heka is the project of multidisciplinary artist and singer-songwriter Francesca Brierley, who grew up in the Italian hills but currently lives in London. That dual sense of identity, subconsciously or not, has informed her creative process over the past few years that she’s been releasing music: her SoundCloud bio sums up her sound as “butchered folk,” while on Bandcamp, she swears by the motto “lofi till I die.” Whether leaning more into the experimental folk stylings inspired by 22, A Million-era Bon Iver and Jesca Hoop or the hushed, raw intimacy of a bedroom recording, heka’s intuitive approach to songwriting and production has a way of blurring the boundaries between them.
Her new EP, (a), out now via Balloon Machine Records, is her strongest outing yet. What connects its four songs is a porous sense of space and time: textures seep in and out of its three-dimensional sound like a warm summer breeze or a precious memory, fragments Brierly often evokes through the use of field recordings and visual storytelling. Her lyrics range from abstract (“i shed all emotion and you tell me you’re free”) to grotesquely visceral (“i take a dab of you and lick my finger”), and their intensity is heightened by heka’s voice, which carries more tension and subtlety than is usually found in the lofi genre. The result is one of intoxicating beauty, a short but mesmerizing project that’s tied to the promise of bigger things to come.
We caught up with heka for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her upbringing, the process behind her new EP, and more.
What are some things you associate with your upbringing and the place where you were raised?
I grew up in the countryside, so if I was to say the first thing that popped into my head, it would have been like, just being on trees and in the field most of my childhood, really. [laughs] I go there pretty much every year, so I’m still pretty connected to it. I moved to London when I was like 19, so most of my formative years growing up were done there. And I spent quite a lot of time there this year, actually, because I escaped London in February to try and get some vitamin D. And it’s really nice. I really like the connection to the countryside and being able to be outside and on walks, and I feel like when I’m there, I always write slightly differently. It just happens to be a slightly more folky, more songwriter-y kind of vibe – I don’t know why. Maybe the countryside inspires that kind of music. Whereas when I’m in London, I feel like I write more with a beat in mind, more electronic stuff.
There’s definitely a duality to your music, and maybe that’s a reflection of the places you’ve been in as well.
I feel like that affects my songwriting and the way that I am a lot. I’m also half-English and half-Italian, so I have half of my family and half of my identity, I guess, but I’ve always kind of felt in between the two things. So I don’t feel English and I don’t feel Italian fully; I just kind of inhabit the space in between. I don’t mind it – I quite like not necessarily subscribing to one cultural identity. But I definitely feel like it might be the reason why I find it really frustrating to be isolated into one genre or one sound. I think it’s definitely a theme in my life, being hybrid between two or more things, constantly in movement.
What were you like as a teenager?
I was a lot more put together than I am, I think. [laughs] I didn’t really act up much. I definitely got my teenage phase later in life, so I feel like I was quite grown up when I was 18. And then in my 20s I, like… [laughs] lost it.
[laughs] What happened?
[laughs] I don’t know, I mean, I think when you grow up, you have a certain role in your family, and that was my role. And then when I left home, I suddenly had the freedom of messing up and doing stuff on my own terms and just exploring and experimenting, so I think that’s what happened. But yeah – teenager, pretty chill, I think.
You said you moved to London when you were 19. What does that city mean to you now?
Because of the point that we were making before, I think London is where I’ve kind of grown up the most as an adult. It’s definitely been the environment where I’ve realized things about myself, and it’s the first interaction with a place that’s not home and a completely different world. I feel connected to London, in a way, because I feel quite [makes fast rhythmic sound] in my head, so the rhythm resonated with me. You know, stuff is happening everywhere and it’s so rich and active, so I definitely fell into that pretty easily.
Did you start making music before moving there?
I started when I was 14, I think. I studied classical piano growing up, but never really did any writing with it. And then one summer, this really old friend of mine – she isn’t old, I mean we’ve been friends for a long time – she’s like one year older than me. And you know when you have a slightly older friend when you’re in your teens, it’s like, “Oh my god,” they’re so cool and you want to do everything that they do. And we were on holiday one summer with our families, and she picked up the guitar, she started playing it, and she taught me a little bit of what she knew. And that’s kind of how it happened – I never before had even thought about picking up a guitar or doing anything like that. And then from there, we had a guitar at home and I just literally started writing and never stopped. [laughs] Pretty intensely at the beginning, like I feel like I was writing a song every other day. I think the fact that I was using an instrument that didn’t have any rules, for me, that didn’t have the structure of the classical piano – I had the freedom to just be intuitive with it.
Did you feel a desire to put any of that music out at the time?
I didn’t really at the beginning want anyone to hear what I was writing, because it was mostly, like, pining over this crush that I had. You know, just really personal, embarrassing stuff. And I just was singing because it made me feel good, and writing because I needed to, clearly. I’ve always written in English – for me, the fact that it was this language that, I mean, people understood, but not really immediately, it kind of felt like I was playing and singing in this secret language. It gave me that other level of freedom to just say whatever I wanted. And it took me maybe a year before I even played to anyone apart from people in my family. And then through a friend I met this group that had put together this little artist collective, and I went and played for them one night. I think that was the first time that I played to anyone other than my parents and my sisters. And that’s when started thinking in that way, to share and play in front of other people.
In the video description for ‘redwoods’, you talk about your songwriting process as being very subconscious; how your songs come from a particular place inside you and can contain multiple meanings that reveal themselves over time. Could you describe what that place is like for you, and how do you go about accessing it?
Most of the time, I’ll sit down and start playing something and then something clicks – I don’t know how, I don’t know why – I go down this road that I suddenly see or write something from that. I don’t have a specific process to do it because it feels playful, it feels like experimenting, even if there is subconsciously something that I always do the same. I like that there’s still a bit of unknown and magic in the way that it happens for me. I was thinking about this the other day because someone else asked me something similar, and I was like, “Actually if I think about it, I feel like I’m always in my brain kind of doing that.” I feel like, you know, you’ll have your internal monologue and think about stuff and you see things, and really what the brain is doing is collecting all this data. And I feel like the connections are already being made in my brain as I move into the world. And then what happens when I kind of sit still for a second and channel it into making something with music, for example, is that that stuff is there and suddenly becomes available to us. And I think that’s why most of the songs are really personal and intimate, because it’s literally like an extension of me.
Your lyrics often revolve around very visceral, bodily imagery, going back to your single ‘repaired // you won’t be dead’ and especially on your new EP with songs like ‘(a) dab’. What do you think draws you to that type of writing?
I think some songs are quite visual for me, and especially for ‘(a) dab’, I remember seeing the scene in my head and then describing it. So, some of these songs came more from a visual place and others come more from a talking place. And I feel like I quite like comparing things that are physical and attached to you with feelings – the connection between the body and the emotions that the body feels. I mean, some of them are slightly macabre, I don’t really know where that comes from.
Have you thought about it?
I haven’t, actually. I should, because I don’t have an answer. And that’s why I feel like there are definitely themes in the stuff that I do that I have absolutely no idea why… Maybe influences from stuff I’ve read, I don’t know.
Are you influenced by a lot of horror narratives, be it in music or film, that have a lot of grotesque imagery?
I’m usually not, I really don’t like that kind of stuff. [laughs] You know who I really love though, is Jenny Hval, and she does quite a lot of that. I quite like very visual lyrics, but I’m not necessarily conscious of saying, “Okay, I want to make this sound a bit dark and macabre” or whatever. It’s just what flows out of me. [laughs]
I know that you’re also working on some visuals to accompany the EP, so I’m curious how the visual world is connected to the songs in your mind.
So, not necessarily just the EP but in general, I really like video editing and I really like editing for music videos. And in the experience that I’ve had with other tracks as well, what happens usually is that as you make the video, all of these other layers of the song appear that you didn’t know before. You’re suddenly tuning into something that you wouldn’t have tuned into before, not just the words but the feeling of the song, you know, the pace, the rhythm. And I like for the visuals to have sort of an instinctive connection to the song, not necessarily narrative in any way. I quite like using images as percussive elements. So I think for this collection, when I was doing the production for it, what I really wanted to try and accomplish was to have this group of songs that kind of moved from one to the other, like some type of connecting tissue between them. And I think that’s where the idea of making one video for the whole thing came from, because I wanted to try and reinforce this idea of this one collective thing.
Could you outline the process of integrating found sounds and field recordings into your music?
I record a lot of stuff with my phone, just all the time when I’m out and about or when I hear some sound that’s really cool or I’m in a place that I want to remember. I feel like sound has this incredible power of bringing you back to a place, even if there isn’t a particular sound that’s like, not a main sound but just the environment, the soundscape that you get from any given place. And when I’m recording, I’ll have an intuition of what I want. It’s almost like going through the archives on my phone and listening back to the stuff.
How was your approach for this EP different from what you had done in the past? Did you think of it in a more holistic way?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve had in my mind to have these four songs released as one for a couple of years, and I knew that I wanted all the songs to be kind of connected. It’s something that I’ve always found really hard because historically, I’ll write two songs that are similar and then the next week something completely different. And in the past, that’s always been really frustrating, but I think more recently I’ve found a space of songwriting that I am more aware of now, and it was easier in that sense. I definitely want to experiment more in the future with writing – these were songs that were written at different times and then brought together, and I feel like it would be interesting to sit down one morning and the whole week and just write a whole EP in one go of songs that connect and that have references to each other within the songwriting and the production.
I do think it’s interesting the way that you’ve structured the EP, the progression of it, even if it’s just four songs. For example, the symbolism of the mask in the first song – to me, the “you” in that song is almost like society at large, and then it becomes less abstract and more personal from there. I don’t know if it’s different in your mind.
It’s definitely one of the least personal experience-based songs – it’s more of a philosophical lyric. And it’s to do with, yeah, this idea of conformity, and how we walk around with a mask that we construct. The concept of saying, “Oh, you let go of your mask or your ego, and suddenly you’re free.” And I like that the lyrics are open-ended in a way, that they don’t resolve, and they don’t necessarily say that doing that is right or that doing that is wrong. Because there’s also this kind of like, “You tell me I’m free,” but it’s not saying “I am free.” It’s almost just presenting this idea and it can be read either as a critique of it or an enlightened account of it.
To me, at first, it felt like there was less freedom in that act, because of the haunting and visceral imagery that the rest of the songs turn out to have. Or there’s a threat to that freedom as well. But with the closing track, it feels like there’s a bit of a sense of catharsis in the way it’s embracing anger.
That’s something I hadn’t even thought about, but it works. You have the opening track that’s talking about being above emotion and being free because of that, and the last track that’s saying that actually indulging in cathartic anger is what sets you free. That song comes a little bit from this article I read a few years ago, and it was this philosopher [David Whyte] who talked about how anger is actually one of the purest emotions – not anger in its practical application, but anger as the sort of pure anger, and in the sense that it’s care; it’s like a form of extreme care. I’ve always felt that anger isn’t always bad, and I’ve definitely found a lot of catharsis and some freedom through being angry. I feel like when you experience something that’s traumatic or intense in any way, the first thing that you do is shut down. And what happens after is, when you can finally be angry about it, it’s almost like this rebirth. It signifies the emotions coming back and your vitality coming back and you suddenly having the energy to go against whatever has happened, or like, react. So I think sometimes indulging in strong emotions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In that sense, I feel like I would disagree with the first song, in that that’s not always the case; being detached isn’t always necessarily what frees you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
heka’s (a) EP is out now via Balloon Machine Records.