Unusual introductions can make the biggest impressions. Unless you were very ahead of the game, and caught the EP she released in 2016, Canadian artist Helena Deland appeared on the radar a couple of years ago with Altogether Unaccompanied – four short volumes of songs that weren’t an album, but something that, if you really felt the urge, you could listen to as one. Regardless of the package it came in, what stood out were the songs from the lucid dreaming haze of Take It All to the lightning bolt rock of Perfect Weather For A Crime, Deland’s talent burned through the songs, with an ability to easily summon up moods in music and a knack for capturing imaginations in a flash of words.
But it wasn’t an album, importantly, so the one she’s on the phone to talk about today (calling in mid-road trip, from outside a Tim Hortons in Québec for extra Canadian authenticity) is her first. Someone New. For Deland, a first album has some significance to it, and it’s something she had a clear idea of how she was going to go about – the songs that made up Altogether Unaccompanied were never intended to be one. “I guess I had this ideal of what the experience of recording a first full-length would be. I know for sure that it was the right decision [not to make Altogether Unaccompanied into an album], I think it was good to build a little more experience, and I wanted to come at the full-length more intentionally, and have it be more conceptually coherent”. It’s also a question of authorship. Deland felt the songs on Altogether were more of a collaboration, and for her first capital A album, she wanted to make something that was more her own. “On the EPs, I was working with a producer who was very well-versed in recording, and would do it very fast, take an idea and run with it. That’s great for many reasons, but also made me feel not so in control, and not so represented in the final result. It feels hard to take the credit for them. All of the previous work I had done I had also recorded with the same producer, so that was kind of the vibe. It was someone whose ideas I would go to before expressing mine, due to lack of experience I guess, so I really needed to graduate from that experience in order to make something that was mine. Have it be more representative of what I was able to do in terms of arrangements too. Just more something that I would be proud of myself really.”
Someone New does feel like a different creature to the Altogether Unaccompanied songs. It’s an album of atmospheres that constantly shift and form into new shapes, swirling and forming around the listener. Some songs stand up as relatively straightforward indie rock, like Truth Nugget and Lylz, some are bare and raw like Dog, some are blurry and heavy like Fruit Pit, soft and glass-delicate like Clown Neutral. Compared to Altogether’s more snapshot nature, it feels like a full album, one immersive experience, where the songs look their best when reflected in each other, and with threads, themes and feelings looping through them all. The first steps to the album started during touring for Altogether. “There was like a year where I was writing songs without knowing what I wanted to do or whether they would be on the record. Most of them aren’t”, says Helena.
“I was working towards [an album], and I do enjoy working under an overarching thematic concept. But at first, it wasn’t clear what that theme would be, so there were a lot of songs that were coming out and it was a case of ‘maybe this will be on the record, maybe this won’t’. But when I wrote the song Someone New, it became clear that that was what I wanted to talk about, and the sentiment I wanted to go after. After that, songs would fall into place in the narrative of the record.”
“When you’ve made it, you’re so close to it”
When the songs were ready, the recording process started, done with close friend Valentin Ignat: “We were both working as baristas at the same coffee shop in like 2016, and we became friends. He studies electro-acoustics at uni, and has this really cool approach to sound that I know nothing about, which ended up complimenting what I had brought to the table really well. The whole thing was very light-hearted. I trusted the songs themselves. I feel like when I write, I get very self-conscious, and I try and combat that. Recording was way more playful, because it involved more people. It was really fun.”
One of the things that is obvious when you first listen to the record is how richly-detailed it is. Every song feels like a little world, with every touch and tiny detail a living part of that world. It sounds like an album where great pains have been taken in creating every soundscape. Deland says it was about bringing the mood of the songs to life:
“I found myself describing that as the mood of the songs, which is inherent to them before any production is added, it’s there in just the recording of voice and guitar. I feel like that mood is often very clear, and it comes across in the recordings and through the collaborations too. ‘Dog’ is actually one that was hard. We made four versions of it, one was really laid-back, one was really pining and heart-wrenching, this one is kind of weird and in-between. Maybe it was harder for ‘Dog’, because it’s actually the oldest song, the one I had written the longest time ago. So maybe that’s why it took so long to land it, because it didn’t feel obvious to me anymore. But for other songs, it happened more quickly. ‘Lylz’ and ‘Smoking At The Gas Station’, those songs were really like ‘poof’, they just sounded like that before we started working on them. But they are all the fruit of a lot of trying to plan how they would come to life. A lot of discussion around the feelings that were involved, and how we wanted the songs to come across. But it’s really hard to predict how a song will come across to the listener. When you’ve made it, you’re so close to it”.
Towards the end of the process, friend and producer Gabe Wax provided a fresh pair of ears. “Gabe Wax came into the process when we had done three quarters of the recording, and everything was kind of ready, but he came in with a fresh take on everything. That’s where it was legitimate to feel like we had access to someone who hadn’t been very close to the whole process, and we could comment on the mood and make it evolve in a certain direction based on what it could become”. Wax also helped with some last minute sequencing. “I had written the songs in this sense that made them all really narratively coherent, for me, but sonically the pacing I had in mind from the beginning turned out to be not so rewarding. Or not so pleasant to listen to. So Gabe made an intervention three days before I sent the record to pressing, and he was like ‘this doesn’t work, it’s really messy’. So he sent me an alternative pacing and that’s the one that ended up being on the record”.
Reclaiming your own image
As well as being the key song that made things fall into place for Helena, Someone New is also the listener’s introduction to the album as the opener. Fittingly, it’s a song that sounds like a watershed, of tensions breaking and things snapping into place, from the rattle of drums that kicks the song up a gear to the catharsis in Deland’s drawn-out plea to give herself “a fucking break”, where the guitars rise up to meet her. But it’s also a thematic key to open the album, the opening step into the upcoming subject matter. Identity, self-image and self-doubt are at the heart of someone new. The songs speak of insecurity, of reaching out to other relationships just to find some sort of anchor for yourself, of being unsure who you are, what you want, and if you’ve even able to perceive any of these things yourself. “The songs came at a time when the feelings I had of not really knowing myself as a person were due to my gender”, says Deland. “I realised I had kind of been acting in terms of what I thought was desirable in a young woman. And I felt alienation in that sense. So it’s about reclaiming my self-image, which for a long time I wanted to be appealing for men. Or I had at least internalised the male gaze in a way that made it difficult for me to feel fulfilled. A lot of the quest for self comes from that realisation, you know, without the male gaze what am I trying to do, who am I trying to please, if anyone, and why? And I think even with the male gaze, those questions are all very relevant. So I think that’s the overarching theme”. Writing the album also became part of interrogating the issue.
”I think for me it came at a time when I’d become more aware that the things I was feeling weren’t just due to my personal experience, but were due to structural phenomena and were probably common to other women in my general demographic and even women beyond that demographic”.
Insecurities about identity and the image you’re projecting are only heightened when you’re an artist, and having a ‘public image’ is part of the job description, and a lot of artists have issues with navigating between the kind of avatar they have to project as a public version of themselves, and the real, private person behind that. “I feel like there’s so much to say about that”, she says. “The first thing that comes to mind is that that’s entirely true, especially for female artists I think, because their image is so front and centre in the music industry, which is historically and still very much a man’s world. I think that that’s very confronting, when you feel that your career relies so heavily on that persona, and what you’re putting out. But on a personal level, even outside of the music scene or any art scene, I think women have that kind of duplicity too, in the sense that they’re so used to performing something that’s not completely… I’m trying to phrase this. There’s a John Berger documentary called Ways Of Seeing, it’s really cool. It’s from the 70s, and it’s very interesting, I recommend it. But there’s one episode on women as depicted in art history, and it starts with the sentence ‘men watch, and women watch themselves being watched’, and it hurts to hear it, but it’s so true. And it rings so true in my experience. Even as a woman, not as a public person, you internalise the other’s gaze. But I think that is definitely heightened by trying to promote your art, for sure.”
Because you kind of have to sell that image?:“Yeah, exactly, and try and act and function in the manner that’s going to be the most successful too. Obviously trying to respect yourself in doing so, but still having that in mind. And I’m sure everyone does, no matter what gender. It’s a bit of a confusing distance, between the personal and the professional.”
In the midst of those themes, the self-doubt and insecurity that lines a lot of the album, Lylz, a song about close female friendship, provides a warm note in contrast to the shadows of the rest of the record. In it, Deland sounds confident, secure, feet on solid ground. The opening line goes “Lylz, you don’t need to worry, we’ve got this”. It shines like a little ray of light, a path out of the maze of the rest of the record. (As a nice extra note on the song, Deland put up a sale of Lylz tote bags on her Bandcamp with the proceeds going to organisations in Canada like Taking What We Need, Solidarity Across Borders and The Native Women’s Shelter). Deland says about the song: “friendship in general, in the eye of romantic failure, friendship prevails, you know. There’s something to be said about that, for sure.”
Deland’s talents as a lyricist also stand out on the album, where she writes with a flair for piercing lines (“Who gets to be your mirror if I’m the nail on the wall?” – Dog) and brings life to her themes in the scenes she unfurls before the listener (“Used to being the actor, surprised in mid-practise, rehearsing love till it’s real, and also the audience, before velvet curtains part, and finally reveal” – Mid-Practise). “I write a lot in a diary”, she says, “and I think that’s really helpful. Sometimes I just have flashes, ways of saying something that could be musical. Reading really inspires me too, just experiencing how other people have put ideas and feelings into words. For writing lyrics, it’s usually kind of like a catchphrase that sticks in my mind, that comes with a melody, and those are from diary entries. But I’d say that’s one percent, or not even, 0.5 percent of the work. Then 99% of the work is justifying that sentence, and working around that. Maybe sometimes a chorus will come to my mind very easily, and then there will be so many hours devoted to digging up the rest of the song. So that’s how I write lyrics mostly. But it’s always within the melody, and always within the musical structure, I dig a lot from my diary and prose. It’s the flash, and then all the time put into it after.”
“I have no idea if I can make a living off of this”
Deland grew up as a native French speaker, and sometimes artists cite working in a second language as something freeing, not having the structures of the language quiet so internalised meaning it’s a little easier to play with (as well as creating a little distance between your creative work and everyday life – you don’t have to write a love song using the same words you use to buy milk). “I do think you’re right, there is something freeing in that you resort to a second language”, she says. “Especially with music, because you want words to fall in a certain rhythm. When you’re not so used to the language, that there seems to be one more familiar way of saying things, that can be helpful, though I also have English pretty handy. I think you’re right about that. My daily language with most of my relationships for the biggest part of my life was French, and English was kind of playful, more personal, more directly to music, at least in the way that I experienced, because my music culture involved English-language music more too. That’s less true right now. But it was definitely a whole step for me to kind of go for it, it felt more private to do it in English. But now I have roommates, and my friend group right now is very English-speaking, so there’s no hiding behind English anymore [laughs]. [But] I think there’s something to be said about English in itself. It’s so, I wanna say straight to the point. French necessitates twice as many words to get to the same idea, and that’s just overwhelming to me. There’s something very efficient and graceful in English.”
Now, with Someone New done, Helena Deland is working towards the next project. “I have a couple ideas, but I feel like 2020 so far has taught us to be flexible [laughs]. Especially with this whole musical adventure, I have no idea if I can make a living off of this. I definitely have plans for what I want to make with music, and I will make it, but for my day-to-day, it’s so hard to predict. But I do have this ideal record that I want to make next, and start working on. Then will there be a third and fourth? I don’t know, but I would love that. I don’t do anything intentionally, so I guess it’s more that I keep going, but there are always phases when nothing lands, or seems to stick. But I am always kind of writing. Right now I’m really fantasising about how some artists talk about just locking themselves up somewhere and writing for like two weeks non-stop. Apparently when Grimes made Visions, she wouldn’t even cook, her friends would cook meals for her and bring them! She was just making this record non-stop. That to me seems so extreme and I would be so curious to try it. I obviously wouldn’t ask my friends to cook for me, but I would love to try something like that. Like an intensive creative period where you can force yourself to the limits”. If you’re a fan of Someone New with catering skills, it might just be your time to shine.