Helena Deland on Her Debut Album, Her ‘Tedious’ Songwriting Process, and Her ‘Teenage Devotion’ to Big Thief

A few years ago, Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland revealed some of her early musical inspirations: Angel Olsen, Tiny Ruins, Jessica Pratt, Joni Mitchell, and Sea Oleena. These women, Deland explained, were “creating beautiful moods with intimate tools,” and their music “helped me legitimize my own guitar and voice-based songs.”

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Naturally, these elements—along with the occasional synth, bass, or drum part—form the foundation of Deland’s spare, introspective debut album Someone New, out tomorrow via Luminelle. The most striking tracks on the record show Deland trying to locate herself—physically and emotionally—in relation to others: “Blood on my thigh,” she whispers in “Seven Hours,” “You lick your finger / I don’t know why / I push your hand away.” In “Mid-Practice,” her attention shifts toward romantic longing: “Can I sink my teeth into your love, please? / I do want you to the bone / Through and through every layer of you.” And in album closer “Fill the Rooms,” Deland delivers this eerie, evocative formulation: “Now that you’ve let me / You’ve let me inside your head, / Did you let yourself forget / I was in there and wanted music?”

Deland was born in Vancouver and raised in Quebec City, but she’s currently based in Montreal. For songwriting, she prefers English to her native French: “I think that makes it a little easier to be bold as most of the interactions I have are in French,” she told an interviewer in 2018. “I think it would be a very interesting exercise to carry out a release in French […] but also terrifying though because it makes me very vulnerable.”

Someone New follows Deland’s 2018 release Altogether Unaccompanied, which arrived in four parts. She crafted the album between Montreal and New York City, ultimately finishing it with her friend Gabe Wax. Deland spoke to us by phone a few weeks ago about that process as well as her “tedious” approach to songwriting and her “teenage devotion” to Adrianne Lenker and Big Thief. Check out the full interview and listen to Deland’s latest singles below.

American Songwriter: When did you write and record the songs on Someone New? On the flip side, when did you know the project was complete?

Helena Deland: There were different steps, but the moment that the record started making sense to me in the writing process, conceptually, was when I wrote the song “Someone New,” which was August 2018. The oldest song on the record was written maybe six months before that, and the other songs were written after, from August 2018 to September or October 2019. The two last songs were written while we were already recording last summer. All of the band takes were recorded in Montreal near where I live. Then I finished it with my friend Gabe Wax in New York, in Ridgewood, right upstairs from a pizza place.

Was that an established studio or his own place?

It was his apartment. He’s moved to LA since, but he had a really nice set-up in the apartment. It was a windowless room—no hating of that, but it was just long days, like nights.

When did you sense the project was complete?

I think that I had a pretty healthy relationship to it this time around. Maybe bringing Gabe in towards the end helped because it gave a breath of fresh air to the whole thing. I was already feeling like the songs were coming together, but then it tumbled into a series of [work periods with] twelve-hour days. It came together pretty quickly at the end, and it felt very easy to call it done. The last time I went [to New York] was the first two first weeks of February.

On the title track, which is also the album opener, you sing, “If I could have every thought / As though for the first time / I’d never get sick of / The patterns of my mind / But I am stuck.” Do you see songwriting as a way to trace those patterns or break out of them? Both? Neither?

I would say both. Well, this might be very optimistic, but I think maybe more of the latter. Songwriting helps to break out of them, in a way, because it’s such a different language, it’s so different from regular thinking. I definitely sometimes feel relieved by the act of songwriting and even sometimes surprised by what comes out. Nothing exists out of nowhere, obviously, in the music that one writes… and [songwriting] can get redundant, for sure, but not in the same way intrusive thoughts can be, you know? [laughs]

You said there’s sometimes an element of surprise in your songwriting. Did any tracks on this record surprise you?

I guess “Someone New” came together in the most ideal way, where I just started writing it and didn’t stop until it felt done, and at that point it was. Usually it’s way more tedious, so that song had that element of surprise. It felt very inspired. I finished writing it at 4am which I never do.

I’m going through the tracklist in my mind… “Seven Hours” is a really simple one, and that felt somewhat surprising because it felt so strongly a certain vibe, which I didn’t really know I was harvesting. Sometimes songwriting acts like a filter through which stories get tainted with a really clear angle. 

How would you describe that song’s vibe or angle?

It feels very hopeless to me, which is… a vibe. [laughs]

What are some other feelings that come up on the album?

There is a lot of hope, too, I think. There’s a bit of feistiness. Well not feistiness, but discontent. Anger is too strong, but… formulating objections.

In “Truth Nugget” you sing “We’ll shed layers and expose / The naked landscapes of our minds.” And in “Pale” you sing, “Spending this much time / In my naked body’s / Not making it familiar to me / Trying to get used to it, / I read what’s on me.” I’m curious if you see any links between these moments of exposure and your approach to songwriting?

Absolutely. It’s something that’s a strange paradox for everyone, I think, and in a different way for songwriters who are demanded to be personally at the center of the marketing aspect of their music. That can get very confusing in terms of what you put out in the world. I think that’s true about being a woman, too, where a lot is expected in terms of… it’s coming to me in French, but le pareil—I’ll just Google translate—how you appear. Romantic relationships, to me at that time, was an area where I felt uncomfortable feeling like I was perceived in a way that I didn’t associate with who I felt I was.

So in “Someone New” you’re looking at that gap?

Yeah, but it’s so difficult. It’s this pointless paranoia to know how you’re coming across or how you’re constantly being perceived because you’ll never figure that out.

But still, you seem to want to document the effort.

Well, I was definitely very preoccupied with it. With songwriting, the thing that was driving me crazy the most was I would try to write songs with these imagined others in mind and feel very self-conscious even in those moments where I was trying to be the most direct. I think [with] a lot of songwriters it feels like they’re very transparent and don’t have that muscle of self-protection. They’re very generous and it feels like [their songwriting] runs like clear water.

In a previous interview you said that you were inspired by Angel Olsen, Tiny Ruins, Jessica Pratt, Joni Mitchell, and Sea Oleena. Are these still your musical lodestars? Would you add anyone to that list in the context of Someone New?

For sure. I would add a lot of people, but I definitely still very much love all those artists. I think that Adrianne Lenker has been—I had a teenage devotion to Big Thief when U.F.O.F. came out. The last time I felt that transported by a record and a band was in high school, where those were such intense experiences to be a fan. It felt really good, actually. It felt really exciting.

Have you seen her perform, either with Big Thief or by herself?

Yeah, I have. Both.

Did the live experiences give you the same feeling?

Definitely. She’s a guitar hero. She seems very, very transparent, even on stage. It definitely translates, but in a totally different way where you’re absolutely receiving the singer-songwriter, whereas the recordings just allow you to take the songs where you want. I admire her songwriting a lot.

I [also] got into Bill Callahan and Joanna Newsome. [I admire] a bunch of different artists and genres, but those are the singer-songwriters who I feel really have something wild going on.

Who are some vocalists you admire right now?

I like Julia Jacklin a lot. And someone who completely transported me, too, who I haven’t mentioned yet is Tirzah. I don’t see her as someone to emulate, just because my voice has nothing to do with hers, but her music is really something that I’ve had a lot of fun obsessing over. Stevie Nicks is always just heartbreaking.

Someone New is out October 16 via Luminelle. You can pre-order it here.

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