We interviewed Toronto-based Scott Helman, one of Canada’s leading singer-songwriters. His latest release, “Old Friends,” offers a glimpse of Scott Helman’s upcoming project, which is set to come out later this year and contains what he describes as his best work yet. In this interview, we discuss the meaning behind his latest single “Old Friends,” the grieving process that led to the creation of his album “Nonsuch Park,” and his passion for climate change.
Your latest single “Old Friends” follows a sentiment of loss and missing the ones you love. Since this song was written two years ago, has releasing it recently allowed you to process more of what this track means to you?
Yeah, I mean, it’s always funny when a song becomes more true later, because that’s obviously not the intention, but, you know, it’s nice that when it happens, but it’s not like I wrote that song, knowing there was going to be like a global pandemic and half the world was gonna miss their friends. So it just felt more special, because it felt like I could share that narrative with more people in a more real way. But, you know, also very specifically, because the song is, to me, it’s a very personal and very specific, and it’s about a group of friends that I no longer hang out with and aren’t in my life anymore. And that’s my own specific story, but I’m just glad that I feel like it has this other sort of life to it. And I just think that’s a nice thing, you know?
You’ve said that the music video for the song is very special to you, can you tell us more how much this video means to you?
I wrote the song about a time in my life when I was extremely reckless, like, not doing things that were necessarily the best for my mental or physical health. And was also hanging out with a group of people that I think were also in that same space. And it was a crazy time. And it was also a lot of fun. But you know, there’s something beautiful about being at a stage of self destruction, like self destruction phases. There’s something special about being in the same kind of stages, in that whole world of things alongside a bunch of other people, and it’s fun finding camaraderie in that sort of sense of just utter mayhem. And so that was what that time was like as much as I moved on. I was like, “Okay, you know, this way of living probably isn’t the best for me. And like, I should probably grow up a little bit and start treating myself with a bit more kindness and respect.” And you know, just grow up. That’s a great thing that happened in my life. But at the same time, I had to let go of a lot of those relationships that I had, and move on, and heal. To me, the song really is about that catch 22 of no matter what happens, life is tough. Because even if you get better, you have to let go of the suffering. And sometimes the suffering is comfortable. Like, sometimes the suffering is the fun. It’s the thing that you’re used to. So, yeah healing is really tough. And I think that’s what the song is ultimately about.
The video was super fun to make. I made it with two actual old friends of mine from high school that started a production company, and I thought, “What a perfect time to just make some art with people that I haven’t made art with yet.” It was a blast, and it was super intense. And yeah, the fact that we shot on film also just added a good quality to the video that I think was really great. It was so different from any way I’ve ever shot a music video and it added a layer of difficulty but also think when we filmed there was just more intention, like you have really just one chance at each shot. So, you just have to be really deliberate about what you’re going for. And I like that about it. I think that makes for just a really thoughtful video.
Similar themes of loss and grief can be visited in your 2020 LP “Nonsuch Park”, particularly surrounding your grandfather’s memory. How have your recent projects allowed you to heal and process grief?
I’m glad that I put that record out in COVID. Because to me, it was like a really… Although there’s some slapping songs on there. Like, I feel like mostly in the way that it was packaged. And also like in, in some of the songs like “Wait No More” and “Papa.” And even like, “Afraid of America.” I feel like it was a very personal and introspective record. That wasn’t unintentional. Like I definitely did that on purpose because of the time and because I knew like I wasn’t going to be hitting the road. So, it felt like a good time to put that out. But I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know if music helps with grieving, I know grieving is hard. And grieving is a thing that I think is with you always, it just changes shape. But I don’t know if music, specifically releasing music helps. Definitely writing music.
When I wrote “Papa,” it was extremely cathartic. I had been trying to write a song about my grandfather passing away. It felt like all of my feelings and all of all of the sadness and beauty of like…because grief is hard when you love someone because you’re sad that they’re gone. But you’re also so grateful that they were alive at the same time as you. And I think that song kind of captured how I felt about grieving in that sense. So that was really cathartic. don’t know what I’m getting at. I just think that just being able to get my thoughts about it down and out there was just really helpful. At the moment, I realized that that’s all I wanted, to dedicate the whole record to my grandfather, that was also extremely cathartic, because you know, obviously, not every song is about him. Like, there’s love songs on there that are just about love. And there’s, you know, political songs that are just about politics. But in some way, I feel like every time I write a song, because my grandfather was such a big part of my life, I feel like he’s there in spirit. And like, in all my music, there’s some small part of him and I just felt like it was it was the right thing to just give him that. I felt like I owed him that a lot. Because of how important it was to me.
The experience of getting it down is really important. For me. I mean, I most of my music is about healing in some way. Even if it’s like, a fuck you song. I feel like that’s also a human thing. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s just nice to find the strings that run through life, like that tie things together. And for me making records, it’s kind of about that. And so just to find that string, like my grandfather’s spirit that I feel ties itself through all of that music. It’s really important, even a song like “Wait No More” like getting up and enjoying my life. Like, that’s a lesson that I learned from my grandfather. If there’s anyone that taught me that lesson, it was him. You know, he was a crazy son of a bitch who wore salmon colored shirts and jived and chugged gin and tonics at all junctures. So, you know, the guy knew how to live. And that’s what that song is about.
In your Spotify bio, you share your personal story and some of the big events you’ve gone through in life, ranging from love to loss. If you could share any one thing you’ve learned along the way, what would it be?
Figure out who you are before you expect other people to care. I just think that’s so important. There’s only one you and like, if you’re going to be a part of this crazy industry, where there’s all these people just vying for attention all the time. The only thing that is special is the fact that you’re the only you, so I just think that that’s so important. And there’s nothing that bums me out when I more than when I see like a young artist who is just very clearly emulating something he or she is not… Not to say that inspiration isn’t important, but it’s deeper than style. To me, it’s a matter of values and what you’re going for and who you want to be. So I think that’s really important. And that’s something I care deeply about. It’s like just knowing who I am, and it’s an ongoing process. Like I wake up all the time, like, “Oh shit, who am I? Who am I? What am I doing?”. But I just think that’s like, that’s the goal for me. That’s the thing I’m working towards.
I heard another really great piece of advice recently. And this is just a life advice, but someone told me, “If you meet one person today, and they’re an asshole, then they’re probably an asshole. And if all the people you meet today are assholes, then you’re probably an asshole.” And I just think that’s so good. I feel like I have days where I’m like, I don’t know. The world is crazy. I know. I shouldn’t be giving people advice. Just try your best and know that you’re totally good enough wherever you get to.
You mention that when you write you sometimes create songs that make your hair stand on end. In your opinion, what makes a song special?
My gosh, I don’t know. Like, I wish I knew. I’d be a lot wealthier if I could articulate it. I mean, I think David Bowie was the one that said, “Whenever you feel comfortable, push yourself a little bit outside of your comfort zone.” Like you should never feel like you have both feet on the ground when you’re making art. And I think that’s the thing that is special about music, like at least when I’m creating my goal is to walk away from the studio going, “I never thought I could do that. You know, so that’s really special. Illuminating some kind of truth in a new way, I think is the goal.
You’ve spoken extensively about the need to address climate change, and even wrote “EVERGREEN” based on these sentiments. How has speaking up about these issues and educating yourself grown your connection to the environment?
Speaking up about these issues, I think, before I do any kind of activism, I think to myself, I’m not worthy of doing this activism, because I’m imperfect. Like, you know, I drive cars. And sometimes I eat meat, because I’m not a perfect person. And, you know, I do things that aren’t good for the environment, like all other people. But I think one of the biggest things I learned just from participating in activism in general, is that we’re all worthy of it. And like, the goal isn’t for us each to be perfect. It’s for us all to congregate and talk about things we care about. And that’s where solutions come about. I think we can do so much more when we approach it on a level of like, “We’re all in this shit together.” And we just have to be positive because people don’t do things out of out of that space of “I’m not good enough.” I don’t think that’s where action comes from. I think it comes from like, “I can fucking make a difference, you know?” It’s not like I have millions of followers and hundreds of thousands of people at all times looking at what I’m doing. But, you know, we had hundreds of people send out emails to their local, provincial, statewide, and federal governments and that’s fucking incredible. That, to me, is such an achievement for each and every one of those people to have just participated. The more I do it, the more I realize it’s just a matter of getting together and just saying, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna do whatever I can, whatever that looks like.”
We now are kind of living in this world where there’s a kazillion small online communities. Instead of it being like… if tomorrow Halsey got her fans together and had them do something for climate change, it would be incredible. And like, so many people would be engaged. But at the same time if I, as a smaller emerging artist, and all other smaller emerging artists, decide “Hey, our voice is important enough to engage with the people that fuck with what we do and just try to get them to get involved with the causes we care about.” Like, if we all did that, that’s amazing, so much will change.
I just want to have known that I tried. I tried and at the same time, on the same token, like, I just know, we’re all walking around with these battlefields just raging inside us, because we know the chances are so dire, and that the odds are so dire for a sustainable future that looks livable. But at the same time, if we don’t address that, there’s just so much less hope. I don’t want to add to the hopelessness by not communicating my fears, I think is the thing. I think if we can come together and be like, “Yo, are you freaked out? Because I’m freaked out. I’m fucking so freaked out.” Like, if we all start doing that, I think then it’s like, “Okay, oh, no, no, okay. We’re all freaked out. Okay, let’s go do the thing. And try to fix stuff.”
A few days ago, you posted about being almost done with your next record. What can you tell us about this forthcoming project?
It’s probably my best songs of the last, I don’t know, three years, I think. I’m really excited. I think it’s probably one of my best, if not my best, record. So much has happened to me and changed for me, and COVID. I really had time to…it’s like, the same way I wrote my other albums, like my “Hang Ups” EP and even “Nonsuch Park.” I felt like they were written in this chasm of like, touring and expectations, and what are we going to do now, which is fine. But I just feel like when COVID happened, I got a chance to really hunker down and write some songs. I’ve held on to some songs from even way before COVID that I was like, I’m just gonna save all these incredible songs for a record, where I feel like I’m really, really excited to put out music and COVID seems to be winding down. And it seems to be a really good time to just drop all the best songs I’ve ever written. So that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m so excited about this fucking record. The songs are just so special to me. And like, my last record was obviously really special. But it just felt really personal. This record, it’s just the best songs I’ve ever written from three years ago all the way up to like a month ago. Just all the best shit.