MUSIC is always at its richest and most promising when those with…
true personality, spirit, and originality come through and are unearthed. Helene Greenwood is an artist that stands in her own mould – you will struggle to hear anyone quite like to her. Not only is Greenwood assuredly grounded and wonderfully bright – her music has a blend of quirky compositions and resonant, soulful vocals. Bringing bare and emotive to beguiling and unearthly: if you can pull that off then you are sure to stand apart from every other musician. Helene Greenwood’s bright and engaging personality goes into her wonderful, rich music – packed with imagination, strange characters and stories. I was lucky to have some time to interview Greenwood and ask her about influences, the lure of Camden and her new album, Exquisitely Hopeless.
Hey Helene. How are you? How has your week been?
September is one of my favourite months. I like that going back to school feeling and the excitement and trepidation of new beginning - fresh exercise books and hazy autumn sunshine!
For those new to your music: can you introduce yourself, please?
I started my musical life as a composer and see myself as a singer and composer.
I fell into writing songs as it sets up such great limitations, which can be very freeing expressively.
The aim of verse and chorus is a good framework even though I rarely get round to writing a song with such a straight structure. I love the way words have their own musicality and rhythms - they are like another instrument the way they can pull a song into a whole new direction and feel.
I believe Camden is your home right now. That is quite a bold and characterful part of the capital. What is daily life like there for a creative?
I’m on the Belsize Park fringes of Camden but always gravitate to Camden Town for yoga, vintage shopping and (I) appreciate the mix of people. It feels more relaxed than the other parts of London, which can feel more of a rat race. I love the solitude of walking around Primrose Hill and Regent's Park nearby and thinking about new songs.
You hail from Dover. What are the differences you have found between the two areas – in terms of the music scene and opportunities – and does London inspire you as a songwriter?
I grew up in Dover and was composing contemporary music. I remember the last thing I wrote was for a women’s choir called Sea Oracle. When you are by the sea, the air is amazing for your lungs and vocal chords. It is also a place where you can enter deep inside of yourself and respond to the elements.
London, to me, feels extremely sociable and has its own energy from all the communities. I feel it’s a place where you can communicate and tell your story.
That’s what I love about writing songs and gigging them: it’s an opportunity to tell my own story.
How big a role did music play in your childhood and when was the moment you realised this (music) is your passion and goal?
Sorry, I just realised that there are quite a few more questions so I will make my answers shorter! My music teacher, Rosemary Dunn, who sadly passed away in August, was a huge influence in encouraging me to compose. She was into creative self-expression of any kind, and would bring in books on The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Jung to inspire me. She is one of the voices in my head who reminds me you should always keep searching a bit further.
Your released your debut album Collectable You in 2013. How do you think you have progressed and changed as an artist in the last few years?
The songs from Collectable You were composed at the piano and are more of a tighter structure with more harmonies. With Exquisitely Hopeless, I was lucky to be able to spend a lot of time working out the atmosphere of each song, and some of them started from an initial idea jammed through in the studio. I worked in a dusty studio in Richmond with James Hallawell as producer. I use an old ‘80s Oberheim synth. that would take a while to warm up. Sometimes, it would create this wobbly, cranky sound which was perfect as we were hoping to find some happy accidents. It helped create some of the distorted, unsettling sounds inspired by horror movies, like The Others and Hitchcock films. So, this album has had a lot more contemplation given to the productions side. I also feel my vocal has a more narrative, spoken feel to and I’m very into mystery. I’ve been inspired by Julia Holter and this trance-like quality.
Exquisitely Hopeless is your forthcoming album. The album title suggests contradictions and personal searching and examining the nature of self. What can you tell us about the album’s themes and what inspired it?
I think it’s the hopeless moments that can be challenging but also help you to understand yourself a bit better and help you to notice that life is truly exquisite and mysterious too.
This Is the News Today, the latest single, looks at a missing figure. Was there a person that compelled you to write that or was it taken from imagination?
The lyric This Is the News Today came from a studio session jam, and I felt like it was a line taken from a radio news report. I always try to mix experiences from my life and mix it with texts that I connect with. I love Murakami and his novel IQ84. There is a character that goes missing and some of the scenes from the book inspired the rest of the lyrics.
In terms of childhood music and the artists you grew up to: which were most important with regards your musical and vocal direction?
I used to pretend I was on stage and sing along to Kate Bush and my parent would play The Rolling Stones at parties. I also toured around cathedrals singing Evensong with my school choir singing Renaissance choral music. I have also listened to a lot of contemporary composers and think my musical listening has always been extremely mixed. In my vocal direction, I can be inspired by some actresses that have beautiful speaking voices like Sissey Spacek in Badlands, as well as singers. I love Joanna Newsom’s voice and her narration at the beginning of Inherent Vice and I’m writing a song about astrology based on that at the moment.
Your compositions and musical blends are exotic – Japanese soundscape and tango flair – whilst the vocals and lyrics hint at more intimate and homebound dynamics. Was this a conscious decision or a sound that came about through time and experimentation?
I love that description! With my lyrics, it can often depend on what I’m reading or a film I’ve watched. To Live in the Moon was based on an ee cummings poem. My song Flat Roof House was influenced by a text by the artist Pipolotti Rist as she describes an installation she created of a flat-roofed house.
I suppose I’m always interested in subverting the domestic scene and finding new ways of thinking about it.
The album Exquisitely Hopeless follows a journey from the house and wanders out into nature in cosmic wonder. I love the way there might be Japanese scales, blues harmonies, and sub-bass as part of the texture as it moves forward.
Which current artists are you listening to at the moment?
I’m listening to Bat for Lashes’ The Bride at the moment and love some of the stripped-down production in some of the songs. Her voice has an elemental earthy quality which really communicates.
Away from music and its demands: what keeps you busy and where can we see Helene Greenwood on a day off?
I’ve just had a couple of days catching up with films I wanted to see and watched Julieta, Café Society and The Secret Life of Pets. I loved working out which animal reminded me of my friends or family! Some of the pets had some very dark drives: they were the unleashed ones who didn’t want to become too domesticated as they had been treated badly by past owners.
The rest of the year: what kind of things are in store with regards tour dates and promotion?
I have been working on a couple of posters with Max Ammo, my animator. Her artwork for the album is so beautiful and I thought it interesting to weave lyrics around it.
I have a gig at Proud on 17th September and will be releasing it in St Pancras Clock Tower on 7th October. There are more details for this on my website. I will then be gigging the album and would love to tour to places like Liverpool and Manchester.
It may sound like a job interview trope but bear with me. As an artist, what would you like to achieve in the next few years?
For the next stage, I would like to concentrate on performing and finding out about new communities through gigging and find more singers and producers to collaborate with. It would be great to be able to carry on with learning more of the production side so I begin to do more editing and producing myself.
Can you provide any advice for those looking to follow you into music?
I think those people that decide to go into music or the arts do it for the reward it gives them above doing it to make a living.
I think it’s the activity of creating something and practicing an art that becomes precious enough.
Finally - and for being a good egg - you can name any song you like (not yours as I’ll include one) and I’ll play it here…
Happy to be a good egg :) ….The Fog by Kate Bush
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