Amelia's Teisha June Helgerson (August 3, 1969 - September 29, 2011)
Amelia - Brian Lee
Beloved vocalist, musician and songwriter Teisha Helgerson (pronounced "Teesha"), frontwoman for celebrated Portland band Amelia, passed away at her home last Thursday afternoon, at the far-too-young age of 42. Though she'd fought a particularly virulent form of cancer (chronic lymphocitic leukemia, or CLL, extremely rare in people her age) for most of the last decade, her demise came with unanticipated speed—though, mercifully, not so suddenly as to prevent her mother, Debbie, from gathering those closest to Teisha to surround her at the end. Her death is an unimaginable loss to them, but it is a profound one, as well, for the people of Portland, a city where great singers get the reverence—if not always the financial reward—they deserve.
It's sad to contemplate all the music we missed due to Teisha's diminished energy during her long illness, and the music that she might have given us in the future. But we must also be grateful that this exceptionally kind and gifted woman had the guts to put her voice before the public in the first place; that she dared leave an accomplished professional career to devote the remainder of her life to song, precarious financial windfall be damned. "Success is a feeling. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't," Teisha told an interviewer for the Portland Business Journal in 2001. "It can be found mostly while actually playing music."
"I began my real estate career with the purchase of my first home within a few months of graduating from college [with a B.A. in English from the University of Oregon]," she said in the same article. "I worked very hard at being a good Realtor and eventually [became] the top producing agent within my office several years in a row and closed in excess of $30 million in sales. My decision to pursue music full time was triggered by the success of the band my uncle, Jon Helgerson, and I started about two years before I left real estate. I had always thought about music as a career, and I was taken by my love of it and knew it was what I needed to do immediately after the first gig we played."
The first time this writer heard Teisha's voice, I immediately knew I'd be listening to her for a long time to come. One day in 2001, the debut album by a band called Say Uncle found its way across WW's music desk, accompanied one of the spiffiest press kits I've ever seen (gig ticket! drink ticket!). Teisha was already using her saleswoman skills in service of her new career. The hook was that the band really did feature two of the lead singer's uncles: Dave Helgerson on guitar, and Jon—closer in age to Teisha, and more like a brother—as bassist, main songwriter and musical director. I recall writing something at the time about how the players had better up their game in the future to match Teisha's easy mastery. Uncle Jon, meanwhile, says today that he always knew his niece would outgrow the family band.
"My intention [with Say Uncle] was to get Teisha's voice heard," he tells me. "I tried to write songs that could match her range and power. When we first got going, I told her, 'I'm doing this because I want people to hear ya, and see ya, and what I expect is for you to meet some better musicians than us, and move on. And that's what happened."
Those musicians, as it did happen, were guitarist Scott Weddle, bassist Jesse Emerson, and drummer Rich Cuellar, all of then-recently-disbanded, popular alt-country band the Flatirons. Together, the four proceeded to make music unlike that of either of their prior bands, turning down the volume from the singer's R&B origins and the players' high-octane Americana to craft something compellingly unique.
"The interesting thing about Teisha's voice," says Weddle, "is that it had some country influence in it. She was able to do soul and gospel, but the thing that came naturally from her family"—her mother's side, a big, Norwegian, music-loving Eastern Oregon clan—"was that she was very comfortable singing roots music. Country music didn't bother her; actually, she had an aptitude for it.
"She had an arresting stage presence, and an arresting voice, so she was a singer that could stop people from talking. We played quiet, sad and pretty stuff—stuff that, if you weren't paying attention to it, some nuance would be lost in a loud place. Teisha would start singing and people would stop and listen to her. You couldn't help it."
When Weddle met Teisha, he says, "she seemed so excited about music, and a very charismatic and interesting person. I went and watched her [sing with Say Uncle], and was super-impressed with everything about her, and proceeded to sort of convince her to come sing my songs. I'd never been that prolific, but once I landed Teisha, I said, 'I gotta get serious with her, support her,' and I wrote all the songs on our first record."
Upon that debut's release, Willamette Week's Becky Ohlsen wrote, "The up-and-coming local outfit plays a simmering blend of melancholy pop, timeless country, Latin and soul, calling to mind hot moonlit nights in tequila-basted border towns or cool dames slinking through black-velvet nightclubs.... Amelia's new album, Somewhere Left to Fall, has the burnished feel of a record that exists outside of time and trends."
"Our CD release party was a great success," continues Weddle. "And then, Teisha was diagnosed with leukemia, right out of the gate. Out of nowhere, right after our we put our first record out, and it became part of everything we did from that point forward. It took a long time for any symptoms to show. It was slow moving; she knew she had something, but it wasn't really manifesting itself, so we [the rest of the band] could let ourselves not take it too seriously. Really, we didn't know what to make of it,. But, still, it was very traumatic."
In 2004, Amelia's second release, After All, garnered both national distribution—I proudly came across it in the racks of a Washington, DC Borders later that year—and national acclaim in the press. "The music of Amelia is a staggeringly cool exercise in understatement," wrote Performing Songwriter magazine, and Americana bible No Depression cheered, "Amelia [takes a] retro approach to their music, but there's nothing old-fashioned about their playing, songwriting or the smoky confidence of lead singer Teisha Helgerson." Perhaps most impressive was this customer review on CD Baby: "These wonderful people saw me after I fell and picked me up off the sidewalk—and took me to my home. I asked about what they do and they gave me a couple of their albums. I absolutely love their music and they have a new devoted fan." The band would release live disc Por Avion the following year.
Around this time, Weddle and Teisha's relationship evolved from a close friendship and creative bond to a romantic partnership. "Sometime after [the second album] she and I became involved, and that lasted through her bone marrow transplant. The arc of the band, creatively, ended with Teisha's bone marrow transplant in 2007. It didn't end in the sense that we stopped playing; we tried to play whenever she could. There was a Kruger's Farm show where we played to a couple thousand people, eight months after her transplant. She was really sick, in a lot of pain, but she got up there, on steroids, and really performed. She was the toughest person I've ever known."
Amelia's swan song, the mature and textured A Long, Lovely List of Repairs, released in Spring, 2008, found the band scaled down to a trio—with a newly-minted drummer named Teisha Helgerson behind the kit. "We lost our drummer," says Weddle, "And the next thing we know we had a gig where the three of us performed in seats, and in the middle of the show Teisha started playing drums with her feet [on the floor]. We said, 'You can play the drums!' And she learned how to play and started playing them for people almost immediately; with hardly any practice at all, she became the drummer for our band. And it's hard to play drums as the singer—you have to keep your legs and arms moving in time, while you might want to sing a phrase behind the beat or something. But the time we played as a trio was the best we ever were."
"Teisha [brought] something to Portland, and the Portland music scene, that no one else was really doing," says Ameila publicist and Siren Nation festival promoter December Carson, "Rich, soulful vocals, but also really dusky and ethereal, like the Cowboy Junkies, or some movie soundtrack. [Amelia wasn't] afraid to play really long, slow, textured songs. They went for strong lyrics with really beautiful, mood-setting music. There was a storytelling quality to that band, and they weren't afraid to tell that story and just take their time. I haven't heard, before or since them, a band that filled [that] piece of the musical landscape."
Most everyone who knew her would tell you that, as a person, Teisha was every bit as lovely and soulful as her voice. "Teisha was my best friend; that’s not to say that I was hers—mainly because she had so many friends, so many people loved and wanted to be near her," wrote Shelly Caldwell, indeed one of those closest to Teisha and a caregiver throughout her long illness, in an email. "I understood that—and considered myself lucky to get a day or evening or an hour in her company. She could make you feel like you were her only friend in the world while you were with her. I laughed more with her than anyone else in my life. There’s no replacing that, there’ll be no more phone calls, emails, postcards or evenings together trying to make each other laugh."
That last phrase of Caldwell's statement echoed one of the first, and most touching, reactions to Teisha's death I came across, a Facebook post by friend and LiveWire! host, Courtenay Hameister: "Y'know how when a cat really likes you, it makes you think you must be a better person than you thought you were? That's how it felt when you made Teisha laugh."
One didn't need to be a close friend of hers, either, to feel the way Caldwell describes feeling in Teisha's presence. Even in the briefest encounter with someone she knew only in passing—such as myself—she engaged you in a genuine, genial manner exemplifying what people call "being present," sending you off with the kind of gentle smile you felt inspired to pass on to others. "We’ve lost a miracle, something that made life worth living," Caldwell's email to me concludes. "I will miss her for the rest of my life."
A memorial service will take place at 2 pm on Saturday, Oct. 8, at Peace Lutheran Church (2201 N Rosa Parks Way), with a potluck afterward. Visit teishajune.com for more information.