“The songs musicians write aren’t representative of all of their feelings,” warns singer-songwriter Helena Deland. “But it’s true that mine lend themselves well to sadness.” Not today, however: we caught up with her on a beautiful blue-sky day in Austin, Texas, where she played five gigs in as many days at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival and conference. She has a smile in her voice while she tells us the story behind her excellent EP From the Series of Songs “Altogether Unaccompanied” Vol. I & II, launched in early March.
It’s her first major, professional, international showcase, and the first time she’s played with her band of three musicians outside of Canada. Deland is living life to the fullest. “It’s funny, because people warn you about South by Southwest in so many different ways, but truly, it lives up to its expectations!” she says, in English.
It’s more of her mother tongue than her first language, as it were: Deland’s mom is Irish and dad is Québécois, and she grew up with both languages, which she uses equally. “Before I recorded anything, I wrote my lyrics in French,” she says with a marked Québec City accent. “I still like those songs, but I feel it’s easier for me to write in English because of my personal musical culture. There’s also something appealing to writing in English because of its inherent rhythm. It flows better.”
She left Québec City five or six years ago to pursue her literary studies at Montréal’s UQAM. At that point, Deland had a few songs in her suitcase, “but it was nothing much. It’s pure happenstance that I met Jessie.” That would be Jessie Mac Cormack, who produced her first EP, Drawing Room, launched in 2016. “I wanted to record my songs, but I wasn’t thinking about a career,” she says, “and I had zero in-studio experience. I didn’t really play any shows, either. It was just one thing leading to another. It was a lot to take in.”
Her promising first EP revealed Deland’s soft voice and pretty timbre, inside Mac Cormack’s distinctive world of ethereal folk, undulating electric guitars, and a sound engineer bent on capturing intimacy. The formula was spot-on and the EP quickly attracted a lot of attention from producers.
Launched on the New York-based label Luminelle, From the Series of Songs “Altogether Unaccompanied” Vol. I & II – once more produced by Mac Cormack – sees the young musician stepping out of her producer’s shadow. Her personality shines through with more clarity, in songs that avoid the clichés of contemporary folk and embrace more minimalist grooves.
“Our relationship was completely different,” Deland explains. “I was always there in the studio, I took more time to make this EP. Our relationship became conflicted at times, because we’re both very stubborn, and we both think we know what’s best. It was a more tightly collaborative process. Jessie has the technical know-how to make anything happen in a studio, and now that I know what I want, he provides me with the means to make it happen.”
Deland’s style is all about intimacy. “Personal things, the exchange from one person to another,” she says. “I often sing about things that remain unsaid in my relationships with people to whom I’m close. I’ve often used writing music as a way to vent, and help myself understand inter-personal stuff.”
Her cellphone is full of musical ideas recorded on the go. “I record small melodic phrases, and some of them make me feel like pursuing them further,” she says. “Sometimes they become a song. Sometimes they become nothing at all. I’ll mostly start with an idea, a sentence; then the real work begins: finding chords, a melody, and then lyrics. The melody and lyrics will be inspired by the original idea, that line I recorded on my phone. When it’s good, everything falls into place and the creative process happens in an almost mystical way. It’s as if the song was born simply because it had to be.
“I’ve always been in awe of original song structures,” she says. It’s one of the most captivating aspects of her writing style, which seems to have its own rhythm, a natural and dynamic way of moving from verse to chorus. “I read a lot of fiction, it helps me to write,” says Deland. “What I’m fascinated with in writing is the element of surprise. I love reading and being surprised.”
She cites New Zealander Hollie Fullbrook, a.k.a. Tiny Ruins. “The day before yesterday, I ended up at her concert in Austin, purely by a twist of fate,” says Deland. “There were about a dozen people in the room – five of whom were staring at their phones, as any industry type would… I went to talk to her after her show and, of course, I cried. She influenced me a lot, especially when I was recording my first EP; I was really happy to meet her.”