Olympia’s big picture is coming into focus
With an album on the way and a boundless artistic vision in tow, Olympia is poised to impress.
A set from Olympia is something to behold, at once a shredder, a style icon, and a powerhouse performer. Lately she’s back making noise, releasing two crunchy singles (Star City and Shoot To Forget) as the first new material since her fantastic debut album Self Talk in 2016.
Her work transcends music, happily peering into the wider art forms of fashion, film, and design. As such, the dynamic looks she brings to the stage go far beyond the aesthetic; they borrow from an extensive treasure trove of artistic references buried within Olympia’s creative mind.
While she was in Sydney to play alongside Julia Jacklin, we sat down in Newtown’s emptied out Waywards to chat. Apart from a Christina Applegate circa 1991 reference that, admittedly, flew right over my head, the interview went smoothly.
HAPPY: I saw you recently shared an article about how taking photographs might actually be impairing our ability to remember experiences. Do you have a stance on the whole phones at gigs debate?
OLYMPIA: Well I’m quite short, so sometimes it’s quite helpful if somebody can use their body as a tripod, and I can see it through their phone. I think, take a photo and film a little bit, but I don’t know how good the quality could actually be when people film the whole gig. I’m just thinking… maybe just enjoy the gig?
HAPPY: Maybe that’s the only time you can be thankful for the person in front of you filming. Did you see that Jack White is banning phones at his upcoming Australian shows? What are your thoughts on a total phone ban?
OLYMPIA: Well I think they’re a really quiet band… so I can see that they wouldn’t want to be impeded by ringtones. That seems like a smart idea.
HAPPY: Of course, of course. You do create quite a spectacle on stage though, don’t you think that’s something that should be captured?
OLYMPIA: Yeah, that’s a good point. Well that’s why we have great photographers like Dani Hansen, because there’s a big difference between someone taking photos on an iPhone and a professional photographer. It’s incredible to see someone who’s so good at their craft and then be like, ‘oh that was a good night’, and have a great memory of it. You know I’ve got so many good photos on my phone of gigs, but it’s a bit of a mix.
HAPPY: I don’t know if I ever go back and look at those.
OLYMPIA: I’ve got about 2,500 photos on my phone that I can’t…
HAPPY: You can’t delete them, I get it. We touched on how you always bring a great outfit on stage, do you collaborate with someone on these or do you source them yourself?
OLYMPIA: I source them myself. Sometimes I might be running short on time, sometimes the ideas might be too ambitious, and I work with people to help execute them.
HAPPY: Do you ever make the clothes yourself?
OLYMPIA: No, I’m an excellent shopper.
HAPPY: Was fashion and clothing a part of your life before Olympia?
OLYMPIA: I did really like that movie Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. It’s got Christina Applegate in it, they get a babysitter in it and within a week the babysitter dies, so the kids pretend they’re alive while their parents are on holidays. Christina Applegate gets a job at a fashion label and she dresses amazingly so yeah, that was heavy inspiration for my life.
HAPPY: Are there any other fashion heroes?
OLYMPIA: Oh absolutely, I studied design… so that first part was a joke. I did study design, and you know everybody wears clothing, but some people put a lot of thought and ideas into it, there’s this big social contract to them and that made me think more about songwriting than any songwriter ever has.
OLYMPIA: Like there’s a really famous Turkish Cypriot designer called Hussein Chalayan and he grew up in a warzone, he did a collection of clothes that was, what do you do if you get a knock on your door and you’ve got five minutes to leave your whole life? He did a range of clothes on that. So I’m into that, that’s my jam. You know, pop songs, you want people to sing to them when they hear it from DJs, but to me it has to have some meaning behind it. So that’s why I shop so much…
HAPPY: I really like that angle. I do get the sense that it’s all very big picture for you.
OLYMPIA: Absolutely, you have such a limited opportunity to reach your audience and you can’t always do it; money, time, rain, lightning strikes… I think it’s important to me and for the audience that we’re aspiring to create something that’s a bit different.
HAPPY: So for instance in your latest video Shoot To Forget where you’re playing a number of characters, I did feel like it was more than just aesthetic and there was a story to these characters.
OLYMPIA: Yeah, I’m into the characters. It’s this idea that we can be many people and that we sometimes use these personalities that we have to hide behind. It’s sort of hiding in plain sight. It’s interesting because you can get away with so much in society but these are all extreme characters, you know there’s kind of a Tonya Harding character, but we kind of don’t let each other do that in society.
HAPPY: How deep do you go on the characters? Do they have a backstory?
OLYMPIA: They were based on real characters, and I had a lot of cinematic references that I had to study to get all the body movements right.
HAPPY: So you were acting each real character out?
OLYMPIA: Can’t you tell? Aren’t I a lot different right now?
HAPPY: Very much! Is that background information something you keep closely guarded?
OLYMPIA: I don’t know that it would add a lot of value. I think just to know that it is there… but it’s more that there’s a link to how we made the actual record, where it’s really personal but it’s delivered really strongly. You know the vocals are doubled, there’s no passivity on the record, and it kind of… for me there’s a real difference between who I am as a person and who I am as an artist and I had to really keep writing it down. Like don’t forget, uncompromising! I would cut out little David Bowies, little Annie Lennox’s to keep me in check.
HAPPY: So the backstory is more for you, so you can deliver the strongest message to your audience?
HAPPY: Is there a dream project for you? You mentioned sometimes not being able to make things happen, and I find a lot of artists who are cross-disciplinary often have a grand vision of some kind.
OLYMPIA: I’m pitching a show right now.
HAPPY: Oh really? There it is!
OLYMPIA: For a year away. So I see Bengarra Dance Company every year, and I think the very first one I saw was a life changing experience for me. They did this movement… and yeah, I’ve got ideas.
HAPPY: So it would be something that crosses…
OLYMPIA: Audiovisual, yeah. I think it would be great to bring horns and strings in.
HAPPY: Very cool. Now do you mind if we nerd out on guitars for a minute? Is it a Jazzmaster you play?
OLYMPIA: It’s a Lee Ranaldo Jazzmaster.
HAPPY: What pedals are you running it through? If you mind sharing.
OLYMPIA: I’m actually transitioning at the moment! Right now I’ve got my touring board on, I have a Curtis Overdrive, I have an Empress Superdelay, I have a Holy Grail Reverb, I have a freeze pedal, a vintage tremolo, and a tuner.
HAPPY: How is the touring board different to recording?
OLYMPIA: Well when you’re recording you just use everything. Pour water on the desk and see what happens.
HAPPY: That really crunchy chord sound I hear in your stuff…
OLYMPIA: In the new stuff?
HAPPY: Well some of the old stuff too, it’s really in the chords in the new stuff.
OLYMPIA: I think that’s my favourite guitar tone. For me, I listen to bands like the Hot Snakes, The Walkmen, so it’s really guitar heavy and I love these bright jangly tones. I like to be able to play quiet but then dig in, I guess like Anna Calvi as well, she’s a really dramatic player. That’s my home base tone, but on a record I try to paint with different tones.
HAPPY: It’s quite out of character for pop songs.
OLYMPIA: Well I don’t think I’m a pop artist… but who decides these things? I carry too many instruments. Pop artists, they have a lot less baggage. And I love that.
HAPPY: If someone saw you onstage without a guitar I think they’d picture an act who was mic’d up like Beyoncé, but in reality you’re behind the guitar the whole time. I think that’s awesome.
HAPPY: Are there guitar heroes too?
OLYMPIA: Oh absolutely. Marc Ribot, Neil Young, when I watched the movie Dead Man where he did the soundtrack, that changed my guitar life. Marc Ribot’s a big one, I love those Tom Waits records, he’s an insanely innovative player. It just comes out of nowhere. And then the classics, Tom Morello, Frusciante, you know?
HAPPY: The Chili Peppers were never quite the same after he left.
OLYMPIA: I know, it’s really sad! So is Anthony’s facial hair at the moment…
HAPPY: He’s been through some looks.
HAPPY: Just to finish up, you mentioned a record, is that coming out this year?
OLYMPIA: Yeah! It might be pop, it might be rock. Who knows?
HAPPY: It might even have some guitars.
OLYMPIA: We’ll take a SurveyMonkey quiz.
HAPPY: Is there a big picture concept?
OLYMPIA: The best way to describe it without anyone having heard it is; Self-Talk was quite a cerebral album and I was listening to Cypress Hill, it was hip hop tones, it’s really hard to play live with lots of nuance and synths… and the ideas, it’s more like I was observing the world. This one’s going to be more visceral, I kept thinking about how I feel, and how other people feel. So it’s going to be more visceral.
HAPPY: Sounds pretty good.
OLYMPIA: It’s no take-backs.
Interview by Tom Cameron
Photos by Dani Hansen