The hollow basement style Club Academy venue in Manchester, was brimming with eager and colourful Alex Parks’ devotees, but little did they know that they were in for a neat surprise before that. The ebullient and crafted Sheffield songstress Helen Boulding, who has written songs for tonight’s centre attraction, kindly loaned sometime before her set to shoot the breeze and open up the world of an upcoming artist for all to peer into.
The new year, well 6th February too be precise, sees the release of Helen’s second single ‘I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know What I Need’ that oozes heart-rending self belief. Was this a natural by product of being one of six children?
“Well, that song can be perceived in many ways. I am impassioned about what I am doing and I guess that comes off in the song. Making music is all I ever wanted to do; I was obsessed with it. My parents are very supportive; I come from a colourful Irish/catholic background. We have all been encouraged to do our own thing, as a result we have all gone on to do colourful things. My brother is a soccer player.”
B-side to the next single is a longing and poetic six minute; mind journey entitled ‘Hazel Eyes’. I was intrigued to see if she dabbles much in poetry and does poetry have much of a place in modern music?
“Yeah, I do love poets and think it does have a place in modern music. I think there is a difference between being a performer and an artist. Take Jeff Buckley, for example, you can tell with him that music is a way of life and the same with John Lennon. They are not manufactured in any way, but are just being themselves and telling the story of their lives, that's a true artist for me. For “Hazel Eyes” I actually wrote the melody first and then the lyrics followed. The marriage of the two makes it very achy.”
Your music seems to take on new life in a live setting due to the personal nature of your work. Will the set be different than usual in support of the Fame Academy starlet Alex Parks? Helen’s eyes lit up mere suggestion of her performance;
“Well tonight, it is an acoustic set; a piano, double bass and guitar. It is great playing acoustically because it is so personal. The single features the full band and I enjoy that aspect as well.”
It must be like being in two bands being able to produce contrasting sets?
“Yeah, it is. It makes it more dynamic.”
Every reply was preceded by a warm, sincere and welcoming smile that would make Tony Blair stab every member of his cabinet in the back to get his hands, or rather his face on a smile like that. What was the music scene like in the place she calls home; Sheffield?
“Well, my musical background was influenced heavily by the records my mum and dad used to listen to like The Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell etc.’
The last artist was interesting, as the influence of Joni on Helen is very prevalent in her Housework EP, along with Nick Cave in my humble opinion. It was time to get serious and ask about the state of the music industry with its integrity constantly being called into question. Was this something she noticed and worried about and is hype a big problem?
I think that and artist/performer can't ultimately be massively successful for a long period of time unless the public like them and buy their records, I don't think any amount of push from a record company can trick the public for too long. One of the main things I would say that is seriously lacking in the industry is the development of bands and artists. Labels more often than not go for the quick buck and sign manufactured pop acts instead of developing artists that are quality musically and will last. Plus it's these acts that keep the music business going because they are album selling acts.”
That is a good point well made I thought.
“Yeah, that is why I like artists such as Ron Sexsmith so much, he has never had a push, yet he has been around doing his own thing for so many years. The same with artists like Shawn Colvin/Bonnie Raitt etc they survive because people love their music, which is great and how it should be…..survival based on the brilliance of the artist opposed to hype.”
They say that teachers make the worse students, so in that vein what was the last gig that Helen attended and does she makes mental notes on the artist’s performance?
“I went to see Sheryl Crow in London; my friend played keyboards for her. She is a brilliant singer/songwriter because she is constantly evolving and has an excellent stage presence. She has changed, not as rocky this time around. This is probably because she is in love. But, yeah, you do find yourself comparing other act’s shows and stage presence with your own. It is natural, I guess.”
I wish I kept up with the showbiz gossip more. Who is she in love with?
“What the front man from Rancid?”
“No, the cyclist!”
Helen then went on to tell a story that substantiated my initial view upon meeting her. She comes off as being the sort of person who is a lucky omen, bringing good fortune to whom or whatever they touch;
“Whilst on tour with Glen Tilbrook in Stratford, he had a big American style tour bus that he decided to turn into a night club after the show. ”We had a bit of a party till 3am and then realised that we were locked into the grounds of the venue and couldn't get the car out to drive to the B & B, so i tentatively (in case i woke him up), rang the promoter from the tour itinerary to get him to let us out.”
I could not help breathing a sigh of relief at what I thought was the impending happy ending, as my eyes were beginning to fill up. However, the final denouement was not yet upon us;
“I obtained the details and it took me a while to get through, when I explained the situation he said; yeah that would be fine if it were tomorrow night and you were in Manchester. He was the tour promoter from the next day. I had contacted the wrong guy. Anyway, we phoned the right guy and sorted the situation out, but when we arrived in Manchester and met the new Tour Manager promoter; he came up to me and said I owe you a massive favour. It turns out that he had come home and fell asleep in front of the fire and left it on, my phone call woke him up.”
She made the drinking motion with her hand to further paint the picture;
“His girl friend was upstairs, so it turns out I save his bacon!”
Or, more to the point; saved him from becoming bacon? There was just about time to enquire as to whom or what makes Helen angry, as she appears to have such a friendly and calm disposition?
“I am laid back until some is picked on. I hate bullies.”
Don’t we all?
“I detest people who disrespect others for no reason.”
The latter statement rung particularly true, as Helen proceeded to produce a reflective, personal and subtle acoustic set. The lead was taken by her colourful and crisp piano accompaniment as well as her lush and longing vocals, reaching a peak in the sombre and reflective; ‘This I Swear’ and ‘Housework’. However, the constant cackling from the audience that is a natural corollary of having a bar in close proximity to the stage, perturbed her throughout the set and she became riled enough to verbally castigate gatherers, pleading for some hush and respect.
The livelier and bubbly numbers including forthcoming single; ‘I Don’t Know What I Want, But I know What I Need’ and the thoughtful ‘What A Fool’, meant that more and more people became entangled in the web of catchiness that had been intricately woven. Also, if it is any consolation to the sincere musician, most of the infectious verbal diarrhoea concerned discussions about how compelling and gripping the set was turning out to be?
The crisp and humbling ode about the harshness of modern relationships; ‘Way To Go’ put a lid on a hardworking and soul-searching thirty minutes of music from a growing and insightful performer.