BY AUDRA SCHROEDER Helen Horal's voice is familiar. Familiar like a face you see at a party, make eye contact with, and smile at briefly before looking away, even though you and that person are total strangers.
It's a voice that garners many comparisons, but there's something more tangible than that. It's a voice that sounds old yet wise, bitter yet smart, stoic yet heartbroken, experienced yet naive.
The 20-something South Florida native started playing guitar three years ago but says she had a lot of musical time before that. "I am, and have always been, a shower-singing aficionada," Horal says via e-mail from Virginia, where she recently moved. "I was in the 'Cool Cats Chorus' at my elementary school, if that counts."
But singing in the shower and in chorus can get you only so far in this crazy, mixed-up world. So Horal graduated to the next logical choice: dueling piano jams.
"My grandpa [and uncle] had two pianos facing each other, so I've grown up with the two of them doing these extended dueling piano jams together," she explains. "Aside from the sheer musicianship of this sight, I think that they really have taught me that it is OK to love music. Plus, my grandpa passed down his play-by-ear music style, which has sincerely helped me to play guitar."
Horal played her first open-mic night last year at Dada in Delray Beach, a gig that would open quite a few doors. "Keith [Michaud of Summer Blanket] was still hosting it at the time, and that night really was the catalyst for this new chapter," Horal says. "I did the open-mic thing there for a couple of months, and then Keith asked me to open for Summer Blanket at their prerelease party [last November]. It was my first real show. Needless to say, it was very exciting for me."
Since that fateful night last fall, Horal has been everywhere: the Red Lion Pub in Boynton Beach, the Lounge, Respectable Street, and Borders and CD Warehouse in Fort Lauderdale. Any place that will let her and her guitar in. The incessant gigging made people take notice. This musical novice was already turning heads.
"Sometime after [my] first show, [former Summer Blanket drummer and New Times contributor] Jon Wilkins asked me if I had ever recorded anything -- which I hadn't -- so I went to his place and recorded a ten-song demo, on which he played drums, bass, and keyboards on four of the songs," Horal says. That demo generated interest, and at the beginning of this year, Horal entered Morning Drinker Studios in Fort Lauderdale to record with Matt Cohen.
"Making There Is Only This Place has been the experience," Horal says. "I really had no idea how much time and energy goes into making a record. Getting the guitar tracks flawless and seamless, perfecting the vocals, mixing and mastering, and the latest phase, printing... it is intense. I would have stayed in the studio forever if I could have. Matt made it so easy that I truthfully did not mind singing the same song 100 times until it was perfect. In the long run, it really paid off. I'm really proud of this record."
And she should be. For a debut record, There Is Only This Place radiates a maturity that's stunning. Horal's velvety voice is thick with self-reflection, regret, and hope, backed by a guitar that whispers as softly as she does. On the poignant "So Right," she sings, "How do I know when it's time to go/You'll send me on my way with a ticket home." For such simple compositions, Place sounds world-class big.
And now, before Helen goes on to be a star, she answers weirdo James Lipton's infamous end-of-show questions from Inside the Actor's Studio:
Q: What sound do you love?
Q: What sound do you hate?
A: Motorcycles or any loud engine.
Q: What job, other than your own, would you like to attempt?
Q: What job would you never want?
Q: Your favorite curse word?
Q: And finally, if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive?
A: Hey, Helen Horal, you have treated people with such care. Tender care and kindness. You smell like flowers.
Helen Horal's release party for There Is Only This Place takes place at 10 p.m. Saturday, October 9, at Dada, 52 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-330-3232, or visit www.helenhoral.com.
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