Exclusive Interview: Five Minutes with HELMAUD

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Image by Quentin Chamard-Bois

Parisian jazz and hip-hop sensation HELMAUD has shared your new party anthem ‘Hey Boi’, featuring the fiery vocals by songstress Dixie. The single was mixed by the renowned Geoff Swan (Ed Sheran, Mahalia, FKJ) and mastered by Alex Gopher (Sebastian Tellier, Phoenix, Mr Oizo). HELMAUD is a self-taught pianist, who received formal training from the American School of Modern Music in France. To date, the composer has produced music for luxury brand promotions,  such as Vogue, Elle & Tiffany & Co. He has also collaborated with renowned Parisian musicians such as My Melody, Because Music and Pain Surprises.

Find out more about this future hitmaker in the interview below.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

Since an early age, I’ve been driven by beauty & poetry. It’s seemed that art & music allowed me to follow this path more naturally and express the best version of myself in an ever-evolving inspiring way. As a kid, I could stand hours just listening to the very bass notes of the piano (full of harmonics), fascinated by the all undisclosed sonic world that reveals itself, only if you pay attention to it. That was a great teaching about life too. Also, (as said in the CRF) I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that thousands of people can stand together and share the same emotions, at the same time, each in their own way. The greats – Mehldau, Jarrett, Grimaud, Horowitz, James Brown, Radiohead, James Blake, Jon Hopkins & so many others – are capable, through what they give and the way they give it, to lead us to the immanence, brought by the fervour of their love message. A strange and overwhelming feeling, brief, but real, of living together in beauty. Since I was a kid, it’s always been my true belief that this can happen in everyday life as long as people care for one another.

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?

Any, it can come from a sound, and idea, an harmonic color, or often a beat, a vibe & more recently a killer riff. Nowadays, I mostly try to go straight to the quintessence, with as few things as possible (where it used to be the perfect opposite). Less is definitely more! I want every sound, to be meaningful & powerful. My ideal tune would be a 6 tracks tune, with strong bass, fire bouncy drums, a dope cool piano riff, and powerful vocal melodies. ‘Hey Boi!’ Definitely enters in those specifications. First of all a strong piano riff, then efficient drums & deep bass bouncing with them. The vocals bring all the emotion. The rest is just an arrangement of vibing things. It’s without any doubt the first time in my life that I do a tune that has less than 40 tracks. Big time. I think it’s also why this tune works very well in an acoustic piano/vocal live version. More generally with Dixie: rather Dixie starts with an acapella proposition that H E L M A U D instantly and instinctively bounces off of (‘Lost and Found’, ‘Strive’, ‘In the Way’), or, H E L M A U D will share a track/production/beat that will inspire Dixie to write (‘Thx You’, ‘Brain’, ‘Cupid’), compose and sing to. This process, as simple as it may seem has been nonstop and has turned into organic mechanisms for both of the musicians. But, through all this activity, jamming has always stayed their main creative motor, giving life to songs such as ‘Hey Boi’, ‘Stalk Me’, ‘Wander’, or ‘End of Summer’.

Does your material feature any collaborations?

It does. ‘Hey Boi!’ features Dixie. The two neighbors initially met in Thai boxing classes in 2015. They would both come and spar with a good energy and open mind, but Dixie and HELMAUD only truly started sympathizing years later, as Dixie learned HELMAUD was a pianist. As HELMAUD’s jazz-infused technique started attracting Dixie, the two yet-to-be friends very quickly became inseparable. Music, and especially jamming had forged a very strong bond for the two, Dixie, discovering her attraction for singing and composition, and HELMAUD, finding very much satisfaction through Dixie’s soul heritage and care-free energy. Hedonism, stoicism, philosophy, friendship, and the ups and downs of relationships have forged their urge to doing music together. ‘Hey Boi!’ has been mixed by Geoff Swan. This dude is F I R E. The process was so simple, so clear, so fast so appropriate, and the result, E X A C T L Y what I expected. First, try with Geoff was on ‘Thx You’ (unreleased yet). He perfectly understands the vibe of the tune, kept it as bouncy as I wanted to, stuck to my mix but “just” enhanced the vibe by making it sound fresher & cool with beautiful re-amp thought hardware & the board. Then, after some tries with another serious dude in the industry (like Riley Bell on ‘Stalk Me’, I’m a big fan of Daniel Caesar’s Freudian, that’s a masterpiece to me), finely decided to get back to Geoff to mix the single ‘Hey Boi!’, absolutely F I R E one’s again!!! Thank You Geoff. ‘Hey Boi!’ mastering was done by Alex Gopher. Alex always does a great job, with this very french touch in the sound. When us guys sometimes are very efficient in the result they are looking for in the perspective of how a tune is going to be listened to, I sometimes feel like it loses a bit of “poetry”. As I care a lot for the groove & the bounce of a tune (definitely my main care. “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got…” you know..) with Alex, there’s always a space in the process for that. There’s no problem to lose a bit of efficiency or colors if it helps enhance the general groove. I like that!

What’s on your current playlist?

Pffff I will make a world tour in 24 hours. Big time! I’m a music lover! Beyond gender and style. There’s always a moment in the day for different kinds of music. Lately, I’ve been listening to Vladimir Horowitz playing Robert Schumann ‘Kreisleriana’ cause I’m working on this piece on the piano. Could be Bach Toccatas or partitas too, by Glenn Gould or Martha Argerich. A lot of Brazilian music, from Martinho Da Vila, Adoniran Barbosa, Cartola, Samba de Raiz. Hip hop comes at some point in the day. Definitely the latest Earthgang with Spillage Village & JID ‘End of Daze’. Latest Aerthgan album is F I R E ! Their song ‘Up’ is my motivational tune with Nispey Hussle ‘Double Up’. Victory Lap, there always a moment in the month when I get back to this album. Like Daniel Caesar’s Freudian. That’s a masterpiece, one of the best records of the decade for me! I’m in love with H.E.R & Lianne La Havas too. ‘Celest Lately’ is a wonderful track and one of my fave EP’s last year. Have also been listening to a lot of James Brown lately, especially the album Gettin’ down to it, the line up is dope, and the covers are amazing, with such a blues vibe. ‘That’s life’ and ‘Stranger in the night’ blows me away. Oh yes… and it’s hard to spend a week without listening to Keith Jarrett! In no particular order: – Left Side by Eloise – Lucid by Raveena – Love the things you do & Lost in June EP by Pip Millet – RTJ4 by Run The Jewels – Chicago Freestyle by Drake – ‘Focus’ & ‘Make it Rain’ by H.E.R – Before love came to kill us by Jessie Reyez – Funky La by Robson Robson – Seeking Thrills by Georgia – Blue Lips by Tove Lo – Time on my hands by Keith Jarrett – I will wait for you by McCoy Tyner – Penny Rabit & Summer bear by Kishi Bashi – O mar Serenou by Clara Nunes – Meu Laia raia by Martinho da Vila – Day of wine and roses by Oscar Peterson – Dove in the wind by Sza – find your love by Kuyen, Bosq – Onda by Fatnotronic – Baby Powder by Jenevieve – Adagio Bwv 974 by Joanna Goodale – Young Girl by Don Carlos – Isolation by Kali Uchis

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

Haven’t performed much lately, mostly producing. Being on stage is very natural for me. I feel comfortable and secured. Coming from jazz or piano solo performance, the level of pressure is so hight that when you end up djing behind an OG, or just playing a little piano riff on a pop song, it feels really comfortable, giving you more opportunity to share and be into the moment with the crowd. I feel there’s everything to build regarding my fan base. Not sure who they are yet, but I can’t wait to feel the magic of incarnation and sharing with them. Mostly feeling gratitude.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

It became kind of an obvious combo (even though each time you never know where you’re going at all) of a strong riff somewhere/somehow in the song as core material, with experimental electronic sounds on the drums & arrangement & while with Dixie some soul melodies screamed in a Kurt Cobain way. Always making sure, the drums & the bass are grooving as much as possible! Trying to make it sound rough/ DIY/garage so we’re at the closest of the vocal emotions. If feels that the combination of a strong pop form, with electronic sound, soul melodies, and modern bounce is not that common. (Kaytranada, for instance, won’t have this kind of very “cliché”/traditional soul melodies..they’d be more RnB & edgy.)

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

There are so many different kinds of days in the studio. Those where you produce without knowing where you’re going, just vibing, somewhere/somehow with how you feel in the moment and what inspires you ‘Thx You’ ‘s production is one of those, produced right by Barcelona beach, inspired by the light on the water. Those where you’re about to wrap up a tune, and you gotta lay down final vocals & instrumental lines. Way less inspiring but good exercise. It’s about being in the zone straight away. I usually don’t record many takes at all. I know by experience that the first is the best. Way more alive. With Dixie, it’s the same. Most of the vocal tracks are the first ones! Even at 3 am drunk as f***. Those where you have plenty of time ahead of you and you hear a beat/riff/melody and you can start from that to go until the tune is done, in one raw shot. (‘Hey Boi!’ for instance). Those are the best for me. If your set-up is perfectly patched and ready-to-play then you can just follow your inspiration and keep creating until it’s done. Very exciting. Especially when it comes from a jam. Those where you have to deliver a commission and you feel you’re never gonna make it for the deadline (which is often the day when you get commissioned ), and you finely find your way through after 6 micro depressions in 12 hours. Very good exercise. Urge allows for great things. Brings you straight to the point. If there is some serious piano lines or arrangement to perform I like to take a time to “set up” my time-feel by doing some Kenny Warner rhythmic exercises on the piano. I feel more grounded and free after that.

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

Around 19 years old when I got my Geology degree. Spent my days in the lab & my night in jazz clubs. I realized I had to do music night & days, every day, all my life long. The year after I was in a Jazz school.

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

I’m not a man of habits or routine, I like to change and experiment. It’s a good way to improve I feel (even if you need to be in a certain kind of comfort zone at some point to be able to give the best of you). From a piano solo performance, muti instrumental solo project, or dJing with a rapper it’s such different set-ups. With Dixie, I like to have the turntables on top of the piano so I can DJ & play riffs at the same time. It’s my little “Jerry-Lee-Lewis-2020” fav set up! My focus on being into the moment and into the zone is definitely what I try to keep close each time.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

Celeste, H E R (she is insane!), Kali Uchis, Earthgang, JID (insane), Pip Millet, Jgrrey, Crystal Murray, Mahalia, Eloise, Bas, Mereba, Tiana Major, Barbara Fialho, Mosquito, Jimmy Whoo.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Nature, flowers, women, sex, pain, loss, struggle… I do not have the answer.

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

I’m not an absolute fan of gear like some are, still I like the sonic quality to be touching, so I care a lot about the sound I wanna have. I use Ableton. Scarlet Focusrite. Mostly analog synths likes, Jupiter 6, MS20, Moog Little Phatty Moog, Jomox M Bass, Korg PS 900, Micro Korg, PE 1000, and some modular. Guit Stratocaster 1974. Regarding piano, most of the track with Dixie has been recorded on a 1912 Upright Pleyel, 1920 Grand Bechstein, Yamah U1 and my early Upright Yamaha (very customed). I barely use plug-ins as an instrument, I’m not a big fan of this cold/sharpness. I’m getting a ART SGX 2000 as preamp multi/effect. I mostly use 1 mic, a Spark Blue. I’ve always felt we can do a lot with less.

Any side projects you’re working on?

I’m working on the Curation (playlist) of a trendy bar/restaurant that’s gonna re-open in Paris. (I can’t say the name but it’s one of the most beautiful views of the river 😉 – Still doing beats for a RE-PRODDDICTION tape at some point. – I wanna do a lullaby piano solo record. So many of my friends had babies lately. I wanna do a small Lullaby for each kid. Maaaaan gotta do a triple album.. – Focusing a lot on the project with Dixie – Developing my company JSMusic.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

By constantly doing it. persistence is the key to me. – I try to keep on practising my piano, repertory, technic, rhythm – I try to always improve my ears by transcribing, pop, Brazilian, jazz or whatever – I try to always be in a creative process, whatever it is, producing a beat, composing a song, seeking for a good riff, doing playlist, digging, & producing, producing, producing! Masters like Mehldau or more directly M.Sayyid taught me to always keep the process running. This dude is always creating beats no matter what. Wake up at 5 am, go to the pool, brings his son to school, and goes to the studio, writing lyrics & making beats. I Also met writer Douglas Kennedy once on a TV show (Des mots de Minuit, France 2, 2014) where I was performing with my Trio at the time and he told me, that he was forcing himself to write a least like 10 phrases a day, no matter what. Just to be always in process. – Making sure I have a good energy that surrounds me so I can be fully dedicated. That’s the hardest actually. Recently, I am finally feeling comfortable when I produce, knowing exactly how things should sound, even though I don’t know where the tune is going. It’s very new and exciting for me.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

– To make a great release with ‘Hey Boi! feat. Dixie’ 

– Release many other tracks (got plenty of others with Dixie)

– Prepare a good show with her and tour a bit (a lot 😉 ). 

– Find good management! That’s definitely my priority. 

– (For upcoming years 😉 Do some features with inspiring artists like Lianne La Havas, Jgrrey, Celeste, Daniel Caesar, H.E.R, Earthgang, Kali Uchis…

Famous last words?

Let’s gooooo!!!

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