Helen Henderson – London (Ranui)

Helen who?  If you’re scratching your head, you’re not the only one.  Like many ex-pat Kiwis, Helen Henderson is one of those who’s lived life of a unique and enviable moments.  She’s now LA based but originally grew up in the Deep South. She’s best known for her album The Sonora Sessions, an urban country affair which came out in the early 2000’s and the dark but catchy Twisting Wind, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Her music career has taken her to many places but it was her first big OE, in the late 1970’s, when she arrived in London with $20 in her pocket and a dream in heart, as the saying goes, that set it all going.  This month the songstress prepares to release an album of original songs material written and initially recorded between 1978 and 1980, when as a wide-eyed Invercargill teenager she first set foot in Old Blighty.

She was initially signed to Ensign Records (Boomtown Rats, Sinead O’Connor and The Waterboys) and with the luck and charm we Kiwis sometimes seem to have, plus a truck load of talent and ambition, she managed to hook up with the right people. People like former Led Zeppelin manager (now The Who) Robert Rosenberg, who co-wrote all the songs featured in this collection.  It was Rosenberg who recently surfaced the masters and sent them to Henderson, who then had the task of whittling 20 songs down to the final 10.

Some songs sounded dated so they needed re-recording – undertaken in LA with guitarist Doug Pettibone (Marianne Faithfull, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello) and a “posse” of ace Californian session artists.  Because these songs were already mixed and mastered it wasn’t possible to lift out individual parts and rerecord them.  So instead the songs were overdubbed with more guitars and percussion on some of the songs.  Although mastered consistently you can tell the difference between the muddy bombastic of the 80’s and the crisp digital of today in the production.

In the studio, Henderson was also pretty lucky.  The original sessions included guitarist Clem Clempson (Roger Waters, John Lennon and Bob Dylan) and a drummer who’d played with Elton John.  Others on the disc had experience with Deep Purple and Uriah Heep.

When Henderson first arrived in London she auditioned at several studios and was well liked.  But in a time when singer-songwriters were starting to emerge, she was not strong enough to ride on voice along.  It was Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason that really got Henderson’s career underway.  Referred by an Invercargill expat living in the UK she bowled on up to Mason’s mansion and played him demos of her covering Ronstadt songs she’d recorded with a touring band That she was working for at the time.  Mason was impressed but recommended that she write her own material.

So inspired by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell she started writing and instantly things clicked.   Henderson was one of the first artists to catch the eye of record exec David Geffen, who was just setting up with his first big star – John Lennon.  Henderson headed state-side and was ready to join Geffen, and most likely meet John as well.  Sadly, it was just before former Beatle was gunned down in New York and in the aftermath and fall out Henderson lost contact and the momentum slowed.

Instead, Geffen ended up signing the Oregon rock band Quarterflash, who became one-hit wonders with the the gawd-awful Harden My Heart.  London…  gives us a few shows…a few moments where Henderson was heading as a composer, influenced by The Runaways or Heart as much as Fleetwood Mac et al.  But even then trends were changing in the fickle US rock market.  As can be seen on some of these songs, her particular 70’s rock chick style did not sit well with the emergence of grunge and alternative markets or even the burgeoning New Romantics scene. So Henderson went on another journey, training as a yoga teacher and doing massage, while still singing in top-40 bands.  Musically, she eventually turned to country and folk, where she’s been ever since.

Because music was always in Henderson’s family, and it was always going to come out some how.  Henderson’s the the niece of renown Invercargill violinist and conductor Alex Lindsay.  Her childhood soundtrack is saturated in folk, country, classical, Celtic music but offset by Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  In later life those influences resurfaced.  She started her own record company Ranui Records (Big Sun –  a cross-cultural reference to the famous Memphis recording studio) to release her later records.

The first song she ever wrote, the one that almost got her a global record deal with the fledgling Geffen Records, is called Anyone’s BabyIt’s fitting that it opens London. It has the predicted innocence in the vocals, sure, but also a heaping helping of titled and ambition locked into a great slow rock melody –the truest reflection of what she’s all about.  Although Henderson chose re-record it she keeps the song intact.  For an 80’s number its probably the contemporary sounding song on this collection.  Another redone was Windows of Gold which features some beautiful but subtle Spanish tinged guitar work.  Given the popularity of the Eagles around the time of its original recording it can easily be carbon dated back.  Still it holds up pretty well.

Others, unfortunately betray the influences of the day.  There’s way too much Foreigner, for example, on the power ballad Love on Love, which is drenched in synth and strings.  Stealing heavily from Sharon O’Neil’s songbook, Children of the Night is a complete rip off of her big hit Maxine, musically and in subject matter.  Even the guitars in the bridge work seem way too familiar.  And unnecessarily heavy handed.  The most over produced number, too, with a densely compressed, thick sound.  That said, and given that Pat Benatar and Kim Carnes were starting to terrorise the airwaves of commercial radio it’s a surprise this one didn’t instantly go gold!

Elsewhere on this collection you can hear snippets of period AOR radio like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, of whom Henderson now confesses were contemporary influences at the time.  A standout in that category is Listen To The Wind with a strong the folk/rock presence of Stevie Nicks and the the desperate story telling of the Boss during The River era – the best glimpse at where she’ll end up going in later years when Henderson moved towards the tougher musical style of Lucinda Williams.

Perhaps she was listening to early Christine McVie when Henderson recorded the California-folk tune River but the good vibes have rubbed off and it still stands up well also.

Overall, you have to marvel at the repertoire of someone so young – and so under celebrated in this country.  Sure, we sit here retrospectively reviewing this remarkable collection with our critical post-century tastes and values firmly locked in place but when I think of myself at that time of life – my own naivety and my own untapped talents, let alone the self confidence and sheer balls to even make it to these recording session – I can’t help but admire her.  Helen Henderson deserves more notice today in the music world.  This is an early window to where she’s come from.  I encourage you to seek out her more recent works and discover a remarkable talent and give her the support she deserves.

Tim Gruar

Click here to listen to Anyone’s Baby from London: