And Then We Were a Family Band

Photo: Anna Sneed

We drove out of Dallas elated, high-fiving and slapping each other’s backs. It was only the second night of the tour, and it was going great. The delicate three-part harmonies that were so important as we made the record soared when we performed live — not something I took for granted. Somehow it was all coming together — The Rebecca West was a band, a real band, not just something in my imagination.

The open road stretched out before us, and as we gained distance from the city lights, the sky became a silver dome. “The stars at night / are big and bright,” I sang, because it was true, and for the first time in months, I exhaled deeply.

But my deep exhale was not without the qualifying tinge of nerves, the ever so slightly quickening pulse. Six days of folk rock road-tripping was one thing, but six days of folk rock and road-tripping with my husband and brother was quite another.

Would we still be speaking by the end of this tour?

My brother and I have been playing music together since we were children. I was Annie and he was Michael Jackson. I was Belinda Carlisle and he was Huey Lewis. I was Joan Jett and he was . . . well, you get my point.

Then one day I turned around and all the influences had faded. All the great records he’d pored over for hours in his graffiti-covered bedroom on the Upper West Side had seamlessly blended into him. He had become an artist himself.

My brother, Alex, shortly after formed a band called The Damnwells, and from the beginning he seemed charmed. Major publishing deals rolled in, and record labels came calling. Before I knew it, he was a 24-year-old with more zeros in his bank account than I would probably ever see in my life.

He was and is the real thing, and people took notice.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and sushi dinners. It was hard — really hard. Relationships were formed and broken, money was spent, the band was signed and dropped. All over the course of almost a decade, during which I cheered, but mostly from the sidelines.

Until recently.

In the fall of 2011, my husband and longtime producer, Matt Hammon, and I started writing songs for a project for which we could not find a title. We’d been writing and singing exclusively in church for that same decade my brother spent touring the country with The Damnwells. But Matt and I suddenly found ourselves writing songs we couldn’t play in church. Songs that would fit better in a bar or a club — venues we had started playing when we were too young to drink in them.

The songs we were writing weren’t necessarily risqué, but they were more about eros than agape — more focused on the divine in human love than the love of the Divine.

After we posted our first recording on NoiseTrade, I sent my brother a link. I was proud of the song and excited about the new direction we were taking artistically. I didn’t expect much from Alex. He was busy, living in Los Angeles eking out a living writing songs for pop stars.

Then I logged into my Twitter account and saw a tweet from him.

“I demand to be in this band!” he wrote, linking to the song and inviting his followers to check it out.

A flurry of activity erupted on Twitter as his fans passed the track around and we gained new followers. We watched, a little nervously, as our friends and people who know our music from the churches we’ve served over the years mingled online with Damnwells fans. To our relief everyone seemed to agree — they loved the song and wanted more.

An experiment was afoot.

Matt and I didn’t much take my brother’s “demand” seriously. We figured he was busy with his music, and we were busy with ours, though over the years Matt and I have supported Alex by playing drums (Matt) or singing the occasional background vocal (me). Matt and I love Alex’s music — we’re genuine fans, but we always assumed our styles were to disparate to mingle much.

Alex’s tweet was followed by a text. “Seriously, I demand to be in The Rebecca West,” he wrote. It’s an interesting way to ask for admittance, but entirely Alex. He rarely asks permission — as the cliché goes, he is more apt to ask forgiveness.

Matt and I continued to write and record for the album that was taking shape. The years leading up to this flurry of music-making had been hard. Matt’s best friend died of kidney disease and my first bandmate, a gifted cellist named Daniel Cho, drowned while on tour with Regina Spektor. Not long after, our friend Sarah was diagnosed with sarcoma and our entire church community walked through the illness with her. The day before her death I had the incredible privilege of being invited to sit at her bedside and sing her favorite song to her. All of our grief, hope, doubt, and love poured into the songs we were recording. We weren’t sure where Alex — out in California and seemingly in another world entirely — would fit into that process.

Several years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter, Alex wrote a song called “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.” The title lyric is taken from Psalm 139, a passage that a friend prayed over me during a frightening time in my pregnancy. I’d e-mailed Alex the passage; though he doesn’t share my faith, he often welcomed prayer and received scripture I’d send him, sometimes scribbled on a napkin during tough times. I was in a tough time of my own, and I shared this bit of hope I’d received with him.

About a week later I got an e-mail with a recording of one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard.

Fearfully and wonderfully made
if you take that hand you leave your shame
will you stay with me through the silence and debris
of a world at war with the wrong enemy

The song had a way of seeing past the churchy language we so often hear and going straight to the heart of true faith. Matt and I played it so often I’d sometimes forgotten that it was my brother — my spiritually ambiguous, ethnically Jewish brother — who had written it.

It naturally fit on The Rebecca West album.

And so the bridge was built. This project would be part of him and part of us.

By the time we reached our hotel after the Dallas show, we were wrecked. The adrenalin from those three-part harmonies had worn off, the peals of laughter had silenced, and we were all ready to sleep. It was 2:30 am. We hadn’t eaten an actual meal in two days but were too tired to go searching the riverboat casino we were staying in for food. We’d have to be up and on the road by 9:00 am to make it to Birmingham in time for our show that night.

“Tired?” Alex asked.

“This is what touring is all about,” he said, feigning sarcasm. He draped his arm around my shoulder. “Can you handle it?”

I looked to Matt for backup. He nodded solemnly, a smirk turning up the corners of his mouth.

Summoning my best rock ‘n’ roll attitude, and pushing back thoughts of a hot meal, I quipped, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” then landed a hearty slap on Alex’s back.  

“Can you handle it?” I asked, grinning into the thick night. And we settled in for everything that would come next.

Photo: Anna Sneed

Cameron Dezen Hammon is 1/3 of The Rebecca West, along with her husband Matt Hammon and her rock star brother, Alex Dezen of The Damnwells. She writes for CultureMap Houston and blogs at She is mother to one human, one tabby, and one Basset Hound, and she is currently working on a book-length manuscript of memoir.

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