Helen Horal
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Helen Horal

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"A Flickering Light in the Darkness: Singer-Songwriter, Helen Horal"

The 80’s spawned the Me Generation. The 90’s had the slacker Generation Xers. Those who come of age in the first decade of the 21st century are obsessed with achieving celebrity. Gen X-ploitation, maybe? We’re now a people willing to eat animal innards, all in the name of a few bucks and 15 minutes of fame.
In music unless your bling blingin’ or lip synchin’ your chances for major league success are slim. No matter; we also live in the age of self-empowerment. Musicians are compelled to make music, with or without the pop culture puppeteers. And many are making a formidable living in uncompromising careers, outside the mainstream.
One flickering light in the darkness is the revival of the singer-songwriter. Of course, no profitable stone ever goes unturned. Spotting a possible trend, the majors have slick replications to shill. But for every John Mayer coattailler, there’s a Ron Sexsmith or Sufjan Stevens. If I may whip out my crystal ball here, I predict you will soon hear a lot more about the latter as the critical steam over him builds.
Perhaps the lead-in has been a bit on the circuitous and long-winded side, but this brings us to this month’s local scene muse: a songwriter in the purest form. Helen Horal doesn’t have a buzz about her yet. No clamoring label reps on her guest lists. She’s just a young—and at the risk of sounding trite—budding artist.
Outside the synthetic glow of mainstream culture, a little bit of musical naivete is a welcome diversion. And not the kind that involves off-key remakes of Ricky Martin tunes. Other than open mikes, Horal can count her live experience on one hand. And hearing what she’s capable of now, that makes the possibilities even more exciting.
Horal grew up in South Florida in a moderately musical family. Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, she took piano lessons for a few years which developed her ear for music. After a little trial and error on the guitar- she started as a lefty even though she’s a righty- her craft was born.
“It just seemed more natural for me to be doing the chord changes with my right hand, rather than with my left,” she says. “I wasn’t taking lessons so I really just kind of did what felt correct.”
If you’ve been one of the few to see her, you know Horal is still honing her craft as a live performer. But when you hear the early versions (available online) of the songs on her upcoming self-released CD, there’s a confidence in her voice that’s strikingly similar to critical darling Beth Orton, and the even better known Sarah McLachlan.
So what compelled her to pick up guitar and try her hand at music? It’s almost as if the music chose her.
“The only reason I picked up a guitar in the first place was because of my passion for music. I got tired of being a groupie and wanted to be a part of it.”
It’s not so much what inspires her to write, but what doesn’t. “It’s hard to put my finger on, really. I think it’s difficult to not be inspired. To say ‘I will not be inspired by that book or I will not be inspired by that person’ is absurd.”
Horal is happy to go solo for the time being, but would love to share the creative experience with a band.
“Working as a solo artist has always seemed somehow selfish to me,” she said. “I’d like to have a group of friends that I could both share music and create music with…someday.”
For now, she’s working on a summer tour of the East Coast. Meanwhile, she’ll continue working on her first recording. There may even be a special guest or two. You can keep posted by visiting her website: www.helenhoral.com.
- author: Jason Knapfel, Florida's Sun Sentinel, April 30th, 2004

"Horal Fixation"

Helen Horal's voice is familiar. Familiar like a face you see at a party, make eye contact with, and smile at briefly before looking away, even though you and that person are total strangers.
It's a voice that garners many comparisons, but there's something more tangible than that. It's a voice that sounds old yet wise, bitter yet smart, stoic yet heartbroken, experienced yet naive.

The 20-something South Florida native started playing guitar three years ago but says she had a lot of musical time before that. "I am, and have always been, a shower-singing aficionada," Horal says via e-mail from Virginia, where she recently moved. "I was in the 'Cool Cats Chorus' at my elementary school, if that counts."

But singing in the shower and in chorus can get you only so far in this crazy, mixed-up world. So Horal graduated to the next logical choice: dueling piano jams.

"My grandpa [and uncle] had two pianos facing each other, so I've grown up with the two of them doing these extended dueling piano jams together," she explains. "Aside from the sheer musicianship of this sight, I think that they really have taught me that it is OK to love music. Plus, my grandpa passed down his play-by-ear music style, which has sincerely helped me to play guitar."

Horal played her first open-mic night last year at Dada in Delray Beach, a gig that would open quite a few doors. "Keith [Michaud of Summer Blanket] was still hosting it at the time, and that night really was the catalyst for this new chapter," Horal says. "I did the open-mic thing there for a couple of months, and then Keith asked me to open for Summer Blanket at their prerelease party [last November]. It was my first real show. Needless to say, it was very exciting for me."

Since that fateful night last fall, Horal has been everywhere: the Red Lion Pub in Boynton Beach, the Lounge, Respectable Street, and Borders and CD Warehouse in Fort Lauderdale. Any place that will let her and her guitar in. The incessant gigging made people take notice. This musical novice was already turning heads.

"Sometime after [my] first show, [former Summer Blanket drummer and New Times contributor] Jon Wilkins asked me if I had ever recorded anything -- which I hadn't -- so I went to his place and recorded a ten-song demo, on which he played drums, bass, and keyboards on four of the songs," Horal says. That demo generated interest, and at the beginning of this year, Horal entered Morning Drinker Studios in Fort Lauderdale to record with Matt Cohen.

"Making There Is Only This Place has been the experience," Horal says. "I really had no idea how much time and energy goes into making a record. Getting the guitar tracks flawless and seamless, perfecting the vocals, mixing and mastering, and the latest phase, printing... it is intense. I would have stayed in the studio forever if I could have. Matt made it so easy that I truthfully did not mind singing the same song 100 times until it was perfect. In the long run, it really paid off. I'm really proud of this record."

And she should be. For a debut record, There Is Only This Place radiates a maturity that's stunning. Horal's velvety voice is thick with self-reflection, regret, and hope, backed by a guitar that whispers as softly as she does. On the poignant "So Right," she sings, "How do I know when it's time to go/You'll send me on my way with a ticket home." For such simple compositions, Place sounds world-class big.

- author: Audra Schroeder, New Times Broward/Palm Beach October 7, 2004

"Dada Mama"

“I’m the luckiest girl in the world. It’s been unbelievable how willing to help everyone is. It just blows me away. People will say ‘Oh, you better watch out in that music world; it’s dog-eat-dog.’ I’ve never had a bad experience with anyone here. Everyone is so into each other’s music and so willing to help everyone else, it’s amazing.”

Does Helen Horal sound a bit optimistic, or what? She certainly has a right to be. Since she first performed in public- just this past August at an open mike in Delray Beach’s Dada- the Boca Raton based singer-songwriter has wowed many of her fellow local musicians, who have encouraged her, asked her to play at shows, recorded her demo, produced her full-length CD and introduced her to industry people.

Mike Verzi, a marketing rep for BMG Records, was at Dada soon thereafter, talking with open mike host Keith Michaud when he first heard Horal singing. “All of the sudden, in midconversation, I hear this voice, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, where is that coming from?” Verzi recalls. “People send me tapes and demos all the time, and I’ve seen numerous local bands. When you hear a voice like that, it stands out…I thought she sounded like Sarah McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, and Nanci Griffith all rolled into one.” Since that night, Verzi has landed Horal gigs at Borders Bookstores in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach and vowed to do anything he can to help her—including shopping her demo to BMG’s affiliated labels.

Horal’s music isn’t the only thing people are noticing about her. Her friends say she is the type of person who will drop by with a book or a DVD to show them how much she appreciates their help. “She’s so giving; I think that’s half of it,” says Michaud, who performs in the indie-rock duo, Summer Blanket. “To deal with somebody so nice, you just want to help as much as you possibly can, let alone the fact that she’s a fantastic songwriter and her voice sounds like an angel singing.”

Michaud liked one of her songs so much that Horal titled it, “Keith’s Song.” “When the chorus kicked in, it gave me goosebumps,” he recalls. “And that’s when I told her, ‘You blew me away with that song.’”

“Keith’s Song” is one of the 10 cuts on Horal’s forthcoming debut, “There Is Only This Place.” To say she is excited about its release would be an understatement. “I have the best job in the world,” she says while recording the cd. “I’m making a record! There’s nothing like waking up in the morning knowing that my ‘work’ for the day is playing music.” Horal isn’t exactly making a living from her music, but since the Pine Crest High School graduate still lives at home with her parents, she can afford to devote her full attention to it.

Horal began writing and playing guitar in her bedroom three years ago. The only person she let hear her music was her older sister, Becky, who accompanied her to her open-mike debut. “She would do anything in the world for me,” she says, “if it meant someone else would hear me.”

But as Michaud recalls, the audience that night could barely do so. “She was about 3 feet away from the microphone and playing her guitar very quietly,” Michaud recalls. “You could barely hear a single tune she was doing, but you could tell she was really good. Everybody was like, ‘Get closer to the mike; get closer to the mike.’ I think it was probably rougher for her than it was for us. We all really enjoyed it. It’s just kind of endearing to watch somebody so shy get up there and do it finally. It’s cool.”

Horal thought it was cool, too. “I was crazy about going to the open mike every single Monday for month. I couldn’t miss it—the best night of the week.”

Her friends were clueless about her new pastime. If someone asked what she was doing on a Monday, she’d tell them nothing, and then scoot over to Dada to sing about everything from love to loss to alienation.

At one open mike she met local musician Jon Wilkins. “I knew he played drums for Summer Blanket, but I didn’t really know him well,” Horal explains. “I was walking out [of Dada] and hew as like ‘Helen, that was really great. Have you ever recorded?’” When she told him she’d only been performing for a month, Wilkins offered to record her demo.

“I had never heard myself with drums, bass, keyboard, or any of that stuff,” Horal says of the demo. “It was so exciting. I freaked out.and gave copies to everyone I knew.”

In February, she contacted Matt Cohen of the local band who recorded Summer Blanket’s, “Charm Wrestling” about cutting a full length cd. Wilkins agreed to produce the CD and play drums on a few of the songs. Michaud volunteered to sing backup, and Earl Coraluzzo of Remember the Ocean lent his guitar to the mix. “She has gotten calls from local musicians practically begging to play on the record,” says Wilkins.

In the studio, Wilkins discovered that Horal truly was a self-taught musician. While trying to figure out the bass lines, he asked Helen what key she was playing in. “I said, ‘I don’t know, man. Don’t ask me,” Horal recalls with a laugh. “He said, ‘Well what chords are you playing?’ I just kind of shrugged.” She recalled the Friends episode in which Phoebe taught Joey how to play guitar and made up chord names based on how her hand looked when she played them.. “I was like ‘The Dragon Claw? The Old Man?’” Horal says with a laugh.

Her unorthodox guitar-playing aside, Horal has grown more confident with her music over the past year. “When I first started playing, it was really hard for me to take a compliment,” she admits. “I would say ‘well, thanks’ and cower my head down. Now when they say, ‘That was unbelievable, Helen; I love those lyrics,’ I can say ‘Thank you very much.’ That’s pretty cool.”
- author: Colleen Dougher, Citylink Magazine July 21, 2004

"Words Unbroken"

Here are my two Helen Horal anecdotes:

I first met Helen on November 16, 2006—the night that she won the First Amendment Writes competition at Starr Hill. Horal plugged her acoustic guitar into an amp in a back room at the Biltmore and ran through a victorious-if-giddy rendition of “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Up there with Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” this is one of the first songs that every passing, disinterested guitarist learns. Color me skeptical.

I ran into Helen again a few weeks ago at Orbit’s Billiards before a set by Sparky’s Flaw, and we played a little game to pass the time until the main act called, “What does the opening band sound like?” “Stephen Malkmus,” Horal answers, naming the former Pavement frontman and current solo artist, then carries on to talk about her love for Malkmus’ indie pop gem, “Jenny & the Ess-Dog.”

These two ideas of Horal—marketable and clever, aspiring to mass appeal while holding the wheel of her creative drive— meld during the fifth track of Horal’s new record, Words Unbroken. A cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” Horal’s breathy voice washes across trip-hop drum beats, staggered electric arpeggios and a beautifully unsteady guitar solo courtesy of Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill).

Perhaps the greatest hurdle that Horal leaps is that tiger-trap “singer-songwriter” categorization, the phrase that lumps Sheryl Crow into Jewel into Sarah McLachlan while music fans shudder and recoil. Horal has orchestral ambitions: “No Words,” the album’s standout track, casts fuzzy, digital drum beats across a chugging guitar line while echoes of Horal’s delicate chorus rise and fall, soundwaves rendered visible then obliterated. The album is perfectly sequenced, with Horal’s First Amendment winner, “Old Eyes,” coming next, a huge deceleration but a song equally impressive in its sonic elements—acoustic strum less bright, coupled with electric guitar fills that flicker miles away.

At times, Words Unbroken seems graced with an aural attention deficit disorder, as if Horal were deftly arranging the sum of every influence into a pop patchwork. The sparse keyboard-and-vox track, “Eskimo,” gives way two songs later to “Equator,” which tosses a mandolin and bongos into the mix for a rhythm that can’t help but recall the musician that Miller’s made, Dave Matthews. One song later—”You Had Time”—and Horal offers a breezy standard that is at once, miraculously, Natalie Merchant meets indie siren Feist. Elsewhere, Horal channels Imogen Heap or electro-pop act Portishead, while Wilson’s guitar recalls Joe Walsh of the Eagles and Nels Cline of Wilco.

Horal’s ability to ransack and draw inspiration from every annal of pop music seems so simple, yet even guessing at comparisons leaves me exhausted in the effort. What does Helen Horal sound like? A pro. - C-Ville Weekly: Brendan Fitzgerald

"Under the radar and dreaming: Music experts pick our next big thing"

Nearly 13 years ago, Dave Matthews Band released its major label debut Under the Table and Dreaming and suddenly put Charlottesville on America's musical map. Some of the youthful musicians featured in this, the Hook's annual music issue, may not even remember that moment. In the fall of 1994, Eli Cook, Helen Horal, and all the members of Sparky's Flaw and Sons of Bill could have formed the greatest-ever band consisting entirely of preschoolers and kindergartners. Now they're all grown up, and our experts say they're the ones to watch, because they have the stuff to take them from under the radar to the top of the charts.

Bruce Flohr is an executive with Red Light Management and ATO Records. Bruce Flohr...on HELEN HORAL: She has an angelic voice, and her guitar reminds me of Sarah McLaughlin, but most importantly, she's doing all the hard grunt work to get her name out there.

Andy Waldeck is a singer, songwriter, and founding member of Earth to Andy. Andy Waldeck...on HELEN HORAL: She barely knows what chords she's playing on the guitar, but she's absolutely in control of it all, especially with her singing-- she's absolutely killing it. She's not just your average chick with a guitar.

Boyd Tinsley is the fiddler in Dave Matthews Band. Boyd Tinsley...on HELEN HORAL: She's got a great voice and really seems to understand the craft of songwriting.
- The Hook


There Is Only This Place 2004
Words Unbroken 2007

Featured on WBRS 100.1 FM Waltham/Boston (Brandeis University Radio), WCNR 106.1 Charlottesville, VA

First Amendment Writes 2006 First Place Winner- "Old Eyes"
International Songwriting Competition Semifinalist 2005- "Keith's Song"
New Times Magazine Best Singer-Songwriter 2005 Nominee
The Hook Magazine "Under the Rader" Artist to Watch 2007
First Amendment Writes 2007 Finalist- "Persephone"



South Florida born and raised 21 year old singer-songwriter, Helen Horal, wearily stepped foot into the Florida music scene at the tender age of 17 with only two years of self-taught guitar under her belt. "I'm a poet by nature and a musician by nurture, I guess," laughs Horal. The combination of a Yamaha piano childhood education and her grandfather's play-by-ear genes produced the girl who still does not know what chord she is playing. "It just sounds right," she says.

After a short stint as an open-mic regular, Helen was scooped up by local musician Jon Wilkins (The Postmarks) and was sooner than most, playing shows of her own and opening up for some of the biggest local bands. "When it comes to making a great impression, no one’s hotter than Helen Horal," says Colleen Dougher, Broward/Palm Beach New Times.

Wilkins helped Horal with a quick, but natural, transition into the studio and produced her first full-length release in the October of 2004, "There Is Only This Place." The project turned into a 10-song record of her most intimate and profound songs. Horal's lyrics accompanied by her crisp guitar and musical backing from local musicians serve as the anchor for the record. It is her voice, however, that truly transcends the ears of listeners; Mike Verzi of BMG wrote "When you hear a voice like that, it stands out."

It is that same voice that ushered Helen back into the studio here in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the First Amendment Writes 2006 winner judged by Boyd Tinsley (Dave Matthews Band), Rita Dove (Poet Laureat) and Bruce Flohr (Red Light Management, ATO Records), Horal has had a great kickstart year for the promotion of her sophomore effort, "Words Unbroken." Boyd Tinsley writes, "She's got a great voice and really seems to understand the craft of songwriting." With the local buzz behind her and that great Charlottesville enthusiasm, she plans to only further that craft by way of performing. Helen will be on the road this summer in support of her new record that has received nothing less than glowing reviews.