From penning a biography of one of pop’s most controversial figures to running a successful local blog, Helia Phoenix’s CV is one of the most eclectic in Cardiff. LCC talks to the novice film maker about We Are Cardiff and her attraction to the city
Helia Phoenix walks confidently into the nondescript cafe where I’ve arranged to meet her. Dressed casually in a hoodie and jeans, a scarf patterned with purple stars shields her from the blustery wind and drizzle lashing down on the Bay. We meet just a stones throw from the Senedd, where she works as the National Assembly for Wales’s (NAW) first web editor.
But Helia is no typical government employee; in fact, she’s anything but. Glancing down her CV, she’s managed to do more in her 31 years than most people could manage in a life time, from writing a biography of one of the world’s biggest pop stars to living in California. Helia dismisses her countless projects with a deprecating smile, “I don’t sleep very much”.
Born in Cardiff, Helia spent her formative years in the city until leaving for Exeter at the age of five. Moving to Southampton at the age of 10, Helia lived there until leaving for university in London. Helia quickly realised however that life in the country’s capital wasn’t for her. Before long, she found herself drawn back to Cardiff.
“My best friend was at uni in Cardiff and I came over while I was in London to visit him, and I just loved it,” remembers Helia.
“I think on the first weekend that I came we went to the Students Union, and the second night we went to Welsh Club for the student night and it was amazing. I went to Hobos and I bought some records from Spillers, I was just like ‘Oh my God I love it here’, so I dropped out of Uni in London, moved to Cardiff and I just love it. I have moved away a few times since I started university here but I always seem to come back,” she laughs.
Thrown in at the deep end
Finishing a degree in English Literature with a final year at the University of California, Helia went on to study a masters in the teaching and practice of creative writing. After leaving university, she juggled several jobs including working at the BBC and in Catapult Records. Helia was also part of the now defunct Kruger, Cardiff’s iconic music magazine.
“I was DJing at a night in the old Sugar on Womanby Street. I the editors of Kruger in there on the opening and they were trying to blag drinks. I had seen it around town and really liked it. So I wrote reviews for them, then I started writing features for them and then they asked me to be reviews editor.”
Gradually the editors of Kruger started moving to London and running the magazine became more of a challenge. It was just after Kruger came second in the Best Free Music Magazine category at the Record of the Day Awards, which acknowledges achievements in music journalism that it was finally closed down. “We went to the award show pretty much knowing that we were going to stop running the magazine. These things run their life cycles.”
During her tenure at Kruger, Helia started working at business-to-business magazine publisher GDS Publishing in Bristol.
Fellow Cardiffian Huw Thomas, who runs Roath’s hyperlocal blog, joined GDS Publishing just a month before Helia, and they soon worked together as co-editors on a number of magazines. “Neither of us had done that kind of work before – we were dropped in at the deep end,” laughs Huw.
Reaching the role of editor, Helia found herself looking for new challenges.
Leap of faith
It was then she saw a Scott Trust bursary to study Web Journalism at Sheffield University advertised on the Guardian’s website. The Scott Trust were beginning to adapt bursaries to support more technical skills, but Helia had her doubts about moving to the other side of the country. Buying a house and taking on a mortgage with her boyfriend, who is a mature student, she came close to dismissing the idea altogether, even when she reached the interview stage, “Luckily I have very good friends who talked me out of it!”.
Helia breezed through the interview, convinced she wasn’t going to get it. She was on holiday in San Francisco when she got the call telling her she had been given the place. “I got a call, a voicemail actually, saying that it was the Guardian, we’ve given you a place and I was just like ‘Oh my god!’.”
Taking a leap of faith, she left her partner to hold the fort in Cardiff, picked up her life and moved to Sheffield for eight months. While in Shefflied, Helia was commissioned to write a biography of Lady GaGa. Hundreds of hours of research ensued, a process Helia describes as painful and prolonged. “After I did it I had to have a break from writing for about six months. It ended up being about 80,000 words, which is more than I’d ever written for anything.”
Eight hours a day
Finishing the course, Helia frantically applied for over 40 jobs before landing two interviews, one as a content producer on BBC’s 6Music in London and the other for her current position. Again, Cardiff won out and Helia returned to the city yet again. After working at the NAW for almost three years, she continues to enjoy her job. Responsible for managing all their online content, while she wouldn’t admit it Helia brought the NAW kicking and screaming into the 21st century when she was appointed two years ago.
“It’s not so much the politics side that I work on; I’m more the promotion of democracy and devolution and opportunity, which is the thing that really attracted me to the job and also because its online, the thing that is exciting and constantly changing.
“I’m one of those people who needs to go to work and feel like I’m doing something I enjoy, otherwise what’s the point. If you have to spend eight hours a day doing something then I can’t spend it doing things that are meaningless.”
While working at the NAW, Helia and co-worker Adam Chard started art collective hack/flash. “We started hack/flash as a fun way to use our skills outside of the office; we wanted to get people involved in art, and create exhibitions from public submissions,” says Adam. The idea for We Are Cardiff, ongoing digital storytelling project, was born from that.
We Are Cardiff: Portrait of a city
Documenting the city for over two years, We Are Cardiff tells the stories of people who live and have grown up in the city. The blog started with the aim of giving a more representative account of a place which is special for many.
“We were talking about how a lot of the stuff we were seeing in the news about Cardiff was quite negative. The Guardian Cardiff blog was about to start up, and the Ark group were doing lots of really interesting community engagement projects,” remembers Helia.
“I was subscribed to a blog about residents in San Franscisco, and I just thought isn’t Cardiff a great place to do something like this. It’s not a new idea – digital story telling has been going on for a long time and one of the pilot projects for it was in Cardiff. Adam Chard designed the logo in about 10 minutes, I set up a free WordPress blog. Local entrepreneur Neil Cocker was our first story.”
70 stories on, Helia and designer Adam Chard, along with Simon Bradwick, are turning the blog into a film. Raising money through crowd funding website Indie GoGo, We Are Cardiff: Portrait of a City is hoped to be completed be the end of the year.
“We’d been talking about developing the film for quite a long time and then I went to a conference held by Sheffield Doc Fest. It struck me at the end of the day that we have an amazing project that already exists, we have amazing content, we already have momentum behind the project, wouldn’t it be a great thing to turn it into a film.”
Adam cites Helia’s ability to juggle numerous projects as keeping the partnership going, “I could never keep up with it all like she does – she constantly has a million things running through her head which makes her really inspirational and fun to be around.
“She’s also amazingly supportive and enthusiastic about other people’s work – she encouraged me into doing freelance design work a lot sooner than I would have done if I’d been left to my own devices.”
All roads seem to lead back to Cardiff for Helia, but Adam can’t overstate her contribution to the city and it’s creative scene. “Helia is one of those people whose name pops up everywhere in such a compact creative community. Everyone’s heard of her and nobody’s got a bad word to say.”
On top of running We Are Cardiff, she is currently writing her first novel, a science fiction piece set in Cardiff that she confesses is “a bit weird”. With no publishers yet lined up, she says she would be happy to self publish. It’s this can do, will do attitude which sets her apart. With her irrepressible energy and enthusiasm, Helia Phoenix shows no sign of burning out any time soon.
We Are Cardiff has relaunched it’s fundraising effort, and you can donate money here in return for a selection of goodies