On the cusp of something great
Heltai returns to North Adams with Passim-backed CD in tow
NORTH ADAMS — If you're a live music devotee in North Adams, there's a good chance you've seen Izzy Heltai at some point over the past several years. When the Brookline native was in school at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, he accepted gigs in the city whenever and wherever he could.
"They were really bad gigs at the start, but I was just like, 'I just want to play as much as possible,'" Heltai recalled on a recent Thursday morning.
Often times, that mindset led the folk musician to The Parlor Cafe's open mic nights. One time, it brought him to the corner of Kit & Kaboodle, a crafts store. And all the time, it was supported by the Common Folk artist collective.
"I found an incredible community of people my first year," he said of the group's members, who frequently attended his least-attended shows.
Following three consecutive FreshGrass appearances, Heltai had the musical bona fides to merit backing from an organization with an esteemed music history. In December 2018, Cambridge, Mass.-based Passim announced that Heltai would be receiving one of the Iguana Music Fund's grants. Totaling $40,000, this year's gifts were awarded to 24 New England-based musicians for "career building projects and for projects that provide community service through music." Heltai said that he got $1,000 to put toward the production and design of his latest EP, "Only Yesterday." One week after playing Club Passim in Cambridge, Heltai will release the CD during a Friday, April 19, concert at Common Folk's new space on Main Street in North Adams.
"It gave me the liberty to work with an artist I was very excited about and also get the quality of merchandise that I knew had to get done," Heltai said of the grant.
Molly Howarth's earthy, bestial illustrations cover the CD, T-shirts and tote bags, and Andy Cass recorded and mixed the album's four tracks at Sleeper Cave Records in Williamsburg. Though Heltai's songwriting often occurs when he's happiest, these tunes explore a darker place.
"As an artist, it's very hard to accumulate a good sense of self-worth because you're being knocked down a lot of the time consistently," he said, "and I've always had a very tumultuous relationship with my mental health, too. It goes in waves, and a lot of this record is dealing with your relationship, and often negative relationship, to yourself affecting the way you show up for other people."
Heltai released his debut EP, "Sweet Apathy," in January 2018.
"With this record, there's definitely a lot more movement going on around it, which is very exciting for me," Heltai said of "Only Yesterday."
For example, he'll open for The Mammals at Hancock Shaker Village's Shaker Barn Music Series on July 27. One of the brains behind that series, Karl Mullen, has been a mentor to Heltai, as has Mass MoCA Director of Performing Arts Sue Killam, who helped set up his first FreshGrass gig.
"It's like a festival in your backyard," Heltai said of FreshGrass, noting that he's not sure yet if he'll be playing at the 2019 edition.
The 22-year-old Heltai now lives in Northampton, but he's still quick to call North Adams one of his homes. MCLA brought him to the city. His parents, Monica Petri and Blaise Heltai, are both mathematicians and immigrants. They didn't have the opportunity to play music when they were young, so they made sure their children did. Heltai started taking classical piano lessons from an early age, but it was folk artists such as Joan Baez and Simon & Garfunkel that stuck as influences.
In North Adams, Heltai refined his own sound by staying for summers between semesters at MCLA. He lived in a friend's closet on Quincy Street for $100 per month, he recalled. It was one of Common Folk's initial hubs.
"It was so cheap that it allowed me to just play music even though I had no momentum," Heltai said.
He was taken by Common Folk's desire to foster creativity in the city.
"It was a lot of people that had been at [MCLA] but had graduated and were dedicated to building up the community here. I thought that was so incredibly special," he said.
By Heltai's junior year in college, he had identified that he wanted to be a musician.
"I didn't really care to wait," he said.
He would have to travel to build the following he sought. He gradually improved the quality of gigs he was landing around the Northeast. A couple of years ago, he made a stop at Club Passim, where the likes of Baez and Bob Dylan have played.
"Since then, we've had a really really wonderful relationship," Heltai said of Passim.
He has maintained his ties to Common Folk, too. The group's new digs combine a pop-up shop, studio and performance area, the last of which is now being used in earnest.
"It's like a living room," Heltai said as he walked into the space on that Thursday morning.
The musician knows that his North Adams show is going to be a sentimental one, though now is no time to get caught in reflection.
"It's still just the beginning of my journey in a lot of ways," he said, "but it kind of feels like I'm on a cusp."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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