Self-Discovery and Sincere Pop: In conversation with Helena Deland

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Helena Deland
Helena Deland | photo by Jodi Heartz | courtesy of the artist

Patience is a virtue too often underestimated in today’s musical climate. When even the biggest pop stars of the world have taken to releasing their albums with little to no advanced notice, it can be easy to miss artists that take their time introducing their music, and themselves, to the world.

Take Montreal up and comer Helena Deland, for example. Over the past year, she’s slowly but surely made herself known by releasing a just handful of songs at a time, like a bedroom pop Body Talk. These songs, “volumes” of a collection called From the Series of Songs “Altogether Unaccompanied”, cover as wide a range of genres as they do feelings. Those emotions and genres come together under the umbrella of what Deland calls “sincere pop”. She’ll be presenting these songs, along with what could potentially be on her proper debut LP in time, via a run of U.S. shows through the first half of December that will include a stop at Philly’s own Johnny Brenda’s next Wednesday, December 5th.

Before those shows kick off, Helena was gracious enough to chat with The Key about what motivated her release schedule this year, what to expect on stage and on record, and how her view has changed on what pop music is and can be.

The Key: So you introduced yourself this year with a somewhat staggered release of music, just dropping a couple of songs at a time throughout the year. What made you decide to go that route?

Helena Deland: At first I thought I was recording my first LP. Then when I finished recording, I had these nine songs that I felt very keen about, but didn’t fit together into a very coherent ensemble. I had put a lot of pressure on making a proper “debut,” but I’m actually very excited that I decided to do [the releases] this way. Now I’ve started an output of songs that won’t really fit anywhere else that I can keep releasing while I work on more conceptually coherent music for a full album.

TK: So the full album is still out there, coming together in the ether?

HD: Exactly.

TK: Did you basically release these songs chronologically as they were recorded, or was there some other kind of logic to how you grouped and released them?

HD: There was. I’d say it was a more a question of meaning for me and general intuition, vibe wise. It’s not super rational, I have to admit. The way I describe it usually is that I pair songs off by color, which is kind of indicated by the colors of the covers for each EP.

TK: Another thing that leaps out about your music, perhaps more so because of how it’s been released so far, is that you cover a very wide range of styles and sounds across these songs. Was that pre-planned or did it just kind of happen?

HD: It wasn’t planned. It kind of just happened, but it was my first co-producing experience. I wanted to try different things out. I don’t think a full LP will be as varied in style, but I’m really glad that we tried this out to explore. For me, it’s a very long process to sound like myself. I think that’s a Miles Davis quote. That’s how I kind of feel. I still need to try stuff out before I find the sonic venue I feel really comfortable in.

TK: So you’re still trying to find a more permanent “you” in your music?

HD: Yeah, totally, but I think that I have a very clear idea of where I want my first album to situate itself in genre. I do think it’s important for it to be more coherent than this group of songs was.

TK: Any hints of where that debut might go, sonically?

HD: Of course! I’ve gone through a lot of thinking about what I want to play and do. I want it to revolve a lot around the band and what we do when we jam. It will probably be very guitar-centric, but I’m also looking for a very particular type of energy. I want it to be very energetic even though it’s more of a folk rock kind of instrumentation.

TK: Is that the framework for how this run of live shows is going to go? Will you be trying out new songs in addition to what’s been released?

HD: Yeah, it’s super exciting to build a song while playing it live. For these shows, there will also be a lot of synths and sequencers that come into play because of songs that already exist, but it’s also a classic indie-rock four piece set up.

TK: When you write your songs, how does the creative process work for you? Do you write the lyrics and then decide how the music is going to sound, or do you write the music in conjunction with the lyrics?

HD: Well, I write a lot. I do a lot of journal-keeping. When I have a conceptual idea I want to work into a song, I’ll just let it rest. Often something will just pop into my head that is both melody and words, like a short little formula. And in that moment, I’ll just start working around that.

TK: So for example, “Claudion” differs somewhat from the other songs you’ve released so far in that it’s more of a synth-pop song. When you were writing that, were you thinking of it as a synth-pop song?

HD: No, I wasn’t. It evolved a lot, but I also have to specify that a year and a half went by between when I wrote it and when I recorded it. It changed a lot. When I was originally writing, I just wanted it to be something very soothing. I was talking about colors earlier and for this I wanted to make something very blue. It was a very sad song to me. Then I thought about what it was about, my friend Claudia, and I wanted it to go in a more uplifting direction.

TK: Was that long gestation and evolution something that happened with all of these songs?

HD: Yeah that’s another part of the reason I decided not to release them as a collection. I wrote them over a span of five years. They were all from such different times of my life, when I listened to different kinds of music, when I had different kinds of feelings.

TK: Do you prefer the long gestation?

HD: That’s a good question. I don’t think I do? I don’t think I have a definite answer yet. The only experience I really have so far with song production has always been a certain amount of time after I’ve written.

TK: I love how you describe your music as “sincere pop”. It’s such an evocative phrase. What exactly do you mean when you say that?

HD: I hope it doesn’t sound too presumptuous. Pop, for me, for the longest time was connotated with product and pleasing as many people as possible. Then I had this huge revelation over the last few years where I started listening to pop music more than any other genre. Now when I use that term, I don’t mean it to sound like all other pop music is not sincere. It’s more sincere as in I can’t help it. I think of [sincere pop] as music that’s very personal, but can also appeal to a lot of listeners.

TK: I 100% get what you mean. My own relationship with pop music has changed considerably over the years.

HD: Yeah I don’t know what it is. Maybe we were all just snobs. [laughs]

TK: Well I think it’s also how pop itself has evolved. There was a point in the ‘90s where it did pivot away from the emotions that defined it in the ‘80s toward product and production. Now we’re back in a best of both worlds situation where that production is a pedestal for universal feelings.

HD: Exactly!

TK: Now on another topic, have you been to Philly before?

HD: I was actually there with Superorganism last March. We played… Boot & Saddle!

TK: That’s a good venue!

HD: I loved that show! It was one of my favorites. People were very nice and attentive.

TK: Well I hope that vibe continues when you come to Johnny Brenda’s!

HD: Yeah can’t wait!

Helena Deland headlines Johnny Brenda’s on Wednesday, December 5th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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