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Imperia Interview

Imperia Interview
Performed in April 2011 via Skype

It has been four years, nearly to the day, since the multi-national band, Imperia, released their sophomore album Queen of Light. With the third time being the charm, Secret Passion is sure to bewitch listeners with its gothic epic metal soundscapes. Sonic Cathedral’s Robin Stryker chatted with vocalist Helena Iren Michaelsen about Imperia’s new album, life in the depths of a Norwegian forest, the healing power of music, and much more. Dive in for a closer look!


Robin:  Helena, metal greetings from Sonic Cathedral. Well, first of all, congratulations on the rave reviews that Imperia’s new album, Secret Passion, has been gathering! How are you doing today?

Helena:  Thank you, very good! And you?

Robin:  Just fine, thank you, and I’m so happy to be talking with you today. This is a rather obvious question to start with, but fans are always curious how new albums compare to previous albums. So, how is Secret Passion different than Imperia’s 2007 release, Queen of Light?

Helena:  I think that the music is a little bit different this time. It gives more air, I think, the music. But also the way I sing is different, the way I use my voice. And the reason for that is also that my life is more calmer now. You know, a more relaxed life and stable life? And before, my life was kind of crazy, so the vocals also were ... all the emotions were coming out like this. Now that it is more stable, the vocals also are kind of more stabilized. The two things get like one. I prefer the new way of singing instead of the more extreme way, I must say. ;-)

Robin:  On this album, Imperia used the cellist Tina Guo on “Let Down,” and it seems like Secret Passion incorporates quite a bit of orchestration on some of the tracks.

Helena:  Yes, and I LOVE her cello playing there. It is so amazing! I loved it really, what she did. It fits perfectly for the emotions in the song. When I heard her solo, I got goosebumps.

Robin:  Would you tell us a bit about the album cover, which was designed by your guitarist Jan? And I’m not even going to try to pronounce his last name …

Helena:  (laughs) Yrlund.

Robin:  (laughs) Thanks for that!

Helena:  Jan seems to amaze me every time. Because I have something in my head that I feel could fit -- like for the red thread through the lyrics and the stories that I see in my head when I sing them -- every time he amazes me! He seems to make a kind of a painting that fits for the cover of that movie, for giving an idea of what kind of movie it is for the people seeing it without knowing the real inside yet, if you know what I mean. The red thread through the lyrics, the stories? Just out of the blue, make me chills by what he made for the cover on the CD. Also I love his artwork for other CD covers, and what he does. I think it’s amazing! A true artist. I see my English gets worsened when I’m really enthusiastic. ;-) Sorry for that. (laughs)


Robin:  With Queen of Light, it seemed like the red thread through the album had a lot to do symbolically with birth. What is the red thread that runs through Secret Passion?

Helena:  How can I say it? It’s like, I’ve been single for a long time, this is one thing. So, if you’re single for a long time, then you start to miss things. You miss romance, caresses, someone to talk and share everything with. It’s lonely in the evenings, or something like that. That is maybe why I ended up with seven dogs, I don’t know. :-) It’s just certain things you start to miss, if you are year-after-year alone, especially if you live in the deepest forest maybe and don’t have the most social life ever. In general, it’s something from the time now, of what I kind of miss.

Then, it’s also stories from the past, which are brought back. And then, things that I feel myself about. You know, if you sit down by yourself, and you start to feel yourself about life in general or people you have talked with or somebody’s story … what they have told you … or something.

Like I think many times that I don’t belong in this time epoch. It’s too modern and shallow for me sometimes, too many rules in all directions. And then I just feel misplaced, but still I (of course) play within the rules. I must for my children, I’m a role-model. The hippie times are over. (crying sound, then giggling)

Robin:  For your lyrics, do you keep a journal to write down ideas as time goes on, or do your thoughts and inspirations come when you receive the music?

Helena:  It comes when I get the songs. Like one song fits for a certain emotion, if you know what I mean. It is kind of like a movie. For instance, “Let Down” has much to do with my childhood, the song “Let Down.” The song that I got then -- just as a musical song without vocals -- I found it perfectly fitting to a feeling that I recognized from my childhood. So that’s how these lyrics came on. I used … How can I say it? Eh, now I am getting not so good in English. It’s hard to talk English when you are going to talk about deep things, I think, since it’s not my native language. Hard to find the right words for what you want to describe … The music has to fit for the emotion you want to give through your lyrics. (This is the right way of saying it.) So that the listener, when the listener hears the music AND the story (the lyrics), it makes sense, that it gives a complete feeling.

Like Lord of the Rings, for instance, had really good music for special moments, and many movies have that. For movies, as well, the music is very important to create atmospheres and to communicate emotions. Like if somebody is crying, you have many times piano or sad music. In “Let Down,” there is a sad lyric and the song is sad. It just has to fit together like one.

Robin:  Very much so. With the trembling cello and the lyrics, “Let Down” is heartbreaking. I hope you don’t mind taking a detour from talking about Secret Passion, but I’m curious about the Native American symbolism of some of your tattoos. Do those images have special significance?

Helena:  Yeah, it is. It has to do with when I was a little girl. I kind of had my own dream world or fantasy world, where I escaped to when I found things hard or that I was scared. And it was more like an Indian girl then. I always kind of wanted to be in a different place than where I was. And that was in the forest with only animals and nothing to be scared of, no violence, no screaming. Harmony. “Harmony” is the right word.

It is also meaning of personal freedom and spiritual freedom. Sometimes I daydreamed that, if I had enough feathers on my body, maybe I could fly! :-) I love flying, love a bit of danger. Swimming with dolphins was amazing, for example. And riding Arabian horses in the desert of Egypt without a saddle. Nothing between me and the horse, and just desert. Running and running, like the wind. Then I held my arms out for a short while, closed my eyes and smiled for the feeling of freedom, for the beauty of life. Also I loved to dive in a steame of colorful fishes in Turkey. And hang-gliding. Rafting through the forest on wild water streams. Wonderful!! Live!! And on top of this, I LOVE Indian cultures and men. ;-) (laughs) 


Robin:  What about the symbolism of angels? We see that coming up in your daughter’s name, the name of your side project, and imagery in Imperia’s lyrics. What is the draw of angels for you?

Helena:  It has to do with some special things that happened earlier. I’m a person who follows my belly feeling. Before, when I didn’t study and things like this, I had a bit more freedom to follow my belly feeling or to follow your inner … what talks to you inside … do you know what I mean by this?

Robin:  I do, yes.

Helena:  I ended up in situations where I actually have saved people’s lives. For instance, there was one guy on the Danesh Boat, it’s a boat going from Norway to Denmark. And in this time, it was actually my first drive because I should get work there. So, it was my first drive, and I had a strong feeling that I just needed to quit and go back with another boat back to Norway, and I did. There it laid a man in his own pee on the floor. Everybody took a big surrounding around him, like: “Oh, he is terrible. He lays in his own pee.” I went over to this guy and get him up to a sitting position, but he was nearly totally blacked out. Maybe I will jump a bit in the story, but then you just have to stop me, because I just closed my eyes now to think back.

Basically, I take this man with me home to my apartment, and I find out that his plan was to drink so much that he dared jump overboard to kill himself. And he had written a letter to his parents, a suicide letter. The parents were, of course, really happy, and he got help. He got professional help for the alcohol and also professional help for mental issues. This is one of the stories. But there is more.

I woke up in the middle of the night, and also was restless. Again, I followed my feeling, and I ended up at a bar. It was five o’clock in the morning or something, and the bar was closed. I thought, “What am I doing here? But alright.” Then I knock on the door. No sound. I knock again, and then I hear something -- some sound like somebody is crawling on the floor. Then a girl opens the door who has cut her wrists, so there is blood all over the floor and on her. It was her boyfriend who had broken up with her, and she also had wanted to kill herself. Then I called 9-1-1 … you call it that in America, I guess?

Robin:  Yes.

Helena:  And then she had to go also to a hospital, like to lock-in apartments. You know, where they have to be locked in for a certain time? But I heard later that she was fine again after a couple of years. She had found a man and got a child and stuff, so it was another life saved. This is for me something I can think back on if I feel down about myself or put myself down mentally. That I’m not good enough for anybody at all, those kind of feeling. I guess we all have those once in a while. Then this gives me strength. There are more stories, but I have told you two.

Robin:  WOW. To those people, you are like an angel saving them from ending their lives.

Helena:  It’s not that I believe myself that I am an angel. This man who wanted to drink as much as he could, so he can jump overboard -- that he had the guts for that -- we sat and looked together at this City of Angels movie. Have you seen it?

Robin:  I have, but not for quite a while.

Helena:  His tears were just dripping and falling from his face, really. And then he said to me: “You know what I saw? It was like you were a light, and I just followed the light.” This is something that REALLY touched me. Then there is also, from some of the lyrics, I have got emails from people that the lyrics have really done something -- a change in their lives -- to something positive. That feels also very good. It’s the magic of music.


Robin:  Thank you for sharing those stories, Helena! Imperia truly is a multi-national band, with each of you living and working in a different country -- Norway, Finland, Germany and Belgium. How in the world did you manage to create and record Secret Passion, when none of you were even in the same country?

Helena: (laughs) Yeah, basically we have what you and I use now. We have the Skype, so this is how we communicate. This is also how we send music files and stuff like this to each other. But for the rest, we didn’t even MEET during the recordings. (But we missed each other!) :-)

Robin:  So you never got together to rehearse the songs as a group?!? Everybody just did their own part?

Helena:  No, we didn’t even meet to hear somebody else, when we did recordings or something like this. It was all at separate places, separate countries, let’s say. So it’s original, but … (high-pitched barking) aaaaaah, and now, the Chihuahuas want to chase a cat (all laugh) …

Robin:  … My mutt is snoring peacefully on the floor.

Helena:  So, it worked out, but we would all like to see each other more because we have so much fun when we see each other, and we feel like sisters and brothers when we see each other. But when we live in this way, like in different countries, it’s a little bit difficult.

Robin:  Was it easier before you moved back to Norway? (coughs like a diseased ferret)

Helena:  Yeah. (laughs) When you have this kind of throat, you need another cigarette.

Robin:  (laughs) I’m going to blame it on having a cold. That’ll be my story.

Helena:  Nah, I’m just teasing. It was easier when I lived in Holland, because then also it was really easy to get to concerts and to meet up with the band. Then also, Jan [Örkki Yrlund, guitars] lived in Holland. And you had Steve [Wolz, drums] in Germany, and Gerry [Verstreken, bass] in Belgium. So we were kind of living close by then. It was MUCH easier.

Robin:  It sounds like your Christmas in 2010 was more or less all vocal recording.

Helena:  Actually, on Christmas Eve, I recorded, and on New Year’s Eve, I recorded. Angel was celebrating Christmas and New Year with her father this year, so I will have my Christmas and New Year with my daughter next year. I missed her a lot. Christmas and New Year is not nice without your children. Then you just miss them all the time. This year, I recorded on this time to be able to be finished within the deadlines. So I had to. So next year, I’ll be Santa Claus for my children, if they behave of course. ;-)

Robin:  If I understand correctly, you got to play out live some of the new music in January at a gig in London. Is that right?

Helena:  Yeah, that is correct. It was only one, and it was the song “Let Down.”


Robin:  Did you have a guest performer for the cello parts on “Let Down” or have a recorded track for those bits?

Helena:  No, we actually just played with the backing track for the cello parts. For me, to be honest, when I came to London, I didn’t even know we should play this song. (laughs) So, I got to know it like two hours before we went on stage. That’s how good our communication was then. (laughs) So I said, “Hey guys, it’s nice to know, but maybe I should hear it at least a couple of times. At least just hear it or something.” Then we played it. So it was not a very good plan, to be honest, but it went good I think. The emotions came out in a good way, so it’s okay and we had fun. We always have fun together actually. We never fight at all. Of course, there are some normal brother-sister discussions and drinking competitions after the show. (all laugh)

Robin:  Secret Passion hadn’t been released yet, so nobody yet knew what “Let Down” should sound like.

Helena:  When we talked with the people after the show, they REALLY mentioned this song, that they really liked this song. “Let Down” really touched their hearts, especially a couple. This was women for whom it really meant something. Then a song is good. If they come to you, and they say “it touched my heart,” then it’s good music I think, no matter what sort of genre it is. If people have achieved it like this, then it is good.

Robin:  You are now on your third album with Imperia. Of all the songs, which one still touches your heart the most?

Helena:  Can I include the Angel album?

Robin:  Absolutely!

Helena: Because then, the “Mother” song and “Don’t Wanna Run” from the Angel album. Then you have from Secret Passion the one called “My Sleeping Angel,” which is the song to my daughter, so of course this is very special. And this one, I guess you know what it is about, the lyrics?

Robin:  I assume that it’s about your daughter, Angel.

Helena:  Yeah, but it’s kind of, you know, when the child is sleeping … do you have children?

Robin:  No, but I have many nieces and nephews.

Helena:  Hmmmmm, okay, when your dog is sleeping … (all laugh) because it is kind of your child then, right? In a way, it is like your children then, the dogs … But in general, let’s say they have been REALLY naughty for a whole day, then they finally sleep in your arms or sleep beside you. Then you think: “Awww, they are so sweet, and I love them so much!” Know what I mean?

Robin:  Yes!

Helena:  And then you think of all the nice things you have done, and all these kind of things. This is kind of the feeling in “My Sleeping Angel” that I wanted to give.


Robin:  What is coming up next for Imperia?

Helena:  We want to do concerts, but it’s hard with the time for it. For instance, I am studying for the moment, and with Angel and (of course) the dogs. Then Jan also has children and a family. And also because we are from different countries. But we will try to manage a couple of tours, and we would LOVE to play in America actually and Mexico. There are certain places we would love to play still.

Robin:  And we would love to have Imperia touring through North and South America, certainly! That would be wonderful.

Helena:  Yeah, we would love to do that, so we will really try to find the right booking agency for this.

Robin:  I thank you so, so much for talking with me today, Helena! As always, the last words are yours. Do you have any final words for your friends and fans at Sonic Cathedral webzine?

Helena:  It’s like everybody probably says. So if I say it, it doesn’t come out as special as I want it to sound for the readers, but I don’t have anything else to say except to say “thank you!”

You know, it’s like without them or without you, we wouldn’t be anything. I couldn’t have played, I couldn’t have given out CDs, I couldn’t have done my passion. So, that is all because of you and everybody who supports us. I can only say “thank you” for that! Music saved my soul, heals my wounds, is my trustful friend which I can tell everything to. It is where I feel safe and at home.

MUSIC IS MY FREEDOM...The wind beneath my wings.

Many hugs to you all and hope to see you in real life!!


Robin:  All our best wishes to you and all the members of Imperia, Helena. Many thanks also to Tom Hack at Massacre Records for making this interview possible!

Official Band Website