Armed with a new producer and better understanding of the entire recording process, Helen Perris has recently released her amazing second EP Oneiro. In between launch gigs, Helen sat down to discuss life as a musician and mother, how without crowdfunding platforms such as Pozible, and the faith of her fans there would be no EP, and that originally her plan was to be an actor.
Your second EP is out now, and I’ve been really enjoying it. While I did like Flesh, I found Oneiro to sound better in terms of production, did you work with different people, or was it just a case of learning and growing?
Yes to both! I worked with Josh Schuberth this time, who is an absolute genius, and we had a very different relationship to the one I had with the producer on Flesh, partly because we worked with each other over the course of several months, rather than just a week. So we got to know each other very well. I know that this time as well, I was more able to articulate what sound I was looking for, and Josh was very clever at working out exactly what was needed to make it come to life. I understood a lot more about the process than last time. I went into Flesh not really having any idea of what a producer did, and just wanted to bang it out as quickly as possible. With Oneiro, I wanted to give the whole process more time, so I spent about twice as much time in the studio, with fewer tracks, over a much longer period. The whole process allowed me to settle more comfortably into the record and gave us more time to experiment with ideas, and more space to come up with the ideas in the first place.
You were able to record strings on this album, and you personally played some violin. What was it like picking up the violin again after not playing it for so long? Whose idea was it to add strings to the arrangement?
Oh it was quite nerve wracking, actually! I picked the violin up a couple of times in the days leading up to when I was booked in to record the part, and while I was quite fast to remember how to play, my technique and pitch were a bit rusty, so it took a bit of practice to get it to a level that I was happy with being recorded. Luckily in the studio you can do as many takes as you need, and I think Josh may have had to take the best bits from several different takes. So in the end, it actually sounds amazing and I can’t believe I was able to do it after so long. I had barely played since I was pregnant with my first child, and he’s now seven. I remember I played the Bach double violin concerto with another violinist when I was pregnant in 2005. After that performance, I stopped practising, because I just couldn’t find the time to keep up three instruments.
I don’t remember who had the idea to add strings. I probably brought it up initially, then poo-pooed it because of the cost. Josh created a string part that he’d arranged, using sampled string sounds and then sent it to me. It sounded so good, but I knew we needed to record actual live instruments to get the sound of Damaged to work with the rest of the songs. So I bit the bullet, we hired a cellist, booked an extra half day, and she layered all of the parts, except the highest one, which I recorded a bit later.
You used Pozible again to fund this EP. Do you think you could have achieved what you have with these two EPs without crowdfunding?
No. Never. I just don’t have that kind of capital. As it is, Oneiro went over budget and so it’s a bit of a struggle – my credit card is maxed out. If I didn’t have the extra funds from the Pozible campaign, I wouldn’t have been able to do any manufacturing, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the cellist and the extra time to record her, I would have had to strip everything right back. There’s no way Oneiro would look and sound like it does today without crowdfunding. The supporters have been absolutely brilliant. It is so humbling to know that someone has so much faith in you that they’re willing to pre-purchase a CD without having heard a single. I’ve been sending out the physical rewards this past week, and it’s absolutely floored me that all of these people believed in me. I hope they all think it was worthwhile!
I spoke to Kim Boekbinder earlier this year and she said that while crowdfunding is a great way to fund an album, but can be exhausting as time is spent on running campaigns and fulfilling perks, instead of being focused purely on the art if a label were involved. Slowly becoming a crowdfunding veteran, how do you feel about the process?
Well, I don’t know any different, I guess. It is a mammoth project, and unlike Kim, I’ve had to still work my day jobs (teaching others how to do what I do, and performing for kids) and be the primary caregiver to two children, including a breastfeeding baby, while managing the project. I guess if I had a label, I’d not need to work and I could afford a nanny. But I kind of like it this way. I like being busy. I need to be busy or I get too contemplative and that isn’t necessarily a good thing for me. I guess the only thing is that the actual writing of songs has been very much put aside this year, so I’m going to have to shift my focus next year in order to get enough material ready for my next venture.
Speaking of Kim Boekbinder (aka The Impossible Girl), you’ve shared the stage with both her and Amanda Palmer. What’s it like to have the opportunity to play alongside them?
Kind of surreal. I mean, Kim and Amanda are both lovely and very approachable, but I feel like I’m having an out of body experience at the time. And no matter how much they tell me they liked what I did or thank me for playing, I still feel like a pretender, a charlatan… like, at any moment, everyone will discover that I’m just an awkward hack of a musician. So yes, it’s an incredible honour, but it makes me incredibly uncomfortable at the same time. I’m weird.
Not weird, probably just an over-thinker. I can relate, I would probably feel the same. You were, and still are, a children’s entertainer, when did you decide to move into solo songwriting/performing?
I’ve actually written music most of my life. My first actual piano compositions, where I wrote the music down, was when I was seven. I wrote my first pop song at eleven. I still remember it. It was dreadful. I decided to take the singer-songwriter thing seriously because of two things that happened. Firstly, my acting career was going nowhere. Yes, I do the children’s entertainment and I absolutely love it, but I was trying to get into TV and film, and had quite a few national commercials under my belt. I was really tired of the amount of rejection in the industry. And I’m not very clever with scriptwriting, so I couldn’t just create my own work like a lot of actors do. At the same time, I met Amanda and Kim, and by serendipity was booked to open for Kim, based on the song I had sung for Amanda. At that gig, people were asking me where they could get my CD. That’s when I decided I probably should switch my focus from acting to singing and songwriting.
What is the best moment of your career to date?
When I first heard the mastered tracks of Oneiro. Honestly, the external validation is amazing, and I nearly said it was the time Amanda Palmer told me my song was beautiful, but nothing can top listening to your own work and being completely happy with it. It’s the best feeling.
I know you only just released your second EP, but is there a full-length album in the works?
I want to make one. I would love my next record to be full length. However, it’s going to take time to get the material up to scratch, and have enough of it, as well as a shed-load more money. I will need to expand my audience more to make it feasible. I’d be looking to crowdfund again, but it’d be a significantly larger sum of money I’d have as my goal. That takes more supporters. More fervent supporters! I’m very pragmatic when it comes to these things. I could have just said yes, but I know enough about what I’m doing now to know that it’s not the time just yet. But hopefully soon. Let’s sell this one first.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Share? Oh I usually over-share. Too much banter at gigs, too much tweeting about inane stuff. I’ve probably gabbed on way longer than you expected here. Ummmm… I would just like to add that I’m extremely proud of this record. And I know it’s cliché, but I am. I really am. And I want everyone to hear it.