Francesca Brierley aka heka exists in a world of her own. A place that borders between gently plucked guitars one moment, gliding synthetic harmonies the next and then landing back down on a subtly immersive bed of beats. There’s not a moment that you’re listening and you don’t feel lost in the soundscapes and rich sonic palettes that seem to dance and twirl around the melodic mountains she creates. She’s now returning with her latest project since 2019’s Other Drugs EP, in the form of (a) EP, released today via Ballon Machine Records. We caught up with heka to learn where she draws sonic influence from, the story behind the EP and her parallel growth with Bon Iver.
Over what time and whereabouts was the EP recorded?
Mostly in my bedroom over there! (Points to desk) I had some demos of the songs that were from different times but I started recording the new versions in October. I was doing uni stuff as well so I was pretty much just in front of my laptop all the time haha. It was during the lockdown, so pretty boring just me and the old laptop.
So the songs on the EP are older songs that you re-recorded?
“(a) dab” is probably the oldest one at 4 or years old and “(a) mask” and “(a) wall” are about two years old. So they weren’t the newest things that I’d written but they were songs that I’d been wanting to record as a bunch for a while and finally it happened! I always feel like with everything I do I plan something and then two years later it finally gets done.
Going back over them after so long did you change anything drastically? Or are they fairly true to their original form?
I think the one that changed the most was “(a) wall”. Mostly because it wasn’t just me working on it, I collaborated with Ed Tullet on the arrangement. So the way he interpreted it was different and I thought “Oh that’s really cool, let’s take it into this direction”. I was a bit scared at the beginning about going back into having to figure out these songs again, as I had them in my head as what i’d recorded in the demos. You have to deconstruct that a bit to think “What is good to keep and what is just my lazy brain thinking that this is the only way this can be done”. So I was a bit scared that I wouldn’t understand them anymore and I wouldn’t understand the version of me that had written those at the time. I think the fact that I was recording alone in the dark like a vampire probably helped recreate that connection of intimacy with the songs even though it felt distant at the beginning.
With the main theme of the songs being about relationships, was it weird looking back and seeing how you viewed those situations then?
It’s definitely always that sense of “Oh god” haha. A lot of the stuff I write is personal and it’s a snapshot of a very specific time that I write in. It’s like looking back at old pictures and thinking “Oh god what are you wearing!”. It’s a very funny thing, but I didn’t feel too far away from them that I couldn’t relate to them anymore. That was a worry a little bit.
Is your songwriting more diaristic or therapeutic?
Definitely therapeutic for me to write in general. I think it’s probably a survival situation where I would be insane if I didn’t write haha. But it is also diaristic in the sense that it’s conversations that I’ve had in my head or things that I want to say and I can’t. It just comes from my everyday life I guess.
What was the story behind “(a) dab”?
It’s mostly about when you’re in love with someone and it’s unrequited, so you fall into this pattern of addiction to that person and addiction to the situation and it’s this whole toxic thing going on. I had this very visual idea of the lyrics. I had this scene in my head and I wrote it down which is not something I do very often so I don’t know where it came from. But it was just trying to express that feeling of helplessness and also wanting to be helpless which is what’s the most fucked up about those situations haha.
The song structures for the EP begin with electronic samples and field recordings and then transition into the ‘folky’ ballads. What’s it about those combination of sounds that draws you to them?
I think that’s partly the fact that I went and revisited the songs that were initially very folky and I wanted to create this tapestry of sound that’s a bit more current for me in what I like to listen to and what I like to make. So it was me trying to make those songs more contemporary to how I felt and what I liked. I don’t know if it’s something I accomplished but I really love when there’s a collection of songs, whether it’s an EP or an album and you feel like you’re on this journey where all of the tracks are connected. It’s like a mini symphony. I remember when 22, A Million by Bon Iver came out, that completely changed my life. I remember thinking “Oh my god, this is exactly what I want!”. I want the tracks to feel cohesive and part of something organic and fall into one another. Which is probably the conscious part of why there’s an ambient connection between the songs.
Did Bon Iver influence the folk side of your sound as well?
I have this really funny relationship with Bon Iver where I feel like we’ve grown up together. We haven’t though haha! But I feel like the stages that I found myself at within songwriting were the same as his. When he was doing the more folky side of things I was definitely doing more folky sounding things. And then I gradually evolved into something a bit more hybrid, which was the same with him. He definitely influenced me, but I feel like I was ready to be influenced by him in that specific time. I was like “Yeah you get it! This is what I’ve been trying to say”. So that’s why I love him so much as I have this ‘in my mind’ connection to him in a way.
Are there any other artists who also inspire, even just for the sound?
I’m always really bad at this question. I really like Feist, James Blake and Alt-J. I was really obsessed with Laura Marling at a certain point. But at the same time I don’t say “Oh I’m really inspired by this person I’m gonna do the same thing that they’re doing”. I just really appreciate what they’re doing. It almost feels like we’re contemporaries and we like the same things and I think “Oh you get it”. I don’t know to what extent they influence me, I think I’m influenced by all sorts of stuff. I listen to a lot of different genres and my discover weekly on Spotify tries to keep up but I can tell that they’re struggling haha. There’s house music and then classical, hip-hop or folk or rock. I really like a lot of different things so I can never say for certain what exactly goes into what I make.
It’s interesting you said Laura Marling because especially with her latest album the key part I took away from it was there’s a lot of harmonies. With quite a few of your tracks harmonies play a key part, is that something you try to build in or just the way you write?
So I feel that doing harmonies is probably the most natural thing that I think of when i record. I think it comes from early days of trying to figure out Logic for the first time and what can actually make a song sound better. Just having more voices because it’s the only thing I know how to do haha! At the beginning you play with your voice as a singer and think “Okay this is how I can enrich this sound and this is what I can do”. It’s just kind of stayed I guess. I like to use the voice not just as a vocal. It’s corrupting it haha. So the sound of the voice and making into something that isn’t the voice. In “(a) wall” there’s a line of a really high pitched sound. I don’t know that it’s immediately obvious that it’s a voice, I mean I know. But I thought “How can I make this sound like some weird synth that you don’t know what it is?” but it’s actually a vocal. I think that’s really interesting to play around with the vocals and sound because they just make everything better.
Is that manipulation of sound something you try to achieve in each song? Are there any more easter eggs hidden throughout?
I like to manipulate the sound into something a bit weird. Sometimes when I’ve recorded with other people I’ll be like “Make it darker!” and they’ll say “You can’t hear this now!”. So I have a bit of a weird idea of how things sound and I’ve certainly learnt how not to make everything dark and weird, but I do enjoy it.
There’s a moment in “(a) mask” with this eerie synthesiser that takes a turn from the rest of the song, do you try and hide those eerie moments in there?
I feel like the eeriness comes naturally to me. I don’t necessarily try and be eerie but it just happens. I don’t know that I always love it but I definitely recognise that it happens. It wasn’t on purpose, I think I found these sounds that are cool then afterwards looked at it and thought “Oh that’s really eerie”.
Is there a reason you chose to use the simplistic title of (a)? Or is it from the songs?
It’s from the songs. I like patterns where “Oh these three things are the same and that’s not” so let’s just call it that. So it’s really just a joke.
Your music has been described as entering VR. Do you agree with that? And does virtual reality influence your music at all?
I don’t necessarily write with VR in mind. I’m just about to finish my degree which is in computational art so I do think about that stuff a bit as I do it at uni and enjoy that aesthetic of it a bit. But I definitely think my songwriting is personal intimate stuff rather than technology. I think it comes from trying to explain the idea behind why I don’t necessarily love being pigeonholed in one genre. I like the hybridity of producing music that sounds a bit in-between things. So I guess the relationship between VR and reality being in-between worlds maybe has something to do with that.
With shows hopefully on the horizon, what’s it been like releasing this music without shows to back it up?
It’s been a bit strange. I’ve been quite lucky that a few people have asked me to play in June out of the blue but I don’t have a release gig booked which is usually what I’ll do so that’s strange. I don’t mind having gigs that aren’t necessarily release gigs and just playing the stuff. Hopefully it happens now, I’m itching to play now!
What’s your usual live set up?
It’s usually just me and my loop pedal. I had really wanted to put together a small band for this project and in general I feel like it’s a lot more fun and you’re not alone. You get to share music ideas for arrangement and I think it would sound really cool so I’ve been wanting to do that. It hasn’t been the ideal time though yet, but it will be. I decided to release an EP on the last year of uni and this is my last month of uni so up until now I haven’t even been able to think about what I want to do in a live setting. But I would definitely like to have at least another one or two people to just balance it out.
Thinking back to Bon Iver’s live set up, is that electronic set up of thousands of pedals something you’d want to have?
Yeah! I went to see him in Edinburgh on the tour of 22, A Million and it was so cool. He had this tiny stage above the main stage where he had all his equipment. And all the other musicians were surrounded by equipment and they all work like cyborgs where they’ve got one instrument with 200 keys. So that’s definitely the 10 year plan. For now I quite like simple set ups. I get a bit apprehensive with having too many things to move around. I like to have that connection with the audience which isn’t just me frantically trying to figure out what button to press. I want to look at people and sing with them so that’s my priority, to have the time to connect. And have the mental capacity to focus on that. I like that loop pedal because of that because it’s really intuitive and adds that bit of atmosphere and that minimal arrangement lets me be in the room. And that’s why it would also be amazing to have other people play as it would mean then I can delegate some stuff, the sound would be rich but I wouldn’t have to think about all of it.
If anything, what would be something you’d like to change about the music industry?
There’s so many things. I was just talking to someone about this the other day and I was saying “How is it even legal to not pay musicians when you have live gigs”. Maybe their could be someone who says that’s actually illegal. I’ve been feeling this a lot recently, that we’re such a huge industry but there isn’t that class consciousness of musicians in the same way there is for other employments. Where you have rights and you fight for the rights of that specific job for example. It feels very disconnected. It’s a network but it’s hard to unionise and mobilise in the same way that other industries do.
So for example the whole thing with Spotify is absolutely insane if you think about it. It’s this illusion that we’ve all bought into. Don’t get me wrong I actually really love Spotify and it lets me find loads of music and it’s an easy to use app etc. But they have the money to pay everyone better, and they don’t. And we haven’t been able to do anything about it. It’s insane if you think about it. I would hope for a stronger class consciousness, for a stronger union of people that say “We’re not going to have this anymore”. And big acts saying “I’m gonna take all my music off my service if you don’t make changes”. If hundreds of big acts do that then it’s gonna get to the point where Spotify’s gonna say “Okay, you called my bluff!”. So why isn’t that happening? There’s really rich musicians that can afford to not be on Spotify and help make the change for the little guy. It’s not going to make a difference to them if i’m not on it. But for me it would mean less people get to listen to the music.
(a) EP is available now, purchase here.