Singer-Songwriter Scott Helman on Why 'The Real Currency of Music Is Authenticity'
Toronto’s Scott Helman, who is signed to Warner Music Canada, made his U.S. debut on a month-long tour with Walk Off The Earth back in 2015. He is heading out soon for nine dates starting May 31 in New York, and has just released a new video for “Ripple Effect,” from his full-length debut, Hotel de Ville. In Canada, he will open for Vance Joy's tour in late June.
The 22-year-old started writing songs around age 12 and initially landed a development deal with Warner Music Canada at age 15, which progressed to a full-blown direct deal. In Canada, “Bungalow,” the first single from 2014’s EP Augusta, reached No. 31 on the Billboard Canadian Hot 100 chart, staying on the chart for 22 weeks, and eventually going platinum. His most recent Billboard chart action was with “PDA,” also certified gold at home.
Helman talked to Billboard about the new video, starting fresh in other territories, his social good forum, if record execs really do smoke big fat cigars, and a rather unusual bar he went to in Japan.
You just got back from a European tour, where you had toured in 2015 with Walk Off The Earth. Did that lay the groundwork in terms of setting you up for this visit?
In Canada, I can do a headline tour and know that people are going to show up, whereas in Europe, it goes back to the old thing of the artist is the real point of contact. That’s where you figure out how things are going. Playing a show is the best way to test a market. It was like I was back in Canada starting out again, but it was cool because I had that kickstart with Walk Off The Earth. Each show I had no idea who was going to show up so the first show there was 40 people, and then the next there was like 100 people, and then we played in a restaurant in Paris, and then the next day we played in Amsterdam and there was like 180 people. Then we went to Spain and in Spain I’m on their big pop station there, they’re playing "PDA," so they had me on their radio-sponsored a music festival and there was like 22,000 people in the audience. It was completely insane. So I’m back in the boxing ring just trying to get some music out there and it’s pretty cool to be able to do that in another continent.
When you talk to your fans afterwards, what do they tell you in terms of how they discovered your music?
A lot of them discovered me through Walk Off The Earth. Some of them discovered me through Drunk Advice with a girl called Hannah Witton from London. She’s a YouTuber. It’s quite funny. You get drunk and answer people’s questions on the Internet. So just through the Internet, or their friend heard my music and showed them.
And are you anticipating the same type reception when you go to the States at the end of the month? You also toured there with Walk Off The Earth.
I have no idea. I just go where they say to go and I chime in every now and then, and I do what I love, which is to play music. It’s more fun than anxiety because the stakes are higher, but if only 12 people show up, it’s not like headline, ‘Scott Helman Only Sold 12 Tickets.’ It’s fun, 12 is awesome because had I played a show in Detroit four years ago, there would have been negative people.
You started working with Warner when you 15. You’re now 22. What did you imagine the music industry bigwigs to be like -- cutthroat, smoking big fat cigars?
When I was 15, I had a pretty dark outlook on music. I thought everybody was out to get me and I thought that people were in the business of trying to change me or make me marketable. I think that’s a fear that anybody would have, generally, as an artist but especially when you’re a teenager. The idea of someone telling you how to act is really scary. So I thought it was a bunch of cigar-smoking dudes in suits driving Lexuses throwing checks around. When I met [A&R people] like Ron Lopata, or Victor Mijares, or especially [Warner Music Canada president] Steve Kane, I was quite surprised that most of the people at my label were people that really loved music and were excited about it.
I hit the record label system at a really opportune time because it was the moment where I think the label started to realize that, because there’s streaming and because they’re losing so much revenue through streaming, instead of trying to get pop hits on the radio, they had to develop career artists. I seemed to be one of the selections of people that wanted to try and develop into a follow-able artist, which is pretty cool.
I think that that’s a smart way to do it because the '90s up until mid 2000s, the currency of music was hit after hit after hit. I think, now more than ever, we’re really in the currency of exchanging lifestyles and ideas and personalities, and authenticity. So that whole mythology of the Lexus-driving, cigar-smoking asshole, that was like, "C’mon kid you got to wear a cap and look like Justin Bieber," that whole myth fell apart for me and I started to sort of be like, "Maybe I should actually listen to these people because they listen to the Velvet Underground as well."
People always comment on what a nice guy you are. What’s the most rock n’ roll thing you’ve done while you’ve been on the road?
I remember when I was in Tokyo, I was there at the same time as USS, and they had told me, "Dude you got to come to this bar." I was like, "Okay." But when someone says something like that to you, in a certain way you’re like something’s going on here, so I felt like I needed to see. So they took me to this bar and basically you walk up to this bar, and you say, "We are famous in Canada" and they just say "Okay" — I won’t say the name of the bar because I don’t know if this bar is run by the Japanese mafia but I think there’s a large chance it is — and they basically sit you down, and the bar is completely empty, and start bringing you out bottles and bottles of alcohol, and then they start bringing you out food, like fried chicken, french fries, all this shit, and it’s all free. It’s the most bizarre thing. There’s dudes lighting hookahs for you, and then like 45-minutes in, they bring out all these models. The models don’t really talk to you; they’re just there. I’m in the kind of concept pool that rock n’ roll is dead, and I think that’s a good thing, I think that lifestyle of like everything is disposable — women, food, alcohol, other people’s jobs — that to me is what rock n’ roll is at this point and I think it’s so fucking lame. I was beside myself. It was weird, man. It was like they were trying to fulfill this idea of what they thought musicians wanted, so unnatural and bizarre, and it was just gross.
Well that sounds like your next video setting. Tell us about your new video for the song "Ripple Effect."
Like I said, I think at this point the real currency of music is authenticity and reality. I’ve just been through enough music videos that felt like contrived or didn’t feel like they hit the mark properly for what I was trying to convey. This song really came out of a dark conversation that I had with the people that I co-write with. Essentially, we were all talking about dark things that happened to us, and, at the end of the conversation, we were talking about how when you’re in a fight with someone that you love, and you’re yelling at them and they’re yelling back, you get that thing where all of a sudden you’re like, "I’m not yelling at this person. Someone else in me is angry and I don’t need to be that person," and then that morphed into this song that was about shedding that skin of negativity and just enjoying life.
So initially what I wanted to do with this video was I went with my girlfriend to London to visit my family and I took all this home footage of us hanging out and being together, and then I cut it into a video, a little travel clip, and I sent it to the label. I said, "Is this something that you guys think would be a cool way to start a video?" and they were like, "This is really cool." Then I started talking to [director] Ben [Knechtel] about a video concept and that inspired this idea of the next iteration of the video.
The video itself was inspired by the John Lennon "Imagine" video, where John Lennon is playing the piano and then Yoko Ono is slowly opening the blinds behind him. We were like, it’d be neat if we did the same thing, but did the opposite, instead of opening up to the world, we were shutting out the world and creating our own paradise inside this room. And then once we had that concept it was like, why don’t we use some of this footage and some of these projections as overlays? I thought it was neat because I wanted to make a space that felt insular and felt like as we occupied it more and more it became our own.
And lastly you started a social good forum called Solve The Solvable. What is it and how do people get engaged?
Solve The Solvable is an initiative to get people to seek out their cause of choice to create positive change in the world. They can do it at SolvetheSolvable.com. There’s also a Facebook page. I get to share my music with people and I also get to share so many aspects of my life, and what I’m passionate about, that for me Solve The Solvable had a lot to do with wanting to give people that outlet as well, and I thought the best way to do that was to create a community. I tell people in interviews about it but I’m going to try to do something at shows, maybe try to get a pamphlet about it at the merch table that helps people get involved.