Helia Phoenix is many things at once: writer, music journalist, DJ, photographer, filmmaker, blogger, media manager at Visit Wales and, last but not least, Lady Gaga’s biographer. In 2010 Helia founded We Are Cardiff, an online project promoting alternative arts and culture, and also creating interesting stories about people living and working in the city. We Are Cardiff has won Blog of the Year, in 2017 Helia was named one of the top 50 people working towards a better Cardiff, and in 2018 she was listed in the Independent’s Happy List of people building a brighter Britain. We caught up with Helia on a late December sunny afternoon and went for a walk around the Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve, chatting about her writing career, her passion for supporting local talent and her love affair with the city of Cardiff.
For people who don’t know you, who is Helia Phoenix? What is your story?
I guess at heart I think of myself as a writer, although I work across a number of different mediums ‒ photography, film, I’ve made radio pieces and done various audio things. I’m a polymath, I suppose, interested in telling stories through whatever channel best fits them.
I was born in 1980s Wales to Iranian immigrant parents. We moved around a lot, but I eventually ended up back in Cardiff for university where I studied English Literature. I did my final year out at Berkeley College in the University of California, and then came back and did a Masters in Creative Writing, and in between a bunch of other jobs working in a record store and DJing, then as a BA for the BBC, and at a magazine publishers, I eventually did a postgrad in web journalism in Sheffield back in 2008. I interviewed for two jobs at the end of that ‒ one was for a digital producer on 6 Music and the other was for web editor at the National Assembly for Wales. I didn’t get the former but was offered the latter, so ended up back in Wales again, where I’ve been permanently ever since.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
This is a hard one! When I was about seven we lived on the edge of a huge wooded forest in Exeter, between two parks, and I spent most of my time running around with the other kids on my street, climbing trees, wading in the streams, building dens and dams, and saving frogspawn that was laid accidentally in puddles during rainy Aprils. I was a very outdoorsy kid. I loved living there.
How did you get into writing as a profession? What was your journey like?
I guess there was really nothing else I was interested in ‒ my mum says that from about four years old I always said I wanted to write stories and books (or to be a vet). Numbers and science and anything logical were huge turn offs for me. I started writing journals and diaries as soon as I could write. I started writing my memoirs when I was about 15!! (No idea why I thought that was a good idea...) So I guess it’s just always something I’ve done, and there was nothing else that interested me, other than music. There were really no other options for me, job wise ‒ it had to be something linked to writing.
My journey was a lot of hard work, and a lot of chance ‒ being in the right place at the right time, knowing people, that sort of thing. I always got good grades but I messed around a lot in school and found it very hard to focus and concentrate, I was always doing a million things and was quite hyperactive and got bored easily (as an adult I was diagnosed with ADHD, which does explain a lot of things looking back...). I also had insomnia, and in sixth form all this stuff got amplified a lot and I messed up my exams, which meant I didn’t get into my first choice of university, which was Bristol.
I went through clearing and got into Goldsmiths in London (which I hated), and ended up dropping out and moving back home. It was a very depressing time ‒ my friends were either travelling on gap years or off in their universities, having a great time. It made me really determined I wasn’t going to mess up my life ‒ I really wanted to go to university, so got into Cardiff to do a course with a low entry grade requirement, but had to pass the first year with high marks to switch to do English Literature. It was in that period I really learned how to “switch on” my hyperfocus to get through all the essays and exams. Since then turning it off has been a problem, but then I think balance is something we all struggle with!
I always wrote in my spare time, and at university started doing music reviews for the university newspaper. That expanded into writing for other local magazines, always about music. I ended up writing for Kruger Magazine (RIP), and eventually became their reviews editor. I learned a lot about the craft through my years working on that. It was volunteering with Kruger that got me my first “proper” publishing job, working on magazines.
I think if you want a career as a writer, you’ve got to go the extra mile ‒ volunteering, getting yourself out there, getting as much experience as you can. At the time there weren’t many paid opportunities ‒ I just wanted to write.
I’m still struggling with the balance between doing something artistic as a job. I hate being told what to do, and it’s especially hard when people have opinions on something you’ve created. It’s not so much if they don’t like it ‒ art doesn’t exist for everyone to like, after all ‒ it’s just when they want you to change things to their taste.
As I’ve got older I think I prefer to focus on writing as a hobby, because I can write whatever I want without having to please publishers or editors, but then I do have trouble not being “published”. But to me, there’s still some sort of cachet attached to having your work appearing in print, or on platforms for other people to read and appreciate. I wish I could get over that, and not feel jealous when I see other people achieving these sort of successes.
In 2010 you launched We Are Cardiff, an online project celebrating and cultivating the arts and culture scene in the city. Can you tell us more about the inception of this initiative? How did it all start and what was the driving ethos that guided your efforts throughout the years?
I finished my postgrad in Sheffield and moved back to Cardiff in 2009, and even though I’d only been away a year it seemed like Cardiff had gone through a real transformation, culturally speaking. But this was around the time there were loads of programmes on TV about how Cardiff was a capital of drunk Britain, or full of benefit scroungers etc. (thanks Jon Humphrys, your home city owes you a real debt for all that crap). It annoyed me, because all around me I could see people doing wonderful things, in arts or music, or with their voluntary projects. The stuff I was seeing on TV didn’t resonate with the Cardiff I knew, so I just decided one afternoon to set up a blog to showcase these people and their pastimes, to start putting out some different perspectives about the city, as written by local people. I didn’t set out necessarily to do a positive PR project on the city, and so I never told people they had to write “good things about Cardiff” at all ‒ I just asked for honest stories about what it’s like to live in the city. The majority of people do love living here, and so most of the stuff that was submitted and published was positive.
That is one of the great democratising functions of the internet ‒ you don’t have to blithely and blindly consume everything you’re presented with on TV or the radio anymore. It’s so easy to create and publish content, so if you have a differing point of view, you can put that out there. That’s where We Are Cardiff came from ‒ a refusal to just accept whatever nonsense propaganda non-Cardiff based media decided to create about the city.
The site was based on another one called ilivehere:SF run by a photographer in San Francisco called Julie Sparenberg ‒ the site doesn’t exist any more, but it was a precursor to a lot of similar type sites, like We Are Cardiff, and Humans of NY, which popped up about six months after I set up We Are Cardiff.
Although I don’t do (and have never done) it for the recognition, We Are Cardiff has won Blog of the Year, last year I was listed as one of the top 50 people working towards a better Cardiff, and this year I was named in the Independent’s Happy List of people building a brighter Britain. It is always weird to think people are paying attention to what you’re doing, but ultimately I’m so happy that We Are Cardiff is doing something good to try and redress the balance in the type of content that’s out there.
In your opinion, what more could be done to promote Cardiff’s creative identity and to encourage people to engage with arts and culture on a wider scale?
I guess my thoughts about this are more national than just in Cardiff. With the cuts in funding for programmes, I think we’re seeing a real cultural crisis, where only the middle and upper classes can afford to study or pursue the arts. Think back before the government introduced university fees ‒ how many bands and artists and performers found the time and space to develop at university? I would love to see more free arts opportunities introduced for all ages, from school age to post-retirement. The arts are becoming more exclusive, and that’s a terrible thing ‒ research that shows engagement with the arts has a real positive impact on mental health.
I would love Cardiff Council to do more. But the council is facing a budget gap of £92 million over the next three years, as a result of reduced funding from the UK government. Cardiff is growing in size and has less money to provide services, and so while I’ll bitch and moan at the councillors, I get it ‒ they’ve got to provide education and sort out housing and refuse collections. So my hope is that during the next election people will stop voting for austerity and we start investing in the people of the country again.
When you think about the future of arts and culture in Cardiff, what are you most excited about and why?
Right now I’m excited about the musical talent coming out of the city ‒ we have so many talented bands and performers who are genuinely really great. Some are getting international recognition ‒ like lovely Boy Azooga, Gwenno, Estrons. Also Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, Baby Queens, Aleighcia Scott, CHROMA, Cate Le Bon, Quodega, My Name is Ian, HANA2K, Junior Bill, Rainbow Maniac, Ani Glass. (Not all are strictly Cardiff bands but anyway, they’re all highly recommended). There’s also a wonderful collective of women called the Ladies of Rage which I’m a member of ‒ they performed their first showcase last week. Lots of positive things happening at the moment. There have been a couple of great social media campaigns that have safeguarded different parts of Cardiff’s independent music scene over the past few years when venues have been threatened. Currently there’s one to help protect the buildings on Guildford Crescent which includes indie venue Gwdihŵ ‒ please sign!
Tell us a bit about your role as Media Manager at Visit Wales.
This is basically my day job. It’s pretty great at the moment ‒ I’m within the Creative Services Team, and I oversee all our international web and social media content ‒ basically all the organic content for digital platforms. I’ve got talented people working around me and we’ve done and achieved a lot this year. Although I’ve lived all over the world and that my parents were immigrants, my sense of identity is pretty mixed up! But I was born in Cardiff, and so Wales has been a big part of that identity. I love living here, and being able to try and promote its best and get people to come and experience it for themselves is a cool thing to do. If you’ve never been here, Wales is a beautiful place! Come visit! I recommend the Visit Wales Instagram feed to get that wanderlust going.
You also wrote Lady Gaga’s biography. How cool is that! Why Lady Gaga and what was that journey like?
In retrospect it is cool! But at the time it was 80,000 words in six months around a full time job, which was very much not cool at all. I learned a lot from that whole experience ‒ it’s great to be published, but you’ve got to set aside the proper time that things need!
Do you know if she read your book?
I have no idea. I'm guessing she's a bit too busy to have read it!
Any plans to write another book? What are you currently working on?
Ah man, I have plans to write about a million more books. Making it happen is the hard part! I actually finished a novel about a year ago, and I made a couple of initial inquiries about getting it published but to be honest it was so time consuming I got really put off. While it would be great to be published again, I’m not going to spend the same amount of time trying to get the thing published as I did writing it ‒ that seems completely counterproductive to me. I love it while I’m doing it, but I’d rather spend time writing than chasing and hassling publishers and agents. I know that’s “the game”, but all my pleasure comes from the act of writing, and I don’t have that much free time ‒ I don’t want to spend it doing publishing admin!
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worthwhile to you?
Wow, that is a great question... I’m not entirely sure why I do what I do! I guess I have very deep rooted beliefs that you should try and make the world a better place in some way, if you can. And I love supporting local talent ‒ that’s what has kept me engaged with We Are Cardiff for all this time.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
I am very bad at unwinding. I’ve got better this past year. My favourite de-stress activity was walking the dog, but she had an accident a couple of months ago and broke her back, so while she’s in rehabilitation there’s no walking! So instead I go swimming a couple of times a week. I love reading, and I’m also a bit of a gamer (our dog is called Zelda for a reason). Apart from that, one of my favourite things is to potter around the allotment, or go to gigs or hang out with friends. Simple things.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Without doubt, the most important thing is that you have to look after yourself mentally. I had a bit of a breakdown early last year, and it’s taken quite a while to come to terms with what that was, and how I need to take care of myself better. I would say up until that point I was a bit of a workaholic ‒ every second of the day around my day job was packed with extra projects, volunteering for things, going to meetings and events and gigs. It was great, but then I started to run into trouble at work and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
It’s great that mental health is much more of a focus today than it used to be. I have learned simple things, like paying attention to my body. If I’m feeling weird, which does happen, I check my breathing ‒ shallow breathing or holding my breath means stress, which means taking a few minutes out from whatever I’m doing to calm down. I also check my thoughts ‒ I experience an endless barrage of thoughts and ideas all the time and also the impulse to act on them all, without being able to prioritise appropriately. This is just part of having ADHD, and although it improves with medication I prefer not to take any, as it makes my brain feel like a foreign land! Through experience I’ve learned some things need to be done before others, but if I’m having a bad day I completely lose the capacity to do this. As I understand where this comes from it’s quite funny when it happens now, but before I was diagnosed it was a source of constant frustration and negative feelings about myself. So trying not to take things too seriously is important ‒ and definitely helps with good mental health! Also, having a dog around is brilliant. Life without dogs is super dull.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
What are dogs thinking? I often wonder what dogs are thinking! It’s so bizarre that you take them home, and then they just become part of your life ‒ they just unquestioningly devote themselves to you, they want to go where you go, largely they’ll do what you teach them (unless you have a greyhound, like I do, who just wants to run, sleep, and cuddle, and isn’t bothered about anything beyond that). Dogs are amazing! When my dog looks at me, I always wonder what she’s thinking.
Why do we have so many people experiencing homelessness when we are such a rich country?
Also ‒ related ‒ why have our elected representatives allowed food bank use to increase to current levels?
And finally, a Max Frisch question: What are you grateful for?
I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m grateful for every experience I’ve had that has made me who I am, for my health, for all my wonderful friends and family who have always supported me. Also at the moment I’m super grateful for my dog, who is recovering from spinal surgery after breaking her back a couple of months ago!