Interview by Ed MacLaren
If music is a reflection of the soul then Imperia’s fine new album gives you a wide-open look at the inner spirit of vocalist and lyricist Helena Iren Michaelsen. With “Secret Passion”, the Dutch metal band lays bare Helena’s emotions on a bed of darkly gothic yet surprisingly accessible melodies that ebb and flow across the album’s 13 tracks. To get to the heart of her secret passions, Femme Metal talked to Helena about the album’s evolution, her inspirations and her relationship with Imperia’s fans. Congratulation on “Secret Passion”! It’s a stand-out album and definitely your strongest release yet. Are you pleased with the results?Thank you for the flowers. (Laughs) I’m very pleased with the positive feedback we get from fans and media, and personally I agree with you that this is the best release of Imperia until now. “Secret Passion” is a very accessible album. It’s still full of driving gothic melancholy – heavy and dark – but the melodies and vocal lines will definitely attract a new group of fans. Was this something you set out to do with this album? Yes and no; it’s not a change of direction we really made on purpose, but it rather came naturally in the process of making the album. We didn’t steer into a different direction intentionally. But indeed, most of the songs turned out more accessible than in the past, and probably also more catchy. So I suppose a lot of them also appeal to a more mainstream-orientated audience this time.
“Secret Passion” features some eastern influences and a killer chorus – it would make a fantastic single. When you record to you think in terms of singles or “hits” or is it creating a cohesive collection of songs as a whole? I try my best in general to always have a chorus that people can sing along to. I don’t want to make things too complicated or hard to follow. I believe that a simple, catchy and touching melody will still reach people’s hearts the easiest. “Secret Passion” is a good example for that kind of chorus. Then again it’s not that we really thought much over which song might make a good single or not, basically we try to have every song as good and catchy as possible. Vocally, with this album, you seem to be moving more and more away from a strictly operatic performance into a more diverse vocal style punctuated with a very emotive and unique tone. Tracks like “Suicide” sound like you were doing some real vocal experimentation. Were you consciously expanding your vocal palette?
The music is different this time and so of course that strongly reflects in the singing. We kind of moved away from the opera-metal direction and to me as a singer it felt kind of like putting myself in a cage being limited to only use this one kind of singing. I love to explore the different colours of my voice, since it gives room to put many different emotions into my vocals. It’s not that I dislike the opera voice, but it’s just one option out of many others. So to me it’s a lot more satisfying as an artist if I can use all colours instead of just one, and on the new album I had the chance to do it that way. Even with the vocal changes, you can still pull out the operatic vocals when you need to. Your voice is so versatile that using the operatic register more sparingly actually seems to give more weight and drama to the vocal. What effect are you trying to bring to your music with these vocal changes? I think you gave the answer already. It’s exactly as you say it, when putting the opera voice in the right moment it makes a really dramatic effect and it can put a real climax to a song. Using it only in those spots where it really fits perfectly actually enhances the effect you can create with it. “Mistress”, the digipak bonus track, has some strong electronic/dance elements. Your vocals are very well suited to this style. Is this a musical area that you want to pursue? It’s not that I really have a clear plan to do anything like that. But I like to dance and there’s a lot in dance music which I actually like. Let’s say I certainly don’t see it as a future direction to take for Imperia, and also I am not planning to do a dance-album in the near future. But as an extra-thing it was great fun to make, and I think it’s cool to have it on the album.
Your lyrics are intensely personal. During the recording of “Queen of Light” your daughter was born but you had also dealt with some negative things happening in your life which also infused themselves in your lyrics. Where is Helena now and what has your life experiences brought to your writing for “Secret Passion”? The life I have now is a lot more peaceful and safe than I had it at the time of doing the previous albums. So I think this also reflects in the lyrics of the album very much, there is much more room this time also to sensitive or romantic lyrics. My past still is and always will be a part of me, and this is what lyrics of songs like for instance “Violence” or “Suicide” spring from. But this time they can stand right next to a song like for instance “Secret Passion”, and to me it feels perfectly natural and right that way. The biggest difference to the life I used to have is that I don’t feel afraid anymore. And this changed a lot, of course. You open yourself up to your listeners in your music and lay yourself bare in your lyrics. Is it difficult to share those parts of your and let people in to that? No, it’s no problem for me to share these things with the fans that listen to the music. Making music and writing lyrics is extremely personal to me. It’s like a world of its own, where I can let out all the emotions I feel inside of me, and it’s these emotions that make it intense and touching to the people listening. Singing can feel like a relief at times but also it can be extremely exhausting. Some songs are really hard to do, just because of the topics they deal with and the emotions I feel when singing them. It can give relief at times but also it can really drag me in to the mood of a song and then be really painful. If you want, you could say that sometimes the music kind of is my shrink or my therapy. And I know from letters I got from fans, that it can also be a therapy to others that have been going through similar experiences in their lives. But in particular with those songs that actually are hard to do, it feels like the music that goes with the words gives something back to me, gives comfort if needed. If you feel like crying, the music can wipe the tears away. So all in all I consider it kind of a healing process, and out of all therapies, music is probably the best there is. Listening to your lyrics, it’s pretty obvious that you have a romantic spirit. Is there room for romance in metal when lyrics in this genre tend to lean towards the dark, aggressive and fantastic? I am a romantic person, so it reflects in the music automatically. As for what the rest of the genre does, or what people think is the right kind of lyrics for metal songs or not, I don’t really care much to be honest. I think there is room to everything in every genre, if you choose as an artist to give it room. There are no rules that everybody is obliged to follow, unless you choose to accept those rules. And I obviously don’t! You speak often in interviews about living in the forest. It seems to have a profound influence on your musical perspective. How do the trees and the woods influence the dark gothic nature of your music?
Imperia sports one of the most international line-ups in the business – no one even lives in the same country. How does that arrangement work? You can’t just ring up the guys and say, “We’re jamming at my place tonight. Bring the beer!”No indeed, that would be a long trip and I suppose the beer would have gone warm before, let’s say, Steve arrived from Germany. (Laughs) But still thanks to technology nowadays it’s not much of a problem, you can work on the same piece of music while everybody is in a different country. Twenty years back probably this would have been completely impossible, but nowadays you can just send files all across Europe in more or less real time.
How do you guys create an album without spending any time in the studio together? The basis for the recordings was the guide tracks that our guitar-player Jan had provided. To those the drums were recorded at Spacelab studio in Germany and at the same time Oliver Philipps was working on the orchestrations already. When all this is done, the songs sound pretty much complete already. These are the versions we used when recording the vocals, actually here at my house in Norway. At the same time Gerry was laying down the final bass-tracks at a studio in Belgium, Jan was recording the definitive guitar-tracks for the album in Finland. So at the end of every evening there was a lot of files being sent across the globe, so at every place the projects could be updated with the latest tracks recorded. It sounds a bit complicated maybe, but in practice actually it’s not. It actually all worked perfectly fine and could not have been any easier if all being in the same place at the same time.
Does the distance impact the creative process in any way? In a way I think it gives more space to everybody’s creativity. Let’s say when I work on the vocals, I like to try out a lot of different things. When having the whole band around, of course everybody has an opinion, and sometimes that can feel like a limitation. I feel a lot more free in trying out whatever comes to mind when doing it this way. And still you can, of course, change things again later if not everybody is satisfied with the result. Everybody’s opinion, of course, is relevant and should be respected, but it’s not always helpful to get all the opinions while still being the creative process. I liked the freedom I felt in these recording sessions, working at my own house, working at my own clock, and whenever I felt in a creative mood. I am not entirely sure Oliver always liked it the same as much, let’s say he didn’t exactly get a lot of sleep. (Laughs) Kids and family are obviously important to you. With recording and touring, is it a sacrifice to do music in a way because it takes away from your family time? Actually, there isn’t a lot time for me that I could spend on the band. So I don’t sacrifice family-time to the music, but rather do the exact opposite. The priority is to my children, and also all the animals that share life with me on my little farm in the forest, so basically it’s impossible for me to just go on tour for a couple of weeks for instance. Of course, I sometimes miss this feeling of freedom I had back then having less responsibility, being free to go on tour whenever there comes a chance, doing things spontaneously without much planning needed in advance, basically just going wherever the wind may take you. It’s just a completely different life now, with much more responsibility, and a much higher need for stability also. But I don’t want to complain actually. I think there is a time for everything in life, and right now, I am actually happy to be where I am. Do you have any advice for any of the other Metal Moms out there who are trying to achieve a level of stability with family and career? Actually, my advice would be that if you choose to have a family, you should give priority to that. I think it’s near impossible to combine being a mother to excessive touring activities, at least not as long as the children are small. And certainly not as a single mother, I don’t see how that should be possible. You’re a very interesting contradiction – very sensitive, emotional and compassionate yet onstage you’re aggressive and powerful. Is it difficult to balance? What does each side impart to the other? I don’t see a contradiction there at all. I’m a really emotional person, and in the music, all these different emotions find a place and come out. Imperia also records as your musical “alter-ego” Angel. That band was originally developed as an outlet for some of your musical idea that didn’t quite fit under the Imperia moniker. As Imperia’s sound has evolved is Angel still a viable musical outlet for you?
Yes, I think it still is, but right now there is no concrete plans for a new album or anything like that. But there certainly will be one as soon as there is time for it. What’s happening with Angel right now? Will we be seeing some new material from that band anytime soon? Maybe Angel could be the vehicle to vent some of the electro gothic sounds you’re developing? Maybe so, maybe not. How could I know in advance? Actually anything is possible, and the music and lyrics will come naturally when starting to write the album. As said before, I don’t plan much in advance or put limitations to my creativity. I try to give room to just about any inspiration that comes, and then I let myself be surprised with the album that comes out in the end. What are Imperia’s tour plans for the summer? Will you be venturing away from the European continent at all?
It may be we’ll do a couple of gigs in Holland and Belgium in summer, but there will not be a full European tour. It’s just not possible at the moment.Have you ever thought about having Angel open up for Imperia in a kind of Leaves’ Eyes/Atrocity kind of concert? That way you could cover your entire musical catalogue. Actually, we even did that once a couple of years back. And it was fun to do, but in I don’t think it’s a good idea as a general concept. The audiences Angel and Imperia are appealing to are quite different from each other actually; with Imperia we have a real metal-crowd and Angel appeals a lot more to people that are into much more mellow kind of music, like acoustic arrangements and more of a pop-approach. So I don’t think it makes more sense to present both bands separately than having them on the same night in the same venue.
(Famous) Last words? Music is my passion. And you are the air that keeps the flame still burning.