American Helen

Multidisciplinary artist Helen America creates dark beauty for uncertain times with latest project

Helen America (Art: Ron Hart)

Helen America has been an artist, comic strip creator, musician, songwriter and record producer for most of her artistic life.

Nine years ago, she made her first album, In the Palace of Green Porcelain. She recorded it alone in her bedroom, just voice, guitar and a few acoustic instruments. Her delicate vocals had a timeless quality that kept listeners focused on the striking melodies and the rich, literary images of her songs. Her latest opus, Red Sun, took three years to record and features an impressive array of musicians. Countless layers of vocals and instruments give the album’s 11 songs an expansive cinematic scope.

Highlights include: “Thelxiepeia,” a moody, mid tempo celebration of the Siren songs that led sailors to their doom, featuring dark cello textures; “There is No Love,” a rocker driven by polyrhythmic drum patterns and fervid violin fills, and the title track, a sinister lullaby that prefigures ecological disaster with fingerpicked acoustic guitar, cerulean violin tones and a stirring chorus of multi-tracked female vocals. 

She created a 24-page book of drawings that illustrate the underlying themes of the tunes to accompany the record. It’s as impressive as the music. A true original, the Seattle based artist shared the creative process that produced the album in an extensive interview with The Globe.     

 

Why did you choose “Red Sun” as the title track?

I knew a long time ago, maybe even more than ten years ago, that I was going to make a record called Red Sun and that it would reckon with death and fear in a much deeper way than In the Palace of Green Porcelain. So the title of the album, with all its associations, came long before a song finally arose to fit the title. It’s a reference to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, as well as a reference to the actual future: when the sun grows huge and red and swallows the earth and all its other satellites into itself. That image has always resonated with me. It developed another layer of personal meaning when, for the three consecutive summers I was working on the album, the city of Seattle was full of wildfire smoke. Our air quality was the worst in the world and the sun was deep red in the sky. It was a visceral experience of the tenor of our age, the apocalyptic and unprecedented times we’re living in. 

Red Sun by Helen America

The years during which I was recording this album were catastrophic for the world and this country. There was a profound loss of innocence and hope, but you need to accept that something is true before you can act to change it. When I was writing the song “Red Sun,” I was struggling to accept that the world was so much darker, so much bleaker than I had ever known. The lyrics express that hopelessness, but also something beyond it. At a certain point, I read an astronomy article about what scientists think will happen to the sun after the expansion and cooling, after the red sun eats the world. It will collapse into a white dwarf star, which will slowly crystallize into a perfect sphere of pure crystal, a perfect clear jewel. All of us, everything that we’ve ever been and seen and known, all of our bodies and our entire world, will be part of that giant crystal ball. For me, accepting the irrevocable and irreversible end of our planet calmed my fears about what happens in the interim. We don’t have a choice about the true end of the world, but right now, we’re in the middle of the story. Everything that happens, from now until the death of the sun, is an open question. It’s up to us to decide.

 

How does this project differ from The Palace of Green Porcelain?

Green Porcelain was recorded on my laptop in my bedroom, with one microphone – just guitar and voice. In between Porcelain and Red Sun I was in a band for a while, Princess Seismograph. We made this incredible record/art book with the help of Jherek Bischoff and countless friends. That album was the real precursor to Red Sun in terms of scope. Every song was different, with its own sound and instrumentation, and a huge collection of visual art accompanied the record. After that, I couldn’t just go back to guitar and voice.

 

What new experiences did you encounter making this record?

Everything was new. I took a couple of audio production and recording classes in college but, beyond that, I’ve learned by doing. I made two other records, but nothing prepared me for this. Planning the recording process for songs that had more than twenty different instrument tracks, finding the ideal microphone placement for a particular instrument, writing parts for musicians who preferred written parts and directing the improvisation of musicians who didn’t. I was recording engineer, producer, director, composer, visual artist, graphic designer, human resources department, and then I had to play the guitar and sing! I did the layout for the booklet in between doing shows in Berlin and had to learn the intricacies of pornography censorship in China. I couldn’t afford to get it printed in the U.S. or Canada, so I had to make sure that the Chinese print shop I worked with could print it without being arrested.

 

The album has an atmospheric sound, with the instruments blending together to create an otherworldly ambience. Was this done during the recording or mixing? 

The size of the sound and the depth of the textures was always part of my thinking about the record. I wanted each song to be its own world, to have its own space and feel, but also somehow make sense with the others, a textured and complex, but coherent whole. Achieving that was quite a feat, considering that three different sound engineers did the recordings in five different locations. One thing I realized early in the process was, that if I tried to do both the recording and the final mixing myself, I would go absolutely mad. I was hypersensitive to every slight edit, every cut, every imperfection, with imaginary flaws peppered over all of it. After I edited it all together with some basic preliminary mixing, I handed it over to Moe Provencher for the final mixing, and she did an amazing job of blending the sounds. Then Steve Turnidge did the final mastering and that really gave it clarity and wholeness. I didn’t even know the difference between editing, mixing, and mastering before this project, but having two extra sets of ears and minds there to polish up what I had made was a huge benefit.

Helen America comic art

You have a unique, larger than life sound. How did you arrive at it? 

I think my sound is a conglomeration of a lifetime of drowning myself in music, using music to feel and to connect with the world, and just listening to sounds – the sound of rain on a roof, the sound of rain on grass, or in a forest, the way voices crack and change with emotion. I use a musical language that draws on sound art. The notes are important, but so is the timbre, the echo, the space around everything. I have a very hard time nailing down what “genre” I am. I think I’ve absorbed influences from Stravinsky to X-Ray Spex. I don’t want any two songs to sound the same.

I’ve always been attracted to singers with unique vocal inflections. The human voice is the most expressive instrument there is and I don’t understand the desire to smooth it out, to use it monotonously. I’ve had minimal classical training as a singer and a lot of training and background in theater, so I suppose my singing is more theatrical. I am crazy about experimental singing, the fringes of vocal sound. 

 

What did the other musicians contribute to the sound and arrangements? 

A lot. Christy Mooers and Mitchell Wayne Hysjulien are incredible musicians, whose contributions to Red Sun are vast and unfathomable. Calling them my “band” feels ridiculously inadequate. Christy played bass and violin and Mitch played all the percussion, plus some piano, some toy piano, some hammered dulcimer, maybe other instruments that I’m forgetting. Basically I would bring the songs to Mitch and Christy and play them, then we’d talk about where we could go with the arrangements and the orchestration. For me, it was a process of learning the vocabulary around instruments that aren’t mine, learning to describe what I wanted the drums to sound like, what I wanted the bass to sound like. They were very good at interpreting what I said, and translating it into actual music. I remember, at one point, I told Mitch to play the toy piano like a wizened prophet mouse living alone in a clock and mechanically hitting the chimes, and he did it. I think I went a little mad with power on this record, having a really good violin player. The violin is such a pure, hypnotic instrument, there’s something about the violin that gives it a direct line to the heart. I wanted to use that direct line to put something painful in there, to wield the violin as a weapon. Christy was able to engage that sharp-edged violin rage, and then turn around and play soaring, sweet melodies with the same instrument. For one song, “There Is No Love,” I wanted a very specific feel to the violin, a klezmer sound – so I asked Mai Li Pittard, who is a bona-fide Klezmer violinist, to play on that one. Stefanie Brendler plays her French horn on one track, and Scott Adams plays accordion on another track. My dear friends Nina and Becky came to visit for a week and ended up being immortalized in the background vocals on the title track. I even got my dad to dig his bagpipes out of storage and play on the record. It was really a huge collaboration with lots of musicians from different parts of my life. It was such an incredible gift to work with all these talented people who were so enthusiastic about being part of it.

More Helen America comic art

What’s a live show like for you? 

A live show can be like anything. There’s a certain wonderful flexibility that comes from the fact that I wrote all these songs alone with my guitar. On the album, some of them have thirty layers of sound. It means I can do a live show with just my guitar, or with a five-piece band, or with guitar and percussion. I’m interested in doing more with the live show than recreating the sound of the album. All the live show I’ve done with these songs has been different from all the others. There’s a different feeling of intimacy with the crowd each time, a different way the energy moves in the room.

 

Tell us about the book you created to compliment the album. 

For me there are always more dimensions to the songs than I can put in the songs themselves, more images, more context. I never make music that doesn’t have a visual aspect to it, some images and colors. The series of pieces that make up the book – the monster embroideries – started out with a commissioned piece I made for a friend’s puppet theater troupe, silkies dancing in the sea, some of them human and some of them seals. I was totally enamored by the images of these wild, monstrous female creatures. The next one I did was the Blengin, a creature from Henry Darger’s mythology and then the harpies on the album cover. All the pieces are monsters from different cultural folklores, and exclusively women – except for the centaurs. I wanted to try feminizing a mythological symbol of male virility. I was working on making these pieces during the process of recording the album, to combat the idea of a white male supremacist taking over the American government. These were the monsters that I needed to envision, to protect my ability to grow and create, to experience the rage and agony of this moment in history, this regressive and violent moment of masculine entitlement. I needed to envision a feminine rage that was as dangerous, and as powerful – but also an existence free of the necessity of that rage. So all the monsters are free. They exist independently of and undefined by male fear. I’ve come to understand that the overwhelming maleness of art history has less to do with women being denied access to the privilege required to make art, and more to do with men flat out erasing women, stealing their work and claiming to have come up with it. There were women at the fulcrum of every artistic movement, but you’ve never heard of them because of the choices made, by men, not to preserve their voices or acknowledge their work. Even before Hilma af Klint did the first abstract painting, women had been working in abstraction through textile design, quilting, and other utilitarian art forms for centuries. There’s an endless stream of injustice for these monsters to avenge if they feel like it, but at the moment they’re just enjoying themselves. Perhaps that too, is revolutionary.

 

AUDIO: Helen America Red Sun (full album)

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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