Music

Canadian Songwriter Helena Deland On The Friendships That Inspire Her Meditative Synth-Pop

Jodi Heartz & Alex Blouin

Even though Montreal-based singer/songwriter Helena Deland is in the middle of rolling out the third and fourth volumes of her series titled Altogether Unaccompanied, it’s not a complete lack of companionship that she’s mourning. Listen to any of her music and you’ll actually be wrapped up in tender recollections of the memories she’s shared with her dearest friends. And Deland is such a charming storyteller that those reflections will inevitably become as familiar as your own — as she sings of love in both its purest and most convoluted forms, you’ll begin to reckon with the times you’ve felt all those feelings, too.

Perhaps, then, the collection’s name has more to do with society’s all-too-common tendency to pin a sense/sort of incompleteness to people that are without a significant other. Deland isn’t necessarily battling any sort of pervasive loneliness in these songs; in fact, she’s incredibly assured in the durability of her friendships.

“I always feel very emotionally satisfied when I write a song about a friendship because I feel like that’s really what I want to give a legacy to in my own life, rather than a breakup or a person I’m into,” Deland said, when I spoke to her on the phone before she was set to play a live session for the CBC. “It’s so beautiful and it can be constant. It’s enough. Thinking about my friendships makes me feel very much like I’ve already achieved a lot, and I’m safe.”

Take “Claudion,” for instance, the synth-pop opening track on Volume IV. “All I remember is trying to get here safe / And your face that I know says / Night falls and day breaks / I was only thinking ‘bout trying it out,” she sings in dream-like stacked harmonies. It’s an affectionate homage to her cousin Claudia.

“She’s someone I grew up with and probably one of my closest people. We took acid for the first time together,” Deland said, laughing. “It was an evening during Christmas, so Montreal was kind of empty, and we just went out walking and we didn’t know what to expect. We spent half the night in complete marvel and the other half in complete panic because we were both working the next day. It was terrible, but it felt therapeutic. In all the chaos of that night, just seeing her face was the most reassuring thing.”

Deland is fully aware of the paradox between the album’s sentiment and its name. Even though we can boldly make statements like, “My friends are my soulmates!” — which we both heartily agreed about in our conversation — there’s still a part of us that lives in the longing (and the feeling of a lack that comes inextricably tethered to it).

“[The title] taps into the terrible little moments where that feeling of confidence in your friends and surroundings comes to falter,” she explained. “It has to do most with romantic relationships and being disappointed by expecting that same kind of closeness from romantic relationships that is not really obtainable.”

That disconnect isn’t lost on From The Series Of Songs ‘Altogether Unaccompanied’ Vol. III & IV, which drops this week. In songs like “Rise,” she liltingly pens an ode to a lover who’s far away, both in physical distance and emotional availability. Deland has the cognitive understanding that the lack of one specific kind of love doesn’t define her ability to be loved entirely, but it still holds the power to diminish her to a pining, almost pitiful state. “Tender, tender, love me tenderly / I want to read your mind,” she sings. “Rigor, vigor, come and shatter me / Until I become skeptical of all the things I like.”

Read a condensed, edited version of my conversation with Helena below.

Maya Fuhr

Were you born and raised in Canada? Do you think living there specifically has affected the way you see the world or create art?

I was born here. My family and I moved around a little between my birth and age five, but I spent most of my childhood in Quebec City, which is two hours away from Montreal. Culturally and with the political situation in Canada, I think it shaped me. I’m from a relatively privileged background, and I’m bilingual in a bilingual province. Canada is such a safe place to be. I think it’s affected my art, for better and for worse. Mostly for better, because I have super supportive parents. I definitely come from a relatively musical background and a family who really cherishes music. My dad is a musician and got me into it.

What influences you to write the lyrics in your songs, both in the upcoming volumes as well as the past ones? What range of your life do those lyrics span, and what have they been birthed out of?

That’s a really nice way to put it. Mostly, the thing that’s constant is definitely from a very emotional, relational, interpersonal world. I usually feel most drawn to write about not a really precise situation, but just a moment in a relationship. Maybe friendship or romantic relationship — that’s what inspires me most. I try to just conceptualize a song by drawing inspiration from other music or books or maybe a sentence from a novel or from another song. That will usually structure how I will write the song.

Do you have any specific musical and literary influences?

Well, it changes a lot. It changes all the time. I don’t have anything that’s kind of a go-to. But it’s really kind of everything. There are good ideas in every work of art. Whenever I listen to new music for a couple of hours or try to read and have in my mind own practice it usually really helps.

Circling back to the topic of relationships inspiring your lyrics, you have a lot of songs that are about friendship and camaraderie. Would you be able to discuss how your friendships have affected you as a person as well?

Oh my god. They’re definitely the thing I cherish most, and I feel like this feeling has grown with getting older and more mature. It’s like nothing has shaped who I am more than those friendships. I always feel very emotionally satisfied when I write a song about a friendship because I feel like that’s really what I want to give a legacy to in my own life, rather than a breakup or meeting a person I’m into. It just feels so pure to write about friendship because you’re not putting words on anything that hasn’t actually been said in the relationship. I’ve come to recently think, too, that it’s enough. It’s so beautiful and it can be constant. It’s enough.

What do you mean by “enough?”

Kind of in regards to the constant quest to find ourselves in better situations or in more situations that feel more in line with what is expected from us. Thinking about my friendships makes me feel very much like I’ve already achieved a lot, and I’m safe. I don’t want to get all Beatle-y, but as long as your friends are there, it will be fine. It’s like, drawing satisfaction from those relationships and cherishing them for what they’re really worth.

I’m curious about the name Altogether Unaccompanied. Does that have anything to do with those friendships?

Well, it does, but it’s also paradoxical after saying what we’ve just said. It kind of taps into the terrible little moments where that feeling of confidence in your friends and surroundings comes to falter. It has to do most with romantic relationships and being disappointed by expecting that same kind of closeness from romantic relationships that’s not really obtainable. It emphasizes how hard it is to actually let go and be accompanied.

I’m really interested in the song “Rise,” because there are some really piercing lyrics that I feel very personally. I’m not sure where they came from when you were writing them, so I’m curious.

I’m glad they reached you. It’s literally about a long-distance relationship with someone who was or is very stoic and very sensitive but also reserved. It’s about just wanting to please this person and be with this person and be close, but not knowing how to and not knowing what they’re actually doing. That adds distance, and “Rise” is about feeling like the emotional distance was caused by a trauma for the other person who didn’t want to and couldn’t open up.

The decision to release the album in spurts instead of compiling the songs into one large album — where did that come from?

It came after I had finished recording it, actually. I really had gone into it wanting to make a full-length album. Listening to it, I was thinking of the pacing, and I just didn’t feel like there was anything that substantially linked the different songs to justify it being an album. When I let go of the idea of making it an album, I felt really relieved. They were written at different times, and I feel like releasing a full-length album today is such a big deal, because you really need to work up to it because there are so many ways of releasing music now. So I decided to hold off, and I’m glad I did because I’m working on a full length now in a much more aware way.

You’re heading on a European tour this fall. How are you feeling?

We went to the UK exclusively last May, and it was the most fun we’ve had. We haven’t been touring much yet, so saying that it’s the most fun we’ve had means the most fun we’ve had out of two tours. We’re very, very excited to do this because I haven’t played outside of France or the UK, and this is like a full-on tour with only two days off. It’s super fun and [the band] gets along like a charm. I’m really lucky we’re very in sync on how we want to tour.

From The Series Of Songs ‘Altogether Unaccompanied’ Vol. III & IV is out on Oct. 19 via Luminelle Recordings. You can pre-order the album here. Find tour dates below.

10/17 –- Fredericton, NB @ Capital Complex
10/18 –- Halifax Pop Explosion, NS @ Seahorse Tavern
10/20 –- Bristol, UK @ Simple Things
10/22 –- Glasgow, UK @ Poetry Club
10/23 –- Manchester, UK @ The Castle
10/24 –- London, UK @ Sebright Arms
10/25 –- Eindhoven, NL @ [DDW] Wilhelmina
10/26 –- Amsterdam, NL @ London Calling, Paradiso
10/28 –- Berlin, DE @ Maze
10/29 –- Cologne, DE @ Acephale
10/31 –- Paris, FR @ Pitchfork Avant Garde Festival
11/16 –- Montréal, QC @ Théâtre Fairmount
11/17 –- Laval, QC @ Annexe 3
11/23 –- Trois-Rivières, QC @ Église St. James
11/24 –- Quebec, QC @ La Meduse
11/29 -– Toronto, ON @ Monarch Tavern
12/01 –- Chicago, IL @ Schubas Tavern
12/02 –- Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Tavern
12/04 –- Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Café
12/05 –- Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
12/06 –- Washington, DC @ DC9
12/07 –- Brooklyn, NY @ Elsewhere (Zone One)
12/13 –– San Francisco, CA @ Swedish American Hall *
12/15 –– Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo *

* co-headline with Buzzy Lee

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