M. William Helfrich, better known as the Portland, Oregon-based mbilly, a folk-pop songwriter with a knack for crafting time-proven melodies with aged wisdom, will celebrate the release of his sophomore full-length, Malheur (self-released), nationally on June 5, 2012.
A collection of eleven songs recorded over ten days in the summer at Type Foundry with engineer/producer Adam Selzer, Malheur was written in the months following the death of one of his best friends growing up. The album takes its name--French for misfortune--from the county in Eastern Oregon where he grew up.
"He and I were in a band together in high school and every aspect of my musical life began with him," mbilly says of his friend that passed. "We began playing shows together, writing songs, and recording; all of it was done for the first time with him." In a fitting coincidence, the album's June 5th release date would have been his friend's 32nd birthday.
He continues, "We weren't close at the time of his death, but it brought out a lot of feelings and questions that I hadn't anticipated and couldn't easily articulate. I have a similar ambivalence towards Eastern Oregon, where I grew up. It's very much part of who I am and I am anchored by it in an unidentifiable way, but I also felt very disconnected from it and at odds with it."
Attempting to address the parallels between his friend and his hometown, the songs mbilly wrote became an album of open-ended questions.
"I didn't attempt to answer them," he says. "In past songs I've written I've tried to resolve them with an answer of some kind. The nature of the questions asked in these songs is such that there are no simple answers, nothing neat in the way things are wrapped up."
Another thing new for mbilly, who recorded his debut full-length, Mister Nobody Baby, at four different studios over the course of three years, is the structure in which this record was made. Spending plenty of time on pre-production with Selzer, mbilly knew exactly what he wanted to do with the songs when he went into the studio.
"I knew from the beginning that I wanted all the percussion on the album to come from old analog rhythm machines, so I started using them as I was writing the songs. I love the way they sound rigid and stiff, but at the same time organic and rich."
His thought behind the drum machines, one of the many decisions they made ahead of going into the studio, was that they would create a nice, static foundation for the songs in contrast to the fairly loose instruments on the record.
The result is an album that shines with its late-night starkness and airy, less-is-more instrumentation choices; however, that is not to say the instrumentation feels short, because the full-sounding compositions compliment the space beautifully.
The Portland Mercury has written that, "… he has a voice that flexes and ripples like Jack LaLanne's pectorals - classic and classy, despite the nakedness," while The Oregonian wrote, "… a sly sense of humor and a potent darkness," about his previous album. The same rings true with Malheur, as does Willamette Week's quote that, "…songs that contain both a plainspoken charm and a knack for communicating some deeper truth," a style that will instantly have you recognizing mbilly.
Malheur may have been conceived from the idea of death and memory, but the forward-thinking album doesn't dwell in the past. It questions what really makes us who we are as adults and if we can ever really understand their influence. It's simplicity, yet depth, will stun those that pay attention; meanwhile, the well-crafted melodies and spacious songwriting will have you mesmerized by every note.