Talking Nonsuch With Scott Helman. The Full Interview.

Scott HelmanScott Helman is a fascinating and fun interview. The Canadian Warner Music recording artist is about as honest as they come. Ask away and he’ll give the question his best shot.

The same can be said for his music. Listeners can feel the attention he gives his songs and the personality each song envelops. On his new album Nonsuch Park he tackles everything from environmental issues to the passing of his grandfather.

We had a great chat with the Toronto native, including some deeply emotional moments discussing the highly personal video for Papa, a song he wrote for his grandfather.

How are you doing?
Good. Sorry, I’m just putting my puppy to bed.

Oh, nice. What kind of puppy?
I just got a Miniature Pinscher.

Is that a product of the quarantine pandemic or is that something you’ve always wanted?
Well, my mom had a dog, I grew up with a dog. I asked my girlfriend four months ago if she would be into it. She did not sound enthralled, so I kind of let it go. Then two months ago she was like, “No, I think I actually really want one.” So we’ve been looking at it and we just decided. But I think it’s a great time to get a puppy.

Are you in LA or Toronto?
I’m in Toronto.

There was something about you and getting LA property at one point?
Well, me and my girlfriend actually were planning to move. In March, we signed a lease to a place in LA. I was actually in LA writing and looking at different places and then got on a plane to come home, maybe a week later. And we found a place, I signed a lease, got on the plane, and this is when COVID just started, seeming really serious. I remember there were five people on my flight. Everybody was wearing masks. There was hand sanitizer everywhere. And I was like, “Oh man, this is not good.” Then within five days, the borders closed. So yeah, pretty crazy. But I mean, it is what it is, you know?

So here we are eight months later. How are you making out? I mean, you got a puppy, so life is better, right?
Well, the puppy helps for sure. I’m still making music and art and just kind of keeping busy with that. And we have some stuff coming up, figuring out how to do some live stuff, but virtually, and make it seem cool. I appreciate all the live stream opportunities that come my way, but at the end of the day I’m a performer and I love to put a show together and usually with these things it’s like, “Record this on your iPhone,” or “Let’s do an Instagram live,” and that stuff’s great. But I mean, I’m used to loading in gear on stage and putting on a show in front of 2,000 people. So, I feel like I’ve really been itching for that. So we’ve got some cool stuff coming up where we’re going to do a proper show and have some really awesome stuff around it. So, that should be really cool.

Nonsuch Park just came out about a month ago. It’s an odd time for a release.
Definitely very weird. I guess I do try to look on the bright side and I feel very lucky that I’m a songwriter and at the end of the day my passion is twofold. I love to perform and go on tour and meet fans and play music, but I also love to just create music. So, when this pandemic really took off I was like, “Okay, well, one half of what I do is kind of on hold. So I’m just going to put all my focus into making this music and putting it out.” I feel lucky that I still able to work and do those things and I think also very lucky that this whole side, A side B thing was really just like a trial.

I wanted to see what that would be like, everything you do when you make art- But I’m kind of glad I did because like I said, the only thing I really can do is put out music. So it’s nice that I still have this, the other half of this body of work to work on. And like I said as well, I’m really putting in a lot of time and energy into just improving my skills as a producer and a songwriter and a creator. So I think side B is probably going to be better than side A.

You’ve embraced the quarantine sort of with the Papa and Wait No More music videos. Was that more of out of necessity or did the quarantine really inspire them?
I think they were inspired by the quarantine. I think that the Papa video was always in the back of my mind. When my papa passed away, I flew to England to help my mom deal with everything and you know how it is when people pass away. Family and people come out of the woodwork and you got to organize stuff and deal with the house. So I just went there to help her out and we found this stack of old VHS tapes. I don’t think I’d ever seen. I probably had seen some of the footage, because I know my Papa transferred a bit of it to disk, but there was so much that we had never watched. Because who watches VHS tapes?

Did you even have a machine?
I had to get them rendered by some dude, but I remember finding them and thinking, “I’m going to use this at some point, I want to use this. I want to make something out of these. I’m sure there’s so much great stuff on them.” So I think that idea really was just, I was like, “Okay, well what’s the realist thing?” The idea is to get the most emotion out of me and for me to really watch these for the first time, where would I be most comfortable and what would be the most real to me? And it would just be in my living room and that’s just what we did.

So, I’d say it’s probably more inspired by quarantine than a necessity, but I would say the Wait No More video was more, it was sort of both, because I was talking to Ben, I had all these crazy ideas about what I wanted to do. And he was like, “Okay well, we do we have to do it at your house because of COVID.” And this is when it was locked down. You couldn’t go to a store. Way back in April it was mayhem. So, we were figuring out how we were going to do it. And if he had to get tested and how do we wear masks? And he had to be outside while I’m inside, that whole thing.

So that was more out of necessity. But I’ve worked with Ben through almost every juncture of my career and way back when I was 17 and getting hardly any budget to make videos, Ben was there to go, “Okay, we’ve got this much money, but I have an idea of how we can stretch that and make it look really cool.” So I think Ben and I really worked well under limitations and we actually sort of egg them on because the more limitations, the more we get to figure out really cool and interesting ways to overcome them.

You mentioned Papa, you talked a bit about it. I mean, all your music sounds very personal to you. It sounds like you, every word is you. Papa of course is very you. So tell me about that song?
Well, it’s a funny thing because when my Papa passed away I was on tour. I was actually on the West Coast somewhere. My mom and my brother were both in England with him at the hospital, he had lung cancer. They were just sort of taking care of him and keeping watch and just making sure he was okay. And I would call every day, maybe three times a day and just be like, “What’s up, what’s going on?” And I kept saying, “If you say the word, I will cancel this tour I will get on a flight and I will be there.” And you know, my mom just kept saying, “Don’t worry, he’s got lots of time. It’s going to be okay.”

And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And then I remember I was driving, I was in the passenger seat, we’re in the car, driving to a sound check and my mom called and it’s so weird. I’ve had a couple bad calls in my life and every time I feel like the second my phone buzzes, I just know, it’s like this weird thing, but I just knew and I picked up the phone and he was gone. And I was like, “Wow.” I just instantly knew there was so much to unpack. Because I felt really sad that I couldn’t be with him and all that. So after that it was really, really, really consuming me and artistically I had lots of sessions after that tour, because I went straight from that tour to writing. And every session, even if I wasn’t writing about it, in the back of my mind, I was like, “I need to write a song. I need to get this out.”

This feeling was stuck to me. I need to release that artistically. And I actually wrote two or three songs about it that but they weren’t right. And they felt, I don’t know. It’s funny when people say that your music sounds like you because they obviously don’t see the hundreds of songs that you write that sound like somebody else. So they just weren’t right. And then I kind of put it aside, I compartmentalize it. And then a couple of weeks later I was with my usual team who I know so deeply like Simon Wilcox and Tawgs and Gordie Sampson, and we just got into a room and we started writing something, like some pop song with a really fun beat.

And I kind of just looked at them and I was like, “Guys, I feel I really need to get this song out.” And Simon said, “Sometimes some writing is like you have a pipe and you have all these songs that are just coming down the pipe.” And she’s like, “Sometimes there’s just like a song that’s stuck. And you have to get it out of the pipe so that the other songs can start flowing.” And that was that song for me. I think I just felt comfortable around them and I had sort of come around to a lot of resolutions. I guess I unlocked it. I mean, that’s the funny thing about song writing is it takes, for me at least I really have to be with the right people that I have to feel comfortable. I have to feel heard and seen and understood and that’s what that group makes me feel. So, I only have them to thank.

It sounds like that’s the hardest song you’ve ever had to write?
Definitely from the emotional side. It’s funny, because technically speaking, it was like once Gordie played those chords on the piano and then Tawgs put those cello swoops at the beginning of the loop, he used some program to do that. And I just remember thinking, “Wow that is exactly how I feel. These people understand me so intimately that they can look at me, hear me talk about this thing for a minute and a half. And then they can play the exact chords that are in my heart. And I just remember feeling very blown away by that. And from that point on, it was musically and melodically was very easy. It was lyrically, emotionally taxing, but it’s weird. I wouldn’t call it hard. It was the work I had to do before writing the song that was hard, the getting to that song. But sometimes it’s like that, you know?

I know you said in some interviews that a Nonsuch Park took a while to write. Being that far spread apart two years – is there any inspiration or theme that you were aiming for? Because that would be hard to do over a period of two years to keep some consistency?
No, I think the thing is, because I work within the confines of pop music, which I choose to do and love to do, when I sit … Once I finished Hotel de Ville I wasn’t thinking about what is the theme of this body of work? I was just like, “Let’s write some songs, great songs, and just have fun and explore.” And I would say that’s sort of true from all my records. The beginning of the process is really just a matter of starting up again and plugging in your gear and just writing tunes. And then, once I wrote Wait No More, I was like, “Oh, this is like a part of my life. This is a part of my life with a theme to it or at least it has some greater meaning.”

And I think that that is really a matter of, I’m 25 now, and I think I see things really differently than I may be used to. I think I started to look at life in a little bit more on life’s terms, rather than on my own. And I think that’s probably just a matter of growing older and I don’t know, when you come in contact with beauty enough times, you realize that it’s not something that you created, it’s something that exists outside of you. And that happens and that you’re just sort of randomly a part of at whatever chance you can be. So, that’s what Nonsuch Park was for me. I wrote Wait No More. I wrote Afraid of America. I wrote Evergreen and those songs came later and that’s when I sort of realized that I was in this thing and then Papa happened. And then once Papa was written and I kind of put those five songs together, I saw those and I was like, “Okay, here it is. Here is the album or at least the theme.” And then the Nonsuch Park concept just came to me as well as the string that could bind them together. But that’s a fun thing for me. Because I think that’s how life works. I don’t think anybody wakes up and goes, “Okay, today’s going to be about starting anew or setting my goals.”

I don’t think that’s real. I think that’s what motivational speakers will tell you on YouTube, but that’s nonsense. I think people wake up and they go, “I can’t believe I’m alive. What do I do? Where am I, who am I?” And then the day happens and reveals those answers to you. And I think that’s how my albums work is, I just make stuff and then I look back and I go, “Wow, look at all those patterns, look at all those connections.” And then I just try to name that.

Another song on the album, Evergreen is about climate change. Recent polls in Canada have shown that people are obviously more interested in COVID than climate change and it’s taken a back seat. So what do you think could be done about climate change while we work our way through COVID?
Hmm, that’s a really good question. Well, for one, I think we have to continue to re-investigate the system that we live in and question if that system is working to our benefit. And I have a close friend of mine who I recently spoke to and he’s in labor law and he’s just a really brilliant person. And he kind of said to me something that a lot of people would disagree with, but that made me think a lot. And he said that, “There’s no value in solving the climate crisis if we don’t also solve the human crisis.” Because if we try to solve climate change without conceiving of a solution that involves dignity for all people, then we’re sort of keeping alive a world that isn’t worth it.

I mean that that’s a tough thing to say, but I also think that is really true. And I think what we’re seeing with the Black Lives Matter movement and with the focus on frontline workers and with the November election in the U.S. is that we have a lot of work to do to make the system fair and equitable and beautiful too. And I think something that everybody can do is just have those conversations and really think about alternative ways of organizing. And I’d also say, and I wrote about this in a publication called Beaver. But I really believe that without, and I know that if some economist or politician heard this, they’d probably just laugh. But I really believe in my heart is that there’s no solution to the climate crisis without beauty.

And I think the problem up until this point is that we haven’t been able to talk about the climate crisis in a personal way. Every time I have a conversation about the climate crisis with people that are a little older than me, because I think at least for my friends and for my generation and the younger generation, I think we really understand this deeply. A lot of the times when I’m having conversations about climate change, it’s all conceptual and math-based and policy-based. And while those things are extremely important, we kind of forget about the fact that we’re all responsible for our own garden and that there are beautiful ways of solving this crisis. Like instead of catastrophizing, we can think about our impact on our communities, ways that we can eat more equitably and more socially consciously. From being a vegetarian to watering your garden outside, to teaching a friend how to mend their plants.

As silly as those things may sound, I think that they situate the individual ecologically and they make a person feel beautifully a part of the ecosystem. And I think that’s just a really important thing too. So it’s really hard because obviously we’re all inside and it’s COVID, and it’s a very stressful time, but I think that those things are important. I’m rambling today because I’m on three hours sleep since I have a puppy, but that’s my take today.

You mentioned the beauty part of it. And it’s kind of funny, because the next question I was going to ask is based on a beautification thing. I live across from Detroit and I’ve noticed that the city is a lot cleaner and the air pollution has subsided because of COVID. And that’s shown at least to me that when we let the earth breathe a little bit, it can heal itself. Have you seen any changes like that?
I think I have in the sense that I think that definitely when COVID started. I remember walking through my neighborhood, it’s weird because I feel now like the new normal has sort of set in, but I remember walking through my neighborhood. And I live in a neighborhood where there’s, it’s sort of downtown, but there’s houses and gardens and stuff like that. And I remember seeing a lot of people were turning their front yards into gardens. People were growing rhubarb and Thai squash and cucumbers in their front yard. And I remember thinking, “That would be so revolutionary if people started considering where they lived as ecosystems instead of as houses or front yards or these sort of disjointed Oasis’ away from the world.

It’s really inclusive to grow food in your front yard.  The fruitfulness of going out and picking food and eating it, but also the trust involved and having growing food in your front garden and trusting that people won’t steal it or that the neighborhood around you will nurture that and not litter on that because they know it’s your food. I thought that was very beautiful. I thought a lot about that, but I think also just in the conversations I’ve had with my friends and even with my dad, who’s someone who has never really cooked, my dad worked early morning, late night job.

He was the classic. My dad went to work. My mom took care of us. She cooked and cleaned and that worked for them. And I’m not knocking that lifestyle at all, but my dad isn’t a cook. And since COVID has happened, he’s really interested in cooking. And he has sort of started talking about cooking to me more. And I think cooking is an extremely political thing. I think it’s very tied to the climate crisis. And I think that ties into the beauty thing. Because it’s like, “If I can go to a farmer’s market with my girlfriend, pick really beautiful food from the people who grew it, take it home, make a beautiful meal, eat, listen to beautiful music and feel really good about those choices. I think that is a lot more inspirational and pushes one to be more conscious about the climate crisis then watching the news and being told extremely horrifying numbers about floods and swamps and tornadoes and stuff. You know what I mean? I don’t know if that makes sense, but yeah.

Absolutely. Activism is important to you. You mentioned Black Lives Matter earlier. We talked about climate change. What are some of the other causes you’re passionate about?
I feel very deeply, I think it’s one of my faults, but also one of the things that obviously makes me who I am, but I just don’t like to see people suffer in any way. And especially I really feel passionate about just oppression in general. And whenever I see or hear of a group of people that is being systematically oppressed, I feel very personally responsible to help and try to change that. Because, in these conversations we have, it’s always like when we talk about systematic oppression or systemic oppression, we forget that a system is an organization of people and we’re all buying into this system. It’s not like there’s three people that control the world. We all have a part in whatever is happening around us, even in sometimes extremely removed ways.

I just think that it’s crucial as you become an adult to consider those systems and to consider ways of improving them. And I think a lot of it is for me personally tied to, I’m Jewish. I went to Hebrew School every Tuesday and Thursday, and was very often reminded of the terrible things that happened in the second World War. And whenever those conversations would come up, very often they would be like, “We as people have gone through one of it, if not the most horrific genocide that the world has ever seen.” And we made it out and we’re still here and we’re here to help in any way we can, if we ever see anything like that. So I was always sort of raised to think like, “If you ever see oppression, if you ever see a group of people that is being singled out or is being scapegoated, it’s your job to stop it because Jewish people understand that struggle very intimately.

So I think that’s also probably part of it. I feel it’s different for me every day. And I’m sure if you asked my girlfriend, “What is Scott passionate about?” She would be like, “Are you talking about yesterday or the day before or last week? Because it changes.”

It’s great that you care though. I think that’s the most important part.
You know what? I think everybody does in whatever way they can and for whatever personal reasons, I think most people are passionate and yearn for connection and yearn to be able to have an effect on the world around them. Maybe I never grew out of that naive, young idea that I could single-handedly change the world. But I think that that’s … It’s just a very human thing. And I think I just love talking about activism and sharing about my personal activism, because I know that fire exists in every person and it really just takes a spark to make someone go, “You know what, you’re right. I don’t have to think about every issue today. I can think about one and I can try to do my best at dealing with it in the way that I can go to bed and I can feel I’ve done something.” And I think that’s just an amazing thing. I know there are so many people in my life that have done that for me. So, I just think it’s my job to kind of pass that on.

On the opposite end of the scale. Now I’ve noticed personally that COVID has played havoc with my fashion choices. I wear more sweatpants now than I ever had in my entire lifetime. Has COVID affected your style?
It’s so weird because I think fashion is a really complicated art form. It’s wrapped up in capitalism and it’s wrapped up in vanity and to me often this art form that poses. And I’m not saying that this is the nature of fashion, but I think often it almost poses as art when it so often has a hidden agenda to it. And especially in a commerce way or in a corporate way. But I think the thing for me is, I’ve always tried to just wear what I think I feel and express myself in a way that makes me feel fun and comfortable, or I’m expressing my art through my fashion. And it’s hard, because you wake up in the morning and it’s, “Okay, what do I have to do there?”

I got to take my puppy out to make sure he goes to the bathroom. And then I got to work on a song in my bedroom, then I’m going to cook some food for dinner, and I’m going to see my girlfriend to have dinner, and then I’m going to go to bed. And it’s like, “Who am I dressing up for? It’s not like I’m going to an event or playing a show or, you know what I mean? So I definitely feel like less inspired for dress up in that way, but yeah, definitely has taken a back seat, I guess it’s just like fashion serves a function.

And those functions are just even far between right now, because like I said, I don’t have a reason to, dress up in any way, but then again, I did shave my head  and dye my hair blue. That’s a hard question. I’m probably coming around to a different answer now, but I guess it’s more just fun now because there is no expectation. So my stylist, Katie will come over and she’ll be like, “Dude, check out all this stuff I just found.” And I’m like, “Oh, let’s have a dress up.” There’s no expectations. There’s no pressure. You can just be yourself.

So lastly, with no tours, what’s next?
Oh man. Well, I have a music video coming out really soon, which I’d actually co-directed, this is my first co-directed video, which is really exciting. Because it really feels like my artistic expression, which is really cool. You know, there’s a whole other half of this album that’s still sitting on my computer. So I’m just getting stuff wrapped up and it’ll probably be a little while, but I’m still working on it. But, I think the songs are just really exciting and probably the best I’ve ever written. We have a show, I can’t say too much about the show yet, but that show’s going to be bananas. I’m so, so excited to get together with my band and really put on a proper show. So, that’ll be really fun.

What else? Just so much, can I do some more live stuff? Like some more live stream stuff?  I had a Zoom with my fans not long ago. And one of the things that they said they’d love is for me to go on Zoom and open up a session and actually show them how I created some of these songs. Get down into the tracks and show them what plugins I use and how I stitched everything together. So I think that’d be really fun.   I’m writing some poetry, trying to write some pros. I have so much going on, but those are probably the main things. The video is what’s coming up really close. So I’m so excited for people to see that.

What’s the song?
It’s for Lois. We really re-thought that song and tried to think of a way to really create a story around it. And I think it’s the best video that I’ve done.  Actually Papa is pretty good too though. I love that video.

Photo: Katherine Kwan
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