Singled Out is a feature focusing on the stories behind a song, as told by the artists behind their creation. In this edition, Dave Helmer discusses “Kiss the Sun,” a track from his debut solo album titled Such a Clown. Here, Dave contextualizes the song within the bigger picture of the release, contrasting Such a Clown to his work with Crystal City, where he performs and records with Sam Drella. He also discusses the music video for “Kiss the Sun,” and how the pandemic influenced the creative direction that resulted in the album’s release. That’s where we dive in.
villin: In their article for Iowa Public Radio, Avery Gregurich used a phrase in the introduction that jumped out to me about where Such a Clown might have sprung from. They wrote that your guitar shop is where you’ve “reoriented” your life over the past several years. I’m left wondering: reoriented in what way?
Dave Helmer: I had a lot of time to myself during COVID and I was able to really dial in my focus on doing more advanced guitar repair and expand my guitar playing. I was buying broken guitars on Reverb to practice repairs like neck resets, refrets, body structural repairs and a multitude of other repairs. These repairs cost more to perform than basic set up work. Before COVID happened, I was spending a good amount of time working at the music store I work with, and the pandemic gave me the opportunity to be in my workshop day after day. I really expanded the guitar repair I was able to offer the public. I also have a desire to play guitar at a high level, so I decided to take guitar lessons from a local guitarist/instructor, Steve Grismore. We talked only about my songs and how to play lead over the changes and a bunch of music theory. During this period, I was practicing guitar and writing the album if I wasn’t in my workshop. As a result of the pandemic, I really changed my day to day, very focused on advanced guitar repair and becoming a soloist on the instrument instead of just a “songwriter” so to speak. I wasn’t nearly as focused before. Both of these skills are things you’re constantly working to improve on, and you never arrive at a place. You must maintain all your chops and keep pushing forward.
villin: In large part, Such a Clown is the product of the pandemic. Was there anything you hoped a solo album would provide when embarking on the project, different from what Crystal City gives you creatively?
Dave Helmer: I’ve been writing and recording music since I was a teenager and I’m always coming up with ideas. Crystal City has been my focus since my mid-twenties, and it was just how life was. Sam went back to school during COVID, and it just seemed to make sense to make a solo album. We’ve recorded all sorts of ways over the years. I’ve played everything on songs, we’ve had the band play live and capture a performance, Sam and I have recorded live just the two of us. The songs were always complete going into recording. This time around, for the majority of the tunes, when I went to do my vocals, I only had a line or two for the songs and then came up with the rest on the fly. So, we’d spend an hour or two working on the lyrics and doing vocal takes. This kept everything very fresh in my opinion. You can sing/play a song too much before recording it and it can lose its luster or start to sound flat. I really enjoyed doing it this way as I was constantly surprised at some of the lyrics that showed up. There was newness around every corner making this album. From the vocals to the guitar parts and everything else.
villin: Later in that article, there’s mention of your education at Minnesota State College Southeast, which finds connection for me with a term used elsewhere in the article, referring to your music “heartland rock & roll.” I lived up in Minnesota for several years and songs like “Kiss the Sun” sound stylistically reminiscent to music I became familiar with during those years I was there; be it that of the Pirner brothers, Charlie Parr, folksier stuff like Dan Israel, or even more loosely related bands like that of the Hold Steady. How do you think living in Iowa and Minnesota has influenced the style of your music?
Dave Helmer: Around 20 I became a huge Replacements and Paul Westerberg fan and I just absorbed as much of that catalog as I could. I just related with the lovable loser thing and the great songs. I think a lot of music from the Midwest has jangly open guitar chords and the singer/songwriter feel. In the Midwest we just keep our head up, keep working and I think that ideal shows in a lot of Midwest music.
villin: Where did the relationship with Scott Yoshimura begin and at what point in conceptualizing Such a Clown did you reach out to him about working on the album together?
Dave Helmer: I’ve known Scott for many years, since my early twenties. We used to do shows in Marshalltown at a bar I worked at called JD’s. He was playing as Canby and in Parlours at the time. We have played numerous shows together over the years. We always were friendly and got along. After the first eight months or so of the pandemic I had gotten all the songs together musically and Scott posted online that he had finished home studio, so I sent him a message with a couple demos. We ended up having a two hour phone call talking about recording and just catching up in general. Felt like we just picked up where we left off years before. From there we planned to start recording in June of 2021. From start to the release it took about 24 months.
villin: Was there much of a discussed concept when collaborating on the video with Good Era? Its closing shot is a dedication to Trevor Lee Hopkins. Who was Trevor and why was it important to offer the tribute with this video?
Dave Helmer: Good Era was great to work with. They’re very nice and creative dudes. We wanted to do a classic band in the woods at golden hour for “Kiss the Sun.” It just seemed appropriate. Also, something to note is we shot two videos that day. We were rolling at 8am on a Saturday last October and shot “Anyone to Blame” at my house into the early afternoon. Took a lunch break and then went to our second location and shot “Kiss the Sun” by sunset. That was Good Era’s idea and even though it was a long day it ended up being great to get all that done so quickly.
Trevor was my friend and unexpectedly passed last spring. He booked and ran sound at the legendary Iowa City venue, The Mill. He also worked at the Musician’s Pro Shop where I work, doing guitar repair. He’d always be super encouraging to me and tell me I was “the best guitar repair guy and songwriter in Iowa.” Trevor was encouraging to all musicians in the Iowa City area. He was at the video shoot for “Kiss the Sun” and after his passing I wanted to pay tribute to him and since the song has such a hopeful feel to it I decided to put the tribute to him at the end of the video. Just a sweet guy at the end of the day.