Thomas Hellman
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Thomas Hellman


Band Folk Singer/Songwriter


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"Straddling the language gap"

Thomas Hellman can't be categorized as franco or anglo. He's both or either: 'I'm just doing what I do!'
It would stand to reason that Thomas Hellman - oft-described as the anglophone success story at this year's FrancoFolies - has a professorial air, with a high forehead, wavy black hair flecked with a few strands of gray and upturned, loquacious lips. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all professors. His French grandfather - his father is Texan, mother from France - was once literary critic of Le Monde, author of 70 books on existentialism, poetry and the like.

"He (Jean Onimus) was a left-wing Catholic, which at the time in France was not very much a la mode. All the existentialists were saying, 'God is dead!' He was like, 'No, he's not!' It turned out that my thesis adviser (at McGill) studied under my grandfather."

Although often considered an anglo, Hellman's main success has been in French. A product of Montreal's French school system, he read almost exclusively in French until he got to McGill to earn a B.A. in Humanistic Studies, keying on religion and French and English lit. His guest at tonight's show (the second of his four-night sold-out stand at Monument National), is guitarist Jordan Officer (of Susie Arioli Band fame). They went to high school together and Officer was the first to accompany Hellman when he began doing shows at the Yellow Door in the mid-'90s.

"In high school everybody else was listening to Madonna, we were into old folk records - Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, John Prine - we exchanged records, that's how we became friends. Hanging out and listening together, we were 17 and went to the (Bar) G-Sharp to listen to the Stephen Barry Blues Band. ... It's going to be emotional in a funny way."

Then again, Hellman, 30, has always stood proudly outside the margins and categories, as reflected in his recent CD success, L'Appartement.

"I love the francophone scene right now," he says, then catches himself and appends, "Well, I'm smack in the middle of it.

"The job of critics and industry types is to categorize, and what I'm doing language-wise is always f---ing up categories. Are you anglo or francophone, folk musician or francais chanson, politically left or right, independantiste or federalist? These categories are always limiting, always reductive. When I went to France they claimed I was part of 'la nouvelle chanson francaise, but you have a funny accent' - or here in Quebec, 'You're quebecois but you're playing a banjo.' Blurring categories is not something I'm deliberately trying to do, I'm just doing what I do!

"In Quebec everybody's just really cool, you realize that the more you hang out with the musicians. Easy-going, friendly, unpretentious, but hardworking and determined - I'm really happy to be a part of that scene. Funny thing, I was really a no-scener, very indie and underground, until I started singing in French."

French music - from its great tradition to its current ferment - almost begins and ends with Serge Gainsbourg in the United States, although Camille has made a dent recently. Sofia Coppola and John Zorn dig French pop, but what about the rest of the U.S.?

"It takes certain singers like Gainsbourg to make the crossover," says Hellman, "because he's like a cult figure for anglophones too. Beck took the arrangements for La Ballade de Melody Nelson and put them on Sea Change, which became a cult album. I get a lot of anglos at my shows, so I haven't really seen the split between English and French communities. I really feel it's just a question of people meeting. I played Toronto a couple years ago and was expecting to sing mainly in English but the people wanted me in French.

"To me the two languages are completely equivalent, and this is so hard to explain to people. They don't believe me, because identity and language are so linked. Your whole being depends on language. My thesis was about this. I studied (Samuel) Beckett, writing different versions of the same play in French and English. The anglos read him in English, the French in French, and they developed two different critical schools analyzing him.

"If you know me only from English, et je commence a parler en francais, you won't recognize me anymore. So that's part of me, my whole life. When people ask me whether it's English or French speakers who 'get' what I do, I can't really answer that because it's all wrapped up in my identity, that's who I am. So when do I write a song in English or French? It's never a conscious decision. Sometimes in my life I feel more francophone from hanging out with more French people (like Yann Perreau) or more with anglophones, and therefore the songs could come out that way."

Hellman delivers searing confessionals in French that have the cathartic effect of a Texas cyclone. Dualities, says Hellman, are "enriching."

"Switching to a different language is like putting on a new pair of glasses, you see the world di - Montreal Gazette

"Canadian up-and-comers to watch in 2006"

Thomas Hellman, singer, Montreal Hellman said the August launch of his second CD, the virtually all-francophone L'Appartement, was a personal highlight of 2005. The intense-sounding chansonnier plans to celebrate with a Feb. 17 appearance at the Lion d'Or during the Montreal High Lights Festival. A tour of other Quebec venues will follow and plans are being made for European shows. Coast on the album for a while? Please. Hellman said he's already started writing in English so far for the next project. ``Since the album came out, it's almost like I got freed,'' he said. "I'm on a high and I'm having all these ideas.''
- The Vancouver Sun

"French Press Kit available upon request"

All - All


L'appartement, 2005 Justin Time Records
Departure Songs, March 2007, Justin Time Records


Feeling a bit camera shy


Thomas Hellman was born in Montréal to a Texan father and a mother from Southern France. He was influenced as much by the French « chanson » singer-songwriter tradition (Jacques Brel, Richard Desjardins) as by American folk music (Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan). Hellman writes and sings in both English and French. He was active for many years in the Montréal musical and literary underground. While he was working on a Master’s degree in French literature, Thomas recorded two independent albums (« Something Wrong » and « Stories from Oscar’s Old Café ») at McGill University studios in Montréal. Both albums were well received by Canadian critics but received limited distribution and are now out of print. In 2005, Thomas Hellman signed a record contract with Justin Time Records and recorded « L’appartement » (the apartment) his first predominantly francophone album, produced by Jean Massicotte (Lhasa de Sela, Jean Leloup, Pierre Lapointe, Arthur H). French Canadian critics hailed it as « one of the most important francophone albums in recent years ». Thomas Hellman was nominated for three ADISQ awards (French Canadian equivalent of the Junos), including « Best singer-songwriter » and « revelation of the year », was twice nominated for the Félix Leclerc songwriting award, won an « honours » award for his concert at the Quebec City Summer Festival, and was in the top five selection for the SOCAN « Echo » songwriting award.
In March 2007, Thomas Hellman will release « Departure Songs », a selection of remixed and remastered English songs from his two first independent albums. « L’appartement » and « Departure Songs » will be launched in Europe (on Harmonia Mundi records) in April 2007.

Thomas Hellman has a commanding stage presence and plays with a band of some of the most exceptional, energetic and charismatic musicians Montreal has to offer. Their concerts are dynamic, moving, energetic and highly entertaining. during 2006 Thomas Hellman and his band played over 100 shows, mostly in French Canada and Europe.\thomashellman