Growing up in Melbourne, Olivia Bartley was immediately drawn to music. With a determination that many of us can only dream of, she taught herself guitar purely through YouTube tutorials and, after a while, made her way into the Melbourne music scene. Originally playing at folk festivals, she realised that she wanted to make music that was more sonically powerful and gravitated towards alternative and synth pop sounds. And thus, Olympia was born.
Combining the enchanting melodies and flawless falsettos that she learnt from her folk days with the guitar-driven and synth heavy sound that she prefers to play, Olympia has created a unique and compelling take on pop music. Releasing her debut album, Self Talk, in Australia last year, the 11 track record is a synth-pop sensation. Full of shimmering surrealness, it’s creative and bold, showing off her talents in multi-instrumentalism and her originality as an artist. Met with critical acclaim, the album gained Olympia an ARIA Nomination, a shortlist spot in the Australian Music Prize and became a Triple J Featured Album . Not too bad for a debut, right?
About to release “Smoke Signals” as her first UK single, her beautiful vocals and exciting tones are bound to get you hooked. Playing at The Great Escape this week – and having recently played her debut London gig with Sofar Sounds – we met up with Aussie star to find out all there is to know.
So you performed at Sofar Sounds last night. How was it?
Yeah! It’s kind of a culture shock as a musician when you’re used to playing shows in a traditional format – you know, in pubs on Friday nights. There you’re like “Oh gosh, these people are here to listen!” You have to kind of check yourself. I’ve been playing with a band so heavily, and I’ve got a band here, so it was really lovely to just play like that.
It was your first London show, right?
Yeah, I kind of took it out on them. It’ll be okay now.
Good! So going back to the very beginning, how did you get into music?
I asked my parents to play drums as a kid and they bought me a piano. So I’m self-taught, and my mum used to make me all of the amazing outfits. It was terrible, I was kicked by loads of kids. Most kids hated it! Anyway, I picked up the guitar and taught myself from YouTube videos and have since revisited the piano and discovered synthesisers, so all those lessons paid off in the end. I had an incredible family friend who taught me the piano, and you know when you’re a kid and everything is just scratched into your brain? Well, her son had hacked everything in the house apart from the piano and this dusty, terrible painting of hydrangeas, so no wonder I was terrified of pianos…
Who did you listen to growing up?
Oh, I listened to terrible music growing up. I remember Amy Grant! It just came to my mind because I was remembering that piano teacher and she had this terrible ad on TV about running a race with one leg. I think it was a metaphor for Christianity, which was awful. I loved Rickie Lee Jones, you know “Chuck E.’s In Love”. I love strong singers. I had parents who listened to completely different music, I don’t know why they were ever married. Mum listened to country music, so Johnny Cash and Andrew Sisters, whose harmonies have had a big impact on me, but then my dad only listens to five bands – Chicago, Tower of Power, Steely Dan… Chicago put out too many albums too. I don’t know if you know that? But apparently, they put out too many. Oh, and Chaka Khan, who plays the drums and is incredible and we should all be wearing on a T-shirt. So, I had these really polar opposites. Then I used to just take world music off the radio, so that was all in there. But I just really gravitated towards female artists.
Dress LUISA BECCARIA, coat and belt BOTTEGA VENETA
What’s the Melbourne music scene like?
There’s just so much happening, I guess it’s like London. You’ve got Courtney Barnett, Milk! Records, so there’s quite a buzz there. You’ve got a lot of bands coming up; it’s a very DIY atmosphere, like, you just play. A lot of people play in multiple bands, which I think is great. I mean, I love punk and nu-wave, and I see that that’s what everyone was doing. You’ve just got to get out and play, don’t be too precious and hung up about outcomes. We have fantastic community radio stations, I’m not too sure how that really works here? But you’ll be in your car and they don’t have producers so they’ll talk too long, that’s their problem. They talk about themselves and then finally they get to the music, but I’ve discovered the most incredible music [through them] and I love hearing people talk about what they’re passionate about.
So was it always music for you?
No, I actually studied fashion design!
So that’s where you get your love of fashion?
Yeah, well it’s like, if you do a pharmaceutical drug trial and there are side effects. I think that when you study fashion and you’re not really sure why you studied fashion, the side effect is that you develop expensive taste. That’s a secret I don’t usually tell anyone. In Melbourne it’s a very no frills scene, but each to their own.
When you started in music you were involved in the folk scene right?
I picked up an acoustic guitar and I did play at some folk festivals and that’s sort of where I cut my teeth and decided what I didn’t want to do. You know when you’re young and you’re just trying everything?
You’ve held onto that folky falsetto, but obviously now you’re coming from a pop angle. What made you move towards that?
I kept getting put on very similar bills and, I guess coming from a more design background, I wanted it to be more about ideas and I thought that people weren’t coming here for ideas, they were just coming for what Olivia Bartley thinks. I didn’t want it to be that autobiographical, I wanted it to be more about music. When you check into someone’s world who’s passionate about modular synthesisers and they spend their whole life loving them, it’s fascinating. I wanted it to be more about that sonic exploration. However, I did put a lot of work into the writing. I think I kept moving the goalpost for myself, like I wanna be taller and I want the songwriting to be better and I want more scales. But the majority is ideas and wanting it to be sonic.
Dress VIVIENNE WESTWOOD, shoes CHARLOTTE OLYMPIA
Your debut album, Self Talk, came out last year. What was the process behind it?
I wrote a lot, so it’s mostly myself. Then I went into a studio and – I love the work of Bert Reed, he’s worked with The Drones who I absolutely love and are friends of mine – and so we went into the studio and really bounced ideas of each other. He feels like a brother and I’m very lucky. I work with a very small team but we work very hard, you know we’d be working like 20 hours a day. For me, the problem is that the ideas never end and I could still be creating and changing and evolving; he let me do that a lot in the studio, sort of throw mud at the wall and see what sticks. I’m just so privileged.
And what was the main inspiration behind the album?
Um, kind of Cypress Hill. It sounds like a joke but I really love them. And there’s colourful influences like Robert Palmer and people hear Gary Numan, which I hear now too but didn’t at the moment. Also a lot of hip hop beats. That’s sort of how we started.
So obviously the record got a great reception following the Australian release last year. What was that like?
It’s quite strange! But to be honest, I just want the work to get stronger and stronger. So it’s lovely, and playing live is so much fun and I’ve got a fantastic band here and in Australia. However, the real work has to be done on your own on a Friday night at home, just like “What rhymes with yellow?”
Do you have a favourite track?
Well, that changes, but it’s probably “Self Talk” at the moment. It’s quite arty. People aspire to be the hero. There’s these two Australian skateboarders from back in the day [Tas and Ben Pappas] and they moved to the States at 17 from quite poor backgrounds and they became Number 1 and Number 2 and Tony Hawk was Number 3. There’s this documentary about them [All This Mayhem] and I saw it and it just broke me. All their life, and you see this in sport a lot (I don’t think musicians have the disposition for such commitment), but they worked towards getting better and they got to Number 1 and were like “What’s next?” One of them came back to Australia for a wedding and he had brought some coke in his shoe and could never fly ever again, so that killed his career. He started using heroin. He ended up killing his partner and then killing himself. It was heartbreaking. It’s such a tragic story. It’s like when you’ve built yourself an arrow towards this one thing your whole life, what happens when you get it? So that’s what “Self Talk” was about.
You’ve gone with “Smoke Signals” as your first UK single. What made you choose that one?
I thought because of summer, and there might be some fires and BBQS! It’s a fun song, we had a lot of fun making it. Midnight Oil are using it as their walk on song around the world at the moment, they have a lot of street cred in Australia, so that’s great. For me, it’s a really fun song and it means a lot. I really hope it translates!
And what was the inspiration behind it?
There was this really early Japanese reality TV show. You can see it on YouTube, it’s crazy; it’s called Sweepstakes Millionaire. They find this guy, he’s a comedian, and he’d auditioned and failed for another show. All he wanted to do was be famous. So these directors come to him and they’re like “We’ve got an idea for another show, we don’t know what’s gonna happen, but will you be interested?” and the guy said “Look, I’ll do anything, but my dad’s a policeman and just asked me to promise that I’ll never be naked.” They go to this apartment, and it’s completely empty. There’s a coffee table and it has magazines on it – they have sweepstakes at the back, so you know you fill them in and win stuff – and he had to win one million Yen worth of sweepstakes to be released from the apartment. Then they told him that he would need to strip completely naked, and he does! They shut the door and it goes live immediately, there are cameras in everything. For the first two weeks nothing’s coming because the mail has to go off and he’s starving. He’s in there for a really long time and you’re basically watching someone go crazy. He becomes quite comfortable being naked and alone, but he changes. He’s so happy one day because rice arrives and then he realises that he has nothing to cook it in, so he puts it in a cup of water on the windowsill and waits a day for it to congeal. More Japanese watched him everyday than Americans watch Game of Thrones, so he was really popular. Eventually he wins one million Yen, and they’re like “Congrats! You’ve won a trip to Korea!” when all he wants to do is go home and see his family. But they take him to Korea, and after two days he says he wants to go home and they take him to this apartment in Korea identical to the one in Tokyo and he has to win his airfare back to Japan. Eventually the walls fall down and he’s in a live studio. So it goes from worse to worse. That’s what “Smoke Signals” is all about.
Wow, that is a lot condensed into one song! So, back to the beginning, where does the name “Olympia” come from?
I guess the Manet painting, I just loved it. Someone’s recently told me that Einstein had a book reading club called “The Olympia Club”. I think I was just so ‘ideas, ideas, ideas’, that I wanted it to be an extension of myself.
You’re heading off to The Great Escape. How are you feeling?
I’m really, really looking forward to it. I have loved being in London, I’ve been here about a week and I’ve had such a great time; it’s hard to imagine it getting any better. But I’m really looking forward to playing with the band, we’ve got a lot of shows. And then a 24 hour plane home straight into another tour!
Have you noticed any differences between Australian crowds and UK crowds?
Not yet. In Australia each city is different, like in Melbourne we’re all very studious and in Sydney we’re all very active and in Perth we’re all very rich. So yeah, hopefully it connects and people will like it! If not, I’ll go souvenir shopping.