Vancouver Island, BC is not a place most people think of when they think of the Music Industry. But it is home to Helen Austin; her career success is a perfect example of where music as an industry seems to be headed: independent musicians recording in home studios and managing most aspects of their careers. An eclectic and seasoned performer, Helen is a classically trained flutist and spent nearly twenty years as a comedian in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t until her move in 2002 to Vancouver Island, British Columbia that she decided to pursue music full time. Pursue it she did! She won the Juno last week for her second children’s music album, Colour It. She’s won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for her children’s music two years in a row, and she’s had placements in a myriad of T.V. shows, commercials and movies. A new project, the Big Little Lions, just released their first EP on April 1st. Like so many successful people, Helen attributes her success to simply having decided to give it a try, and doing so with determination. I was delighted and honored to speak with Helen via Skype about her career and success just a few days before her Juno win, excerpts from our conversation are below, they’ve been edited for clarity and readability.
How did you come to write music for children?
Some friends had these four songs that they loved, and the said, “can you do a whole album like that.” They asked so many times that eventually I kind of just caved…I never saw myself doing anything like that, just because I don’t really know a lot about kids music because we didn’t really listen to it when my kids were younger. So then I thought what I would like to do is write an album for kids, that’s really suitable for kids, but the adults want to listen to too. So that is what my aim was. So in the first album there wasn’t really anything geared to kids, in the second one there’s stuff about getting ready for bed and story time and monsters under the bed so I made it a bit more geared towards kids but the first one was just sort of songs that the kids could sing along to.
So music the grown-ups would like that was kid-appropriate.
Yeah, it was kind of little love songs for kids. You know kids fall in love all the time. I remember my daughter meeting this girl at this violin camp and within half a day it was her BEST FRIEND, so I think that they’re always falling in love. My son is falling in love with lego and Star Wars all the time and pancakes, my son fell in love with a pancake this morning.
Well that’s understandable, pancakes are amazing.
Yeah my husband and I heard from the kitchen this morning, he had a friend over and they go “These are the best pancakes ever!” It was great, imagine living like that!
I read several articles online about your success with music licensing and how you consciously made the decision to pursue music full time. One of the things you mention is, you wrote to market. Like, “what are people looking for?” “What is the sound or themes or whatever” and then you wrote to that.
Yes, well what happened was [my son] went to school full time and Trevor, my husband looked at me and says”ok what are you going to do now?” And I said, “oh do I have to get a job or something?” And he’s like “well you probably should do something.” And I said “well I’ll have to see,” That’s just when licensing stopped being a dirty word, because you know for a long time musicians didn’t want to sell their music. I said “well I want to see if I can stay home and try and get my music licensed” and he said “go for it” and I went for it.
From your articles it seems that you put in at least one solid year of hard work and then started to see results.
It did. I started in 08 and then by september of 09 I had my first placement. So in that year, was it 09? April 09 that’s when I started writing a song a week that year.
Yes, in my google research I saw that you have done a lot of projects like The 50/90 Challenge.
February Album Writing Month, that’s doable but the 50 songs in 90 days I get a month in and them I’m like” uhhhh.” I start it but then, it falls over a ton of holidays, and I’ve got kids! I think the most I ever managed was 15, you get a ton of songs though, it’s really useful….I like it when you’ve got something to write to and they say I want something like this and you say oh I can do that.
You’re very prolific when you write like that.
Writing songs is a discipline like any other. You just sit down and do it.
So you like assignments, goals.
Right, like I use Hit License. They give you the style of music they’re looking for and the subject matter and how much they’re going to pay; so I had a look last night and there’s one about a long distance relationship, having a good phone plan, that’s what they wanted. To evoke that it was good to have a good phone plan, in the style of Paper Kites, I think that’s what it was, so I listened and it was just a simple guitar driven thing and I thought all right I can write a song about missing somebody and how it’s always so good when you call sort of thing. If I have to write about my own life, it’s a bit dull really, I mean, I’m happy married for twenty odd years, so then I live through my daughter because she’s going through, she has the teenage relationships I just write about her and she’s like MOM!
You said you loved a deadline for your songwriting, but do you have any rules? For instance I have a rule with songwriting that if I can’t come up with something I really like for a song in three days I ditch it.
Oh it’s probably even less time than that with me. Or, probably about the same actually, if it’s not coming, I just ditch it. I also shelve some things and I go, “There was this one thing…,” we were traveling in France last year and I was writing while I was away, [one song idea] I liked the tune and stuff but I just really wasn’t sure where it was going, and then my publisher who’s got little little kids said “my son is having a real problem with monsters under the bed can you put a positive spin on monsters under the bed?” and I went oh! I’ve got that song, that’s perfect for this. I’d sat on it for about six months and I liked it but I didn’t know what to do with it. People ask me how many songs I’ve written and I say I don’t know because I’ve started so many that haven’t ended and so many that I’ve forgotten.
Tune in tomorrow for part two of my chat with Helen!