Scott Helman unveiled his new album, Nonsuch Park, on Friday (Sept. 4). Dedicated to the memory of his late grandfather, the LP is intended to be the first in a new series by the Canadian pop singer.
Across 11 tracks including lead single “Wait No More,” Helman cleverly explores everything from the constantly changing state of the world (“Evergreen”) and betrayal from a past love (“True Crime”) to the Toronto-born artist’s perspective on the upheaval happening in his home country’s neighbor to the south (“Afraid of America”) through the lens of his singer-songwriter-driven pop.
Below, Helman chatted exclusively with Billboard ahead of his album release about his earliest musical memories, releasing an album during a pandemic, his current passions outside of music, and more.
What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
David Bowie’s Greatest Hits on CD. I remember obsessing for months over the photo of all the many faces splotched together and was infatuated with every song. Bowie taught me that I could be whoever I want to be. He also turned me on to so much other art, from Nine Inch Nails to William S Burroughs to Little Richard to The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol (who I now think was overrated, but that’s a whole other issue altogether!)
What was the first concert you saw?
Backstreet Boys at three years old. Don’t remember a thing. I think I blacked out from sheer excitement.
What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?
My mum stayed at home to raise us, and she was a painter (still is! And a damn good one too!). My dad worked the classic business job — go to work at 7:00 a.m. and home for dinner. He worked hard and so did my mum. I take after my mum, most likely because we were together so much, and I fell in love with art at a very young age.
Who or what made you realize you could be an artist full-time?
A combination of alcohol, teenage angst, hard work and good luck. I remember the day, actually. I played a show at some tiny cafe in Toronto, which is now gone, and the only people there were my close friends and my parents. It was embarrassing beyond belief. But it was also exciting. It sort of legitimized what I was doing in my head, even though it really could have just been in my living room. I remember going back to my friend’s house that night and we stole some booze from her mum’s liquor cabinet. I stood on the island in her kitchen and shouted at everyone “I’M GOING TO BE A MUSICIAN.” They said “okay,” told me to get the hell off, and that was pretty much that.
What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?
To direct a short film. To play arenas. To move to the woods and write an acoustic album and record it on a broken tape machine. To start a pop-punk band. To tour South America. To meet Paul Simon. Too much!
How did your hometown/city shape who you are?
The Toronto I grew up in was whatever you wanted it to be. With so many cultures all mixed together, the options for exploration, education, and perspective was endless. I think it made me open and free to new ideas, and also be compassionate about my art. When you see a strong community like in the hip hop movement that happened here when I was younger, you come to know the intrinsic power that music can have. Mostly though it nurtured my inner outsider, and I was able to find like-minded people amongst the overbearing mundanity of modern urban life.
What’s the last song you listened to?
“Woo!” by Remi Wolf. And everything by Halsey.
If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your sets?
I didn’t technically see this, but I was aware of it after it happened. A fan tweeted me after a show that she had briefly met a girl in the crowd and had fallen in love with her. Unfortunately, she didn’t get a number, so she couldn’t contact her and was worried she’d be lost forever. I retweeted and asked my fans to help and they came to the rescue, reuniting the couple so this girl could tell the other how she felt. I believe they’re together now, and quite happy!
What’s the weirdest or most unique venue you’ve played?
I played in a strip club in Quebec once. There were like 5 people in the whole place. That was weird. I also played in a reconstructed WWII bunker in Germany. I’m Jewish, so that was weird, too. Pretty cool, though.
Which band would you drop everything to join if you were asked?
None. I don’t want to be in a band. Too many opinions. (But maybe Radiohead if they asked really nicely!)
What TV series have you watched all the way through multiple times?
The Office, Friends and The Haunting of Hill House.
What’s one thing that even your most devoted fans don’t know about you?
I’m one of those assholes that plug their ears when a fire truck passes by.
If you were not a musician, what would you be?
Maybe a tattoo artist. Or a writer. Or a teacher. Or a chef!
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Stop thinking that negativity equals strength. Being positive isn’t weak. Fake-happy is worse than real-sad, sure, but real happy is better than anything.
How did your grandfather inspire Nonsuch Park?
At my grandfather’s funeral, I gave the eulogy. The last line pretty much sums up how I feel about him: “My papa’s answer to life — believe in love, see the world, stand by your friends, never drink white wine if it isn’t cold enough, don’t be an idiot, don’t fall for tricks, work hard, and please, for heaven’s sake, enjoy yourself.”
The “enjoy yourself” part is crucial. My Papa sought to fully experience life, and he did. He learned lots along the way and shared his lessons. He was a hysterical man, a thoughtful man, and his desire to nurture those around him was paramount. His connection to my art wasn’t clear until he was gone, and I had time to reflect on how deeply ingrained his philosophies are in mine, and how inspired I was by his life.
What are the challenges of releasing an album during a pandemic?
It’s hard knowing a live show is far away. The most exciting part of releasing music is being able to share it with fans. There’s also a ton of music being released all at once now, so the fear of getting buried amongst the noise worries me. But that has always worried me, so I just keep on releasing music and that seems to be working!
What are the benefits/positives of releasing an album during a pandemic?
I like the surrender. There’s not many other outlets right now. I am a songwriter in my heart, so to still be able to create and release is a gift.
What do you miss most about performing in front of a live audience?
Mostly meeting fans, feeling like the songs are being brought to life, and eating strange dishes in strange places with my wonderful friends. And the exercise! Haha!
What’s something you’ve been passionate about lately outside of your work?
Stick and poke tattoos, baking, reading history and rock climbing!