Formed out of the ashes of late 90’s indie group the Barefoot Contessa in 2002, Helena are an atmospheric North London band with a brooding and sublime sound.They have just released on new label Series 8 their second album ‘Routines’.

The group, which at that stage consisted of songwriters Helene Dineen (vocals) and Graham Gargiulo (guitars, vocals) ; Ian Carter (guitars) ; Annemarie Newman (bass) and James Corner (drums), recorded ‘Routines’, the follow-up to their 2003 album ‘Postcards’, with former Cocteau Twin bassist, Simon Raymonde, last year. Both Ian Carter and Annemarie Newman have left Helene since the recording of ‘Routines’ and been replaced by Will Foster (guitar) and Caroline (bass).

‘Routines’ is a sensual and evocative experience. Dreamy and understated in its production, it draws closest comparison with Mazzy Star and the latter Velvet Underground, but also has elements of 60’s folk, Francoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg-inspired French pop, bubblegum rock, torch song balladry and also occasionally the country blues under which the Barefoot Contessa frequently found themselves bracketed. Dineen’s vocals are sultry and crystalline, and tell of heartbreak, betrayal from friends and her battle against mental illness and depression.

Pennyblackmusic spoke to her about ‘Routines’.

PB : You met with some success on the indie circuit with the Barefoot Contessa with whom you recorded four albums between 1995 and 2001.Yet, although Helene is a band rather than a solo project, and features both Graham and James who were also in the Barefoot Contessa, you decided to change the name of the group. Why did you decide to do that ?

HD : The name change....well partly, that's just something that seems to be done in the British music industry, isn't it? I think we did quite well to last six years with the same name - Most bands only last six months ( exactly the amount of time it seems to take for British A & R peoples' curiosities to pique and wane!). If you look at most of the bands around, most of them have a few incarnations before they either achieve mainstream success or just fizzle out. This is something we feel quite passionate about. This dichotomy between the British attitude verses the US/European attitude - which seems to be much more into nurturing and rewarding talent rather than novelty.

Having said that, there was a shift in the musical direction at that time. It seemed right to acknowledge it and start afresh.

PB : For those who haven't heard Barefoot Contessa-most of those records have been deleted now-what do you see as the difference between the two bands ? How do you see yourself as having moved on ?

HD : The main difference would probably be that we dragged ourselves out of the genre ghetto we were sort of made to live in for a while (the whole country-blues thing)...I mean the stuff I listen to most is dronerock, early soul, 60's French stuff, a lot of avant-jazz instrumental stuff ranging from Tortoise back to Marcus Belgrave.....so while I do love a lot of country music, and blues, and folk, I sort of resent being forced for the rest of my life to represent those genres because a couple of reviews said that's what we were!

A band I take inspiration from as far as all that's concerned would be, say, Wilco, who I really admire for refusing to get stuck within the alt.country thing, and to just rise above expectations and produce the sheer range of music they've done. They do exactly what they want to do and you can hear that on each album and I love that.

PB : Simon Raymonde was originally going to produce ‘Routines’, and then had to drop out when the Cocteau Twins looked about to reform, but then came on board again when that reunion fell through. What do you think he brought to the album ?

HD : Simon brought so much to it all. We share a very similar outlook on things, so that shared sensibility just helped to ease the process along more smoothly - it's really hard working with producers who are used to working with completely different types of music because often they just don't "get it" and that can produce an awkward atmosphere, and awkward results. Simon instinctively knew what worked and what didn't for us and I think it helped that he has that background of being a musician and writer himself, not working just purely in production.

Having said that, there were three very distinct, strong personalities in the studio - I did start smoking again during that time! There were some battles of wills but luckily I think all three of us , myself, Graham and Simon, are people who thrive on that rather than wilt! All in all, I would jump at the chance of working with Simon again.

PB : Simon has described you as “the best lyricist in our green and pleasant land.” Do you have to work really hard at your lyrics and do you tend to write many drafts of them or is that something that comes to you naturally ?

HD : Once I'm in that zone, and it can take months/years to get into one, it just comes completely naturally. I feel almost ashamed to say I really don't work at it at all. That Tin Pan Alley approach just isn't in my nature. I'm a big believer in living life. Experience is what gives you inspiration. Living in studios, forcing yourself to write...that's when you get those bands that just write about what it's like to be in a band, touring, groupies, the industry - I can't stand it when bands do that. It's such a cliche! How do people relate to that? If you are going to gaze at your navel, make sure you come up with something that will actually touch people, affect them even if they can't 100% identify with it.

PB : You and Graham are the songwriters in the band. How do you write together ? Do you each have assigned roles or does it vary from song to song ? How do the rest of the band fit in around that ?

HD : It varies. He'll come up with a bunch of recordings and I'll work out melodies over the top or I'll rustle up a tune on the guitar and we'll try to work something out....sometimes the whole band will just improvise in rehearsal and we'll get a really amazing song out of it. For that approach to work well you have to have really good, intuitive musicians, which we are really lucky to have. Graham and I have joint credit on every song even if one of us had nothing to do with the actual writing, just because we know that the other will bring something else to it which will only make it better!

PB : You’re blunt and open on 'Routines' about your fight against depression and mental illness. It comes across though as a very positive record. Songs such as ‘Firstlastforever', the title track, ‘I Need a Girl’ and ‘O Tina’ all seem to suggest that, while you can sometimes if you are lucky get support from other people, the only person that who is going to get you through it and make things better in that kind of situation is yourself. Do you see that as the album’s principle theme ?

HD : I honestly never really saw it like that! I love it when you get another perspective on something you created. That's what I hope good songwriting does....'Firstlastforever' was written in 2001 as a sort self-rebuke/celebration, regarding my own commitment phobia - as that's something I've got over now, I thought it would be funny to have it as the first track on the album! A sort of diving off point...

'I Need a Girl' is mainly Graham's song and 'O Tina' is about a very specific person and instance, so it's difficult to.....I sort of understand what you mean. I'm just not sure, purely from a personal point of view, if it's true, but if that what you take from the album then that's cool.

PB : In the time since you recorded 'Routines' both Ian and Annemarie who played on that record have gone, and been replaced by two new members, Will and Caroline. Who are they ?

HD : Caroline was a friend of a friend. She'd been in a couple other bands before but was keen to try something different....She's classically trained so it's great. She can tell us all instantly what key we're playing in! She's such a great person. She's really funny and no-nonsense, and it feels like we've known her for ages. She just fits really well.

Will is actually the keyboard player from the Tears (Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson from Suede's band)....He came along through Bernard's recommendation (hardly a bad thing!) We needed someone extra special to fill Ian's shoes, because Ian was just so great (He's been signed to XL. He's the boffin behind Various, a sort of more avant garde Chemical Brothers thing....it's like going from being Son House to Aphex Twin!) and Will fancied playing guitar, just because he can....he's unbelievably talented, an amazing human being. We've been incredibly lucky.

PB : Your influences are literary and cinematic as well as musical. You include authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Fowles and Frank Kafka, and film directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson amongst them. How do you seem them as influencing your music ?

HD : I suppose film and literature occupy almost as much of my time as music does. I've always had a cinematic sensibility, even from childhood....I live very cinematically in my head! Cinema is the medium which is closest to the dream experience, I think, and it also incorporates all the other art forms, writing, music, drama, art, within one.....I just love the more transcendant combinations of all those elements - I'm thinking films like 'The Night of the Hunter', 'Bande a Part', 'Tokyo Story', even something as mainstream as 'The Sound of Music' (which, if you don't like, you haven't got a pulse!).....It's difficult to put into words. Again, it's a sensibility thing. I like to be moved by stuff. I like to be yanked out of my own narrow experience and shown something extraordinary, something tragic or life-affirming. All these different forms, all good art, should make you feel something, transport you to another world or make you feel your own experience more acutely.

PB : What will you be doing to promote 'Routines' ? Are you going to be touring or playing one-off gigs ?

HD : One-off gigs for now. I experienced the tour thing for the first time a couple of years ago and I didn't take to it very well. I find it incredibly stressful to be in other people's company for that kind of stretch of time....I like to be able to do my own thing. That's very hard when you're on tour. We do have a few dates lined up in various parts of the UK....just not all in a row! I do love playing live, it's a total joy to sing a bunch of songs unfettered, uninterrupted. I get a real buzz from it even though I may appear to be a bit shy sometimes !

PB : Thank you.
















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