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Ottawa, meet Scott Helman

By Chrissy Steinbock on February 11, 2015

Scott Helman is on the cusp, armed with a left-of-centre poppy sonic identity and just enough songs to leave his hometown, brimming with an expansive energy of what’s yet to come. The Toronto native caught the attention of labels exces at Warner Music Canada while still a teenager and since releasing his debut EP, Augusta last fall, has been steadily building a following, helped along by the radio play of the ever –so-catchy “Bungalow.”

Helman has two shows coming up at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival this Saturday. Early in the evening Scott will hit the stage for a full-band set before joining fellow Canadian singer-songwriters, (Martha Wainwright among them) in a Leonard Cohen tribute concert.

With his knack for hooks and big choruses he might soon outgrow intimate shows like Saturday’s. But for now it’s smaller shows like those at Dominion Chalmers this weekend where Helman shines, sharing his songs like conversations with the audience. While most people who have heard him are familiar with “Bungalow,” when asked which song he likes playing the best, he names “Machine.”

“People have told me that that song’s helped them through some stuff and you can see it affects them in a way that’s more powerful than the other songs. And that’s hands-down the ‘god reason’ I make music, that just one person might say this helped me through a really hard time. That feeling is what I carry with me when I’m writing. ‘Cause I know that there were songs that I’ve listened to that have helped me through a hard time and the fact that I can give that back is such a gift for me.”

So while some people sell new artists with the line, “you’ll be able to say you saw them when” if you come out to hear Helman you’ll get more than that. Helman’s soulful vocals and quirky lyrics are a conduit for sweet love songs that his band brings into full danceable technicolor.

Although cautious about describing his sound – “it sounds like me” he offers – Helman happily opens up about his favourite music and often you can tell something about an artist from the stuff they love. At the moment Scott is listening to Sun Kil Moon, Arcade Fire and Childish Gambino though his long time favourites The Cure and Joy Division help get him through the cold winter.  His favourite song of all time is a tie between Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” and Pink Floyd’s “Time.”

When asked who he considers his musical peers as far as musical vision he mentions Ed Sheeran, Jake Bugg and Hozier, musicians making accessible music while staying true as artists. Intrigued by his powerful voice and super catchy songs I got in touch with Helman to talk about song writing, artistry and being Peter Pan.

Below is an edited excerpt of that interview.

Photo courtesy of Warner Music.

Photo courtesy of Warner Music.

My favourite song from the EP is “Tikka.” It’s pretty amusing to hear Tikka Masala as a song lyric and it’s also great in the way it captures that feeling of shameless optimism we get when we’re young. Where did that song come from?

It’s really funny actually. We had the chorus of that song finished and I was working with Simon Wilcox and Tawgs [Salter] was working with us and Ron Lopata. The chorus had been written and we were working on this verse. I didn’t love the verse. It was cool but I wasn’t in love and I was still trying to brainstorm what I wanted to do. So I went outside for a cigarette and I’m sitting with Simon and I was trying to envision the walk (the song follows a guy on the way to a crush’s house). I’m envisioning it in my head so I started saying out loud to her, ‘ok, I’m walking to her house and it’s kind of cold but I don’t mind because I just had a beer and this dude almost hits me with a car’ and I’m sort of narrating that whole thing and then I’m done. She looks at me, hands me a napkin and a pen and goes ‘Write what you just said down, word for word.’ So I wrote it down and we went back in the studio and we kept writing. The verse just wasn’t working out so Simon just hands me the mic and she’s like just sing what’s on the napkin and I said ‘don’t you want me to fix it up?’ and she said ‘no, I just want you to sing what’s on the napkin.’ We did that it just ended up being the verse for ‘Tikka.’

How was the transition into life as a full time musician?

I considered myself a musician before I had any label recognition. You have to find a line where you understand it is your job but you also have to maintain your art and you have to still be like a kid. I really try to keep what I had because I really liked what I had as a kid and I don’t think it should change because I’m making money from it. I just try to be Peter Pan.

You’ve already had some great success as an artist, getting the support of a major label and playing Massey Hall. How do you put it all into perspective?

I think just keeping good people around you as much as you can and being a good person and helping other people and being loving and caring and all that nice stuff is the answer.

Who are some of your major influences?

People like Damien Rice and Ray Lamontagne. I would listen to the Cure and be like ‘ah I could never write a song like that because I don’t have a band but I listen to Damien Rice and it’s just this guy on a guitar with some really beautiful songs and I just started writing from that perspective.  . . . I guess I’d never heard music that intimate before, the first Damien Rice record I got was live at the Union Chapel and I just remember thinking this guy is playing to thousands of people but the recording is so delicate, his voice is so close to mic and there’s these beautiful lyrics and songs and everyone in the room’s silent; that affected me.

What’s the best part about what you do?

I love writing because I feel that’s the part of my job where I get to be the artist and I get to make things and be a creator and that’s what I identify with. I’ve always been making art since I can’t remember, I’ve always been making something out of something so song writing is where I feel that most.

Is there anything you want to tell Ottawa?

I love Ottawa, I love the jazz festival and I’m super excited to come play.

Scott Helman plays the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival Saturday Feb.14 at 5:45 and 9:30 as part of the Leonard Cohen tribute show. Both shows take place at Dominion Chalmers United Church (355 Cooper Street).  Click here for ticket information.