Elena writes most of the songs but some songs are cowritten with Jem. The duo always works collaboratively, and the songs transform and are enriched by Elena's background in pop/rock and opera, and Jem's in electronic composition and minimalism. The sound-worlds Hen in the Foxhouse creates are humorous, catchy, sardonic, and passionate, often involving themes around queer relationships and feminism but just as often focusing on the wildlife and serene landscapes of the Hudson Valley. During 2019-2020, the band released five songs featuring wurlitzer organ (Jem) and electric guitar (Elena). They are about to record a new EP, due spring 2021. They regularly perform in the Hudson Valley, 90 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, and also in the city.
Elena grew up in Germany, England, Greece, Mexico and Chicago before attending the Oberlin College and Conservatory for Ancient Greek and Voice Performance, picking up a hodgepodge of musical influences along the way.
“I listened to whatever music I could get my hands on when I was growing up,” they say. “I remember some of my friends in England would have some Kylie Minogue records and Madonna and Janet Jackson; we would listen to the records and try to sing with an American accent and stuff. We’d watch MTV all day. I was also obsessed with street performers, organ grinders, accordionists and such.”
Their dad also had a pretty solid record collection, rounding out Elena’s musical upbringing with some classics.
“My dad would play the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and classical music super loud,” they say. “I’d go to sleep listening to whatever he was playing. There’s no history that separates them, it’s all pop music. Classical music was pop music when it was being written.”
When they were weren’t listening to music, Elena was singing.
“I was kind of a moody kid, and one thing that always made me feel better was singing by myself,” they say. “People would say oh, sing some more, it sounds nice. I started playing guitar, and my aunt was a music teacher. We’d go to her house in the summer and she had a big folk songbook, and we’d all sit around and harmonize and play Kingston trio, that sort of thing. It felt really special to do that, to see the idea of community that comes out making music together.”
Their first song
At Oberlin, Elena studied music and classics, and then went out to San Francisco to pursue a semi-professional career in opera and voice while waiting tables. True to unconventional form, they started writing music much later in life than most artists.
“I was 27 when I wrote my first song,” they said. “I realized I wanted to be a musician when I was 9 years old. I was lying in a hammock in Mexico, with my family inside finishing dinner, listening to an artist named Roberto Carlos, who is very lush and symphonic. I was so moved by his music it was like I was shaking inside. I new I had to be in music.”
Seeking a change from the service industry, Elena then applied for a performance PhD at Northwestern University. There, they discovered performance studies, where they fused their interests in art, academia and activism into an academic career that continues today at Vassar College.
“I worked on a project about queer and trans musicians,” they said. “I came up with my PhD project, which focused on the singing voice as a sonic lens for liberatory and critical transgender politics.”
Their first gig
“In 2009, I was dating someone who was a singer-songwriter too, and they encouraged me to get a showdate,” Elena says. “I had written five songs that I felt good about. I lined up a super low key gig, run by this nice queer man in Chicago who supports queer music. It went really well, and I was like oh, maybe I can do this more.”
Elena Elías and their boyfriend released their first record while in a band called the Homoticons; in 2010, Elena released their first solo album called Takin My Take.
“Peeling back the layers” as an artist
“Instead of evolving or progressing, I feel like I’m peeling back the layers and to find my voice,” Elena says. “In my mind, our true selves are inside like those Russian dolls. It’s getting clearer, and I’m sloughing off the ideas of what a singer-songwriter is supposed to sound like. I’m letting go of the idea that I’m supposed to sound pretty or technically proficient.”
Elena Elías credits their work with frequent collaborator Jem Altieri, who went to Oberlin at the same time as Elena but they never met until Pansy Club, a weekly queer gathering in Kingston, NY, where both currently live. Jem trained as an electronic music composer in Oberlin's Tamara program.
“Jem comes from a place where you can make whatever sound you like, where you can know about the conventions of songwriting but also not care at all and have a weird meter out of nowhere,” Elena says. “I want to say the words exactly how I want to say them, and I’m constantly trying to refine the lines between convention and quirkiness, and sometimes love forgetting doing that and letting that line go crazy.”
Elena looks up to artists who "let their voices do weird things,” like Chavela Vargas and Diamanda Galas.
“I don’t necessarily want to sound woozy and sexy, although that's how I sound to most people most of the time I think, based on reviews." “Some of my favorite artists do super weird, speak-singing kind of stuff. Chavela Vargas is my all-time favorite singer, and we have the same range now that my voice is lower. She sang until she’s 80, and was defiantly performing sexy and sensual until she died.”
The motivation to keep creating
Since 2010, Elena has released four other records; Tangled Mess of Hands (2011), Elias Krell & the No Good (2012), As Eli (2017) and XO (2018).
Elena keeps making new songs, they say, simply because they “have to.”
“I write and record because I have to to feel happy and present in the world,” they say. “That’s my primary motivation. I’m making it for myself primarily. I’m grateful when people engage with it and respond, but it’s the icing rather than the cake. The cake is I get to feel alive and happy.”