Not long after her 2 year stint as NYJO Lead Vocalist, Helena Debono has released her debut album, Right Here! Helena is also a happy member of the NYJO LDN Academy team, since she took charge of the Vocal classes earlier this year. Helena is a busy bee – but she kindly made some for a catch-up to tell us about the album, the birth of her love for of jazz and the experience of teaching the next generation of singers.
Interview & words by: Mariana Curado
Your debut album, Right Here, is out in the world as we speak. I assume a lot of it will have been planned, written, and recorded during the pandemic. Tell us a little bit about the project and the process to get it done.
I wrote the album over the course of about 6 months in 2019 with my guitarist and co writer Nick Fitch. We spent a week in March recording with the band and my amazing producer Al Lawson. Luckily we got most of it done before we went into Lockdown the following week. Over the lockdown, I was able to do overdubs via zoom and wrote a few more songs. The lockdown gave me a lot of time to think about the album and how I wanted to promote it etc, which I wouldn’t have had time to do in ‘normal’ life.
The reason I ask, besides the obvious, is because the album’s pace – the different moods throughout, its ups and downs, the silky slowness – makes me think of lockdown. How do you think the ‘break from normal life’ we were forced to take has influenced you in the making of the album?
The break from ‘normal life’ made me really appreciate the small things and not over stress about them. I had more time to think over stuff and realised its not the end of the world if something small goes wrong. I think the pandemic in some ways has helped me to just trust my gut and do what I want to do.
Was the single Little Life inspired by Hanya Yanagihara’s novel with the same title? Tell us about the song and how you drew inspiration from that book in particular.
YES! It is my favourite book of all time. It made me cry! I think Hanya Yanagihara is such an amazing writer, she gives the reader so much. I took a lot of inspiration from the main story line. How to the outside everything looks great but actually what’s happening is not good. I had been having writers block when I was trying to write the song and then one night I woke up with the melody in my head and the lyrics ‘little words built up the house around me’ and it just went from there.
Right Here takes us on a deeply personal journey of heartache and longing. Do you think there is strength in vulnerability? How does it feel to share such intimate feelings with the public?
I think there is so much strength in vulnerability. My best friend and I talk about this all the time. We were really inspired watching Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability. I think it is so important that we can be vulnerable with each other and ourselves. At first I was really nervous to share this song but it was actually really comforting to have so many people say they can relate to the song and how much they like it. Funnily enough a lot of people have asked for it to be played as their first dance at their weddings, which is such an honour.
Most of the musicians playing in the album are former NYJO colleagues or connections. Tell us who they are and why you chose them?
Yes they are. I actually met Nick Fitch through mutual friends when he was the guitarist for NYJO. He encouraged me to audition for the band, so I have a lot to thank him for. When we started writing for the album we instantly knew who we wanted to have in the band. We asked Luke Tomlinson (drums and NYJO Alumni), Joe Lee (Bass) and Jamie Safir (Keys). They were the most perfect fit for my music. When I decided I wanted a Flugel horn I knew I wanted Luke Vice Coles (NYJO alumni). I am so lucky that not only are they incredible musicians but also some of my best friends which just makes the process so much more enjoyable. I trust their opinion 100% and when we perform together, I just know that they have my back and are there to support me.
You fell in love with Jazz after being classically trained – what was it about the genre that grabbed your attention?
I was about 7 when I first heard Jazz music. I was watching my all favourite film The Parent Trap and the soundtrack has a lot of jazz tunes, including Nat King Coles L-O-V-E and Ella Fitzgerald’s Every Time We Say Goodbye. I was obsessed and made my mum write all the lyrics out for me (this was before the days of quickly looking lyrics up on your phone). Bless her she had to write a line down, pause the video, rewind and then write the next down, must have taken her hours. I just loved the lyrics and the melodies, but mainly the Jazz voices. After that I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and thought they were incredible.
After spending 2 years as the NYJO’s Vocalist, you have recently joined the NYJO Academy team of Music Directors, teaching the vocal class. What has the experience been like? What do you take out of teaching?
I absolutely LOVE teaching the vocal class. It is so nice to work with young upcoming singers who are passionate about Jazz. I always leave having learnt something new from the students. I am so excited to see how their careers progress in the future. I think we have created a really friendly, fun safe space with the vocal class and this is really helping them to improve in both ability and confidence.