Within minutes of meeting 21-year-old singer and songwriter Helena it’s clear that this dark-haired, saucer-eyed free spirit is the real deal. The India-born, Los Angeles-based newcomer is a well-traveled, natural-born storyteller with a huge imagination and bona fide musical talent to match. Her unusual life so far has provided heartfelt lyrical grist for the songwriting mill, inspiring the fanciful, synth-driven pop songs she’s conjuring up with producer Sandy Chila for her debut album for Warner Bros. Records.
"To me, the music is a film for your ears, sometimes a fairytale, or a mystery," Helena says. "It is by turns cinematic, brooding, emotional, and playful. Each song is woven with both dark and light. If you listen carefully, there's a lot of subtlety and nuance in the structure behind the bass and the beats. I want my music to take listeners back to a time when they felt free and happy and remind them that they can feel that now, no matter how challenging their lives are. I'd like the music to be a home for them."
Given her upbringing, it’s not surprising that Helena’s songs are rooted in the imagination. Born into a musical family in Mussoorie, India (her South African-Greek father is a professional sitar and tabla player and her Swiss-Canadian mother is a classical Indian vocalist), Helena was raised in a forest-like setting in rural Pennsylvania where she was nurtured in music and art. “My parents were very open-minded, but they were also pretty strict,” she says. “We weren’t raised with any popular music at all. The only CD I ever wanted was Christina Aguilera’s, but my parents thought that music was frivolous, so I grew up listening to Indian and Western classical music, Byzantine chanting, and religious Buddhist chanting. We had a television, but we were only allowed to watch movies once a week. We had three: The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, and Gulliver's Travels. I would tell my parents, ‘I'm bored.’ And they'd be like, ‘No, you're just boring.’ So I created my own little worlds. I’d go into the forest and create a fairy habitat instead of watching television on Sunday.”
Having played violin since the age of four, Helena began performing with orchestras at age seven, and by 12 had made her recording debut on an album of sacred songs and inspirational prayers that her parents released. Accustomed to composing and improvising, Helena began turning her poetry into songs while attending the internationally acclaimed Woodstock School in the foothills of the Himalayas at 16. “I would write songs on piano and perform them for the school,” she says. “It was the first time I felt the freedom to express myself without any inhibitions.”
In 2010, Helena moved to Los Angeles where she earned money playing her violin on the streets of Santa Monica and Venice. During this time, she also began working with a loop pedal to give her bare-bones songs more texture. “I sing my poetry over my loops. When I'm writing poetry, it's like transcribing what I see in my head — like a walking movie. If I can't see it, I can't write it. Sometimes it comes out melodically, but most of the time I end up making a loop on my violin and singing whatever poems I’ve written that match up with the melody.”
This method forms the under-pinnings of the music she has been making with her friend Chila. “Sandy and I work together so organically and really complement each other in all the best ways,” Helena says. “I bring him the silks, and the dyes, and the thread, and he fits it on a form, while I continue to ornament it till it's this beautiful cloak of a story.” Songs like “Paper House” and “Russian Doll” take left-hand turns and unexpected detours into synth-driven electronica and charming indie-folk, mixing heartfelt emotion with unearthly atmospherics and driving, contemporary beats. Says Kara DioGuardi, who signed Helena to Warner Bros. Records last year: "Helena's songs are a kind of hypnotic, melodic poetry. She paints pictures and evokes moods with her lyrics. I believe she is one of the most talented artists out there today."
“All I've ever wanted to do was travel and have the freedom to make music and express myself,” Helena says. “I just want to have a life that I love to wake up for.”