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Helena Deland
Helena DelandPhotography Maya Fuhr

The Montreal songwriter turning emotional turbulence into transcendent pop

Helena Deland writes melodic pop songs with an extraordinary understanding of space and sound

Helena Deland calls her music ‘sincere pop’, a description that goes some way to capturing the emotional honesty of her songs. The Montreal songwriter writes music that feels very human: it’s at once evocative yet hazy, self-assured yet fallible. Her lyrics conjure images and feelings that seem to promptly slip out of grasp, as if she’s piecing together fragments of memories to unearth something deeper.

“With the way language needs to be played with in order to fit music, writing lyrics almost always makes things clearer, straightens thoughts, reveals some detail or other,” Deland says. “I write songs not to say what I think or feel, but to discover what it is, to put it literally.”

Deland debuted in 2016 with the Drawing Room EP, a short release that demonstrated both her melodic pop and folk songwriting talent and her innate understanding of space and sound. Altogether Unaccompanied, her new EP, is split into two halves. The first, Volume I, has an orange sleeve that’s accompanied by a photo by Maya Fuhr; it sounds like the rose-tinted memory of a summer’s day. Volume II is a midnight blue with a photo by Jack Bool; its songs have a somewhat more luminous glow about them.

Helena Deland plays SXSW later this month before heading on tour across North America with London collective Superorganism. Before that, we spoke to her about her writing process, creative life in Montreal, and the last book that floored her.

When did you first start writing songs?

Helena Deland: I would write simple piano songs in high school, and when I started writing lyrics – because songs with words were only form of music I really enjoyed at the time – they were mostly indecipherable to me. I would borrow concepts from songs I liked and put together metaphors I heard here and there without following any clear direction. I could never really tell what the songs were about.

I wrote my first meaningful song at 21. It was the payoff of all the juvenile collages and experiments that came first. It will come out later this year.

You’ve previously described your music as ‘sincere pop’. Why sincerity?

Helena Deland: I meant it as a comment on the order in which I sometimes process experience, where songwriting comes before – or simultaneously to – understanding exactly what my stance is in relation to what is at stake. With the way language needs to be played with in order to fit music, writing lyrics almost always makes things clearer, straightens thoughts, reveals some detail or other. I write songs not to say what I think or feel, but to discover what it is, to put it literally.

“I write songs not to say what I think or feel, but to discover what it is, to put it literally” – Helena Deland

What are you most inspired by?

Helena Deland: I try to always stay alert. I can’t tell what exactly it is about random situations I find inspiring, but I’ll write anything down as ideas come at unexpected times: at shows, while biking, during conversations, in books. I also need time alone to put stuff together.

I am most efficient when I’m going through emotionally turbulent periods. I expect this to change with time – I’m working toward being able to ‘summon’ inspiration in a more controlled way.

Is there a particular lyric that means a lot to you?

Helena Deland: From the Altogether Unaccompanied series, the most meaningful lyric to me is ‘There are a thousand of each of us here, how will we recognise each other dear?’ I can remember the feeling that inspired it acutely – disappointment with my young adulthood, anxiety toward the feeling of ‘becoming’, unjustified loneliness. At this point I am empathetic towards the feeling, and very glad to have gotten over it.

Do you feel Montreal’s environment has had any effect on the way you approach your music?

Helena Deland: Yes – the fact that it’s so affordable to live here has made it possible for me to try making a living with music. Montreal is probably one of the last cities in North America where you can rent in the nicest neighbourhoods on minimum wage. A lot of artists and musicians live here, and the indie music scene is healthy and resourceful. It’s a particular, weird city, and I love it – the weather is obnoxious, but there is always something good going on, and good people to meet. It feels like home.

Tell us about your new EP.

Helena Deland: We recorded a bunch of songs last summer, and decided to release them as a series. They were all written at different times, and we decided to record each of them in a very individual way, without working toward a common sound: we prioritised rendering each song in the most obvious tint of it’s particular colour. Each couple of songs presents itself as a volume – or an episode – from the series Altogether Unaccompanied.

“The first two songs (of the EP) are set in daytime: they both evoke a weariness particular to summer days, a discomfort in a seemingly endless bustle of strangers” – Helena Deland

Volumes I and II of your new EP have different colour palettes for the artwork – a sunny orange, and a midnight blue. How does the music differ between them?

Helena Deland: To me, the first two songs are set in daytime: they are very different but both evoke, thematically and sonically, a weariness particular to summer days, a discomfort in a seemingly endless bustle of strangers. I chose Maya Fuhr’s picture because my position on it can seem both innocent and a little defensive – it was taken on the day of the solar eclipse and I was shielding my burning, watering eyes.

And the last two are set at night, partly because they’re about relationships that only took place during that time of day. I instantly thought of Jack Bool, who I’d been following for a while, and this picture in particular sets the mood. It shows something intimate you can’t quite access, which you’re left out of. Both songs are about lurking in relationships because of denial.

While you perform under your own name, you’re also the frontperson of a four-piece band. Is there any tension in being someone who writes and performs quite intimate songs while also performing as a quartet?

Helena Deland: Yes and no. When I perform with the band, it feels like such a group investment that it seems a bit off that the project would be called after myself only. But whenever I express this to my bandmates, they just remind me that I write the songs.

Do you have a favourite book?

Helena Deland: It’s a pretty difficult question. The book I’d mostly recommend to others is not the one I’d bring on a desert island, and whenever I read something brilliant that I really enjoy, it makes all my preferences relative. I recently read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and was in awe at the suppleness of her prose – I can’t wait to finish the book I’m reading now to indulge in it again. The Portrait of Dorian Grey, which I read for the first time this summer, really knocked my socks off as well.  

What are you working on at the moment?

Helena Deland: It’s been pretty busy recently with fine-tuning our live set, preparing for the release shows and SXSW. I’m also going on a solo tour next month, which I wasn’t expecting to do again soon, and am working on changing up the set. Playing with the band really emphasises my need to approach the solo set as something completely different, as opposed to just playing the songs without arrangements – it seems obvious, but demands work. It’s really exciting!

I’m also working on a video clip for ‘Take It All’ with very inspiring people, it feels great. A video for ‘There Are a Thousand’ is also on its way.

Helena Deland’s Altogether Unaccompanied Vol. I & II out now via Luminelle Recordings