The sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel is like a pop star. She has half a million followers on Instagram and has filmed a 73 Questions video with Vogue. One of her TED Talks, “Rethinking infidelity,” has nearly 10 million views. A small, severe-looking woman with an intense charisma, Perel’s fans congregate in YouTube comment sections, thanking her for saving their decades-long marriages or helping them overcome the trauma of being cheated on. Her words, already famous to the boomer set, are about to enter the 20-something indie rock fan lexicon, too, thanks to Helena Deland, the Québécoise singer-songwriter who’s put them at the center of her quiet, hallucinatory debut album Someone New.
“‘Comfort, Edge,’ is literally one of [Perel’s] terms,” Deland, 28, tells me over FaceTime one evening from her apartment in Montreal, a few days before the release of the album. “Comfort, Edge,” a loose, hypnotic ballad in the middle of Someone New, puts plainly one of the core ideas that underpins Deland’s music right now. It’s a song about the fundamental unknowability of another person, and that fact’s attendant pleasures and pitfalls.
Where Perel’s job is clarifying the complexities of the human experience, Deland seems happy to immerse herself in mucky, uncategorizable spaces. Her debut release, 2016’s Drawing Room, comprised straightforward, full-band indie folk; its follow-up was a series of two- and three-song “volumes” which eventually became a playlist of garage-rock, folk, and moody, atmospheric synth-pop, titled From The Series of Songs Titled “Altogether Unaccompanied”. In 2019, you could hear her all over “Free The Frail,” the highlight of JPEGMAFIA’s All My Heroes Are Cornballs. (She’s the one saying “such a cool chord change,” before pulling the song into the heavens with her loose, alien warble.)
“All the female characters I identified with as a young girl were desirable women, and their position was often in relation to a man. Writing this album, I wanted to find the main character.” — Helena Deland
A year later, and another left turn: Someone New once again switches up Deland’s style. Her voice is still a warm, distinctive folk instrument — clear at some points, high and wavering at others, occasionally shrouded in haze, always a far cry from her deep, steady speaking voice — but this record, unlike the patchwork Altogether Unaccompanied, is meticulously composed, rich with intent. Written in the aftermath of a breakup from a relationship that she describes as “kind of toxic,” Someone New finds Deland unpicking, thread by thread, the seams of her own selfhood. Each song plays out like a variation on a question — What, Deland asks, is the emotional fallout when two people put their lives in each others’ hands? And why had her own relationships often highlighted her tendencies to compromise and please? “All the female characters in movies that I tended to identify with as a young girl were desirable women, and their position was often in relation to a man,” Deland says. “It’s not from their subjectivity; they’re being described. [Writing this album], that wasn’t something that I wanted for myself — I wanted to find the main character.”
Deland grew up in the suburbs of Québéc City, born to a French-speaking father, an agronomist specialising in cranberry crops for Ocean Spray, and an English-speaking mother, who taught ESL at Deland’s high school. She learned to write songs — “often stuff that was about parties, written after parties” — by playing melodies on the piano while singing the lyrics of Spencer Krug, of Montreal heroes Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown. “He wrote really poetic lyrics, and I remember just tweaking them ever so slightly,” she recalls. “That’s not exactly what a songwriter does, but it is very much still part of it — borrowing and trying on inspirations, working within the framework that someone else makes possible.”
At 20, Deland moved to Montreal — initially to study anthropology at Concordia University, before realising that “all [her] papers were about novels,” and switching to a literature course at the city’s more left-leaning political university, Université du Québec à Montréal. She began playing guitar more, partly inspired by 70s singer-songwriters like Nick Drake and Sybil Baier. Upon graduating in 2017, she began playing music full time. “I think I’ve always wanted to be a musician,” Deland says, “But had a hard time — [I was] maybe was scared to fail.”
Insecurities inhibited Deland’s pursuit of music initially, but Someone New is tangled up in them — obsessed with the ways they can corrupt and diminish sense of self, especially for women in heterosexual relationships. Someone New starts and ends in a bedroom — not always Deland’s bedroom, not always a real, tangible bedroom — which, in Deland’s world, is the site of all manner of emotional contortions and convolutions. (It’s an idea she found in Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time she has been reading, volume-by-volume, over the past few summers.) On the record’s title track — an almost hymnal folk song that splits open into a bright, spectral thing — Deland wonders if inviting a new lover into her bedroom would make her feel different, refreshed. “Dog,” a pop song composed of abrasive grooves not unlike those that populated St. Vincent’s mid-career output, sees a man asking Deland to come over, to “give [him] reasons to live.” On haunting closer “Fill The Rooms” she interrogates her own status as a working musician, wondering if her career turns her into an aesthetic choice for others, a piece of furniture to be admired. Across the album, bedrooms are a space for identity to be renegotiated, whether by choice or force.
These vignettes are underscored by a brand of indie rock that’s humid, surreal, and estranged from the conventions of the form, often incorporating thick grooves, bone shaking bass, or abstracting noise. Produced by Deland’s close friend and “sound geek” Valentin Ignat, and Gabe Wax, producer on Soccer Mommy’s color theory, the unique atmos of Someone New is the result of Deland’s kinship with her collaborators, as well as Deland’s creative evocation of soundscapes. “Val studies electroacoustics at Concordia,” Deland explains, “And I could be like ‘This song, I want it to sound like you’re insect size, and you’re walking through grass.’”
Although “Comfort, Edge” is where Perel’s influence manifests most obviously on Someone New, after speaking to Deland, I watched one of her TED Talks and came across another quote that seemed to cut to the record’s heart. “When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner that we’re turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become,” she tells a rapturous audience, “It isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person as much as we’re looking for another self.”
That journey — of seeking self-possession through the gaze of others, before spurning it altogether — is rendered here in gruesome, upsetting splendor. Somewhat ironically, part of what Deland is seeking is for Someone New to act as a kind of mirror for listeners. “I’m trying to reach for something that’s open enough for people to really make it about them,” she says. “Music has such this privileged relationship with people. It’s so under the skin. I’m trying to honor that.” The album accomplishes both goals. Someone New speaks to uniquely prickly experiences that listeners will undoubtedly appreciate being brought to light. And, finally, Helena Deland is the main character.