Meet: We put dream pop maestros Heligoland under the microscope and review their shimmering new album This Quiet Fire

The Breakdown

Ultimately, This Quiet Fire is a panacea for our times - a gentle salve for troubled times inducing a sense of euphoria and joy. It is wistful, melancholic and utterly beautiful.
Independent 8.6

Heligoland began life in Melbourne before adventurously packing up and moving to Paris, where they have produced a series of stunning albums and EPs with the production skills of Cocteau Twins luminary Robyn Guthrie adding a certain lustre.

Their new album, ‘This Quiet Fire’, has all the hallmarks of classic dream pop music that bears the genetic imprint of the Cocteau Twins, while forging a separate and distinct identity. The music is warm and enveloping – it’s like being wrapped in warm cotton wool while floating in clouds.

The title is apt: the music gently burns with emotion and passion – a slow burning fuse that mesmerises and transfixes with its impossible beauty.

The pace is measured and celestial – waves of jangling guitars, strings and synths wash over you while singer Karen Vogt’s vocals softly flow along the surface. If a reference point is need, her vocal soar with a mix of The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and Annie Lennox – an antithetical amalgam of power and vulnerability.

Opening track ‘Mallory’ literally shimmers with a celestial drone and chiming guitars. Vogt’s vocals ache with emotion and power and the refrain is beautiful and haunting.

‘Hope’ has an elegiac tone that aches with emotion and drenched with layered vocals and splashing guitars laden with delay, chorus and reverb.

‘Always’ is so heart achingly beautiful and poised – the music is evocative and affecting in its ambient tones and the vocals create a dream-like reverie.

I reviewed fifth track ‘Palomino’ last week, writing of its crystalline, arcing guitars and ghostly, aching vocals soaring throughout. It is, as always, the space inbetween that provide a mesmerising sheen to the song: lush, spacious and hypnotic. The dreamy quality is imbued with melancholy and hurt and yet provides joy at such a beautiful execution:

The album is one to be taken as a whole – a series of movements and emotions that gently wash over the listener. Songs like ‘Shadows have indelible melodies that hypnotise. Indeed hypnosis is a general effect – ‘Running’ with its repeated refrain running barefoot induces a reverie with its mountains of harmonies and crystal shards of guitar. This is upbeat, anthemic and pulse quickening.

‘Trinity’ opens with piano providing a sense of clarity and directness – the song rests on Vogt’s vocals projecting a sense of care and love: a maternal protectiveness and utter devotion that is affecting. This track steps back from the wash of sound and provides a peace and sense of repose before drifting into the last track ‘Wish’.

Ultimately ‘This Quiet Fire’ is a panacea for our times – a gentle salve for troubled times with a sense of inherent untrammeled euphoria and joy. It is wistful, melancholic and utterly beautiful. You can listen to the album (out through Heligolands own label Editions Furiosa) and buy it through the link below following the interview.

I caught up with Heligoland to find a bit more about the band and the new album.

First of all, congratulations on This Quiet Fire. I feel it provides a lovely comfort in trying times!

Karen: Thank you! It’s always a big relief when you finally release your music into the world. As always, I hope this new record will find its way to the ears of people who might enjoy it or get something from it. These songs were all written before the pandemic. Heligoland’s music has always been about escaping from the everyday, so if it gives someone a chance to drift off for a few minutes, I’ll be happy with that.

Tells us about the journey that took you from Australia to France? How did the band get together and wind up in Paris?

Karen: Initially, we had hoped to spend six months in Europe touring and writing our next album. Having spent a number of years playing shows and making records in Australia, we wanted to experience what it felt like to play in completely new places to new audiences and explore Europe. Despite what our plans might have been, we ended up staying longer. It was not an easy decision in many ways and was often a battle between heart and mind. Trying to start again from scratch playing music in a new country was daunting, but also really exciting and inspiring. Looking back, I’m glad that I followed my instincts.

What is the connection to Heligoland, the place?

Steve: When we were trying to find a name for the band we already had an idea about the sort of music we wanted to make. The name Heligoland was on our list and we all liked the way it sounded: like the name of somewhere quite distant, a place you might have heard of, but couldn’t really say where it was. At any rate, this is how I remember the decision-making process. This all happened quite a long time ago, the very first incarnation of Heligoland (Karen, myself, and our founding guitarist Cameron Gellatly, who played a huge role in shaping the sound and music of the band) was formed in Melbourne in early 1999. As it turned out, I had a chance to visit the island, now known as Helgoland, a few years later. On a sunny afternoon in May 2003 I caught the ferry from Cuxhaven with some friends and we spent a really memorable day walking around the island. I remember getting quite sunburned and buying lots of postcards.

How did you first engage with Robin Guthrie? What has his contribution been to your sound?

Karen: We first met Robin in 2007 when we approached him to produce and mix the songs that became the album All Your Ships Are White. He also mixed and produced the three EPs that followed: Bethmale, Sainte Anne, and Coriallo. We adore working with him. I can’t think of a better producer for the kind of music we make. For This Quiet Fire he spent time with us during the writing process and was part of the album from the beginning. As the recording process unfolded he contributed in all sorts of ways to the album, arranging all the drum parts, adding keyboards on numerous songs, some bass on others, and baritone guitar on a couple too. I feel like he really understands our music, what we are trying to do, and we all work together trying to make everything sound as beautiful as it possibly can. It is always a joy to work with him on my vocals and watch him mix the songs. He has also really been really supportive and encouraged me to put together my own recording setup and learn how to record and mix my own ideas. He has a wonderful way of sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work with him.

Steve: It’s hard to put into words how much Robin has contributed to our music. His involvement has been much more than simply a producer or engineer. In the process of making these records, for example, I feel like we’ve also learned an awful lot from him about songwriting and arranging. When you’re working with someone who has so much experience and knowledge you very quickly learn that they operate on an entirely different level of detail and discernment. Sometimes it can be a bit confronting to be shown that your part or a section of a song isn’t really working as it well as it should, but it’s always been clear that his objective was helping you get the best performance and the most out of the song. That sort of honesty and empathy is invaluable in the studio. As Karen mentioned, it’s hard to imagine anyone better to work with for the kind of music we make. We have always tried to make Heligoland’s songs sound beautiful and the records we have made with Robin sound more beautiful than I think we could have ever imagined.

You (Karen) released a solo album last year – can you tell us a little about this work?

Karen: Once I figured out how to record at home I began working on a whole bunch of different ideas. As I started to get more comfortable with the process I allowed myself to get distracted with other projects and always kept putting my own stuff to one side. In hindsight, self-confidence probably played a role there. Doing something by myself outside the band felt a bit scary at times. Eventually I realized that I needed to take the plunge. I decided to start by releasing something under my name that didn’t have my own voice on it. At the time, I had become quite fascinated with spoken word recordings, so I found fifty people (all were volunteers, a mix of friends and strangers) to record themselves whispering the sentence “I just want to feel” on their phones, or whatever device they had at their disposal. I then edited and arranged the recordings and created four tracks, which were released as the I Just Want to Feel EP by the French label Coriolis Sounds.

I thoroughly enjoyed the process of editing, arranging, mixing, and producing the EP. I know that it is quite an unusual release, but I am really happy with the finished tracks. It’s all too easy to start something and then allow that critical voice in your head to stop you from releasing it. I will be releasing more of my solo work and experimental recordings in the near future. In the past I had always been a bit tech-phobic when it came to home recording, but I have been learning more and more in the last few years and now spend most of my time working on music at home. Last year I recorded twenty-two hour-long pieces of improvised music for radio shows in the UK and Argentina. I plan to release an edited version of these recordings later this year as an album called Little Pink Fluffy Clouds.

What impact has the pandemic had on your creativity and psyche?

Karen: At first it was hard to know how long the lockdown period would last. This was quite stressful, but I quickly turned my full attention to music and began devoting all of my time to it. Unfortunately, I lost a nearby rehearsal/working space as a result of the lockdown. This meant that I had to convert a corner of my apartment into a place where I could play and record. It took me a little while to adapt, but I have now become quite productive working from home and often spend hours on end working on ideas. Once I had settled into this new workspace, my creativity went into overdrive. I struggled quite a bit with insomnia during the lockdowns in France, to the point where I just couldn’t sleep at all some nights. But the music never seemed to suffer and I was able to keep working every day. Something wonderful that has happened during this period of isolation is other musicians reaching out to collaborate. I met an amazing Spanish musician called Pepo Galán and we are currently working on a bunch of material together that will become an album. It has been so much fun to work with him and I’m really excited about the music we are making together.

What was your process when recording ‘This Quiet Fire’?

Karen: We first started working on some of these songs back in 2015. Several times that year we loaded up a hire car with all our equipment and went away for a week in the countryside with the goal of writing songs for a new album. The three previous EPs had all been written using a similar approach. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always easy for everyone to be available at the same time, so these sessions became quite sporadic. In the meantime, I kept working on the vocals and lyrics while I was waiting for the other parts to be finalised and recorded. This meant I had a lot of time to think about the songs. As a result, I ended up contributing much more to This Quiet Fire than to any of our previous records. It wasn’t necessarily planned that way, but that’s how things worked out in the end. I played a lot more guitar on this record than I anticipated, but I was incredibly lucky to have Robin to help me put all the parts together and make it all work. My favourite part of making the album was the mixing sessions. It is an amazing feeling to hear the songs come to life and watch Robin mixing them.

Do you have a favourite song from this album?

Karen: “Trinity” is my current favourite on the record. This is mostly because a close friend, Jolanda Moletta from the band She Owl, wrote a beautiful piano part that makes it feel like a  very special and different kind of Heligoland song. I also feel like I was able to find the right words to express myself clearly in the lyrics. “Shadows” is also another song that I feel very strongly about. When I was writing that track I was thinking about what it feels like to take some time out on a sunny afternoon to lie back and watch as clouds pass overhead, freeing yourself from any worries or pressures for a few moments and allowing your mind to wander. It often feels like a challenge to find that sort of opportunity in everyday life.

Steve: “Palomino” is my favourite track from the album. Karen wrote this song quite late in the recording process. We’d already tracked most of the album, but still needed a few songs to round out the record. I recall being quite struck by the basic idea when Karen was writing it. As she developed the parts and arrangement for the song it started to become clear that it was a bit special. But any hopes or expectations I might have had were completely eclipsed when we took the recordings into the studio with Robin. When he was mixing the song I remember sitting there in the studio just getting swept up in the sound. It was a wonderful experience. When “Palomino” was finished I felt quite strongly that this was the song we should use to introduce the new album. There’s something really quite unique and distinctive about it. For all these reasons, “Palomino” will always be one of my favourite Heligoland songs.

Are there any lyrical threads or themes running through the tracks – what has inspired the lyrics?

Karen: When I’m writing lyrics I start by trying a bunch of different approaches and trust that it will all begin to make sense at one moment. The words always feel like a puzzle that I am putting together piece by piece. I might hear a few words here and there and then the larger picture gradually begins to take shape. The melody always comes first. I often write this before coming up with any words. What I really want to express often only becomes apparent to me when I step back and listen to everything else happening in the song. I spend lots of time listening and trying to feel where the song is taking me. I have always tried to leave the lyrics open so that people can relate themselves and their own experiences while listening. This is really important to me. The themes for This Quiet Fire are mostly to do with nurturing your inner world and creativity, being kind to yourself, and trying to appreciate the fleeting experience of life. And also trying not to waste time on things that don’t serve any purpose and end up bringing you down. In a broader sense, the album is very much about how we treat ourselves and the expectations we have of ourselves. In some ways it is a love letter, of sorts, to introverts, creatives and dreamers. That wasn’t clear to me at the time and it wasn’t planned. It only became apparent after I looked at all the songs together.

There is a  deep sense of melancholy that runs through the album, yet the title seems to suggest resilience – are you feeling optimistic?

Karen: I’ve always tried to steer away from melancholy in favour of introspection. “Throw Me to the Stars” begins with the lyric “If you’re tired and broken and in the dark, know it won’t always be like this.” I like to write by starting from a place where you can admit the reality of how you feel. The challenge then becomes trying to navigate your way through those feelings without being consumed by them. By nature, I am a really optimistic person, but I am also mindful that we can sometimes find ourselves in dark and difficult places. Music allows me to express those feelings of compassion and empathy. The most I can hope for is that someone might feel understood or soothed by listening to the music. For these reasons, I have always put much more value on the feedback and impressions I receive from listeners than any other type of validation. If someone tells me that they love listening to a particular song or record because it helps them get through their daily commute, for example, this is something I can relate to and appreciate. In my writing, I’m always trying to understand what moves me and also what moves other people on that deeper level. Most of all, I’m looking for a clear line of communication between the heart and mind.

Steve: I’ve often heard people, particularly writers and reviewers, remark that our music is especially melancholic. If so, this is not by design. We are not especially melancholic people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve always thought our music was fairly ambiguous, for the most part, neither obviously happy nor sad—albeit often somewhat introspective. But if a listener finds something they like or connect with in our music, whether melancholic or affirming, my own impressions are neither here nor there. Above all, I’ve always hoped that our music takes the listener someplace else for a little while. This seems like a worthwhile objective in the current era.

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1 Comment

  1. […] magnificent Heligoland (see our interview and review of their last album ‘This Quiet Fire’ here and recent collaboration with She Owl here). She has now collaborated with ambient experimental […]

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