Helma Sawatzky
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Helma Sawatzky

female vocal fronted folk rock

album reviews and artist reflections

Fragile (2000)
Seasons of Grace (2001)

Interview and Review © Steven Digman 2002
Review and HTML © Russell W. Elliot 2002
all images © 1999-2001 Carmen Tomé
Formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows
Last updated: updated 19 February 2005

Rapidly emerging outside of her native Vancouver, Canada home, singer songwriter Helma Sawatzky already has a loyal following at home. She has released three albums to date. Two of them are reviewed by correspondent Steven Digman here. Clearly we have found a wonderful new discovery and are proud to present this article to our visitors.

Earlier this year Steven caught up with the artist and conducted an interview into the theory and evolution of Helma Sawatzky and learned about about her music in her own words. Learn about the artist's background, songwriting influences and other views and read reviews of her recordings below.

The Interview

Musical Discoveries: Could you trace for us the inception and evolution of your music, beginning with your first release The Riddle of Life and continuing through the angular momentum of each CD; Fragile and Seasons of Grace?

Helma Sawatzky: Riddle of Life came about because of the continued encouragement of 'my beloved' as well as the opportunity given to me by Winnipeg singer-songwriter Rick Unruh. Both spurred me on to take my songs a step further and record them. Rick Unruh offered to produce the album. So in the winter of 1996 I flew to Winnipeg to record and mix the album in a whopping two weeks.

I had recorded demos of all the songs. Rick had gathered musicians, given them a tape of the tunes. I arrived on Monday afternoon, we rehearsed Monday evening and started tracking Tuesday. It became a very rootsy album with a live feel. It was fun and nerve wrecking at the same time. I had a great team of musicians and engineers working with me and we pulled it off. After the release of Riddle of Life in spring of 1997 I made more deliberate efforts to get out there and play, and very very slowly more venues joined the list.

Fragile was more of a natural step in the journey. I had written many songs, enough to choose material for a next album. The financial opportunity was there and I was itching to do some recording again. The time seemed ripe and I was ready to go the next step! I chose two people to work with me as producers, people who I trusted and who I enjoyed working with.

I had learned a lot from Riddle of Life and wanted to take a slightly different road on this album. I took the approach of a visual artist on each of the songs which resulted in a long line-up of musicians that offered the musical colorings that I was looking for. This album was recorded in the town where I lived which was instrumental in connecting me somewhat into the music scene here. I also learnt a lot from producing an album and was very relieved to have help, that is, people to speak their mind when I didn't know anymore. Fragile was officially released in April 2000.

Seasons of Grace was a surprise. For many years people had been asking me when I would do a Christmas album. And I had always answered something like, "I have no desire to add my chestnuts to all those millions of chestnuts already roasting in open fires, causing these frosty snowmen to melt away in winter wonderlands." I truly felt that there are plenty of excellent (and not-so-excellent) Christmas albums out there and I did not want to add another just because it is the expected norm.

The repeated requests did really make me ponder what a Helma Sawatzky Christmas album would look like, if it were ever to happen. I decided that I could only do an album that would express my heart. And that it would be an album that would bring together the meaning of all 'seasons of grace.' I also wanted to reflect on the impact that has had on my life and so the concept of Seasons of Grace was born.

In February 2001 I had attended a workshop on "How I raised 25,000 dollars to record my CD and you can too" and I felt adventurous and thought I would try it. I started a friend raiser and at the same time set to writing songs for the album. I had never written songs so deliberately and with a specific deadline. It was an interesting and hair raising experience.

In June the funds were there to do this album. In the three months following we put it all together—recording, mixing, mastering, graphic design. I held the first copy of Seasons of Grace in my hands on November 1, 2001 and realized it had been the most unusual journey so far. It was the work of a community of people that believed in this album, this music and it was not just 'my baby' and I felt so rich because of that!

  Helma Sawatzky
photo © 1999 Carmen Tomé

As a prolific and gifted singer/songwriter what do you consider to be more difficult: writing the song or singing the song and which is more important?

I don't know about the prolific and gifted part. I do know that many songs have a long time of 'becoming', sometimes to my frustration as I see fellow songwriters crafting songs at much greater speed. I am a turtle among hares. A time of writing is most often preceded by a time of the illustrious 'writer's block'—a vast space of nothingness—the 'blank canvas syndrome'—in which I find nothing else to do with my time than 'filling my fuel tank,' so to speak: I read a lot, and journal, and wait.

So I would say that the writing of the song is definitely the hardest part. For me lyric and melody go hand in hand and by the time the lyric is finished I have sung the lines so often, that the vocal ideas are more or less 'there.' Vocal interpretation of a song I did not write myself takes longer to develop, as I need to own and live the song first before I can do it any justice.

As far as the importance of writing vs. singing the song: can a bird fly with only one wing?

In your own study of music what do you consider to be the three basic dreams necessary for the creation of a good song?

I am not quite sure about the word 'dreams' here. I would like to look at three basic concepts:

  1. Silence. Sound and music are born from silence. Whether this silence is like an absence of order, a blank canvas, an empty page or absence of sound, it is the starting point from which a creative act emerges. I like to start with an awareness of silence and from there venture into the creative act.

  2. Open Mind. I like to do what works for the song and its expression. I see all musical cultures on this planet as a huge palette of different colors and in the making of a song I try to find the instruments and musical styles that suit the song. Sometimes it means that I set aside my own commitment to 'acoustic only' and use electric guitar or synthesizer if this is the musical color the song seems to need.

  3. Conviction. I want to be real—transparent—honest—in who I am and what I believe to be true. I try to really express my heart in the songs I write, whether they are autobiographical in nature or whether I try to crawl into the skin of someone else's experience.

What is the one rule in music that you like to break?

The one rule that I consistently and passionately break is the one of format. My albums are somewhat notorious for not fitting 'The Format.'

I guess I have never been a good 'chorus line dancer'. And within this business called music, record labels are very concerned about fitting the format—in sound, style and image—so the album may be appropriately labeled and filed in the appropriate box. This brings out the rebel in me I guess, and I joyously cross all lines of style to discover delightful places!

I am already looking around, smelling the flowers, and excited to find a new musical path for my next album. I do find that that so-called 'independent' music scene is giving birth to more and more original artists who tread different paths with much conviction. Through the internet they are able to establish a 'following of sorts' to the point of attracting the bigger record labels. I really believe people enjoy something different. What really attracts is The Heart—artists who are real and who have something to say.

The musicians! Where did you find them? Who are they?

As most independent artists would agree, there really is no such thing, as we depend so much on the community around: those that support the music, those that participate in the music, those that influence the music.

Helma Sawatzky
Image © 1999 Carmen Tomé


A while ago I departed the idea of the Rat Race where the music world is like a pool full of piranhas fighting over the latest chuck of meat that fell into their puddle... worrying about exposure and self-promotion, two things that stifle the heart of true art.

This musical journey is one like any journey in life—one of standing and falling, one of building friendships, of sharing our lives with one another through good and bad times—and of working together for good. I know that I am a bit of an idealist at times. I have to be for my own sanity's sake.

On this journey I have befriended many great musicians as well as tried to find people that could add the musical color I was looking for. There we met on our common ground of music.

Seasons of Grace was a wonderful re-connecting with many wonderful musicians, some that had played on my previous project Fragile and some that came recommended by other musicians. They are all from the Vancouver area and many of them involved in the eclectic world of world beat and folk music.

To personally introduce all musicians might fill many pages. I will highlight some of the key players on the last two albums:

  • Aron Loewen (guitarist/engineer/co-producer). Aron and I have performed together since the release of my first album Riddle of Life in 1997. Patient, funny, and open to trying new things (still a kid on the inside), he continues to be a delight to work with.

  • Harold Wiens (bass). Harold owns the studio where we recorded both Fragile and Seasons of Grace. He engineered and co-produced Fragile and played on both. He has freely offered us access to the studio, removing the stifling time-pressure issues that can ruin the creative process, and kept reminding me that it's about making good music and having fun at it: "If you don't have fun recording, then why bother!"

  • Pierre Imbert (hurdy gurdy). One of the worlds best, who tragically passed away only two or so weeks after his session for this album and who did a lot for the revival of the vielle en roux in Europe and Canada. Pierre and Andre were both part of a band I had admired at a local folk festival "Cordes en folie."

  • Andre Thibault (strings, percussion flute). A very seasoned string player who is multi-lingual on his instruments—flamenco, blues, Eastern and Asian stylings—stringed instruments of all sorts, percussion, flute. The Ultimate Musician, and fun to hang out with!

  • Stefan Cihelka (tabla). I really insisted on using Tabla on my second album and we asked around if anyone knew of a tabla player and we found Stefan. Stefan plays on both Fragile and Seasons of Grace albums. I like him as much as his playing!

  • Lori Bussani (percussion). A wonderful percussionist—a listener above all—she loves to experiment and will play anything, including all common household items. We met while being in a backup band for another local singer/songwriter and as both of us played filler instruments, we found time to talk and befriend each other.

  • Dave Olson (bass). A great bass player! He became involved by referral. I needed a bass player and my engineer-co-producer recommended him for Fragile. Since then he has been part of my band regularly.

  • Amy Stephen, Finn Manniche, Darcie Brown, Chad Joiner, Celso Machado, Martin Zinger—the list goes on and on. It is a most amazing experience to hear such gifted musicians play the tunes that you concocted in the 'privacy of your own home,' hear them come to life in someone else's playing!

You play a variety of instruments—very well I might add—do you have a favorite one?

Of all the instruments that I regularly play—voice, guitar, piano, flute, Irish whistles, recorders, percussion, keyboards—I do not consider myself a true 'musician' on most of them. I always say to my colleagues that I 'fake it' and try to improve my skill on the instruments as I go. I enjoy the wide variety of instrumental color. I love trying new instruments, but I lack greatly in the area of practice and self-discipline. One day, if Only. ...

The instrument closest to my heart has always been the voice, yet lately I have really enjoyed my journey with the flutes and whistles as you can hear on Seasons of Grace. I love the beautiful wood alto recorder my mother-in-law gave to me and also the low D whistle. The warm, haunting, longing sound that comes from these flutes is such an inspiration.

  Helma Sawatzky
photo © 1999 Carmen Tomé

In your life, what do you consider to be The Greatest Art? The Greatest Artist?

This is a question that can go many ways. But before I consider The Greatest Art I can only go to it's source—the Greatest Artist—for I really believe that 'every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows'.

All of us go through life as 'believers.' All of us have ideas, frameworks, experiences that guide our actions and that influence who we are. So naturally, what I believe does really spill over into my song lyrics. My hopes, my dreams, my fears, and my 'world view.' I believe that all I am and all I have is not what I have earned or deserved, but is what I have been graciously given.

The Greatest Art as 'an object' would be the universe, as it was put together by the Greatest Artist; this I believe! The flowers, the trees, the butterflies, the birds, all majestic animals, the ocean, and then the sky ... oh ... the sky. It was too great a leap of faith for me to believe that such exuberant, beautiful, mysterious perfection found it's origin in some Big Bang somewhere, generating a blob of cells that then became all we see and know today. I find greater logic and comfort in the conscious creative act of the Artist of all artists.

The Greatest Art as a way of life would be to truly acknowledge the life-transforming reality of the presence of the Greatest Artist in my life and to acknowledge my deep need for Him.

And where, Helma Sawatzky, are you going Tomorrow?

Does anyone really know where they are going tomorrow?

We make plans, we have dreams, and we journey on. I have some idea about my final destination—but Tomorrow? All we 'have' is right here, right now. This is 'life' to be lived to the fullest, for richer or poorer, for better or worse ... in sickness and in health ... till death do us part .... or unite!



The Reviews

Seasons of Grace
Image © 2000 Carmen Tomé

Fragile. Helma Sawatzky's second album (Dusty Tracks Music (Canada) 91002CD, 1999) was our introduction to the artist's recordings. Somewhat less traditional and Celtic-flavoured than Seasons of Grace that follows, the project has a rootsy singer songwriter edge with occasional musings into the softer sides of rock. Searching whistle and flute parts add a great texture to the acoustic tracks.

Helma has a lovely light voice but with power and range perfectly suited for the spectrum illustrated in the recording. Well-versed enthusiasts will be reminded of Mary Anne Marino (November Project and the emerging band reincarnated from their ashes Nobodaddy). While we especially enjoy the flutes of Helma's Seasons of Grace, the tracks on Fragile likely have a more universal appeal.

Fragile is comprised of fourteen average-length tracks and while many will enjoy it any time of the week, it is an album especially appreciated in the early morning before the pressures of the day are upon us or at the weekend. Light acoustic arrangements join sensitive vocals in the gentlest folk-oriented tracks. Listeners are certain to be impressed with the vocal production. Instrumental arrangements and light percussion are both perfect, adding just the right sonic texture to the material. Harmony layers are equally well-pitched: there but not over-bearing.

Helma's singing and songwriting talent illustrated within and across the album's tracks is a tremendous discovery. A balance of folky acoustic and string-laden ballads, bluesy pieces, jazzy bits and softly rocking numbers will appeal to a broad range of female vocal enthusiasts. The richly-arranged title track "Fragile" is a radio-friendly introduction to the artist and, like the other well-written and thoughtful material included on the album, is well-placed within her repertoire.

A surprise recording of "Outcast Café" (hidden within the CD) after the last track provides a glimpse into the artist's obvious 'in concert' appeal. Fragile is accompanied by classy artwork with lovely artist photos and a full transcription of the lyrics.--Russ Elliot

  Seasons of Grace
Image © 2001 Carmen Tomé

Seasons of Grace. The artist's latest album (Dusty Tracks Music (Canada) DTM 91004CD) is the audio self-portrait of Helma Sawatzky. It is Classical; it is Celtic; it is Renaissance; it is - Amazing Grace!

Sawatzky a Canadian singer / songwriter / recording artist (this is her third album) but is more than all of this. She is not a singer, but an intellectual vocalist who sings not only from her heart but also from her brain. She is not a songwriter…but a storywriter of deep thought and deeper dreams. She is not a recording artist…but a Woman who records Art.

Seasons of Grace is a spiritual journey. There's a lot of soul in here—and I like it! There are also angels. Listen to her first track "Seasons of Grace," a well-written and arranged instrumental, a prelude to the coming of angels—and oh, the angels do sing—and oh, I forgot to mention that Sawatzky is One Heaven of a musician!

Here come the angels: "Dark Was The Night", portraits from the soul; "Friday Child", (sung to the traditional "She Moved Through The Fair") soul prints and even more beautiful; "Bethlehem"—this can best be described in Sawatzky's own words: 'my heart is full of angel song / hear all my senses singing / the breath of heaven enters / to show his face to me'; and closing with "Grace Child" a song about the song—"Bethlehem"!

Helma's supporting cast (the musical glue), play well beyond the standards of musicianship. They are notable to the very last note! Musicians of note are all of them: Finn Manniche, Amy Stephen, Chad Joiner, Andre Thibault, Lyndon Toftager, Alexander Maier, Lori Bussani, Stefan Cihelka, Pierre Imbert, James Hamilton, Russell Shumsky, Aron Loewen, Harold Wiens, David Manuel, Darcie Brown—and yes Helma Sawatzky. This is - a symphony of stars!

There are over fifty-three minutes of well-produced audio portraits on this CD and each minute is music well spent!--Steven Digman (owner of Digman's Violin and Publising Co. located in Hagerstown, MD)

Concluding Remarks

Find additional reviews, soundbites, lovely photographs and further information at Helma Sawatzky's website. There you will also find a booking contacts, guestbook and album ordering details. You can now visit our radio station to have a listen to the title track of Fragile.

Find further reviews, soundbites and ordering information for Fragile at at amazon.com here and for Riddle of Life here. Clearly worth a cross-country journey and a tremendous musical discovery, Helma's Sawatzky's recordings are a must listen!

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