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Interview: Helen Boulding

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Helen Boulding might be a genius. Just ask her. She’ll tell you about how, at age 17, she landed a recording contract with a major music label. How she left her native Sheffield to become a professional songwriter in London, producing Top 5 hits for artists like 911 and Alex Parks. If you value your dignity, don’t even think about matching wits with her on English indie-rock trivia. 

Helen Boulding But the most genius-like quality about Boulding, 34, has nothing to do with hit singles or million pound contracts. For 15 years, she has dedicated herself to crafting deeply personal songs that fuse a raw pop sensibility with influences as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Bat for Lashes – and made a steady living in the process. Still based in London, TNS sat down with Helen to discuss influences, the industry and balancing music and motherhood.

It’s been a couple of months since your last album, Calling All Angels. What has the response been so far?

Press-wise it’s been really great. We’ve been getting solid reviews and Graham Norton gave my single it some airplay on Radio 2, which was good.

I’d like to get back to the start of your career. Tell us about some of your earliest musical influences.

I’m influenced by great song writing as much as good records. Growing up, I listened to contemporary pop but was also into the music my parents listened to – dusty records in the attic by Hendrix, the Beatles, country and western, even a bit of Abba. The sorts of things people in my age group weren’t listening to.

When you were first given a record contract as a teenager, was it strange having other artists sing your songs?

I quite liked it actually. As an artist, you are restricted because you can’t really do a ballad, a pop song and then suddenly do a hip hop song on one record, you know? Writing for other artists enables you to show all the other sides to your personality – it’s like putting on a costume and acting. I love it.

Two of the artists you wrote songs for unfortunately burned out fairly soon into their careers. Boyband 911 split in February 2000 and now occasionally perform on the university nightclub circuit, and Fame Academy winner Alex Parks’ second album flopped and she later parted ways with her label. As someone active in the industry as an indie artist, what’s your take on the way bigger labels develop and promote talent? Is it a bust?

I think bigger labels are out of touch, honestly. At least the artists you mentioned had their records put out – there have been artists I’ve worked with whose albums have barely seen the light of day thanks to major labels. As an indie musician you do your own artwork, produce your album, decide your own direction, and write the songs – and the finished product has you all over it. It either works or it doesn’t. Major labels will bring in the same stylist they use for other acts, the same producers that they like to use, the same jobbing songwriters – and they get so caught up with manufacturing artists that the product loses authenticity.

Is artists and repertoire to blame?

The thing to remember is a lot of A&R men aren’t from a musician background – they’re the people who maybe wanted to be in a band but weren’t good enough. But, on the other hand, they have this massive influence over the industry, like referees in football. I find it quite damaging as some of the best music never gets released because they don’t know their arse from their elbow when it comes to great song writing.

Some argue that online and social media are more effective tools of self promotion today and A&R is obsolete. Is the industry is better off for it?

Yes and no. On one hand, there’s an outlet for bands to reach their audience directly, without any middlemen. But the preoccupation with digital and social media is really hitting the CD and vinyl industry hard. I used to remember getting excited and going out and buying a new record. Unfortunately, that’s all disappearing now.

In 2008, you recorded your debut solo album New Red Dress. Did it feel unusual to be recording your first proper CD after ten years in the industry?

I’d actually started recording the album back in 2002 with a different producer, but something about the finished product didn’t feel right. Even though I wanted desperately to record new tracks, I knew I wanted to get this album out in the way that I originally saw it.

You’ve blogged about balancing your music career with being a mum to 1-year old son Jack. Has motherhood inspired you as an artist?

It makes you very determined in your approach. You can’t really afford to go out partying and spend the evening watching shit TV. Being a parent makes you focus on what is important. Knowing that you love someone so much – even more than yourself – gives you so much purpose and inspiration. It takes you to another level and I think my music is better for it.

Do have any regrets about not going to university?

Well, I did apply and had a place sorted – but I decided to take a year out to pursue music. After I got my first royalties as a song writer I faced a really tough decision: do I go to uni and try to balance work and music, or do I just go for it? Initially, I hoped I could blag it and go to Fresher’s Week and then make my decision, but eventually I convinced myself to stick with my music career. Being away from my close friends for three years was sad, but a publishing deal with one of the biggest music companies in the world was too big an opportunity to miss.

Any message for the fans?

I’ve got a new single out next year, firstly. And I also have found out that parts of the album are being featured in a six-part BBC series in March/April, as well as some tracks in Waterloo Road in January – exciting stuff! 

 

Find Helen’s latest album Calling All Angels here.

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