By Jay Tilles
Coleman Hell has not only got a name cut out for a rock star, but the 26 year-old musician has a basement-to-the-bigtime story that reads like a made-for-TV movie.
After briefly rapping for a group named Burnz n’ Hell, the Canadian formed Sideways, a Toronto-based artist collective with a few of his friends. It’s with this group that he produced his break-out hit.
“2 Heads” has spent more than 20 weeks on Billboard’s Alternative Chart. While the song features some sweet sweet banjo, this is not Mumford & Sons (and what you’re hearing isn’t actually a banjo).
Like Robert DeLonge the electronic one-man band he’s on tour with, Coleman Hell feels like he’s been fired out of a cannon. He’s writing songs, directing videos and fielding calls from mainstream media about his earworm of a hit song. And, that’s just the beginning.
Who is Coleman Hell?
I am a 26-year-old guy. I was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is a smallish town in Canada. I guess I’d consider myself an electronic artist, I write and produce all my music on keyboards and programs. So for example on “2 Heads,” the banjo is actually a sample that’s played on a keyboard, not a real banjo.
Is it a sample of a real banjo?
It’s essentially a note on a banjo spread among the keys on a keyboard, so I’m playing it like on a piano I guess, playing it on a keyboard. I guess I’m pretty influenced by classic older music, so that’s why I choose to incorporate sort of rootsier, folkier sounds in my music. Essentially what I try to do in music is write a good song in an unconventional way, which is what I think I did with “2 Heads.”
I write music to some piano chords or on a ukulele or something and then I turn it into typically something upbeat. I want to make music that, at it’s core, is meaningful and a good song but I also love music with energy and making people dance so I kind of try to meet in the middle of those two worlds I guess.
Do find you have a battle with finding a balance between happy music and telling a meaningful story?
I love serious music and not-so-serious music so equally that I kind of end up meeting in the middle. And I feel like, I’m not sure where the quote is from, but I remember hearing when your life is going well you’re listening to the music and the rhythm and the beat, but when you are going through some hard times maybe you’re listening to lyrics. And I think I’d like for my songs to be like multi-dimensional, have someone listen to it, be able to dance to it, but maybe if they are going through a break-up or things aren’t going right at home or something, they read a bit deeper and make it help them through a problem.
“2 Heads” sounds wildly different than others on the EP. Is that by design?
I think the song itself does sound slightly out of place on the EP because I have a debut album that is coming out next year which “2 Heads” will also be a part of, so it’s going to fit in a lot more cohesively with the album where as the rest of the songs on the EP are kind of offerings of the things that weren’t going to make the album but I still liked. I thought I would give people something to kind of go over and listen to until the album is out next year.
What was the reaction when your friends and family first heard “2 Heads” and is that consistent with the fans’ response?
When I showed my parents and family and friends the song, everyone kind of reacted to it differently—but they all loved it. It was pretty apparent that it was one of the better songs I’ve ever written and I was excited about it.
I was kind of sick of waiting around and sitting on music. So I decided I wanted to put my best foot forward, released it at the top of the year in February. I put it out just by myself with no support or anything and it just immediately took off. I think it got at least ten million streams before a label stepped in. So that was exciting for me and my friends who were just making music in our basement.
What’s the story behind the music video?
The song is inspired by a love that was forged in a small town, so I kind of wanted the video to reflect that. I wrote this treatment for it that I kind of wanted to—it was inspired by sort of these dive bars that I hung out in—that I was sneaking into before I was old enough to get into in my hometown.
I wanted to stage this wedding there, and I really love the movie The Graduate, so I wanted to infuse a bit of a homage to that movie, so the ending and stuff are inspired by The Graduate. I directed it, I edited it, I cast it, I was pretty involved in the making of all aspects of it. I really love videos, something else I really like doing, I’m hoping to do more of that.
Have you been asked to direct videos for other artists?
I have a songwriting partner named La+ch and I wrote and directed a music video for him. I’m finishing editing it, I think that will come out before the year is over, one of my forays into video making.
It’s really fun, I’d like to do it more, it’s really time consuming and I’m kind of like obsessive about it so it’s draining but I enjoy doing it. It’s a lot more demanding that you might think.
Do you find it’s more demanding because it involves other people and it’s not totally in your control?
With music you can always change things and go back, but with video you are filming one day or two days and you have to cover all your bases because you can’t go back a re-shoot something a lot of times. So it’s a lot more stressful in that sense.
It’s like a bit more daunting that music because you can keep changing a song over and over again and playing it live, but it’s really fun and I really enjoy it a lot.
How did you finance the video, was it all out of your pocket?
I’m lucky enough to be a Canadian citizen so we got a lot of support for the Arts here. You have opportunities every few months to apply for these grants and they only give away a certain amount. So I guess I had written a convincing enough application that I got the grant to shoot the video. Canada is a good place to make stuff like that.
You are a success story…
I’m super grateful, it hasn’t really set in yet. Where I was at 8 months ago compared to now, it’s pretty inspiring.
What was it like when you first heard “2 Heads” on the radio?
Oh, I was super emotional. I’m a pretty emotional person so I can well up pretty easily. I would be driving around with my parents as a kid listening to the radio with them—I listened to the radio so much growing up, like Classic Rock. My mom would always be like, ‘One day you’re going to be on there.’ Actually hearing it on the radio was a pretty big moment for me.
Coleman Hell’s self-titled debut EP is available now on iTunes.