Helena 2 Tor Hills (1)

Photo Credit: Tor Hills

Course Studied: BA (Hons) Music (Jazz)

Year of Graduation: 2016

Top Career Highlights:

Helena Debono is a jazz vocalist based in London. Having performed at the esteemed Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, she is making a name for herself in the jazz scene.

Helena has also performed with the likes of the NYJO, and is preparing for the release of her debut single 'Little Life' on the 12th March.

How would you describe your sound?

I would say my sound is a mix of jazz, soul and pop. I am really influenced by all of the great Jazz Singers; Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and also more current modern singers such as Lianne La Havas and Amy Winehouse. My sound is definitely driven by the lyrics.

What sparked your interest in jazz and improvised music?

When I was 14 my music teacher gave me an Ella Fitzgerald/Count Basie album to listen to. I was totally hooked and refused to sing anything else after that! I also love that you can take any classic jazz song and make it your own, there are no boundaries!

How did studying Jazz at Leeds Conservatoire prepare you for working in the wider industry?

I think by studying Jazz I was given the fundamental knowledge needed to progress further in the jazz scene. When I started at Leeds Conservatoire I had no idea what Jazz harmony was… I had never sung a mode or anything like that so it was a big challenge for me. I was the President of the LCSU Big Band in my final year and this also helped me learn how to organise a band, rehearsals etc. I loved that at Leeds Conservatoire I was able to take other modules, such as Events Management and Self-Promotion. This was invaluable to me for releasing my own music and navigating a career in the arts, especially with the rise of social media etc.

Helena Performing at Ronnie Scotts

Helena Debono performing at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club

Photo Credit: Carl Hyde

What was the most important lesson you learned during your time in Leeds?

The most important lesson I learned whilst at Leeds Conservatoire was to see myself as a musician rather than a ‘singer’. I think it is so important for vocalists to be on top of their musicianship and be able to communicate with other instrumentalists in the same way. Writing was always something I was afraid of before studying at the conservatoire and I remember feeling really encouraged and pushed to write and now I love it!

How important were the connections you made during your studies?

The connections I made whilst studying at Leeds Conservatoire have been invaluable to me. I still work with many of my friends/peers from the conservatoire and ask their opinions on my music. Some of my best friends are from my studying days. It was so nice to also mix between year groups/courses and have opportunities to work/play with graduates of the conservatoire at jams etc.

Could you tell about some of your most memorable performances to date?

I think my most memorable performance was at Ronnie Scotts with NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra) on the 8th January 2020. It was my birthday and just before I went on stage to sing the band played happy birthday to me. It was pretty surreal. 2 months later we were in lockdown- Very weird!

What's your approach when working as a vocalist with big bands such as NYJO (the National Youth Jazz Orchestra)?

When working with a big band, my approach is first and foremost to be a member of the band. I want to get to know everyone in the band and form friendships with them. When on stage you instantly feel supported and trust that they have your back. I think singing with a big band is a completely different discipline to singing with a trio etc. You can’t just queue the ending, it’s written so you have to really be on it.  You have to know when to hold it back and when to really sing. I listen to big band vocal music all the time so I think that has really helped me. 

Helena Press Shot

As a vocalist, how do you interact with improvising instrumentalists?

That’s a hard question. I guess you just have to leave your insecurities at the door and be willing to make mistakes and show a vulnerable side to yourself. I used to really worry “Is my improvising good enough?”, “Am I demonstrating enough language?” etc. Now I have chilled out I feel my ideas are a lot clearer. Before studying at Leeds Conservatoire I had never really improvised so it took me a long time to become comfortable with this. I still have moments where I really doubt myself- I think all musicians do?

What advice would you give to a prospective student wanting to study jazz vocals or songwriting?

I would say do it. Go into it with an open mind but also stay true to yourself and what you want to say. I always thought my music was “too pop” for a Jazz course but I was so lucky that at Leeds Conservatoire they steer you to find your own individual voice. My singing teacher at Leeds Conservatoire - Kari Blevik really helped me with my songwriting and gave me the confidence to explore and experiment ideas further with my band.

What's coming up next for you in terms of projects or releases?

My debut single ‘Little Life’ is out on the 12th March, followed by the full album which will be out later this year, which I am so excited about! I also have a livestream direct from Ronnie Scott's on the 14th March. I will be performing a mix of originals from my upcoming album and some of my favourite re-imagined standards. When lockdown ends (hopefully very soon) I am really looking forward to performing to live audiences again and getting back into the studio!

Read about our BA (Hons) Music (Jazz) pathway

Find out more about what our graduates have been up to in our Alumni Profiles

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Follow Helena on Spotify / Instagram / Facebook 

Visit Helena's website

Alternatively, rewatch Helena's recent livestreamed performance at Ronnie Scotts

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