No one is a stranger to loneliness. COVID underscored this irrefutable fact. Lingering effects of the pandemic and rapid changes in technology caused most of us to experience life-threatening isolation and succumb to antisocial tendencies in an upside-down world dominated by “social media”—a malevolent technological creation ironically antithetical to its very definition.
But the solitude that vocalist and songwriter Helga Gabriel endured until recently would be flat-out unbearable to most. Gabriel—the unassuming leader of a shoegaze/pop/folk/doom-metal band that goes by her first name—hails from the Swedish hinterlands, where seemingly perpetual darkness encompasses the country for half the year. Long winters spur more solitude, which in turn leads to increased isolation and suspicion of anyone who seemingly doesn’t fit into the town’s small community.
“I was shy to talk about my own music because, when you live in a small town, you don’t want to seem or appear like … you’re bragging about yourself or you’re ‘bigger than,’” Gabriel tells New Noise in one of her first-ever interviews, via Zoom. “Sweden even has a name for that mentality: ‘Jantelagen.’” The centuries-old Swedish tradition not only encourages but practically demands conformity and community involvement instead of self-focus and self-expression.
Combined with Gabriel’s immeasurable shyness and fear of getting ostracized, she withdrew further and further from society. She kept her musical talents to herself and stayed at home to develop her artistic ideas all by herself. Those recordings eventually became the earliest material by her band, Helga; but also by then, Gabriel’s solitude had reached depths so grave that they scratched hell’s ceiling.
“I was alone, completely alone,” she recalls.
Having reached a rock bottom of sorts, Gabriel came to believe that her songs actually would be enhanced with the addition of musicians beyond herself. Meanwhile, her music had taking a turn from mellow, singer-songwriter songs to darker areas.
“I didn’t know how to write heavy stuff,” Gabriel admits. “So, at the time, I was sort of learning—in large part by listening to a lot of Opeth.”
Having developed a clearer vision for Helga, Gabriel boldly decided to make a move—literally. In 2019, she departed the Swedish hinterlands—home to a scant number of musicians who were already in other bands anyway—and re-established herself in Britain, home to some of her family members.
According to Gabriel, who had completed her first two self-created EPs before reaching Old Blighty, she knew from the moment she stepped off the plane that she had made the correct decision. In short order—less than a month, in fact — Gabriel had developed a rapport with Helga’s future guitarists, Cai Sumption and Cameron Gledhill, after posting some advertisements seeking music collaborators. For their own part, Gledhill and Sumption previously played in the same band together.
“Helga has such a keen ear for melody,” Sumption says, chiming in during the same video interview. “(That and) her voice … blew me away … I was floored by (her music), which I found to be so beautiful. I could hear in Helga’s music some post-rock influence, and some of the melodies and textures you can create with that style music. Also, she writes such brilliant songs. … I was gonna do anything I could to wriggle my way into her. I pitched myself to her (to be in Helga).”
Compliments she received from other musicians verified Gabriel’s suspicion that she was onto something. Her secret sauce is an extraordinary ability to combine multiple music genres in a seamless fashion with gentle flourishes—akin to Ides of Gemini or Cult of Luna’s collaborations with Julie Christmas.
After recruiting bassist Ryan Fairclough and drummer Sami Javed, Gabriel suddenly found herself with a set of established musicians who appreciated instead of mocked her music. And perhaps even more importantly, the once-reclusive Gabriel had found a set of friends.
“Being in a new place, you look for people that are kind of like you and hopefully become friends,” Gabriel reveals, tears streaming down her face as she likely recalls all her years spent in solitude. “Not only did I get new bandmates, but they’re really cool friends.”
The latest example of the harmonious relationship between Helga’s members and the magic they make together materialized in late November when Season of Mist released Wrapped in Mist. When asked about the coincidence of “Mist” in the name of the record and label, both Gabriel and Sumption fell silent.
“Whoa. Mind blown,” Gabriel says. “None of us had made that connection.”
That’s probably because Helga’s band members were spending so much time connecting with each other, as both musicians and friends. After all, Gabriel is savoring this chapter in her life not only for the music generated by her Helga project but also for her new friendships.
Someone who was no stranger to loneliness has blossomed into someone who is no stranger to meaningful friendships. And they’ve got a pretty rad band to prove it.
Photo courtesy of Ester Segarra