Scott Helman's Got A Beautiful Story and An Arm Full of Tattoos
By Chioma Nwana
Chioma Nwana: So the first thing I ask everybody is to tell us your name and where you’re from and what you do, but I also want to do a little two truths and a lie action.
Scott Helman: That’s so hard. Man I’m so bad at two truths and a lie.
CN: Two truths and a lie gives me anxiety.
SH: All I can think of is all of the truths. Well, my name is Scott Helman. I am a singer-songwriter from Toronto, Canada. I am the child of two British-Jewish immigrants. Okay, so you want to just go right into two truths and a lie? Okay, so I was 14, I sold my drum kit to buy an iPod Classic and then lost my iPod Classic in one day.
SH: I was so devastated. I absolutely hate cilantro or coriander, like with a burning passion. And my favorite dessert is cake. I don’t know why I picked two food ones.
CN: I feel like the lie is the first one.
SH: Really? Nope. I hate cake too.
CN: All cake?
SH: All cake.
CN: There’s not even one?
SH: Cheesecake I can roll with, but I don’t even consider that cake.
CN: Of all the cakes?
SH: I don’t consider that a cake. I consider that a cheesy pastry. I just don’t like the fluffiness of cake. It’s just like not delicious to me. And I’m British too!
CN: Are you a texture person?
SH: Yeah. I like pastries and crunchy stuff. But like anything with holes in it, that’s not my jam.
CN: Okay. So first question: how did you get here? How did you start singing and songwriting? How did you find your way from Toronto to New York? I mean, it’s not that far, but you know what I mean.
SH: [laughs] Well, I took a car… No, so I guess when I was growing up, I never really had a thing. I was kinda just like the ADHD kid who yelled in class and got sent to the principal’s office like five times a week. Or you know, used the pencil sharpener for way too long because it was like, “This is so cool!” And one time I actually spilled all the pencil sharpener shavings on the ground. That was a big no-no, too. But yeah, I wasn’t the sports kid. I wasn’t really good at academics because I couldn’t really focus very well. Like I was smart, but I wasn’t reading and stuff. So I wasn’t that kid either. And I went to one of those really white-bread schools in an upper-middle class neighborhood where it was like if you didn’t play sports or if you didn’t have a thing... There was no art. The idea of being an artist was never available to me. And then, for whatever reason, I remember being at my really good friend’s house, and he had this piece-of-crap guitar. It was missing several strings. But I remember strumming it and being like, “This is really cool. I wanna play this.” I think probably an aspect of it was that I noticed that girls like guys who played the guitar, and I was like, “Well, if I can’t play sports, and I’m not really all that funny, I should probably learn how to play the guitar.” I asked my parents for a guitar for Christmas when I was 12 or 13, maybe. 13 or 14. And I just fell in love with it.
I really liked the fact that I had a space I could go to that was my own space. And my parents were very hands-off parents. My mom is a great mom, and she nurtured us a lot, but my dad was always just like, “Let them do their thing.” As long as I had decent grades and I wasn’t hurting anyone or hurting myself, the idea of me being in my bedroom alone and playing my guitar was all good. So it was my thing. When I was feeling like shit or when I was feeling really happy about something or I was learning something about myself, the first thing I would do was go play my guitar. That was just what I did. Around the same time that I started playing guitar, I went to an arts school. I left the other school. I was like, “I can’t play football, so goodbye.” I went to an arts school, and it was really cool because I was surrounded by people who were like “Art is something that you can do when you’re an adult.” And I was like “Holy shit, that’s so cool.” And I really fell in love with words. I fell in love with writing poetry and stories. I mean, they were abhorrently bad, but that’s what I loved to do. That, coupled with music, turned into this thing, and by the time I was 15, I was writing almost two or three songs a week. Again, abhorrently bad songs, but that was what I loved to do. I never really thought I could sing, but I loved writing songs, and in order to write songs and show them to people, I had to sing them. So I reluctantly sang my songs for my friends, and more and more people were like, “You don’t have a bad voice!” So I was like, “Okay!” So I put my songs on the internet and then I got a call from these people, from Warner Music Canada. They were like, “Hey, do you wanna come in and show us your songs? So little Jewish Scott Helman walks in with his notebook and opens it to the first page, and he goes, “This song is about how I feel about homelessness.” Sad shit for three and a half minutes. And then the next page was like, “This song is about a girl.” And it was basically that for 45 minutes, and then these wonderful people were lovely enough to give me a development deal. That meant that they gave me a bit of money to go write songs with people, and that’s what I did. And now I’m here. I think that’s the longest version I’ve given yet.
CN: We like the long version.
SH: But yeah, it’s funny. I meet fans sometimes that are with their parents – it’s a thing that happens more and more – and it’s weird. Their parent is dragging them by the arm, and they come up to me, and they’re like, “THIS IS SARAH. SARAH LOVES TO PLAY MUSIC. What should she do to be like you?” And I’m like, “Honestly? Leave them alone.” Really. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about artists. Each person that’s an artist, has their own space that they get to go to, and the only way that sharing that with the world is going to be worth while is if you can develop that space into something that’s really beautiful. That’s super important. I think that if my dad had walked in every 45 minutes like, “So how’s it going with the whole music thing?” I would have been like, “I’m gonna go work in a car garage or something. Like I can’t.” I don’t know. I guess it’s also part of being a teenager – the idea of doing something that’s someone else’s agenda feels really strange.
CN: You wanna feel like, “I’m not doing thing because you told me to.”
SH: I didn’t watch “Game of Thrones” for like seven seasons because too many people kept coming up to me and telling me to watch “Game of Thrones.” So that’s how deep my need to be original runs. Both a good thing and a bad thing.
CN: Okay, cool. So tell me about your sleeve. I like it a lot, but I also like the individual tattoos you have. Are they all random? Or do they all have little stories?
SH: I don’t know. Some of them are very deeply meaningful to me. Like this tattoo here. I’ll say I’ve dodged a couple arrows in my life, and that’s sort of what that tattoo was for me. To remember that everyone is on borrowed time. The idea that we’re supposed to be here – or entitled to be here – is sort of a crazy idea. We’re so lucky to be alive, and that’s what that [tattoo] was for me. I have a really special one on my leg, which is an empty crossword. Growing up, I knew my great-grandfather had something to do with WWII, but no one ever really explained it to me. And a year ago, I found out that he actually liberated a concentration camp. He was part of the brigade that went in and saved everyone. I was like, “Wow, that’s so powerful.” And growing up, I remember he used to do the Times crossword in like five minutes every day. He was a genius, dude. So I found the crossword on the day that the concentration camp was liberated, and I got it on my leg. That one is super meaningful. But then I have a raccoon drinking wine out of a trash can as well, so you know.
CN: Wow, I’m a fan. Okay, so let’s switch gears and talk about Toronto for a second. What is the music scene like? I’ve heard from some people that the goal is always to get big enough to leave Canada.
SH: That’s the general vibe, I think. It really depends on what music you make. I think the identity of being Canadian is broadening, which is great, because I think maybe 30 years ago, it was like, “You’re a white dude from Toronto.” But now, the idea of being from Toronto – like with Drake or Jesse Reyez or The Weeknd – is a lot more diverse. Gender-wise too, like in terms of musical representation. I guess it depends. If you’re a pop musician, there’s definitely that thing of “I need to get out of this fucking country one day, but also the really beautiful thing about Canada is that if you can be respected in Canada, you have Canada forever. It’s a very insular market. It’s kinda like Australia. There’s a lot of bands that make it out of Australia, but you can be big in Australia your whole life, and no one in New York City would ever know who you were. I think the cool thing about Canada is that the government funds culture.
CN: That’s so nice.
SH: It doesmake for a lot of art that – in my opinion – is just okay, but the cool thing about it is that because we have to contend with you awesome Americans, we basically make our own market out of Canada. We pay taxes, and then we give grants to artists to make music. It’s quite interesting. A lot of people say that’s the reason why so many big artists are coming out of Canada. Because if you can’t afford to make a music video, you can get a grant. Of the 30 grants that go out, I’m sure 29 of those artists, who knows what’ll happen, but the 1 in the 30 is Alessia Cara, or Shawn Mendes, or Drake, or The Weeknd. That’s pretty cool. It’s definitely less cutthroat, but there’s so much music. It’s easier to be an artist there.
CN: Doesn’t that make it easier for music to get lost?
SH: Yeah, for sure. There’s also Canadian content laws on the radio. We have to play a certain amount of Canadian music on the radio too, so that’s also an aspect of it. I guess that’s a worry that your music will get lost. But the really cool thing about Toronto – I can’t speak for other all of Canada – is it’s so multicultural. I think it might be a bit different than New York in the sense that it doesn’t really matter what you are in New York because you’re just in New York, and you’re just hustling here, so that’s the baseline. But in Toronto, there are so many cultures that are all celebrated in their own little pockets. When you go to Chinatown in Toronto – and I’ve been to Hong Kong – it’s almost like you’re in China. And then you go to Little Portugal – I live in Little Portugal, and there are old Portuguese ladies scooping water up off the sidewalk and using it to water their plants. So you can really get a feel for anything. And it’s the same here, but I think the way we celebrate cultures is really cool in Toronto. So that’s cool too. I’ve been inspired by all kinds of music and art because I grew up in Toronto.
CN: That’s awesome. Speaking of inspiration, how have the multiculturalism and government-funded music culture have combined to influence your sound and the way that you approach music?
SH: I’m a very observational writer. I write about things I see, and there’s a lot to see in Toronto. It’s a passionate place. People really care about art, and music, and tolerance, and being together. That’s a big thing in Toronto – at least in my neighborhood. It’s not so much like you walk down the street and everyone’s out to get you. It’s more like we’re trying to build together. That’s a nice thing. Being a songwriter and being around so much is really important. Think about artists like Paul Simon who was inspired by South African music or Mic Jagger who was inspired by Jamaican music. It’s cool to be able to have access to those art forms and mediums and be able to be inspired by them. And not appropriate them either. You feel like you can talk to a Jamaican-Canadian and make music together, instead of stealing music from them.
CN: Sounds like you’ve been having a lot of fun in the music scene. So then is your goal to completely move from Canada to the United States? Or is your goal to make sure that the United States knows who you are and then bring that back to Canada? Or is there a totally different plan?
SH: I don’t know, really. I think my plan is just for as many people to hear my music as possible. I don’t know if I would move – I think I could move here. I love Paul Simon, like I said. I’m so inspired by him, so it’s cool to come here and know that he was so inspired by New York. I don’t know. My plan is for as many people to hear my music as possible. But yeah, I could definitely see myself living in Brooklyn. I don’t know about Manhattan.
CN: Manhattan’s a lot.
SH: It’s loud, man. It’s cool to come. It’s just fucking loud as hell.
CN: Honestly. So music has taken you all over and introduced you to so many people, but what’s one thing you’d say you’re enjoying the most about trajectory of your career?
SH: The fear is nice. I get worried when some of my favorite artists get to this place where they know what they sound like, they have lots of money, they know what they wear, and I feel like they just get comfortable. It’s not exciting to watch anymore because that fear of “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing” is the real root of art. I’m grateful for that. I don’t really know where I’m gonna be in three months, and I think that’s really cool. I know I have to write more music, but I have no idea what it’s going to sound like. That’s probably the best feeling about writing: you know it’s imperative because it’s your job, but it’s also imperative because it’s what keeps your alive emotionally. I need to make music in order to be myself. You know that, and you’re on tour around the world, and you’re like, “Fuck, I need to get in the studio,” and before you do, you have no idea what’s going to happen or what you’re going to make. And then when you leave the studio and you’ve made something that you’re proud of, it’s the biggest relief. It’s a relief. Your brain is like, “I’ve done something worthwhile.” That’s really exciting. I mean, yeah, I get to travel and meet people. It’s not so big that it’s not organic, and it’s not so small that it’s boring. It’s a nice sweet spot where I’m constantly surprised. For example, I was just in Europe, and we played in Paris in a restaurant. It was just a restaurant, like it was 70 people eating dinner. And then the next day we played in front of 22,000 people in Spain.
CN: It must be cool to be able to indulge in both worlds.
SH: Yeah, trying to win over a crowd in a tiny restaurant and then playing in front many people. It’s a cool place to be.
CN: A lot of really big artists don’t have the opportunity. They talk about how they can’t do “regular people things,” anymore. Like think about when Jay-Z took the subway to the Barclay’s Center. That was a really big deal for him.
SH: Yeah, I mean, I want to be able to not get a train. I think everybody kinda wants to not be able to get on a train. I think that’s a basis for everyone in modern life. But you have to be grateful for what you don’t have as well. I really believe that. That’s what got me here: every moment spent in my bedroom writing songs was like, “I need to be a big star one day!” But at the same time, I was like, “This is so cool because if I am a big star one day, this moment, right now, writing this terrible song is part of that story.”
CN: That’s so true. So like you were saying, you have the liberty, right now, to change your sound, go in different directions, and experiment with different things. Do you feel like your sound has been changing significantly? Or do you feel like you’ve been attacking a particular sound for the past few years?
SH: I think both. I’ve always had a pretty eclectic sound. Obviously my radio singles, you can hear a lot of similarities, but if people listen to my record, they’d be like, “Oh shit, he writes songs that are pretty alternative-sounding, and he writes songs that are sexy R&B jams.” I don’t have a particular genre that I’m into. For me, the most important thing is becoming the best songwriter I can be because that’s what I love. I love writing great songs. It’s a combination of both. On one hand, I know what I’m good at, and I want to get better at it. The reason why I love Paul Simon – sorry to keep talking about him – is because he was able to say really profound things and also make you laugh. I went through high school thinking that in order to be profound, you have to be the angriest person.
CN: Super serious and stoic.
SH: But I realized through Paul Simon and other bands like Vampire Weekend that you don’t really have to be like that to be profound. You can open a song with a joke and it can still be as profound as the deepest book you’ve ever read. I know that I love that aspect of music, and I want to get better at that. But on the other hand, I want to explore, and try new things, and write weird songs, and do crazy stuff. It’s a bit of both.
CN: Understood. So my last question for you: I know you mentioned that a lot of parents will bring their kids to you and ask you to give them advice. I know before you joked and said you’d tell the parents to leave their kids alone, but now I really want to know. What advice would you give to those kids?
SH: I would say a couple things. I would say, firstly, don’t take my advice. But I think that’s indicative of my second point, which is, “Don’t take anyone’s advice.” Listen to people and apply advice where you see fit, but I think the most important thing for any artist to know is that the only thing that’s gonna get people to appreciate your music, in my opinion, is if you are yourself. It’s easier than you think for people to know that you’re not being yourself. So I think the most important thing is to be yourself. If that self is something that people want to consume, then that’s great, and if not, then keep being yourself. There’s no way around that for me. I would also say to practice. I know everyone says that, but anything you think is a skill that you’re born with, it’s not. Being a great songwriter or being a great singer or being a great dancer is a matter of doing it every day. It’s not to say that there aren’t talented people – they might have a step ahead of you – but you should spend every day doing something. You’re gonna get better. You might think that someone’s music is great, but I guarantee you that they’ve written a lot of bad music before. That’s always been nice for me to know. Because I’m like, “Aw, I suck.” But then I’m like, “Nah, I’ll get better.” There’s always something you can do to make yourself better at what you love. And also, if it’s not fun, don’t do it. Also my last point would be to collaborate a lot. Make music with other people. It’s easier to look at someone who’s really fucking good and say, “I need to step up my game,” than have someone sit you down and say, “So here’s my advice.” It doesn’t’ work like that. If you live somewhere that there aren’t amazing musicians, move somewhere that has amazing musicians, and try to collaborate with as many of them as you can.