Mike Rimmer reports on one of Christendom's most underrated singers, HELEN J HICKS
I first heard Helen J Hicks' music as an early morning background noise to shake me from slumber. Terry Wogan was a fan of her band The HoneyRiders so her singles would be played on Radio 2. And then for a while, there had been a number of people telling me about her and suggesting I should have a chat. It was only when former MP Jonathan Aitken suggested it that I finally determined to track her down.
At Birmingham New Street station, Helen is a striking figure striding across the open space and difficult to miss. I later describe her as a "life force" to a mutual friend and he laughs in agreement. The other thing that immediately strikes me is that she's a bit posh! She has that confident ease that comes from a very good education and a lifetime of mixing with people.
Did I mention she is a bishop's daughter? To be fair she didn't become a bishop's daughter until she was 14 years old. "Before that," she grins, "my father was general secretary for a thing called CMS (Church Missions Society), so when I was at school and people asked what your dad did you'd sort of say, 'The head of CMS', it sounded like IBM or something! Nobody knew virtually that he was even ordained and then suddenly, at 14, I became a bishop's daughter and everyone was like, 'Don't swear on the Bible, swear on Helen!' sort of jokes. You do laugh those off, you have to laugh those off. Actually by that age, by 14, I knew who I was a bit so when I was suddenly being thrust into the limelight a bit, in a religious context, I was lucky that I went to a great school that gave me the tools to deal with that."
Obviously faith was an important element of growing up but Helen explains, "I think faith became its own really for me in stages; I went on those Billy Graham things where you all just automatically go forwards and wake up the next day and go, 'What was all that about?!'" She laughs, "And then I went through my rebellious teenage moment between 16 and 18. But I think I came back out after university realising how important my faith was to me when I'd almost rejected it."
Helen studied Theology at Cambridge University. Having studied Theology myself at university, I know that it is often a subject that tears its students away from faith rather than helping solidify it. Helen laughs, "Actually that's a very good point Mike! It was quite a hard course. I remember getting my first essay back and the only comment on it, bearing in mind I was used to getting As in all of these at school, was, 'This is a sermon; it's not a correct answer. Where is your evidence?' And they really dragged me over the coals; which I actually think is very good for your faith. You need a faith that's robust and you can argue the point well, otherwise what are you believing; is it nonsense or not? I studied Hinduism and Buddhism and specialised in the Jewish Holocaust in my third year so they're quite hard things to grapple with and at that age you're dealing with so many other things, like boyfriends and all that. It was quite a testing time I have to say!"
One early connection Helen made in the Christian music scene was with Larry Norman. His younger brother Charles produced her early recordings. How does a London girl minding her own business end up working with one of Christian music's major figures? "Well I've got one word for you," she laughs. "It's 'Greenbelt'! Actually I went there quite harmlessly, minding my own business, and got dragged in, as it were, to go on tour with him. Unintentionally I ended up doing it. My first single was with Charles actually, which was in aid of Meningitis, and he produced it. I happened to be going on my year off and I got invited to go on tour with Larry and do backing vocals. It was great fun. It was quite a mad time, and I didn't know who he was, that's what's so funny. I found out afterwards as I was wandering around Greenbelt, after I'd said, 'Yes, I'd love to do this.' People almost falling down to worship before him and I sort of went, 'Oh he must be quite well known!'" She laughs, "It was great fun, and Charles was wonderful to work with as well so I was very privileged to fall into it really."
Prior to her current recordings as a solo artist, Hicks fronted the band The HoneyRiders. "I actually did it as almost a studio project with a guy in Birmingham and a friend of mine who's a drummer, called James Sedge. We just got together and I basically gave them some tracks I'd literally done with my voice and a click track and said, 'Come up with some ideas around this.' It was the first thing that gelled; I thought, 'Actually I can see this going somewhere.' And really irritating; I was just going to go and live in Africa and I thought, 'That's typical! I've finally found my sound and I'm moving away!' But I kept flying back to record with them. Eventually we decided to set up our own record label and do our own thing."
However, whatever her intentions about making music in the UK, Helen chose this moment to move to Tanzania. "I went out there for love, you know?" She laughs, "But I also formed a band out there called KUDU, which were a jazz band. Great fun; all Tanzanians, all black, I was the only white person in the band which actually used to quite confuse people because I'd often do Billie Holiday-esque type songs and people would come round the corner expecting a black person to be fronting the band and it would be me!"
Everything with The HoneyRiders looked healthy and Helen stood on the brink of mainstream success and she received distribution from Decca Records. "I came back permanently to the UK, actually not expecting to. I thought I'd be going back to Africa and for various reasons I ended up staying here."
The reason that Helen returned to the UK was very personal and very difficult for Hicks. Her marriage had collapsed and she didn't return to Africa. How did God help her get through the experience? "Wow, no-one's ever asked me that question!" she responds. "I think the answer is 'without bitterness', which I think I would have had if I hadn't had a sense that we were both loved, and actually probably the only person experiencing pain in the way I was experiencing it was my ex. I don't think he intended that to happen either; I don't think anyone walks down the aisle and goes, 'And in a couple of years' time I'll have a really crappy divorce!' I just don't think people think like that. So I think realising that despite it all we were both loved by God equally and were trying to work through how to forgive each other and move on really helped. And just the idea of Christ being a wounded healer, you know? He didn't bypass the cross. And so we have our own crosses that we often invent and make for ourselves that we then have to suffer the consequences of, but God is so gracious he still loves us. So I think it was just the overwhelming sense of knowing I'm loved and that it wasn't God's fault; it was both of ours I would say."
I wondered whether she felt like a failure? It struck me that a lot of her life seemed perfect and idyllic. She came from a great family, she was well off and went to a good university. She had everything going for her and that this was the first time anything really bad had happened to her. Helen disagrees, "I'd say it was probably the second time. My first serious experience of loss was when my best friend at school died of meningitis. That was really hard to handle, I was quite angry at God about that. But again, I don't believe God wants bad things to happen to us; I think we live in a world that is fallen and has a fault line within it and so I think that he can be with us in our pain. I felt very much responsible for not being able to get the marriage back on the road. But I think the humiliation and feeling a failure was what actually then made me be able to be much more sympathetic to people who don't have life altogether, and let's face it, probably none of us do but some of us think we do."
So did it take her a long time to get through the experience and get on with her life? "Well, yes and no. I mean I think in one sense I got through it quite quickly because of my faith and belief that God loved me anyway, and in another sense I think it's a process and I think certain things that happen in your past affect your future. I think even now, I'm married happily again but every marriage has its moments and trials! My father once referred to it as, 'Forgiveness is like an onion; you always peel off another layer.' So I think forgiving someone is a process that probably, in terms of my ex-husband, will be a process that goes on the rest of my life. And that's okay; I think I have forgiven him, but certain things come up and you think, 'Oh, what about that?!' And then you have to let that go. And that happens not just in relationships where a marriage breaks down, but in any relationship that breaks down. You get that sense of having to let go and move on. It's a good process but painful to go through because you can see each time where you're at fault and try and change that. And that's the only thing that you can try and change!"
So the break up of the marriage led to Hicks returning to the UK and working on her music with The HoneyRiders here. She recalls, "During that time we started doing really well. Harpers & Queen did something on us, we were in Hello!, Sunday Times, I was on the radio, Wogan played us a lot and we suddenly were becoming quite well known; and The Box had our video on there. I was just releasing a single which was being distributed through Universal already and a guy called Nick Battle, who was just starting as A&R at Decca, was given a copy of my single and it got stuck in his CD player. He said he couldn't get it out all day. Only time it's ever happened!" she laughs. "So there must have been something in that, I don't know! And he just said that by the end of the day he just loved that song, 'Colour', and just said, 'I need to sign this band.' So we got signed on a five-album deal with them; well I got signed as sort of the creative director of the band and the songwriter but I kept the same band on and we carried on working together."
Anybody who knows anything about The HoneyRiders knows that they haven't completed their five albums. "I decided to part ways with them", she says simply. "Not because they're not lovely people but there was a lot of in-house politics and a lot of things were changing. In fact all of Decca has now changed and the guy that was in charge has now left. So having started with being told I was going to be the new forefront of the new singer/songwriters that they were releasing, my album got delayed and delayed and ended up being a year late, which cost me £80,000-worth of cross-brand marketing I'd done with Wella, which was a campaign I set up prior to being signed. So obviously that was annoying for me, let's just put it mildly! And that wasn't anybody's particular fault and certainly Nick tried his best and I had a great manager, so it was just nobody's fault. But it's very hard to give over control to other people and see it being frittered away. I suppose I felt being able to take control back would be the best solution, and I had a very good lawyer so I was able to get out of the contract."
Helen Hicks and I are talking in a French restaurant in the countryside over a leisurely lunch. I am quickly discovering that she's a bit of a posh bird. "Well I don't know", she demurs. I tell her I'm not convinced, after all she has been written about in Hello Magazine. "Well, yes I suppose in relative terms I'd say I'm quite posh," she hesitates, "I suppose! I never think of myself in those terms because I don't think it's relevant to music. I think one of the great things about music is you can sing or not sing; whether you're from a completely working class background or not it has no boundaries or culture or class, it transcends all that, which is why I love music so much."
These days she is working mainly into the mainstream, but as a Christian so that some of the songs that she's writing reflects her faith. She shares, "I like to think there's a strand of hope, which is a unique Christian quality in many ways. What's more hopeful than somebody rising again from the dead? I don't think you need to shove your beliefs down anyone's throat but I think the fact that you can have hope and give that to people as a gift is the most important thing."
So, finally, what is she trying to do with her music at this point in her career? "Well, I want to get it out there!" she exclaims. "I think being a solo artist has been very freeing because it sort of means I can do what I want. I think if I'm honest I would love to be successful, I mean, I don't think any singer wants for just their mum to buy the album! I hope a few more people might buy it than that! I would like it to be something that touches people's hearts and lives and I'd like to continue writing music that does that, and obviously the more people that you can touch with it the better. But certainly to be able to just make music and make a living from it and be happy doing that would be a privilege for the rest of my life."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.