THERE WAS a time when Johnny Helm was convinced the path to musical success was a one-way street back to the continental U.S.
While the Connecticut-born singer/songwriter enjoyed the life he built for himself in Hawaii, he gave it all up in 2004 to move to New York and take a run at becoming a star. Two years later, however, he was back in Honolulu with no desire to pursue his recording career elsewhere.
"I have a fan base here," he told this columnist at the time. "It would be silly to release (a new album) on the mainland where my fan base is much smaller."
And so Helm refocused his efforts and established himself as a valuable commodity on the Waikiki bar and lounge circuit. These days, he plays five nights a week along Kalakaua Avenue — 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays at Lulu’s, 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays at RumFire, 8 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Sundays at Cheesecake Factory and 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday’s at Tiki’s Grill and Bar. But it was one of those tourist gigs that pushed Helm’s career in a different direction.
After years of reaching out for opportunities outside our shores, Helm was playing in Waikiki when he noticed a lone male in the audience watching him intently.
"He watched my whole set," he recalled. "Nobody listens to me play like that, so I thought, ‘He’s gotta be a musician.’"
Helm was right — his newest fan was a drummer from New York, who offered to facilitate an introduction to Los Angeles-based producer Jed Leiber, son of legendary songwriter Jerry Leiber. Once that initial meeting was out of the way and Jed Leiber got the chance to hear some of Helm’s music, a deal was struck to begin work at NightBird Studios in L.A.
"We’ve done eight trips since then … so we have an album," said Helm. "We did all the vocals there (at NightBird), a lot of the drum tracking in Aspen and a lot of the songwriting at the Royal Hawaiian."
Helm, 37, said working with the 50-something Leiber is a challenge of sorts, yet he described the opportunity to work with accomplished industry professionals as an almost once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"The level of songwriting is better and the quality of the recordings we’ve made is far better than anything I’ve produced before," he said. "These are some guys who have had success in the music business, and they’re believing enough in me to invest their time and money in me and these recordings.
"So to some extent this project has already succeeded. But we’re going to continue to work to make things happen."
Despite not having a name for the new trio, Helm said the current goal is to finish the recording process by September, when he and Leiber are scheduled to be in Aspen for an annual songwriters festival. Once that wraps up, he hopes to stay out on the road for a while longer in support of the new album.
"If it means chasing (the dream), I would move away," he said. "And I do want to tour, but at the same time I’d like to always keep a home here in Hawaii."
Like the name of the band, the new album’s title has yet to be decided upon, but Helm said they have eight tracks nearly ready for mixing and mastering. Plans call for Leiber to make a trip to Oahu next month, with hopes of getting him and Helm on stage for a couple of low-key performances.
"Hopefully we can get our drummer to come out," he said. "We haven’t been able to spend that much time together because we all live in different places. … I just don’t want to say we’re doing this without us ever rehearsing. I want to kind of test the waters first."
According to Helm, some of the new tracks sound "almost like Coldplay or a modern-day Peter Gabriel, without the synths." Others include elements of R&B, gospel and even island contemporary. Follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/pages/Johnny-Helm/93953899022) to keep up with his latest project …