Words by Luke LaBenne
We all have insecurities. Whether it’s something small and superficial or deep-rooted and anxiety inducing, sometimes it’s hard to see past our deficiencies and recognize every positive gift we have to offer. In 2018, Helena Deland had released promising sets of singles in her Altogether Unaccompanied series, establishing herself as an exciting new voice in music with a great career ahead of her. Yet she still found herself weighed down by insecurities, doubts and fears, and it was interfering with her work. She returned to her solitary songwriting process and channeled these feelings into her music, resulting in the most vulnerable and powerful songs she has written to date.
Helena’s journey of self-discovery is not only charted in the lyrics but also in the surrounding compositions, with the mood and instrumentation restlessly shifting throughout. Songs that begin as stripped down singer/songwriter ventures unfold and expand into astounding arrangements. Equal parts engrossing and unsettling, the listener gets lulled into the comfortable, catchy grooves before being promptly pulled into a new direction. With Helena as their guide the listener slips into the hazy yet engaging scenes she creates, experiencing the highs and lows along with the narrator. These sonic spaces feel authentic and familiar, for those of us who have attempted to rise from similar emotional depths, this album activates an optimistic solidarity. Helena attempts to reclaim her sense of self, while recognizing the unseen factors that contributed to her struggles, as she navigates the wavy waters of life and attempts to find her way through the inevitable push and pull of pain and pleasure that defines human existence. Though this is her debut album, it feels like she has reinvented herself, while simultaneously making one hell of an entrance.
Off Shelf: You use the title Someone New in a couple contexts, the external meaning of “kissing someone new” and the internal meaning to “become someone new.” What made you choose this title for the album?
Helena Deland: “Someone New” refers to my desire to reinvent myself and experience myself as new. It grapples with ideas surrounding – sudden, often impossible – self-transformation and is interested in ways I tried to invite change into a sense of self otherwise experienced as fairly linear. Meeting someone new is definitely a way of doing that. It also tackles the urgency I felt to become someone new, which supposed that who I was already was insufficient.
OS: There are lyrics on the album, “Never stop surprising me” and that’s how I feel when I listen to the album. How did you manage to make an album with such a dream-like feeling that is also consistently changing, surprising, and grabbing your attention?
HD: Thank you! That’s very flattering. We did have a lot of fun making up scenarios and sometimes characters for every song, and were invested in having them come to life in specific ways, maybe that’s why it sounds surprising from an outside perspective.
OS: You said you wanted to make these songs “true to both spaces,” those spaces being the solitary songwriting process and the more collaborative recording process. How did you go about balancing those two?
HD: I think the mere fact of setting this as a goal insures reaching it. During the recording process I was really trying to summon what made the song exist in the first place, whatever feeling was the most ardent at the moment it came to life, and that was often harder, more tortured feelings. But then I was having so much fun working in the studio with my friends and really wanted to let that shine through as well, and let the first feeling be transformed by however the recording process was going.
OS: Surrounding your vocals and fantastic guitar work are incredible arrangements; whether it’s pulsing synths, swelling strings, or driving drums. How did you approach the arrangement and instrumentation of the various songs?
HD: Thank you! I made the second round of demos – some of which became the final versions of the songs – with my friend Valentin Ignat who is really interested in electroacoustics and textural sounds, so we drew a lot of inspiration from impressionistic metaphors, I would say – not to sound heady or anything: I would tell Val, “Let’s make this sound like you’re 13 and waiting for your crush to respond on MSN”, and we would create a sound that bridged our two conceptions of that.
OS: You said you wanted these songs to convey their “least self-conscious form” however, sonically there are tones that add a bit of unsettling uncertainty. Was that your intention?
HD: I absolutely love the coexistence between eerie and comfy, but I think this also has to do with the idea of conjuring both the writing space and the recording space: it’s the intermingling of pleasure – recording, working on music – and something like pain – the harder feelings that inspired most of the songs in the writing stage.
OS: There are lyrics about how you “don’t contain the world” and how you’re “reminded where I end.” How is it possible for us to sever our definition of our self from the ways that the world defines us?
HD: I don’t think it’s possible! And I come at the question from a very privileged standpoint: it’s easier for me to shake off – to some extent, and sometimes – external pressures or learn to live with them than it is for many people I think. The way the world defines us is so ingrained in our socialization and so much a part of many of our interactions that I don’t think we can even be fully conscious of all of them.
OS: You said these songs allowed you to “feel freed at least partially from insecurities the patriarchal gaze brings forth.” How were you able to use these songs to overcome those forced insecurities?
HD: Merely naming them was a huge thing, and then writing about them and acquiring a position of agency over my experience of them helped me understand and confront some of those difficulties, and gradually learn to steer away from them when it’s possible.
OS: You explore how gender dynamics have affected your career. Do you think the entertainment industry will ever get over its obsession with age and appearance, specifically in regards to female performers?
HD: I think youth and beauty will always be fascinating, but I know that they are not required to reach people: the feelings that music can conjure in listeners precedes the incarnation of the musician behind it.
OS: I love the encouraging lyrics: “Neither bad nor good / don’t ask yourself too long how you should / feel, you can feel anything.” Is this supportive sentiment intended for yourself, the listener, or both?
HD: I’m glad! I wrote it thinking of someone else, but I feel like in the context of the record, it’s definitely an invitation for me to be softer with myself, and an invitation for the listener to be sweeter to themself too!
OS: Do you hope that listener comes away from the album feeling like Someone New?
HD: I just hope it can lead to a nice moment! In the best case scenario it gives listeners courage to face whatever they want to face.