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Anne Marie Helder
makes "The Contact"
eclectic progressive music with
Anne Marie Helder first drew attention from Musical Discoveries when singing backing vocals with two other guests for Karnataka at Rotherham Rocks. Their work with the band at their Mean Fiddler gig and appearance on the resulting Karnataka DVD revealed that Anne Marie is a superbly gifted multi-instrumentalist and has sheer vocal talent with power and range that can not be denied. Anne Marie's contributions to Karnataka grew and by Delicate Flame of Desire, her work had grown to be a significant force in the band and accordingly started to make a name for herself outside the band.
Shortly before the band's much acclaimed acoustic gig with October Project in New York, Anne co-penned "The Donut Song" (with Ian and Rachel Jones) in which she sang lead backed by Karnataka's award-winning vocalist Rachel Jones. In concert, the song drew significant acclaim from long time and new fans alike but regrettably it was never properly recorded and released. A subsequent performance of the track at The Brook in Southampton clearly illustrated Anne Marie's true lead vocalist potential to an enthusiastic audience.
With the demise of Karnataka, Anne Marie has embarked on a multi-faceted solo career, initially releasing a six track EP entitled "The Contact" (review) and also continuing to contribute to Tigerdragon in their second release. She has also contributed vocals to other projects and plans work with Jonathan Edwards, Paul Davies, Gavin Griffiths and Rachel Jones in Panic Room with a release slated for sometime during 2005. We caught up with Anne Marie to chat about her background, the making of her recently released EP and future plans earlier this year in this exclusive interview presented below.
Can you tell us about how you started out in music?
Anne Marie Helder: It literally goes back so far I can't remember--probably to when I was a baby. My mother sang in a choir, so I went to choral concerts from the moment I could sit still, maybe at age two or three. My dad introduced me to the Beatles, the Stones and Eric Clapton. So I was exposed to those kinds of influences as well. We used to go to concerts as a family. I remember going to see Simply Red. My Brother played the cornet, so I decided I wanted to play an instrument as well. I was desperate to play the clarinet--I must have thought it looked cool as a jazz instrument--but at school they didn't have one, so they gave me a flute. I was gutted! But I stuck with it, and then took up the piano, which I loved. By twelve or thirteen I was listening to metal, grunge and indie music, but I also loved singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Finally, at fourteen or fifteen, I started dabbling in the guitar.
How did you start singing?
I was in a really good youth choir in Essex from the age of fifteen. I went to University at Swansea (in South Wales), and eventually joined a band. I was doing Philosophy-–I was gripped by ethics and morality--but I also did a year of art, which I still love. Swansea is such a vibrant place--full of artists and musicians. I always wrote songs and I went busking, which was really good both for strengthening my voice and for building up my confidence. I sang all kinds of things in Swansea--folk, blues, gospel, soul and classical--but I didn't find my own voice--my own style--until I started fronting my own band. By the time I joined Karnataka, I was in a funky rock band and a folk band, as well as a solo performer. I actually felt ready to take on larger venues before I joined the band, and when we started playing larger venues it really felt right.
Your voice is very powerful, though. Where does that come from?
I'm not sure, but my partner, Dave Kilminster (of Keith Emerson's band) who's a guitarist, always says that you can hear a lot of peoples' personality in their playing, and I think it's the same with the voice. I'm a person of extremes. I can be quite intense and powerful, but I can also be shy and reserved, and that comes out in my voice. Physically, though, I have no idea. At school my voice was very soft. I did a lot of ballet and yoga, though, and the muscles you get from that give you the support in the stomach to really push a note out. Having said that, without trying to sound corny, I put my heart and soul into singing, and, on a good night, it really feels like the music is channelling through me.
The first project that Musical Discoveries readers would know you from would be Tigerdragon. You seem to be more involved on the first album than the second. Is that fair?
Probably. The band started out as collaboration with Chris Woodman, then it evolved into a larger band, which is what it is on the rare occasions that we play concerts these days. I did fewer lead vocals on the second album, simply because we had to choose material that people were ready to record, and that they were happy with. I knew I'd be doing my own thing, and so I didn't really feel the need to push my own songs. I think I used more flute on the first album, because with only acoustic guitars, the sound was a lot more intimate, and it was the only lead instrument. On the second album, with the full band, it would have sounded too busy.
How did you get involved with Karnataka?
I knew of them locally, but they saw me live and asked me to be involved, initially just for the recording of the first DVD at The Mean Fiddler in London, as one of the three backing singers. We actually practiced quite hard to get the harmonies right, and I learnt a few lines of flute from their albums, and improvised a few more. After that concert I was asked to stay around on additional vocals and flute. At first I was doing a bit of flute and some very structured backing vocals, and after a few months I made a more permanent commitment and we became a six piece.
It was quite a while before we developed the more "naughty" double-female approach. In fact, on the last tour we reined it in a bit. Some people thought what Rachel and I were doing was a little tacky, and I thought it had gone as far as it could. I think we all agreed that it had served its purpose in raising the profile of the band as a proper rock group. We went for a tougher look on the last tour as well, and also I played a lot of rhythm guitar, which I would like to have explored further.
So what do you think you got out of the band, in terms of your own personal development?
Oh, so much, so much. I made some amazing friends, and got to play in some amazing places like the USA and Spain. The experience of touring was invaluable; it's so amazing to be on the road, doing what you love; and the structure and routine was great, especially for me, being as I have a tendancy to be late for things! It still feels strange being in a dressing room on my own. Musically, I learnt a lot about harmonisation. Also, I learnt a lot about presentation and the commitment you need to be in a band, even though, of course, most of the band had day jobs. Personally, I've been self-employed as a musician for about three years. I've been living on gig money, though of course I've always been in a lot of different bands.
So let's talk about the new EP now. It's called "The Contact." How did the name come about?
It has several meanings, for me. Music for me has always been a connection between earth and the heavens, really. It's about the contact between us and the "other side." I've always been into spirituality and life beyond death, so it refers to that. It is also about it being my first solo recording-–my first contact with the outside world on my own. I specifically didn't want to make an album, but to lay down a few ideas and come back with an album later that would have some stripped down stuff but also some material played by a full band. Having said that, "The Contact" is almost album length anyway. It was meant to be four tracks, but we did six and I couldn't decide what to leave out. Finally, of course, "The Contact" is also about networking, and getting myself known as a solo artist in the industry.
Instrumentally, it seems very diverse. Is that true?
Yes, it inhabits a middle ground between just voice and acoustic guitar and a full band sound. "Blood Red Sky," for instance, I put a lot of programmed strings on, which I played myself, whereas we did "Exodus" on piano. There's some lead guitar from Dave, and on a couple of tracks we put on a few loops to give them a bit of rhythm and to keep them ticking along. So something that was just meant to be a vehicle for me to record my songs became something a bit bigger, because I didn't really know where to stop!
Tell us a bit about "The Contact" track by track.
"Blood Red Sky." This song came to me complete when I woke up one morning, believe it or not. I wanted it to be inspired by the Soham killings--a famous double murder in the East of England--so the lyrics came quite easily and I wanted the song to sound eerie. It's about the hell you go through waiting to hear about a missing child, and the fluctuating emotions you go through as a result.
"Exodus." This was originally a Tigerdragon song, which I was going to do with just acoustic guitar, but I though it would be nice to have some piano on it. However, when we recorded it, the two instruments just didn't work rhythmically together, so Adam who was working with us suggested we go just with piano. It's about the end of a relationship, and wishing them well. I'd love to be able to play it live with piano sometime.
"Autocratic." This is just an angry little song about people butting in on your life. I'd have loved to do that with real drums and bass, but I chose a few loops that I thought worked. The rhythm is actually quite heavy, which is in contrast to a lot of the rest of the CD; but I like that, for dynamics. The riff on it is played on an electronically treated, funky flute. I think I'll actually put more flute in its natural state on my next recording.
"Stallions and Nags." This is about the loop you get in when you're addicted to something. It could be about drink, drugs or even people that you can get addicted to. Part of it's about the dream that addicts have when everything will be great, and safe, and it's also about dreaming of having a decent relationship. It's pretty intense, but, in the end, it's about dealing with life one day at a time. Musically it's quite simple, with just guitar. I suppose there's kinda 60s/70s vibe to it, people have picked up on that; but then, people have always picked up that vibe with me, and though it's not intentional, I don't mind that at all. It's an era I feel really connected with. I guess I'm just a retro chick at heart.
"No Other Lover." This is a straightforward love song. I thought it'd be nice to have a positive song on the CD. But it's a very deep one at that. It's about the intense connection you have when you meet "the one," and the music is emotive and builds into a climax to match that. I love the end section, with the amazing lead acoustic break! And I wanted a cute little loop behind the track, to give it a spacey, timeless feel. It's another song that got bigger than I intended.
"Murder." It worked best with the treated vocals throughout, though we tried it with a mixture of treated vocals and normal. It's got a long intro, because I wanted plenty of atmosphere. I wanted to give the impression of an eerie presence, but it's mainly about the feeling of being betrayed. It's also about the feeling of wanting to do harm, and to torture someone. The word “Murder” isn't actually in the song. It's very cathartic – great to do live. It was also on the first Tigerdragon album in a different form.So the EP is out--what's next?
Carry on playing live. The EP has only been out for a while, and I'm still waiting for quite a bit of feedback from people in the industry, though I just had a very high rating and great review in Classic Rock magazine, which compared me with both Kate Bush and Jeff Buckley which I'm ecstatic about and flattered by. Hopefully, the exposure from this EP and the intense touring I'm doing and have planned for 2005 will lead onto more studio time later in the year. THis is completely separate to the Panic Room project I'm doing with Jonathan from Karnataka; though that's great stuff, and I'm delighted to be of service. He's a real talented writer, it's going to amaze and thrill people!
For my future recording, my first full album, I want it to cover the whole spectrum of my musical taste and energies. I'd like to do some intimate, acoustic moments; but I also need it to be a full-on rock sound at other times. And I want to achieve this with a full band line-up: bass, drums, etc. This is true also of stage shows: I'd ideally love to be able to achieve that kind of diversity with a band of my own in future gigs, to be able to move the audience in a variety of ways. I'm already in talks with friends and colleagues about the sort of band I'd like to put together, although I'm loving doing the acoustic solo shows, and would always want to be able to do those. So watch this space!
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