Feature/Interview (PP)

Helena Debono – new album ‘Right Here’

Singer Helena Debono’s new album ‘Right Here’ is out right now. She talks to Andrew Cartmel.

Before I met Helena Debono to chat about her new album, I did a little bit of preparation by listening to her Ronnie Scott’s Lockdown Session. Having heard that, my main question about the new album was: where do I buy a copy?

“That lockdown session,” said Helena with a note of happy nostalgia, “I was so lucky, it came in through NYJO, as part of their NYJO Presents gigs. That was the first time the band was able to get back together post recording the album.”

It’s the same band as on her new album, Right HereNick Fitch on guitar, Jamie Safir on piano, Luke Tomlinson drums – except the bass player on the Ronnie Scott’s session was Jack Tustin while on the album it was Joe Lee. Luke Vice-Coles also plays flugelhorn on the album, on the outstanding Short and Sweet.

“It was so much fun, that gig,” Helena recalls, “although it was pretty bizarre having no audience in there because of the pandemic.” The lack of an audience in no way hampered the expression of this band’s musical message. As a singer, Helena’s timing is immaculate, as is so beautifully demonstrated in her use of space and pace on the album’s title track Right Here, just one of the strong originals that make up this collection of songs, along with classics like The House of the Rising Sun and Prisoner of Love.

I asked her about these standards. “It was during lockdown we decided to record House of the Rising Sun. I’ve always absolutely loved that song. It was actually over Zoom that we came up with that arrangement, Nick Fitch and I. For me it wasn’t really The Animals who defined that song. It was Haley Reinhart on American Idol. We also did Prisoner of Love. It’s been done by Frank Sinatra, and Etta James has a great version. I think I first heard it on one of the Frank records. During our research we discovered the lyrics for the verse to that song, but we couldn’t find the music for the verse anywhere so I wrote the melody for it and Nick wrote the chords. And we included it on the album as a separate track simply entitled Verse.”

Helena’s singing displays great musicality, relaxed beauty of tone and, of course, that immaculate timing. So there is a danger here, as there was with Amy Winehouse, to be so seduced by the gifts of a singer that you don’t notice what a superb songwriter she is.

But when you begin listening to the originals on the album you to realise the strength and reach of her writing. There are some great lyrics here – “the drugs to soothe my ache / the reason why I wake” – in Short and Sweet, for instance. I was so struck by this song that I thought it was a standard that I hadn’t stumbled across before. In a way I guess it was. And so was Can’t Walk Away,  which sounds like an undiscovered Aretha session for Bacharach and David.

Photo by Carl Hyde

“That’s kind of what I try and do with my writing,” says Helena. “I try and bring in elements from the standards. I like people to think, Oh have I heard this somewhere before? And I am really influenced by the songbooks. The great American songbook.” 

It’s a beautiful déjà vu effect she achieves with these songs. They have an effortless authenticity. And although the ace lyrics help, I suggest that this is largely achieved by the feel of the songs.

“I would agree,” said Helena. “It’s the feel. I usually write the melodies then come up with the lyrics then I’ll go to Nick Fitch, my guitarist and music director and together we come up with this thing… Because he’s a jazz guitarist, studied at the Guildhall, together it really brings this feel of jazz back into it even if the melodies are on the pop side. Recording the album was so much fun. It was such a fun process. It was pretty strange, obviously, recording it and then going straight into the pandemic. But…”

Helena Debono had me sold back when I first heard these songs on the Ronnie Scott’s sessions. She had me doubly sold when I discovered they were originals. I asked her what was the best way to buy her album so that the artist gets the maximum reward. “I guess off of Bandcamp. And they do Bandcamp Friday when they waive all of their fees, which is so kind.”

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The next Bandcamp Friday is October 1.

LINKS: Helena’s website

Helena is on BandCamp

Live review of album launch by Lavender Sutton

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