Interview: Helefonix

Helefonix

Del Osei-Owusu interviews Helefonix, aka Helen Meissner…

Congratulations on the release of “Jackie Weaver’s Kicked Him Out”. How does it feel?
It feels slightly unreal really, but then so does most of my life when I look back on it. So no change there then! I’ve been called ‘thought, word, deed’ by people close to me and have a habit of acting on impulse. Of course, not everything comes off but I have full belief that everything COULD. Having said that, at every stage, I was aware there could be a hiccup which would sabotage the whole thing. I am a realist! There’s no point in being blindly optimistic! So when we’d chatted about what message Jackie wanted to explore with the track (the Make A Change campaign to address the lack of diversity in local councils and encourage more/younger people to get involved was her immediate and final answer), it was possible Jackie might not like the backing track I came up with, or the vocal arrangement, or the phrases chosen. And then, she might not have time to actually record the phrases in the way I needed them for the arrangement. Then there was the art, the logo, the video. All step by step, but we got there, pretty painlessly. In just over a week!

How did it come about?
Thanks Del. Like everyone else who has access to social media, I’d seen the viral video and knew the key phrases. Found myself following Jackie on Twitter and making the odd ‘witty’ “you have no authority here” tweet, which came to her attention. Couldn’t believe that she was so good humoured and responsive. I’ve been thinking of adding spoken word to my tracks and I just wondered if Jackie might be up for doing something with me. The key thing for her (apparently) was that I involved her from the start and made the whole process really simple for her. So she recorded new vocals and did a video for me too. So we were able to release the ‘whole package’.

You are an artist and producer from the UK how did it all begin for you?
Having spent the last decade being the ‘wind beneath the sails’ of many independent singer songwriters I stepped back from the 24/7 whirlwind just before lockdown. Coincidentally! By early summer I was feeling the need to be creative myself, which has never happened before musically. And I asked my other half how to use Garageband, which had come free with his iPad. Literally ‘what does this button do?’ at first, but by my birthday in July I was using loops and making music which excited me and eventually, by end of August, I started to share it with anyone who would listen. People were really shocked at first, as I was the face of Folkstock Records, supporting singer-songwriters. However, those who had broader musical tastes were very encouraging.

What artists were your main influences?
I have been surprised at how vibrant the electronic scene is internationally, with so many specialist radio shows to help us get airplay. But also BBC Radio 6 Music has been getting behind the synth scene, so I’ve recently found new inspirations such as Hannah Peel and Kelly Lee Owens, Floating Points and Cosmo Sheldrake. However, I was a fan of instrumentals years ago (being slightly older than perhaps your average artist?!), Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, Jean Michelle Jarre, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells 2 for example, and Gary Numan’s Cars was the first 45 single I bought. So it’s so interesting when you look back (thanks for asking the question) as I realise it’s not as surprising as it might at first appear!

Your sound is very eclectic, how do you like to start work on a track?
When I first started I experimented – started a new track a day. Deliberately picked different tempos, keys, loop packs, instruments. So I’d start randomly you could say, and see what sounds appealed to me that day. Some tracks I’d start with bass, others drum tracks, other with strings. Then I decided to do a ‘classical’ piece, which turned into a ‘mini modern symphony’. And so I researched which keys would suit each movement and which bpm, and went from there! This turned into Orchestral Manoeuvres if anyone’s interested in hearing the finished product.

You’ve used found sounds in your tracks in the past, what’s been the strangest sound that’s worked out well for you?
Yes, I’ve been incorporating found sounds. Which has been fun. I’ve got a lot in my ‘bank’, waiting to be used – water gurgling in the drain, some great thunder claps, the chink of a crystal glass against the kitchen tap – a superb bell sound – the tumble dryer drone. But the ones that have worked well so far are the car door shutting at the end of Joyride and the very obliging doves. Love that bit. But coming out soon, (and kindly premiered on Neil March’s awesome Exile FM show) is Song Thrush Serenade. I asked Neil what he thought (being the master of found sounds) and he was so excited he offered to ask his listeners, because I was so unsure if it was shit or a hit! You can get so wrapped up in your own bubble making music that you completely lose any sense of perspective – if it’s even there at the beginning! As I’ve been doing the indie thing of promoting myself too, then there’s literally no one to give an objective opinion. Now I can see how helpful my support was for the artists I used to manage/release!!

2020 has been a time to reflect, what have you learned about yourself?
That I am creative after all. I’ve never agreed with anyone who has said that. I’ve always been in awe of my daughter Charlie Deakin Davies’ production skills and when she said to me about a year ago ‘you could record artists yourself you know’ I dismissed it out of hand. However, I ended up producing my own music, which is almost beyond belief.  I’ve also found that I actually like being at home and could quite honestly stay in a version of lockdown for the foreseeable!

What do you find to be the easiest part of recording and the hardest part?
It all depends on how you’re feeling doesn’t it? Some days it flows and other days it all sounds shit. So I’ve learnt to stop if it’s not flowing and come back to it. When you get to mixing stage and the countless versions and adjustments it can get tedious. But you’re so close to the hearing how you want it to be, that it’s a real buzz too.

COVID has affected the creative industry as a whole, what’s kept you motivated?
Having the time to experiment for hours on end helps I think! And undoubtedly, when people say they love your work, that has to be the most encouraging thing, shallow I know. I’ve wrestled with this. Does it matter how many people like/know about your work? What I do is not mainstream, so unless it’s played on someone’s radio show, or featured in a blog like this (thank you!) or shared on social media, no one is going to know about it. I’ve decided that if there are a handful of people who enjoy what I do, then that is enough. I find that I am ‘prolific’ and have about twenty tracks which are almost finished and I really need to release them. And of course, releasing and promoting your own music really does take it out of you. And it’s a different ‘head space’. It’s hard to switch from one to the other in the same day!

I was very grateful to Simon Tucker for including Utopia in the Help Musicians UK charity compilation a few weeks ago too. Being part of something bigger and more important than yourself is also stimulating and spurs you on. But you’ve got to SUBMIT your music, leaving yourself open to rejection and accept that you may not be appealing to the person you’ve contacted. A slight emotional detachment is always helpful to avoid the demotivation when you get a ‘no’ or perhaps worse, no reaction at all. It helps to make sure you are contacting the right people actually, and then your response rates and reactions REALLY improve! In fact, I am writing a piece about self promotion sharing what I’ve learned over the last ten years, for the Grassroots Music site. 

It has been hugely motivating to feel the fear and do it anyway – basically have the courage of my convictions – to enter awards. And to my delight, Clouzine Magazine have conveyed that honour on two of my EP’s. So that’s been a real boost and I am eternally grateful. I was also surprised to be entered in a chart by the show presenter Tim Willett in the Cambridge 105 New Music Generator Unsigned chart, which I topped with Joyride (it was vote led) for 13 weeks. Astonishing.

There’s nothing like a feature on BBC radio to motivate you – and I am so grateful that Mike Naylor from BBC Three Counties has broadcast two twenty minute interviews interlaced with my tracks from my first two EPs. And local press is such a boost – it’s available to us all. They love a local ‘good news’ story and Alan Davies at The Comet in Stevenage has been tremendous at getting my news into print.

But overall I think I am motivated because I’ve never had an audience (so I don’t miss it) and it’s all shiny and new! 

You’re a strong supporter of unsigned artists, what ones have you discovered in the last year?
As I deliberately stepped back from promoting in February last year it’s had to have been someone who is pretty special who has tempted me back into plugging. And two artists have made a great impression on me this year are Sam Winston and Jewelia. Sam had been in contact for a while when I was running Folkstock and was pleasingly persistent. And I am so glad he was! (Musicians really need persistence (closely followed by resilience) more than any other personal quality I’ve found!). And Jewelia was in the same ‘listening party’ in the 2% Rising facebook group, where we all gave feedback on each others tracks. I loved her music and we started a conversation. 2% Rising is specifically for female identifying and gender minority producers and engineers, many of whom do the whole recording process for their music. Started a year ago by the powerhouse triumvirate that is Jenny Bulcraig, Suze Cooper and Katie Tavini we’ve now got over 600 members! Click here to go to the Facebook group if you’re interested in finding out more.

I also have a soft spot for the warm and rich voice of my husband Joe Rose, so we also released his covers album, Class, which got picked up by The Mail on Saturday and Elaine Paige on Radio 2, and a couple of originals. Joe kindly provided the male protagonist vocal lines in the Jackie Weaver’s Kicked Him Out track. I’ve also been hearing the demos from my daughter DIDI’s next EP and am chomping at the bit to promote her music when she is able to finish the EP and release! Machina X, Hannya White, Lines of Flight, Ditsea Yella, Fonz Tramontano and Fused are just a few of the #synthfam I’ve become involved with thanks to new music/electronic shows by Chris West, Rich James, Russ Evans, Chris Watts, Chrissy Muir, Slava and the Wildman and many more to whom I am really grateful. And it’s a very enriching place to be.

What are you looking forward to doing next?
The lovely BBC Radio 3 presenter Ian McMillan has just agreed to collaborate on some spoken word projects where I set his voice and evocative poetry to music. So fingers crossed I get inspiration when that kicks off! And I’ve got an EP and an album of tracks to release which are similar to my debut EP, full on instrumentals with a range of different energies and woven electronic tapestries. Or as Clash Magazine explained – ‘left field electronic jammers’! And there’s an EP of tracks inspired by nature for which the birds are kindly offering lead vocals, from which I am releasing Song Thrush Serenade on 9th April! Never a dull moment!

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Del Osei-Owusu

Del is a songwriter, producer, keyboard player arranger and musical nerd from South London, Del comes from a gospel music background but listens to anything, everything and nothing. Read More

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