Believe in yourself and your abilities. For a long time, I really doubted myself and this has meant that I put things off, for example performing my own music, but really the only way to get better is to share and make mistakes and be vulnerable.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Helena Debono.
Helena Debono has been captivating audiences with her emotional renditions of Jazz standards and her own original music since she was a teenager. Her natural, effortless vocals have already received acclaim amongst the UK Jazz scene and leave audiences wanting to hear more.
Classically trained and enjoying all genres of music, it was whilst attending the Arts Educational Schools in London that she discovered her love of jazz and songwriting. She has performed at many venues including Ronnie Scotts, Pizza Express Soho, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Manchester Jazz Festival and many more.
Helena graduated with a BA (hons) first class degree in Jazz Music from Leeds College of Music. She has performed at many venues in Leeds including the Brudenell Social Club and Hifi.
Since returning to London, Helena became the female vocalist for The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO), during this time she was interviewed by Emma Smith for BBC Radio 3 “Jazz Now”. In the Summer of 2019 Helena was thrilled to perform with ‘The London Gay Big Band’ at London Pride in Trafalgar Square. She has also performed with ‘The Puppini Sisters’.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in London with my mum. I pretty much came out of the womb singing and dancing so my mum took me to dance and singing classes from a very early age. I went to a little primary school and was always getting in trouble for talking too much or singing when I should be doing my spellings. I joined a Musical Theatre group when I was 6 and performed in lots of shows around England. I then attended performing arts school before studying Jazz at University.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always thought I would end up doing Musical Theatre. Honestly, I thought I was Tracey Turnblad from Hairspray for the majority of my childhood but when I was 15 my music teacher at school introduced me to the Jazz greats, like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan etc. I decided to learn the song ‘Misty’ by Ella Fitzgerald and performed it in front of the class as part of an assessment and that was that… I never looked back.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I think the most interesting thing to happen to me since starting my career is how I met my MD and co-writer Nick Fitch. We had a couple of mutual friends but I had just moved back to London after University and didn’t know anyone involved in music in London. After a few weeks of Instagram stalking, I decided to message him (on Instagram) and ask if we could meet up to play through some tunes. The moment we played together I just knew it was going to be the start of a great friendship and working relationship. I really don’t know what I would do without him. He encouraged me to audition for National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) and I became the singer with the band for 2 years which has led to countless opportunities and exposure. Performing with NYJO has given me the confidence to do what I’m doing now and the musicians that I met in the band are some of my best friends today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made when I was first starting out was not learning my lyrics well enough. I was once on a gig and I got sent the set list and had a look and thought ‘I know that song’… I got onto the stage and I knew the chorus and not the verses, so had to make up the lyrics to a well-known pop song. It was very embarrassing at the time but now I look back and laugh! The lesson I learnt is rehearse, rehearse, REHEARSE!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am working on my own music and writing with my guitarist Nick Fitch. I am in the process of releasing my debut album which will be out later this year. We just did a livestream direct from Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club in London so a lot of time went into planning that. I am also collaborating with an amazing cellist called Saran Davies and we are writing music and arranging songs for voice and cello- which is super exciting and a bit different, we have some videos on YouTube! I am also thinking about starting my own podcast, so keep an eye out for that!
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
I think it is so important to have diverse representation within all of the arts. It is vital that young children can see people who look like them achieving their goals so they feel like they can do that too. The world is full of different people from different cultures, and it is so important that we give people the platform to share their stories etc. And last but not least, so much of art is derived from black culture (especially jazz) so we need to always remember and acknowledge where the music and art has come from.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I am pretty much still at the beginning of my career but I have already learned so much. I also teach singing and I often tell my students the following:
-Believe in yourself and your abilities. For a long time, I really doubted myself and this has meant that I put things off, for example performing my own music, but really the only way to get better is to share and make mistakes and be vulnerable.
-Everything happens for a reason. I was in the process of recording my album when Covid started and it meant that we couldn’t finish everything so the release was pushed back. However, in the long run this has given me so much more time to plan, think about how I want to promote the album and make a very clear plan without rushing it.
-Don’t let rejections deter you. When I was auditioning for Music College I received rejection after rejection and started to feel like I was never going to get a place anywhere. I was so upset and disheartened and then I got accepted to a college and it was the most perfect place for me to study and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
-Be brave and bold. In 2019 I was asked to perform at London Pride in Trafalgar Square in front of thousands of people. I was so nervous but just had to go out there and perform and dance and even though I felt very silly it came across so well and the crowd loved it.
-Lastly, take every opportunity you can as you never know where it may lead or what doors may open up for you.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Self care. Self care is something I am so passionate about. Relaxing in a bath, reading a book just to give yourself time to breathe. Spend time with your friends, they keep you grounded as they will all have different interests etc. It is so hard being creative and working all the time. As musicians we are constantly creating, writing, practicing and then also doing all of the promotion stuff too, like being on social media, which can be very draining.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would hope to one day have influence! I would like to inspire more women to do music. To be on the music scene not only as performers but also as producers, managers, lighting technicians, sound engineers etc. I think the music/theatre/arts world is very male dominated at the moment.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am very grateful to my mum. She has always been such a support to me and believed in me. From being a little girl taking me to singing lessons to helping me decide on outfits for gigs now! She also always calms me down when I get stressed, and as a self-confessed drama queen and perfectionist, she reminds me that if things don’t always go according to plan it is not the end of the world!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favourite life lesson quote is ‘you can’t please all the people all the time’. This is so relevant for me, not only in my personal life but also as a creative. I am such a people pleaser and have to accept that not everyone will like me or want to be my best friend. Also, with my music, accepting that some people may love it and some people may hate it but at the end of the day I can only be true to myself and create what I love to the best of my ability.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Beyonce, I think she is such a strong, inspirational artist and woman. She really has created such an empire and is a great example for young people.
How can our readers follow you online?
Your readers can follow me on Spotify and Instagram @helenadebono, Facebook and Twitter on @helenadebonomusic
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!