Next month singer Helen Porter visits Endelienta with her new show ‘Constant As The World‘. We sat down with Helen to chat about her inspiration, career and what we can expect to hear in her latest performance.
You’ve had a distinguished career as a musician, both singing and composing, where did it all start for you and how did you get to where you are today?
It started from a very early age. My mum taught me to read music and play the piano before I was even at school. I was born a musician, and always loved the creative arts (I was hopeless at sciences) although singing didn’t come until much later. I went to a liberal and creative school with a specialist music department, where I studied piano and clarinet. But to be a singer, you must be confident, or at least, to produce your voice confidently. I lacked that in my early twenties. My path took me instead to a career as a musical director and theatre composer. The world of theatre was opened up for me at Bristol University, where I studied music and drama, and wrote music for the plays performed in the department. On graduating I was part of a theatre company in Bristol founded by students until I moved to the Netherlands in the early 1990’s, where I set up my own music theatre company. I lean naturally towards story-telling and drama in song-writing, which I suppose comes from my innate love of theatre.
It is only now that I am embarking on a solo mission, which says a lot about how confidence comes with age. Without doubt, one of the most important aspects of my development has been my teaching. Over the years I have taught singers both amateur and professional, choirs and vocal groups, as well as coaching for Helen Chadwick’s Song Theatre and the National Theatre. Through teaching and observation of other singers, and working with other voice professionals, I have learned a great deal about the art of performance. It’s only now that I have felt ready to join all the dots together – singing, playing piano, composing, writing lyrics and performing – and am loving every moment of it.
As well as playing some classics in your latest show, you also play your own songs, how do you approach song writing? And could you please tell us a little about the process behind it?
The best way to learn about song-writing is from the great song-writers and lyricists of the twentieth century. Over the last fifteen or so years I’ve become very familiar with the jazz standards repertoire. I love the harmonies and rhythms of jazz songs, the great melodies, the simplicity of form, which makes the songs so immediate – they draw in the listener. In my own song-writing, however, I don’t want to be restricted by the theme. Almost all jazz standards (certainly all pop songs) are about love in all its guises. I want to write about things going on in the world, subjects that matter to me (the environment, political unrest, every day realities), and therefore, hopefully, to the listening public.
‘Constant As The World’ began with a project I called ‘Thirty Songs in Thirty Days’. I made myself chose a subject – a newspaper headline, a recent event, a conversation – and then write something everything day – unfinished, sketchy pieces of work – which I allowed to be ‘rubbish’. At the end of the month, I had about thirty sketches, of which I thought five or so could be developed in to something more substantial. From then on, it’s all about discipline! I was guided by a quote from the great song-writer Jimmy Webb, speaking on Master tapes: “If I’m not sitting at my piano, nothing will happen.” I consider it to be like sculpture – you are confronted with a huge lump of stone, unformed, but within it there is something aching to get out. You just have to have the right tools to do it, a lot of patience and persistence.
As well as being a singer you’re an accomplished pianist, could you tell us about the relationship between singing and playing?
When I sing without accompanying myself at the piano – i.e. performing with the quartet Misbehavin’ – I am more self-conscious on stage. Playing the piano while singing allows me to immerse myself in the performance – to shape the song exactly as I want it, to phrase it, control it. People often say to singer-instrumentalists ‘How do you manage do two things at once?’ I think that’s the point – you’re not. The two come together as one and are inseparable. As a solo performer I am fully in control of the process. If something unexpected occurs while performing, I can ‘manage’ that in an instant. Sometimes it can make the song all the more interesting for it!
Your upcoming show won’t be your first time at Endelienta, as many regulars will know, what is it that makes you want to come back and perform here again?
All musicians love to perform in the church with it’s wonderful acoustic, of course. The welcome at St.Endellion is always so warm and friendly, from all the Endelienta volunteer staff as well as the audience. I always appreciate the audience, many of whom must travel from some distance to hear live music. The contact is always professional and thorough, and artists are respected and treated well. This matters a great deal to performers. Not all venues offer the level of hospitality and consideration towards artists that Endelienta does.
And finally, once this tour’s done, what’s next? Can we expect another visit soon?
I like to ring the changes, embarking on new projects and ideas as much as possible. The solo venture is very new to me, and I’m not done with it yet. However, it will take me a year or more to write a new set of songs, so ‘soon’ might not be possible. Hopefully in a couple of year’s time, if I’m invited!
Helen Porter performs ‘Constant As The World’ at Endelienta on March 2nd 2019, tickets are available here: https://endelienta.org.uk/product/saturday-2-march-helen-porter/