When Mel Hsu ’13 steps on stage, the mellow plucking of cello strings and a hauntingly beautiful voice soon fill the room. A distinct presence in Wesleyan’s music scene, Hsu produced her first solo album This is the Living Room in 2011, Analogue, a joint album with Josh Smith ’11 in May, and will soon release an album with the band Honey and the Sting. The Argus sat down with Hsu to discuss her musical origins, collaborative albums, and sharing stories through music.
The Argus: When I told you I wanted to do a WesCeleb interview with you, you told me you didn’t think you were a celebrity. So what would you consider yourself [at Wesleyan]?
Mel Hsu: That’s a big question [laughs]. I would consider myself someone who really loves doing what they do. Just by the nature of what I love doing, it happens to be something that is high visibility, and accomplishments are very public.
A: Now define for me: what do you do?
MH: I really, really love to play the cello and to sing and to play with people. All the time. To just play with my friends, play with people in passing, and to create music with people.
A: How did you get started playing cello, how did you get started singing, and where did you get the idea of combining the two?
MH: I actually started on the violin when I was in kindergarten, and I think my mom thought the cello would be too big for me and would eat me, like carrying it would just squash me. So I started on the violin until second grade, and I switched to the cello and was playing classical and solo stuff up until my senior year of high school. And I have this memory of going to my high school band director and asking him if he’d let me in the jazz band. It was all these guys who looked really cool, and I just wanted to play with them. He pretty much said, “I don’t know if there’s space for your instrument, but do you want to play the french horn?” And I said, “No, I don’t want to play the french horn; I want to play the cello!”
I went to a chamber music festival on a farm in the middle of nowhere, Canada, for four summers in high school, and it was the first time I’d seen people playing music for the sake of connecting with each other. We were around campfires and guys whipped out their guitars and everyone swooned. I came home and really wanted to write songs, so I started playing guitar. And I got to Wes, and my freshman year, WestCo open mics happened to be big, and I realized that every third person plays the guitar. I was like, “What can I play? Oh! I already play the cello.” There was a rapper, Josh Smith ’11, and it was the first time I’d ever really been exposed to hip-hop. So after the show I went up to him and I was like, “Let’s collaborate.”
The way I came to put the bow down and play the cello and sing comes from how really inspired I am by how creative people are here, and how willing they are to share their music and creations and dance and stories and families—this place is just flooded with life. I think that’s a huge part of why I wanted to create the medium that I did, because I wanted to find a way to contribute to all that. Anything can happen here.
A: Speaking of “anything can happen,” what is Honey and the Sting, and how did you get involved?
MH: Honey and the Sting has evolved since we started last February. It started off as my friend Sam Long’s [’12] senior thesis, a joint environmental science and music thesis about the Connecticut River. Sam got together some friends he’d played with before in a band. We were writing all of last semester and put on a show in the Memorial Chapel at the end of March. Originally, Sam was super ambitious and wanted it to be an outdoor show powered by bike generators—you laugh, but we got the bike generators. It was going to happen, but the week of the show we realized it was going to rain. Sam was crushed—he’d been dreaming about this for so long. He found out we could do it in the Chapel, and we all said yes. The show ended up being so much more magical than any of us had guessed it would be. We were all on this emotional high, and we decided, “Let’s record this. Let’s not let this be the only time we do this show, because it’s too good to let go of.” And so we worked together with Jared Paul, who produced Analogue, my first album [with Smith], and we spent five days in Woodstock recording this album.
We joked about it, but those five days felt like what my sister calls “DTR”: Define the relationship. You know when you’re kind of involved with someone, but you’re really casual, you’ve been hooking up for a while, and there’s a moment when you spend a really good time together, and you look at each other, and you kind of think, “Well, what is this? This is bigger than anyone would have thought it would have been. This is really good chemistry, so why is this so casual? Why don’t we just make this something?” We had this talk over the summer and realized, let’s stick together, let’s keep playing. Sam moved to Portland and then moved back, and now he’s sort of waiting for me to graduate and he’s like, “Mel, wherever you go I’m following you.” We played a show last Saturday. Our album’s coming out on the 25th of September, and it’ll be on Wesleying.
A: How are you releasing it?
MH: I think we’re actually burning our own CDs, but it’ll be online for sure.
A: What’s next for you?
MH: Musically, I am all over the place. Over the summer I tried out the part-time musician living in New York City thing, to see if it would work, and it was a lot of lugging my cello through busy subways and thinking about whether this is what I want to spend my time doing.
For a while, I was stressed about spreading myself too thin, because I have stuff with Josh that I’m still playing with, my friend Jess and I started a new band called Brushfire, and Honey and the Sting is happening, and I’m working on my senior project, and I’m writing my own stuff, and I have this improv group that I’ve been playing with. But a really good friend of mine, whenever I get stressed out about planning shows or band politics, she says, “Just play.”
I realized that, as long as I can play a little bit every day, I’ll be fine. I don’t care what or how. I just want to play a little bit. I don’t know what “making it” means. It’s not fame, necessarily; it’s not that I want to be famous. That’s not my goal. Music is this unending goal: you’ll never get to music.
Of course I’d love to have some way that I can pay bills with music. I want to connect with people. I want to spend the rest of my life connecting with people through music in general. And if that means having a larger audience, that’s awesome—more people to meet and to get to know and share stories with. Some of my favorite shows have been 15 people. That’s all you need: people who are listening.