Sometimes it’s more important to know what you don’t want than what you do want.
Helen Townsend is an independent artist poised to release her debut album. It is actually the second one the flaxen haired singer songwriter has recorded. The recording sessions for the first, completely self funded, one ended with 12 tracks she put down with Australia’s wise old man of alt-country Bill Chambers. Only one of them, Promised Land, a duet that was co-written by the pair, has made the cut on Little Lover, the album Townsend will launch on Friday, August 23, at the Duke of George.
When watching Townsend on stage as well as being struck by her talent as writer and singer there is is an utterly beguiling charm on display. There is always a sense that she just doesn’t know how good she is.
A single mother with teenage children, Townsend had saved hard to finance this recording. She’d had a great time working with the seriously laid back Chambers but as she listened to the recordings she somehow wasn’t as excited as she thought she would be. The follow up to her very promising debut EP Wayward Heart was in her hands and as keen as she was to be releasing her album she had a feeling that refused to let go, a feeling that something was missing.
She recalled that when she worked with Chambers she was not well. She felt it was more than that though but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She took the recordings and played them for colleagues and friends whose opinions she trusted. One of them was veteran bass player John Wilson.
Wilson invited Townsend to his home studio. “I said that I wasn’t sure but there seems to be something missing from these recordings. He said, ‘listen to this,’ and he played a few songs off my album and then he said, ‘now listen to Norah Jones.’ I was like, ‘oh my God.’ He said, ‘you are not in love with your songs and you are not delivering it like you mean it. It’s actually your performance that is lacking.‘ I told him I loved him for being so honest.”
Hearing what her heart knew, Townsend went back to saving for her debut album. Again. She ditched all but four of the songs she had recorded during the Chambers’ sessions as well as writing another batch – which she considers far superior – as she searched for the sound she heard in her head. Her instinct proved right. With support from her production team of Belle Harvey, James Vinciullo and James Newhouse Little Lover sparkles and shines as it announces the emergence of a fully formed talent.
Townsend describes herself as something of a musical primitive and felt she needed to team with like minded but much more musically gifted souls who got her and would help her make her album her way. Principally this was Harvey, but there was also strong input from guitarist Newhouse as well as Vinciullo, the bass player from Harvey’s band. Multi instrumentalist Lee Jones was brought in to help with the arrangements.
Towards the end of the process Drummer Elliott Smith came on board to guide Townsend as she further refined what she had captured. “He said, ‘let’s look at this like a stage play. You can introduce all these characters but they have to fit.’ Lee set those characters up in each of them. I have the feeling that I set the stage and they placed the people. I don’t know music enough to do that. And to some degree the fact that I don’t know gives it space.”
“My EP focussed on the folkie/bluegrass side of what I do with Ian Simpson and Bluegrass Parkway. Those acoustic instruments made the EP the way it was. I didn’t walk into that EP thinking I want this sound and this kind of thing. I just walked in ignorantly and had no idea. I walked in with a song and because of my voice and the way I play a guitar they said you fit in with this genre and we will surround you with these instruments to enhance that. I heard that and thought that was great but it has taken me a while to appreciate what they all did. But it was what they all did that created the sound and not me.
“When I was at home playing them solo, in my brain I am hearing something kind of different, maybe a different vibe or something more bluesy or jazzy and I couldn’t get that across. It all kept coming out folkie and I explained that to Belle and she said we need to get references. We were looking at Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams for eference.”
Their influence can be heard but the now more confident Townsend is happy to keep working on a song until until she feels it is how it should be.
Townsend has travelled to Nashville for the Americana music festival the past two years. Both trips have played their part in the evolution of Little Lover. The first trip had her paying attention to the rhythm sections and she was struck by how each of the bands she saw that had impressed her had a concise, dynamic foundation. The result was that when she returned home she and Harvey chose musicians who were not principally country pickers and gave clear direction to not simply play a country shuffle on any of the songs unless instructed to do so.
In 2018 Townsend returned to Nashville and Americana. This time she landed a slot at the famed Bluebird Cafe. A representative of one of our national country music bodies confided that by far the most feedback he received following the showcase was about Townsend. Typically, when I had asked how the Bluebird showcase went, she said simply that is was “ok.”
This is no false modesty. When watching Townsend on stage as well as being struck by her talent as writer and singer there is is an utterly beguiling charm on display. There is always a sense that she just doesn’t know how good she is.
Another thing also happened on that last Nashville trek. While there she went to see the famed Time Jumpers at their legendary Third and Lindsley Monday night residency. There in the dark watching some of country music’s biggest pickers she realised she wanted to change something she had previously thought was perfect.
The beautiful piano ballad Just One More Day was always going to be the centrepiece of the album, a song that shows Townsend’s talents stripped bare. Jones had created a piano part and recorded it but as Townsend watched blind pianist Gordon Mote in this bar in Nashville she knew she wanted to start over. Mote has a beautiful style that just has an ache and an edge that goes straight to the heart. She felt it was perfect for her song.
“Even though Lee had spent time figuring out a part on the piano and recording it, I came back from Nashville and said I want to redo it. He got it and went back and reworked it.” The results are simply stunning.
There is one song on the album that did not have anywhere near that much thought put into it. If Just One More Day shows where Townsend is now, her cover of Merle Haggard’s Big City takes her back to the beginning of her performing career. “It was the only song I knew all the way through when I came to Perth nine years ago.”
There was an open mic night at the Hilton Park Bowling Club. The MC asked her companion if he would sing a song. He declined and instead volunteered Townsend.“I told him I only know one song. He said, ‘that’s ok, sing that.’ So I did. I came back again later and he asked me again. I said, ‘I still only know one song.’ He said, ‘that’s ok, sing it again.’”
She sang Big City again last weekend at the Hilton Park Bowling Club. Of course this time she had a bunch of her own remarkable songs to go with it.
Helen Townsend launches Little Lover on Friday August 23 at the Duke on George. Tickets available from moshtix.com.au