The power of spoken word and that insane Gang of Youths cover: hanging out with Odette

Over the past 12 months, Odette has stormed the Australian music scene brandishing a disarming voice, a penchant for reflective lyricism, and a refreshing style that fuses elements of rap, pop, soul and spoken word.

Since releasing her debut single Watch Me Read You, her trajectory has been a steep one – and rightly so. Despite her young age (she’s just 21… I know), her craft is fully formed and her songwriting is rich and profound.

Her next two singles, Collide and Take It To The Heart cemented her as one of the most exciting young artists to emerge in the past few years; piano ballads permeated by punchy, percussive production and refined instrumentation – nothing is overblown, it’s all about Odette, her piano and her voice.

Now she’s poised to release her debut album, To A Stranger. We caught up with her just before it’s release to about the power of spoken word, that insane Gang of Youths cover for Like a Version and why she always reads YouTube comments about her tunes.

Photo: Cybele Malinowski

We hung out with the incredible Odette just before the release of her debut album and had a chat about spoken word and that insane Gang of Youths cover.

HAPPY: So I was doing a bit of research before and I couldn’t find much information about what you were doing before you released Watch Me Read You. Tell me a bit about your musical background.

ODETTE: I think I wrote my first song when I was eight, so I’ve been writing since I was very, very young. I’ve never really put much thought into it until my mum bought me my first piano. I wrote that first track on piano and it was the coolest moment of my life. I didn’t quite understand how to sing and play at the same time, that took me a while to get my head around – like a couple of weeks.

HAPPY: A couple of weeks! I thought you were going to say a couple of years.

ODETTE: Well, I had a lot of spare time back then. So yeah it was a couple of weeks, but that was me working at it every day, all day. I think I was very determined. If I put my mind to something as a kid I would just get it done, but if I didn’t like something I would fail miserably. That’s why I failed maths… fun fact. Dropped out. In fact, I almost didn’t drop out but my teacher was like, “no, you definitely should.”

HAPPY: So has piano always been your main compositional tool?

ODETTE: For sure. I play guitar too. But the thing is, I have small sausage fingers, so like this to that [points to span of hand] is an exact octave. It’s good, but it’s like just enough. So where other pianists can just shred, I’m a bit clunky, but I think I’m alright.

HAPPY: That could be a stylistic thing though.

ODETTE: Yeah, ‘the clunk’. Just missing the octave.

HAPPY: How about producing?

ODETTE: I’m terrible. I love working with producers. It never ceases to amaze me how they can just be like “let me just adjust this real quick” and make something sound amazing… Like Damien who produced this record, it was just insane to be in the studio with someone who is so immersed not only in his style but also the artist’s world. There’s so much more possibility when you’re not just confined to one sound. He was like “why don’t you close your eyes and tell me what you hear” – but he said it much cooler than that – and I was like “ooh, strings, put in a flute, some clarinet” and he was just like “alright, we can do that.”

It was cool because it’s usually just me and a piano. Maybe I can hear some other elements like strings and stuff – actually I do envision my songs a lot, I’m a bit of a control freak – but, it was really cool being in there with him putting this stuff together and making it come to life.

HAPPY: Well yeah, not having to labour over the sound and focusing on the performance and your songwriting…

ODETTE: It was quite freeing, quite joyful. It was probably the loveliest part of the whole process, figuring out where the song was going to take us.

HAPPY: Did you and Damien write a lot together? Or were the songs done before you brought them to him?

ODETTE: Yeah the album was done before we gave it to him, so he was just going to produce it, work on the instrumentation with me. I like to be very involved, ‘cause they’re, you know, my tracks. We Skyped the first time we met and he was like “tell me everything about you,” and I was like “oh no….”. But we ended up having this secret blog together – maybe one day I’ll make it public – where if I was having a moment and just wanted to vent I would just post huge blurbs and he’d be like “alright let’s work.”

HAPPY: What do you find sets you off like that?

ODETTE: Everything for me is centred in memory. Everything I do is about reflection, and thinking about how I can take my experiences and morph them into something else entirely and grow from it. So I think the way I write is like that. I’ll be walking down the street and just always thinking – some people call it overthinking, which is a problem, but also helpful when you’re trying to write songs – and so if I come across a memory with a clear image, something that’s really sensory, like a feeling or a place or a time, that sets me off. It takes over. I feel like I kind of zone out as it overcomes me and I just write and write and write until I can’t any more.

HAPPY: When I first started listening to your music I associated the spoken word element with rap or hip-hop. But the more I listened I realised it was just a completely different way of delivering poetry.

ODETTE: I’m glad you realised that because while I love rap and hip-hop, I definitely don’t fit into that world. I’m too convoluted. Rappers tend to be cool and to-the-point, whereas I’m like [singing] “I am on a cliff, thinking of death.” You know what I mean? You don’t really rap about those kinds of thing. Or I dunno, you could. But, my personal style, it has to be somewhere between music and writing. Poetry and writing stories, I’ve always loved to do that, and marrying it with music and different kinds of structures and rhythms… I sound like I’ve put a lot of thought into it, but I really didn’t.

When I wrote Watch Me Read You I was just like zoned out. Same with Lotus Eater actually, that was just an accident. I was walking home in year ten or something and there were weeds growing out of the pavement, and I just latched onto that. From there these ideas about romantic entanglements and the complexities of relationships and how I had no idea how to even look at that – I was in year ten or whatever. I was almost acknowledging my own naivety. It was weird that something so simple set me off like that.

HAPPY: I really dug the Gang of Youths cover you did for Like a Version. Is that kind of orchestral arrangement something you’ve explored before?

ODETTE: I’ve always had a love for strings. Can’t play them. Again, sausage fingers. But I always admired people who can. Strings quartets I just die over. Amazing. But I’ve only been able to play with a string quartet maybe one other time – at my high school when I covered Paradise by Coldplay. But the Like a Version was just a whole other level of happiness for me. Plus I had a whole bunch of amazing people involved; one of my best friends was on the synth pads, Liam, my drummer, was there, and my singing teacher who I’ve been singing with since I was 15 was doing BVs, and a couple of my friends doing BVs. It was just an amazing room. I was just like “is this even real?”.

HAPPY: I think that was the biggest Like a Version I’ve ever seen – there was a lot of people involved in that session.

ODETTE: I think they [triple j] were excited by it. And the feedback has been really good. I fully expected people to be like “you ruined my favourite song.”

HAPPY: Especially with Gangs. But people like to rag on Like a Versions anyway.

ODETTE: They do. I had one hateful comment that was like “I like her songs, but the simplest touch leaves a turd on you” or something like that. And I died. That’s so funny.

HAPPY: That’s why you don’t read YouTube comments.

ODETTE: I love reading YouTube comments! I’m a bit disappointed, I felt like there could have been a really good wave of hate out there. Nothing…

HAPPY: People like you too much.

ODETTE: I know… it’s actually really really nice.

Odette’s new album To A Stranger is out July 6th via EMI.