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Words by Emily Hollitt

Heleina Zara has been solidifying her place in the music industry for some time, touring with the likes of Peach PRC, Jack Gray, Gretta Ray, Hemlocke Springs and Wallice as well as an upcoming support slot with Carla Wehbe; she’s been catching everyone’s attention. And for good reason. The Filipina-Australian pop sensation has been writing music since she was just 14 years old! Inspired by the likes of Taylor Swift, Gracie Abrams and Billie Eilish mixed with ‘50’s love songs from the likes of Frank Sinatra, she’s cultivated her own way of combining new pop techniques with more classic, nostalgic popular music.

Growing up with a pilot for a father, she was always moving from place to place, so music remained her only constant. She channelled all her most painful feelings into writing, using it as both an outlet and a coping mechanism. Once she graduated high school, she focused on the arts by forging a career in acting. However, she was sent a strong sign from the universe through the tail-end of the COVID-19 pandemic, entering the Voyager International Songwriting Competition. The same day she turned down an acting role, she found out she had won. And the rest is history.

This week, Heleina Zara proves what she’s made of with her debut EP, ‘Autopilot’. “All these songs are pieces of me, written throughout a tumultuous time,” she says on the record. “At times it felt like I was on autopilot just going with the flow, but I tried so hard not to resist the hard times.” Through her work with producers and songwriters across Australia and LA over the past few years, she’s collected 8 of her best tracks into her introductory record. “This is a really healthy way of me processing my emotions and taking ownership of how I feel right now.”

Heleina’s EP opens with experimental, glitchy track Emergency Exit. The production builds slowly, opening with an early 2000’s inspired, lo-fi synth. Her vocal line mirrors the synth’s melody, giving this monotonous sound to the track before the beat kicks in midway through the first verse. Subtle vocoder sits underneath her vocals in the chorus. The track’s layering and slow-burner production invites the listener to hone in on the lyrics, appreciating the full emotional weight of the song.

“Autopilot’s making me sick. Stuck in my own shadow I gotta admit. I’m so tired of being this restless. I can’t be reckless. Where the fuck is the emergency exit?”

A catchy, energic bassline opens Alphabet Soup. Her vocal lines are verbose and complicated, while remaining rhythmic in their delivery. “I’ve only made love on the internet” she repeats throughout, voicing her frustrations on the mess of the current dating scene. The track is reminiscent of something Olivia Rodrigo would drop. She sings a crescending chromatic scale in the verse, matched with convoluted harmonies, adding to the complex musicality and thought behind every element of her debut.

An 8-bit sounding synth opens Sad Like The Moon before chugging guitar enters in the chorus along heavily layers vocal harmony. The song is as melancholic as it is hopeful, detailing her unhealthy coping mechanisms and how she deals with pulling away from relationships, preparing for the worst to protect herself before it happens. “Won’t break my bones, but my heart’s like a snow globe.”

A simple piano melody opens Wait. “So young, we fell in love we’re not ordinary.” She sings in the opening verse as the piano changes to play block chords.

“He said “Is this over? Is this the end?”
Feel my heart getting colder. Said you’ll always be my friend.
You say “Blame it on the distance. Blame it on the wait.”
Without each other’s existence. Wouldn’t have our heads on straight.
So, we tell ourselves give it another day, and wait.”

Spiralling strings and complex vocal harmonies build the production in the bridge, before stripping back to just piano and vocals for the final chorus, giving the song a truly emotionally crushing finish.

Chugging guitars and a driving beat open Cardboard. “Am I running or am I bored?” she opens, introducing the theme of the song. “All the birthday’s I missed graduations I ditched so I could chase a dream.” She sings in each chorus, talking about the downside and isolation of chasing her dreams and travelling as a musician. “Tonight, I’m gonna raise a glass to us, for how we both are never good enough. I hope some day we’ll be the best of us. So best of luck.” She sings in the bridge. “So, I’ll pity myself ‘cos I’m watching you alone on the balcony. And no, I don’t need your help but tonight I’m caught up in the obscurities.” She focuses back on the current dating landscape with Convenience Store. The instruments are more pop-punk revival inspired. “I’m no convenience store. Hit me up when you’re bored. 24/7 365, oh sure”. The all- too-relatable song details the trials and tribulations of casual dating, and her frustrations really shine through in her vocal delivery. ‘80s synths enter towards the end of the second chorus, adding more interest in the already impressive production.

“If everybody stretched how come you’re stretching you further” she opens Boundaries, singing over a dark-pop beat. The song is very ‘80’s pop in its production, reminiscent of something Depeche Mode would have released with a more modern twist. She uses call-and-response, spoken sections and a more conversational vocal delivery to tell the story, detailing people pushing her limit and crossing her boundaries. “You have the right to change your mind to self- prioritise… and now I must respectfully decline” she sings in the bridge.

Far Away closes the EP, with a hip-hop inspired beat mixed with tropical pop reminiscent synths, creating a dreamy soundscape.

“You make me happy. Like sun in the valleys. You’re everything that I could ever ask for.
would you ever leave me on the dancefloor? Could blame the timing? Or am I in denial?
myself my past has no connection. To how you give me love and affection.”

“No, I don’t like this, no not at all” she sings in each chorus. The song sounds like falling in love, with all the happy parts, and the associated anxieties. “Makes it hard you’re in another state. But
I want you and I’m far away.”

Zara’s goal was to “to make music that cuts straight to the heart emotionally” with her new EP. And boy did she deliver and then some. Balancing introspective, interesting lyricism, expert vocal delivery and engaging production, Heleina’s debut presents her as one of the most interesting up-and-comers in the pop scene right now. So do yourself a favour, grab some headphones and immerse yourself in Heleina Zara’s world.

Connect with HELEINA ZARA

With thanks to Island Records Australia

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