Interview with Jade Helliwell

I’m sat on a bench outside The O2 Arena in London on day 2 of the C2C Festival. Beside me sits Jade Helliwell, whose festival is now a wrap. After performing an acoustic set on Friday afternoon, and fresh from a full band set today, she is now wrapped warmly in a thick and fluffy green coat, protected against the cold wind blowing rather strongly in our direction. She is the northerner who has come prepared. I, on the other hand, in my thin jacket and light summery trousers, am the northerner with much still to learn.

Her C2C experience has gone “really well”, which is more than can be said for my choice of clothing. “It’s been a long weekend…. [But] it was fun”. The fact that she describes her full band set as having “a party vibe” suggests as much. But her positive energy suggests that the weekend could go on a bit longer. You can tell that she’s enjoyed herself and is on a high.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see her with a full band. But I did make it to her acoustic set the previous day, which was “a bit more stripped back. People can get more of the songwriting aspect of it and the lyrics”. I completely agree. I was struck by the ability to hear the craft that had gone into her songs, particularly from a lyrical perspective. It made me appreciate her talents as a writer as well as a musician. Is there a particular process she follows when crafting her songs?

“It changes to be honest. A lot of the time I’ll start with an idea that’s a lyric, like a hook or chorus idea, and I’ll basically tie a song around that. And sometimes I might have a lyric and I know it’s not a hook but I want to work that in and I’ll build a song around that…. And sometimes I’ll just have a melody in my head and I don’t know what the song’s going to be about but I just like it and I’ll work with that sound”.

She also mentions the difference in writing on your own and co-writing. She expands on this by saying that the latter “brings ideas out that you wouldn’t have had yourself or puts a different spin on an idea that you’ve had”. In today’s divisive society, this sounds like something we could learn from. Which does she prefer?

“I’d not done much co-writing up until… two years ago, and then I started doing more and more… because I think it just pulls out things in you that you didn’t realise – ideas that you wouldn’t have had yourself but, in conversation before writing, someone might say, ‘That’s interesting. Why don’t we write about that?’ I love that, so… I’m hoping to do a lot more of it throughout the year”.

One of her most recent collaborators has been fellow northerner Jess Thristan. Although she admits that “I always thought she was from London, because I see her, she’s down here all the time”. It was only through messaging each other that Jade found out that “we actually live twenty minutes away from each other up north. I was like, ‘This is an excuse to write [with her] all the time’”.

It sounds like a rare occurrence, to find a fellow country musician within fairly close range of another in the north. Particularly as the country music scene in the UK still feels rather London-centric at present. Does she think that?

“I do think it’s something that needs to grow a bit more up north. I’m quite lucky that I’m quite close to Manchester, about forty minutes away, and Manchester’s a really good scene for country music at the moment. If that can just transfer a little bit up to Leeds and into Wales – spread a little more – that would be great”.

One such event which suggests that the tide might be turning is the very first Belles & Gals showcase in Manchester, which Jade is headlining. Taking place on Good Friday, it will also feature Hannah Paris and Shannon Hynes. She confesses that it’s “a big honour” to be asked to headline the show. “I’ve heard lots of people say they’re coming and I’ve been thinking about set lists and what I want to sing so I’m really excited”. Indeed, the excitement with which she talks about it is palpable, even as I detect a touch of nervousness in her voice. But I put this is down to the responsibility that she feels in headlining the show. Quietly, she confides, “I think I’m going to do alright”.

I ask how important Belles & Gals are for championing female country artists. Although she doesn’t feel like it’s as much of a problem in the UK as it is in the US, she still thinks that it’s “great” that they are supporting females and shedding a light on the gender imbalance within the music industry. It is encouraging to hear that Helliwell hasn’t experienced any discrimination herself as a female: “I’ve never felt like that’s the reason why I’ve not got on the bill or a gig or anything”. It is also encouraging to hear that her journey into country music has been as a result of hearing female country musicians:

“I grew up not really listening to country. I listened to a little bit and knew some Dolly Parton…, and my mum would play Shania Twain when I was younger, but that was like the extent of my country knowledge, until I got to 16… and listened to Taylor Swift’s first album. And then it was on YouTube, all the recommended videos and stuff, people like Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler. I sort of listened to these people I’d never heard of before and was like, ‘This is amazing’, so I listened to more and more”.

It was a trip to Nashville which “cemented it”: “I was like…, ‘This is what I want to be singing. This is my sound’”. It is a sound that has been influenced since by artists like Kelsea Ballerini, Danielle Bradbery, and Maren Morris. As a result, her music has taken on a distinctly pop element. It can be heard on both her latest EP Infatuation, and her latest single Stormchaser. She admits that this was a “conscious decision”: “I want people to have a good time listening to my music and it’s upbeat”. Any comparisons with Carrie Underwood are simply coincidental, though “I’ll take that. That’s a great compliment”.

Her new single Stormchaser has only been out a day when we speak. But it has already had a “great response”. She explains how the song came about: from “an idea that Jason [Tucker] started with a writer called Daisy Davies about chasing storms being similar to chasing people who are bad for you, or jobs that are bad for you – any sort of relationship”. Interestingly, she developed it with Jason and fellow writer Luke Thomas out in Nashville – co-writing is clearly her new forte. And if the results are this good, then who can blame her for wanting to do more.

She offers the usual promotional spiel that the single is available on Spotify, to stream and download online. I take this as an opportunity to ask her how she feels about the current climate, where streaming for free is fast becoming the default, and how she balances this with being a full-time musician.

She admits that she’s “fairly new” to the whole thing, as “I’ve always been a CD girl myself”. She recognises the advantages of her music being easily accessible for people who may come across her music, like her set, and then want to hear more. But she also admits that “it can be stressful on the financial side of things… when you are self-funded and full-time and… still relatively early in my career”.

It comes back around to that bridging of a gap that Katy Hurt has identified: between listening to an artist and actually supporting them. Jade sees it as a simple, linear progression:

“I think it starts out with them listening to your music and if they like it then that support comes next. I’ve had lots of people listen to my music, like it, follow it, and then they’ll come to a gig and that’s probably where that gap can be bridged. Yeah, they’ll listen to you on Spotify but they’ll also come out and see you play and buy your physical CDs… or buy your t-shirts…, introduce your music to their friends and try and get their friends involved and I think that’s more the support of the artist”.

This seems to shift the emphasis more onto live music and live performance. It makes something like the Belles & Gals showcases that much more important. If this is where musicians are having to turn to make their money, then music venues need support now more than ever.

It is getting cold. At least, for me it is. Whilst I am now seriously having to force myself to stop shaking, Jade seems comfortable enough to carry on chatting some more. Sadly, not even her positive energy can prevent me from wrapping up the interview by asking one final question: What else does 2019 hold for her?

 “I’ve just been announced to play at Buckles & Boots in May…. I’m going to be on the Main Stage on the Sunday so I’m hoping to take the band with me again and… hopefully get that party vibe on”.

Hopefully by May it will have warmed up. If not, then I’m sure that party vibe will encourage dancing enough to ensure that we’re not cold for long. I might take a leaf out of Jade’s book anyway and go prepared with much warmer attire than today. Before then though, there is the Belles & Gals showcase, which thankfully, will be indoors. And indoors is where I’m heading next. Meanwhile, for Jade, she’s off to get some well-earned rest.

Originally written for Building Our Own Nashville.

Featured Image (C) Jade Helliwell

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