Sifting Ashes With Isaac Helsen

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Setting out to make an album that explores the connections between music and photography isn’t a simple task, but on his new album, Burning House, that’s what Isaac Helsen set out to do. The cover image tells a story – not just in the image itself, but the color palette and text layout as well. Helsen gives a tactile glimpse into the sonic expanses Burning House explores as well as the emotional tone saturated in those aural spaces. It’s an impressive feat and a bold statement for Helsen, and builds off the stellar discography he’s built through the years.

Burning House is out now on digital and CD formats via EL Muelle Records. Grab a copy HERE. Isaac can be reached via his website.

First of all, how have you been holding up for the past 18 or so months? What’s been helping you get through everything?

Things have definitely been tough recently but I’m getting by! I’m fortunate to have a really great network of people around me in many different circles so that’s been a huge help. The recent tidal wave of new music, especially in the ambient scene, has also been a great way to stay tapped into community and creativity at a time when things can feel pretty isolated and overwhelming.

So I always ask people about their early memories of music and sound because I love knowing where it all started. Are there any particular songs or albums or even environmental sounds from when you were a kid that left a strong impression on you?

Sound has always been something I’ve felt connected to in a visceral way, especially environmental sounds. I grew up in a very normal suburb, but in a particularly beautiful area along the coast of Lake Michigan, so forests, snowscapes, and water have always been powerful sonic environments for me. 

As a kid, I was always more drawn into the background sounds and music I heard in movies than the dialogue, which definitely impacted my artistic journey. Even in the more mainstream music I listen to, I’ve always been more interested in the atmosphere and feeling of a song than its lyrical content, with a few exceptions. I think I have pretty similar listening habits to a lot of producers around my age in this scene, with a wide variety of heavy and electronic music paving most of the path too.

At what point did you start thinking about creating your own music or playing an instrument?

I was playing around with a ukulele at the age of 4 and enjoyed making wild noises the way most kids do, but I also had a lot of fun coming up with names for bands that would never actually exist. I was always thinking about making music, even over a decade before I actually started doing it. I learned to play the trumpet in fifth grade and continued that for a few years until I found more interest in bass guitar during high school. I’ve always been making music mostly by myself, which at that time was learning bass tabs and playing along to my favorite metal songs. Halfway through my senior year of high school, a friend showed me his vinyl DJ setup, which opened up my mind to a new way of engaging with music. At the time, I only had digital tools to start learning DJing, which in tandem with my audio engineering studies in college, led me to start producing electronic music.

And when did the interest in photography begin?

My early love of movies and travel definitely planted the seed for my passion for photography. I remember being really intrigued by the gigantic VHS camcorder my parents had when I was really young, which I used a fair amount until I dropped it on the garage floor. Years later, around the age of 12, a few friends and I borrowed a more compact camcorder from one of their parents, and we spent the entire summer shooting ourselves doing whatever 12-year-olds in Michigan did in 2005 (mostly eating junk food, riding bikes, and climbing things). Over the course of a few summers and a camera upgrade, this developed into a slightly more serious interest in filmmaking, which occupied the majority of my time in high school. Greater experience behind a camera allowed me to start exploring photography on my own during college in Chicago, a city with unlimited photographic potential. 

Photograph by Isaac Helsen

With this new record, Burning House, you mentioned that you started thinking about it in 2017 and how you wanted to deeper explore connections between music and photography. What was it that got you thinking about these connections and wanting to dig in further?

I started taking photography more seriously in 2016 and felt like I hit a good stride in 2017. I was somewhat bored and living a bit isolated from others in Michigan, so I spent the majority of my free time driving around finding ways to explore my home from a new perspective to find images that I’d never noticed before. An absolutely essential part of that process was selecting music to play in the car while I explored. This was mostly dark ambient music, but sometimes it was metal or more peaceful ethereal ambient, depending on the location, weather, and my mood. The process became a way to perceive a familiar environment differently and to create new narratives from that. The focus on atmosphere and the meaning of location really stuck with me and became sort of an ethos for my process, and that naturally fed back into my music process too. 

At the very end of 2017, I was briefly living in Utah and found a wealth of interesting subjects to explore. On the way back from a sunny trip out to the salt flats at the western edge of the state, a storm rolled in off the Great Salt Lake and immediately shifted the mood to what felt like complete doom. I was passing a smelting plant nestled into the edge of a mountain, with its smokestack poking in and out of what was either fog or fumes, maybe both. The striking visual and immense presence this facility held on what was otherwise naturally beautiful land was something I felt needed to be captured, so I found a service road to get some closer shots. What came of it was a photo series titled Deracination, and several of those photos became the artwork for this project. So initially the music of producers I look up to inspired my photography, which in turn has certainly inspired my music. Burning House, with its obvious connection to the Deracination photo series, is an album fully inspired by the environments I’ve experienced in my photographic explorations and the narratives that have come from it. Most of the concepts and narratives involved in the album are only hinted at in the track titles, otherwise that’s something I prefer to keep more ambiguous. 

What were some of the biggest challenges for you in creating this record?

Burning House definitely had its fair share of challenges, as almost every music project does these days. There were obvious difficulties regarding the actual distribution and format of it. Initially, the plan was to release the album on vinyl, but it became much too complicated with all the logistical difficulties involving vinyl right now. Aside from that, the majority of the challenges I faced were creative and emotional challenges. I’ve been really connected to this project from the start, and I found myself extremely focused on designing sounds with more meticulous intention than I have before. The sonic environment of the entire album really had to be the perfect representation of the narratives in my head. I’m someone who acts much more on intuition than other motivation, especially in my creative processes, so it was a challenge for me to find the right balance between having genuine intuition drive the process and creating very intentional soundscapes.

Both Christina Giannone and Siavash Amini appear on Burning House (and both do an unsurprisingly fantastic job!). How did those collaborative efforts come about?

I’ve known Christina and Siavash for a few years. Past Inside The Present has released some of Christina’s incredibly textural music and I’ve been wanting to produce something with her for quite a while. I love her ability to keep her arrangements relatively simple yet extremely immersive and detailed at the same time. That was something I wanted for parts of this album, so I needed her expertise. Siavash is probably my favorite producer in the ambient/experimental realm. His music soundtracked a fair amount of those early photography trips that led to the formation of this project before I knew him personally. Having connected and become friends in recent years, it was a great experience to work directly with Siavash on “Proscenium,” the first piece produced, which shaped the sonic direction of the rest of the album.

Since we’re getting toward the end of the year now, what are some albums and sounds that have meant a lot to you this year?

So many amazing albums have come out this year that I can’t even begin to approach listing them. That being said, in 2021 specifically, I’ve felt really connected to the works of Abul Mogard, Claire Rousay, Temp-Illusion, Fuubutsushi, Shanna Sordahl, Elizabeth Crompton, and so many more. I’ve always been a fan of jazz and have played some in the past, but I’ve also found myself diving deeper into a lot of classic jazz this year and last year too. 

What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

I’m doing my best to keep all of my expectations in check and my plans loose for 2022, given how the last two years have gone. Despite that, I’m looking forward to quite a few things, especially the Big Ears festival in Knoxville at the end of March. I went in 2015 and it was legitimately a life-changing experience for me. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make it back until now so that’s definitely the top of my list. I’m working with a really great team on planning an event for fall 2022 in Michigan that is super exciting as well. It’s still pretty loose so I’m hesitant to say more than that, but it should be a really unique event for this part of Michigan and I’m really inspired by the team of local artists and organizers who I’ve been working with on this. Other than that, I think 2022 should be a busier year for me in terms of artistic output. It took me a while to adjust to the pandemic, as my mental health has always been a debilitating struggle that became much harder at that time, but I’ve been finding a good creative flow in the last few months that I’m hoping will bring about some good projects next year. I’ve been in some loose conversations with a few people about collaborative ideas that I think would be super exciting to release. We’ll have to play it all by ear and see how the year goes!

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