[SINGER-SONGWRITER] William Helfrich woke up one morning a few years ago and realized he was a grown-up. It was something none of his previous life experiences—not going to college, not holding down a day job as a general manager of Fresh Pot, not fathering twins at age 22—made him feel. It was just something he woke up with.
“I definitely felt older once I had my kids,” says the now-32-year-old songwriter. “That changed my thinking. But actually feeling like an adult—that’s new. And strange.”
Helfrich’s newfound maturity, funny enough, has led him to think an awful lot about his teenage years in Eastern Oregon. His excellent new album, Malheur, is named after his home county, and spends much of its time meditating on the landscape, the people who lived there, and the faith of his family and friends. On the title track of Mbilly’s second full-length album, he sings of Malheur County and his hometown of Ontario, Ore.: “It’s a part of me/ Like the brown in my eyes/ Couldn’t get it out if I tried.”
Ontario is where Helfrich started his first band, Ullen Waters. It was with that group that he wrote the song “Billboards,” the jaded hometown anthem that appears on Malheur. And it was in Ontario that he learned to shoot guns with his bandmate Raul Ugalde, the Portland musician who died in October 2010. Helfrich and Ugalde drifted apart long before the former penned the songs on Malheur, but Ugalde has haunted him nonetheless. The album’s dedication reads “For Raul, the biggest Mexican I have ever known. I missed you before you were gone.”
For Helfrich, Ugalde was part of the Ontario landscape. And Malheur paints a compelling portrait of that town and the people in it. “Your Famous Name” was penned shortly after Amy Winehouse’s death, but it’s more about people he grew up with who turned to drugs and alcohol. “It annoys me that, with addiction, famous people get a pass,” Helfrich says. “If you’re poor and you’re an addict, it’s a sign of weakness, but if you’re rich and you’re an addict, it’s charming as long as you get clean and apologize.”
Other songs are more personal. On “The Man Who Prays (for Me),” Helfrich sings about someone who prays for the narrator, a nonbeliever. “That’d be my dad,” he admits. “My parents are very Catholic. And my grandfather would always say ‘I’m praying for you.’ I’m not religious at all, but I appreciated that.” There is no agnostic equivalent to “I’m praying for you,” Helfrich notes. “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to think about you tonight at 9—I’m going to commit a minute and a half to thinking about you.’”
That said, the songs on Malheur often sound like hymns, with drum-machine soul and fingerpicked guitar that might as well be harp. “All Lives Lived” is the most haunting of these hymns, and over the course of the song it becomes increasingly clear that the rebellious badass being mourned on the track is Ugalde. Only, even as he was writing these songs, Helfrich wasn’t quite sure why the death of a best friend he’d long drifted away from had affected him so much.
“The person I had those experiences with was pretty different than the person who died,” he says. “But I think it really made me mourn for that kid.”
I’m pretty sure there are two kids being mourned on Malheur.
SEE IT: Mbilly plays the LaurelThirst Pub on Saturday, May 26, with Que and the Whats. 9 pm. $7. 21+.