Exclusive Artist Diary with ... JILL HELENA - Jan 31, 2011
“If people haven’t heard me sing, they are like, ‘Are you that good?’ Maybe I should be humble about it, but hey, if you’ve got it flaunt it.”
By her own admission our guest diarist, Jill Helena, is no shrinking violet when it comes to proclaiming her prodigious talents as a performer. But this rising Dutch pop star needn’t make any apologies for her brimming self-confidence; the music industry is a notoriously unforgiving place and if you’re not armed with a steely sense of your own worth your ego will be lucky to survive the battering it’ll suffer as you make a claim for pop stardom. Of course, any boasts not backed up with bone fide talent will just come across as delusional, but fortunately Helena is the real deal and just needs to make the right connections and find the right songs to realise her great potential, as her Artist Diary reveals.
by Jill Helena
Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to perform. In fact I have wanted to be a star since I was virtually in utero, which is odd, because in my day-to-day life I’m actually quiet and a bit of a shy person. I don’t really want to be out at the front, but on stage, well that’s another story altogether …
It all started for me when my family and I went on a little vacation when I was four. There was this contest where people could perform. Being as young as I was I had no fears and was determined to put on a show. Performing alone and also with my sister, we both won the first prize in each category. Needless to say, both my parents were flabbergasted. This shy little girl was expressing herself in public in a way that they hadn’t seen before. They had expected me to break out in tears as soon as I got on stage, but on the contrary, I instead broke out of my shell.
As a kid I could always remember lyrics easily, but since Dutch is my first language I didn’t always know what I was singing, even if I could pronounce the sounds. For instance, there was an African song that was a hit here and although no one knew what the lyrics actually were I could sing along to every word of it.
By singing along in the car, in my room, in school, on my bicycle, etc. I started to notice that the sounds that came out of my mouth were pretty good. So I decided to keep practicing - especially when there was actual homework to be done, when you could always be sure that instead of math I’d be up in my room singing my lungs out.
When I was 14, there was a talent show in my school and naturally I wanted to sing in that too. I decided to do ‘Ben’ by Michael Jackson, not realising at the time that it was a love song to a rat. My knees were trembling by the time I walked on stage, but it also felt so good! When I told my mom that I was gonna perform, she gasped, “Can you sing?!” She gasped again when she then saw me performing at school – but this time in a good way.
After that performance, I started doing talent shows every chance I had in order to get more stage experience. By doing those shows, I got to know a lot of people and slowly started to develop a fan base. Soon, people wanted to book me for their private parties or public shows in bars and big outdoor events.
Taste of the High Life
Once, I got a call from a friend who was at that time in Saint-Tropez. He asked me if I was available to perform there two days later, and of course, I said yes. The only problem was that there were no available flights to get there. So they arranged for a private jet to pick me up! My mom and sister flew with me, and we felt like princesses! And cooler still, princesses with their own plane, and our own staff! When we arrived at the airport in France, a car was ready to pick us up. “We could get used to this!” we thought.
Last year I had a gig in South Africa for a wedding. The flight lasted over 12 hours, and I had to perform for 45 minutes. If people haven’t heard me sing, they are like, “Are you that good?” Maybe I should be humble about it, but hey, if you’ve got it flaunt it. I just tell them, “Yes, I am, in fact, that good. I am so good that people want to book me on the other side of the world to perform. And they fly me around on private jets, and drive me around in limos, and send me Enrique Iglesias to be my private cabana boy …” OK, that last part hasn’t actually happened - not yet anyway.
In 2009, I decided that Holland wasn’t big enough and wasn’t getting me the contacts I needed to get where I wanted, so I decided to pack my bags and head to L.A.
I went online and started sending rough demos to various big names. I started talking to a lot of interesting people and eventually got hooked up with Derek Bramble (‘American Idol’, Anastacia, Whitney Houston, Sweetbox, David Bowie, Faith Hill, Will Smith). Upon hearing my voice, he was so impressed he asked me to come over.
It was a big gamble, because in three months permitted by my visa, I managed to spend every cent I’d saved. With no money left for rent or hotels, I could barely afford a decent meal. But I stuck with it with the help of my dear mum and sister. I knew my luck would change.
“[Moving to L.A.] was a big gamble, because in the three months permitted by my visa, I managed to spend every cent I’d saved.”And change it did when I met Gwendolyn Priestley, a well-known publicist (she worked with artists such as Bette Midler, Melissa Etheridge, Gloria Estefan, Natalie Cole and Tupac Shakur). She put a roof over my head and food on the table, letting me move in with her niece. And she introduced me to some very interesting people and sorted out some very interesting gigs for me. She also hooked me up with Karrie Butterfield, CEO of 7fourteen Entertainment, the producer Young Trey (Ice T) and Chyno, a singer/songwriter who worked with Angie Stone. We co-wrote some songs and recorded in some really fancy pants studios. The crazy part was, they were so excited to work with me, they worked for free.
Needless to say, they helped my career, as I got more and more experience in the studio and grew as an artist as well as an individual. The more contacts you have, the better.
But just when things were starting to get going my visa ran out and I had to return home to Holland.
There had also been contacts with L.A. Reid. He wanted to meet me, but it took too long. Also Gwen had contact with Randy Jackson — he was interested in meeting me, but it didn't come to that. And a real shame I didn't end up working with Derek [Bramble], though I met him several times and we’d hoped to.
Return to the Lowlands
When I returned to Holland I got back in contact with a manager I’d first met in 2007 through a mutual acquaintance. We’d both been on the same page in terms of our perspective on music, but the time wasn't right yet for us to really work together. He was doing other things, and so was I, and so we lost touch.
When I came back from L.A I contacted him to see how he was. He had quit the projects he was working on and with that door opened, I told him about my experiences in L.A., and we met a few weeks later. We brainstormed as to what the next steps could be. We decided to go for it and work our asses off! He now devotes all his time to me.
When I got back, my manager and I decided to go for it and work our asses off! As I was so R&B driven, it proved a struggle to find the right songs and so we decided to tone down the R&B feel and go more pop. That opened up a whole new concept for me.
”We decided to tone down the R&B feel and go more pop. That opened up a whole new concept for me.” My management has been fantastic throughout in making things happen. They started contacting everybody, and it was interesting to see the phone getting hot from outgoing calls. With their Scandinavian connections, they got in touch with Lars from DEEKAY (JLS, Missy, P. Diddy, Sugababes, Ronan Keating). When DEEKAY heard one of my old demos they were so impressed by my vocal abilities that they started sending songs. Out of these I found four that I truly loved and a deal was struck. I went into the studio in nearby Belgium to cut the vocals and then we sent them back.
Thanks to the DEEKAY tracks, a pattern started to emerge. So to develop this direction further we put a notice out on SongQuarters and Songlink and an avalanche of requests came in from all over. And then along came the amazing Charlie Mason/Stefan Almqvist/Elias Kapari (Miley Cyrus, Sarah Connor). Them and their song ideas provided me with the platform to really develop and solidify my own style. We recorded their songs at Eclectic Studios in Stockholm, and I had a blast. One of the songs “Egotastic” is all about me and love it, love it, love it!
My management also contacted Eric Beall (HQ interview) of Shapiro Bernstein, who was stunned with my ability to sing, and he sent us some amazing songs, as did Natalie Chalcraft and John Saunderson of Notting Hill Music in L.A and London, and Mozart & Friends in Germany.
So finally, it looks like my dream of doing what I love to do will come true … by working very, very hard and keeping the faith and especially by reaching the audience. There’s nothing better to me than really getting to you – whether I get you pumped or make you angry, or reduce you to tears or make you wanna shake your ass. I’m addicted to ‘reactions’, to making an audience feel and to finding out what they feel.
I believe things in life go the way that they are meant to go. We each have received certain gifts, and my gift is performance; my voice, my presence. That may sound like, “Man, is she ever full of herself!” And frankly, maybe I am. But I know what I am and what I’ve got, and I intend to use it. You’re welcome to come along for the ride.
How can I be so sure of my destiny? Try this on for size: I was born deaf. I’m not kidding. When I was a baby I couldn’t hear. Luckily, the doctors found out in time to operate on my ears. If they hadn’t, I would not have been able to hear … or sing. So I am truly grateful for the gift that I have received. Do I enjoy my mischief? Do I come off brash and cocky sometimes? Sure. But at least I’m a hype that you can believe in. Fasten your seatbelts: 2011 is gonna be a rollercoaster!
Next week: President of Parlophone Miles Leonard on the rise of Tinie Tempah and Eliza Doolittle, and international success with Coldplay and Gorillaz
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