tomorrow River feels like the culmination of a lifetime seeking out music as a means of understanding and making peace with the greater world around her, yet it leaves space for Hemma to grow in wild, new uncharted directions. For Hebl, it’s a big step forward into a musical journey that’s nowhere near complete, and we should all be thankful for that.
“I was in awe of the imperfection, and of the raw quality of my voice,” she says. “I can hear my authentic voice beginning to bud and am certain it will blossom with the coming records.”
Tomorrow River is out now on most major streaming services, and you can buy the record digitally at hemma.bandcamp.com. Hemma will join Jerrika Mighelle and The Nunnery for a show on Friday, Feb. 21, at The Pablo Center in the Jamf Theatre as part of the Driftless Music Series. To get tickets, go to pablocenter.org.