Helena Deland is an electrifying chanteuse from Montreal who released 4 EPs this year as four chapters of a series "Altogether Unaccompanied".
I first became aware of Helena's music when seeing her perform as a solo singer-songwriter in Calgary, Alberta in the summer of 2017. I was struck by her elliptical narratives and bright, clear voice and brought her debut EP "Drawing Room" (2016) into my heavy rotation.
In the time since she has added a full band, lush, new sounds, and high concepts to her work. Hooligan was thrilled to sit down with her before a recent show, where Gia Margaret opened. Here is our conversation:
Helena: I had an interview the other day that I had forgotten about, a call, a phoner, and the guy …. I was in the bath, and he just called me up, I wasn’t sure who it was at first and he kind of was more of the “let’s have a conversation” style, so it took the longest time before I realized what was going on. He was like “Hey! Helena! Helena Boxing! Like that Lynch’s daughter’s movie…
Mack: (laughing) and you were like, “Okay, we’re doing this!)”
I wanna start with a question about you calling your music “sincere pop”, I know that a lot of people ask you about that, but I was just wondering because I really like that name that you gave it and I feel like there’s been this cultural shift away from apathy, where people are really craving sincerity and earnestness, and I was wondering how that shift has felt for you and informed your music (if it has), and how that’s felt for you as a creator.
Helena: I’m really afraid of it being misinterpreted. It is something that I liked the sound of; I guess it implies that pop isn’t always sincere, which isn’t what I want to do.
M: Especially because there’s a stigma against pop a lot of the time, and women who make pop especially.
H: Exactly, and I did feel like kind of disdain towards pop growing up, just because I grew up in the early ‘90s, and my mom was kind of like “you shouldn’t support Britney Spears’ message” and I feel like I was really impressed by that, like it’s not feminist to support…. Pop legends are probably not feminists, and that was a huge thing for me growing up, and I only really recently started enjoying pop in my twenties probably and it’s been such a revelation.
I feel like your question was more about the shift in resenting apathy…
M: Yeah, I feel like maybe five to ten years ago the main cultural idea was to be apathetic
H: Yeah, and ironic.
M: Yeah, ironic, and there’s been a big push back against that recently.
H: Well, I’m happy to hear you say that, because I haven’t really noticed that honestly. But yeah, I guess it’s true. It’s such a part of how you want to present yourself as not wanting to take yourself too seriously, but yeah, it’s a tough thing to deal with. It was such a thing in all of culture, to have that distance, which I’ve never been able to really have with my music. I was so scared at first, I’ve been validated since, and I’ve changed my perspective on it, being sincere, but I was so scared at first of making myself vulnerable. Because it’s raw. But, you know, now [I know] that’s actually what I want to do -- the thing that will be the most true, and be as sincere as possible. [I want to] embrace that.
M: Well, good job doing that, because that’s hard to do.
H: Yeah, it’s easier at first, but then for it to become public, that’s the scary part.
M: Totally. With you being from Montreal, and being bilingual, French and English, I was wondering if your music being in English, and your life in Montreal being more in French, if that gives you some sort of distance between your personal life and your performer life.
H: It did at first, for sure, it felt like such a venue to express stuff. There are so many reasons why I write in English, but that was I think one of them, at least thinking about playing those first shows in front of like 30 friends, and being like, “oh these can’t be in French…. They know.” I mean, they know anyway. There is something about, saying some things that aren’t easy to say in conversation, or face-to-face, in a language that’s not the one you use when you’re together. But I also wonder, because French is a language I’m more comfortable with, that I navigate a little bit better than English, I wonder what if English were my first language, if it would be different. Hard to tell what it would change but, I wonder if it would be easier to write in it. But maybe it also gives me a distance that’s playful, or freer in a way.
M: When you’re writing do you ever think of your lyrics first in French and then…
H: No, but sometimes I’ll hear a song. Like, I’ve been listening to Adrianne Lenker’s album (we both make sounds of warm recognition and laugh), and oh my god, it just feels like she has nothing stopping her from writing such beautiful lyrics. It came to mind, is it kind of a detour to be French first and then writing in English?
M: And talk about someone who’s raw and vulnerable in their lyrics…
H: And seems to have no problem with that! It’s so impressive how close to her her lyrics seem, and apparently she’s so prolific and just has so many songs.
M: Yeah, I think she produces more than her record label can keep up with.
H: It’s really exciting.
M: We’re all blessed.
M: You mention Adrianne, and I want to ask you what other releases have come out this year that you’ve been really excited about.
H: Mmm, okay, Tirzah! She’s got such an angle on music that’s so refreshing, I find. She was introduced to me by my booker, it’s his favorite album this year, and I was really excited. It really moves me. I find it so alive that it grew really addictive. It’s a specific feeling that I can’t find, when I want to listen to Tirzah it’s just automatically, that’s the only thing that’s gonna do that. Apart from that … I found Yves Tumor’s album really interesting. They are this really multi-dimensional project that, this album, I’ve been enjoying getting really familiar with it. It doesn’t feel accessible to me, but it does feel magnetic in a way. I also liked Jenny Hval’s (we toss a few guesses at pronunciation back and forth and laugh) EP that she put out.
M: And she put out a novel this year too.
H: I know! I can’t wait, I’m very curious. Did you read it?
M: Not yet, but I can’t wait to. People that I know who’ve read it have devoured it.
H: Yeah, that shift is so interesting, I find. And it’s interesting that it doesn’t happen more, that singer-songwriters don’t write more fiction or prose, but it’s something that I’m really interested in for sure.
M: Yeah, I just heard that Japanese Breakfast is writing a memoir, and just gave a lecture.
H: Wow! That’s crazy, that’s amazing.
M: I feel like those boundaries are being crossed more.
H: Maybe since Bob Dylan won (laughing) the Nobel Prize for literature
M: Yeah, and I think there’s less of an idea of boxing yourself in to one discipline.
M: Besides music do make any other types of art?
H: Not really, I write a lot. I write pretty continuously, but I don’t have a project. I hope I will someday. That is something that I’m really drawn to, but it seems like such a tedious practice, and you really have to have a lot of time to do it. I read as much as I can, because that’s what I most love doing. I’ve noticed that in phases when I forget about reading I just feel like crap, it’s my favorite hobby.
M: Was there anything you were reading while you were writing the songs for Altogether Unaccompanied that really informed that process?
H: Yes, there were a couple, there’s this French word that means, “to take a shape and move it from one area to another.’ I don’t know what it would be in English, but there were some that made their way like that into the songs. There’s Carson McCullers’ poems, she wrote a song about, the way I interpreted it, the way I used it. She has a line that’s, “no longer is a stone a stone”, which is one of my song titles. Also I read this novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, it’s so beautiful! It hadn’t happened for me in a while that I’ve transcribed so much, it’s an amazing way of seeing things.
M: That’s a magical feeling.
H: It really is, when you’re like “finally, this makes so much sense!” and the, I guess, just her characters feel really familiar, which is a nice feeling as well. The sentence “Altogether Unaccompanied” was taken from that. She describes this old man, the protagonist’s grandfather, how every spring he becomes a man of his own and will be outside all the time collecting small bones, and rocks, and plants, and it’s not a negative thing, but how he was unreachable during that period of time, how he was “altogether unaccompanied” (she scrunches up her face), oh, it’s just so sweet. I guess it’s about the idea of being scared of that, but trying to embrace it as well. You can hope for proximity, but it’s often impossible. In choosing partners and friends you’re choosing who you’re going to be …. No I was going to say “alone with”, but that’s too tacky. Somebody’s actual core is always kept secret, we’re all kind of “altogether unaccompanied” in these beautiful relationships. Does that make sense?
M: It does, and it reminds me of your line from “There Are A Thousand”, when you’re saying…
H: “There are a thousand of each of us here, how will we recognize each other dear?”
M: Yeah, exactly.
H: Totally, there’s this really nice Rilke idea that every person has their own secret garden, and that you have to accept the fact that you’re never going to walk in past a certain point to someone else’s way of seeing the world and existing. Basically, how you choose the people who surround you, who are able to stand guard from where things only step out dressed in fancy outfits. It’s a really beautiful idea.
M: Definitely. I was really curious, the way this release is broken up into four different chapters, or volumes, what the thought behind the way you paired different songs was.
H: It was mostly instinctive. I usually say color-based. Thematically or sonically how they seemed to pair well, but it was really easy to do. It felt way more natural to do it that way than to release them all together. I’m glad I did that too, because it feels like a debut album is such a big thing to me. I’m really happy that it’s going to be all songs that were all written around the same time, rather than bunched together.
M: I like that you did it half in spring and half in fall, because I don’t know if you do this but I think of media very seasonally. Like I’ll think “oh, I really want to read that but I’m going to wait until the winter.” Or, “I really love this song and it reminds me of summer.”
M: Or like some things just feel warm, or feel cold. So, I really loved the way it was split into chapters and released so far apart. It was like returning to something familiar, but that felt more appropriate in the fall.
H: Totally, I wasn’t really thinking of it seasonally, but I agree that that’s totally a thing. But I was thinking times of day. The first two volumes for me were day and night, well they were midnight and noon. And volume three and four were dusk and dawn. You hear something and it’s like “this sounds like 4 p.m., or this sounds like April.”
M: It’s funny how those feelings can come through so distinctly.
H: It’s like slight synesthesia I guess.
M: With “Claudion” specifically, that song just sounded like October to me for some reason, I feel like it hit at the perfect moment.
H: I’m really happy to hear that!
M: Yeah, of course. I want to know if you have a particular song from this collection that you call your favorite, or one that particularly challenged you, that you’re proud of getting out there.
H: I guess the one that’s most mysterious to me in a way is “There Are a Thousand”, it’s one of the first songs I wrote, and it was so detached from any relationship I was going through. It was much more about how I felt as a 21-year-old girl, at that time. I don’t know how to explain it, it feels like because it’s so vague, yet I find it does describe well what I was going through, I’m proud of it in a kind of puzzled way. I feel like it’s going to exist independently from me for a while somehow, because it’s just hard to describe how it happened, how I wrote it. It was a very impulsive song, it took no time which never happens to me. Songs always take much longer than that, but I sat down and by the time I stood up it was just done.
M: Do you write poetry as well?
H: No, I don’t really write poetry. I write more ideas and citations. When I write in a more continuous manner it’s more prose, diaries.
M: The last time I saw you it was just you and your guitar. You were playing more sparse, folk, singer-songwriter stuff, and now you’ve got a full band, you’re doing this lush, atmospheric, electronic stuff. I was wondering, in that transition, what were your expectations, or your hopes going into it? And now that you’ve done it, how have they been fulfilled? Or not fulfilled?
H: It’s a very, very exciting transition. I think the solo version of the project for me has always been a kind of compromise for financial, or time reasons. It’s been the easiest thing to bring forth, the solo project. It was easier to travel alone at that point, I was always aspiring to having a full band. I don’t see the solo act as less than the full band, I need to just see it as different. It’s still something that I want to do and explore, but I feel like our final form is full band.
M: Do you have full band arrangements for that first EP as well?
H: I do.
M: So you’ve brought those into this era.
M: I’ve got a couple of quick questions to end: If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
H: Oh god I don’t know, I don’t have an answer to this question, and it’s a question that used to drive me crazy.
M: It doesn’t have to be practical, just anything that you’d like to be doing.
H: Hmmmm, just something that would have me reading and writing. So practically I was thinking of translation, music is so good for this, but something that would allow me to travel as well. Touring is such an odd little context to travel in, but it quells that need.
M: Can I ask you what your sign is and if you read into astrology at all?
H: That’s a fun question, my sign is Sagittarius.
M: Happy Sag season!
H: Thank you! I do, but I consider it as fun. The more I get into it the less I associate with it, but I guess it has to do with all of your planets, your chart. I guess the thing about Sag that I relate with in a bit of a masochistic way, is how fast you move from one thing to another, and get sick of things. That’s something I try not to do but definitely recognize in myself. There are other signs that pop up on the instagram accounts I follow that seem to be more accurate, but… My grandfather was a Sagittarius and he was always a party person until he was 95 and I always thought that was so cool.
(we talk about our grandpas for a while)
M: My last question is just a fun one, what’s on your rider?
H: If we can get anything we want…. I like tequila. But I’m trying to not drink at shows. Alexandre has beef jerky, that’s like his thing. There are two vegetarians and two heavy-duty meat eaters in the band, so it’s a funny mix. Nothing fun, we thought about asking the staff to bring their dogs, but we can’t hang out with it that much so it seemed irrational. But, that’s pretty much it.
(I tell her a story about a venue dog barking during a Daughter show)
M: Venue dogs are a bad idea but a green room dog is brilliant
H: As long as they get to run around!