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SCAN chatted to Olympia (a.k.a Olivia Bartley) before her set supporting Julia Jacklin at YES in Manchester, where we discussed her creative influences, her upcoming sophomore album and her latest single ‘Shoot to Forget’…
Welcome to Manchester! Is it your first time here?
“It is! I did a quick bolt around the block, it seems great, I’d love to spend more time here. I saw there’s a Martin Parr exhibition happening, I’d like to check that out.”
Your new single ‘Shoot to Forget’ is out now! What inspired the song?
“I thought I was writing a really simple song [laughs] I thought ‘Everyone will get this song!’ but I can’t help myself… I draw from so many different sources. I was really inspired by ‘60s tunes like ‘Wall of Sound’ by Phil Spector and ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes. I’m really interested in that history of American music where it seems so fluffy and innocuous, but the things that were actually happening for those artists in their personal lives was huge. With songs like ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, Phil Spector wanted to write a number one song, he believed he was better than anyone else and could manufacture a hit. He got Tina Turner to sing it and for her, it was going to be her way out of her relationship with Ike, so she needed it to work and he [Spector] needed it to work. It debuted at something like #47 on the charts, then he locked his wife in a cupboard for 3 days, watched Citizen Kane and had a terrible breakdown.
We write these songs off because we hear them in department stores, they’re nostalgic and seem innocent and harmless, but I think there’s real depth in these songs. ‘Shoot to Forget’, for me, is somewhere between ‘Be My Baby’ and The Walkmen’s ‘The Rat’, which is just visceral energy, like a supercharged fire ball of feeling and it makes me feel like I could rob a bank and get away with it. That’s why the lyrics rhyme, it’s kind of playful. It’s a bit of a love song, saying ‘I would do it all again if I could have you back’ but also ‘If I had you back, then there’d be no me’, no tunes or my music career.
John Berger has been such an inspiration to me, he wrote ‘Ways of Seeing’. He has this great quote: ‘The camera relieves us of the burden of memory, the camera records to forget’, so that’s where the whole idea of ‘Shoot to Forget’ came from. You can have experiences with some people that move through you and forget you, and others choose to move forward by forgetting their past.”
The majority of artists I’ve spoken to only seem capable of writing from personal experiences or the experiences of their close friends and family, but I’ve heard your songwriting is based on a lot of different things, whether it be something you’ve read or broader themes like consumer culture. Did it take you a while to learn how to write about those things or has it always come naturally to you?
“Whatever I write about has to have meaning, I would never write anything fluffy to fill a quota for 10 songs or something. They have to feel like knuckle busters to me. I tend to have a method of 3’s: it’ll be something conceptual, something quite metaphorical and something personal. That way, when I present the songs (depending on the audience), I can give them a different insight. It’s a real privilege to be able to take people into the songs differently and keep it new.”
It’s interesting for the listener to wonder whether what you’re singing about actually happened to you…
“I’ve got to admit, a lot of weird things have happened to me in my life and people often do not believe me, but it’s all true! [laughs]”
I read that you once traveled to Cambodia, so did that inform any of the songwriting on Self Talk?
“It probably informed my life view and it was an incredible life experience, it’s very wild there. I grew up a lot living there, with the things I saw and did.”
It kind of puts your own problems into perspective I guess.
“Yeah, the abject poverty and the disparity of power & corruption, but then there’s also how some Westerners and expats behave there… it’s a bit gross.”
You had quite a religious upbringing, how would you say that’s contributed to your art?
“Everything I’ve experienced has shaped who I am. I saw a great quote today, by James Victore, who’s a graphic designer. He said ‘Don’t fit in. Don’t even try’. I don’t know if it’s confidence or time, but I know that what I’m doing is quite unusual yet I have more confidence in it now. I eventually got to a point where I’m comfortable with being a bit contentious and ran with it.”
You have a strong visual identity, often using very bright colours in your press shots and music videos. Are there any subtle references you’ve made to other artists in your work?
“I love the work of Alex Prager, she does this photography that’s really cinematic and the characters in the work always have this sense of ‘What the fuck is happening?’. I don’t know whether I have the confidence or hubris to try to directly reference somebody, but it gives me so much encouragement as an artist to see work like that. I also love Pedro Almoldóvar, his movies are like the best meal I’ve ever eaten. There used to be this video store near where I lived and they would stock all the DVDs by director. I was sick once so I went and grabbed all these Almodovar films, it was such an incredible way of discovering artists. I still go back to his movies, they’re such worlds. I think something we will struggle with in the 21st Century is how artists leave a legacy. David Bowie, for example, developed as an artist over time, whereas now, album cycles are much shorter and there’s such a huge demand for content.”
There’s so much great music coming out of Australia at the moment, with artists like yourself, Hatchie, Stella Donnelly, Middle Kids – who are some of your favourites that you think we should be checking out?
“Jade Imagine, Jess Ribeiro… I’m gonna get in trouble for any artists I forget to mention! Laura Jean has an incredible record. Marlon Williams is great too.”
Being based out of Melbourne at the moment, how would you describe the scene there? What do you like about living there?
“There’s a lot of cultural things happening in Melbourne and I always thought when I moved there that it’s cold and the weather’s shitty, so you tend to stay indoors more. I need to nest in order to spin these worlds in my music, so if I lived somewhere warmer, I’d be more inclined to go outside instead. It’s a great place, it’s really nurturing. You can walk into any pub and see an artist working at different skill levels, you can develop there without industry pressure, which is cool.”
Your second album is coming out in June – what can we expect from it? Is ‘Shoot To Forget’ representative of the whole album?
“It’s going to be quite cohesive I think. On Self Talk, we were exploring a lot of different things, whereas on this new album, I fought myself to make it into an atmosphere that you can step into from start to finish. I was hoping that people would feel something when they’d listen to it, so I had to feel those emotions when I was writing. It’s quite a personal record even though there are songs on it like ‘Shoot to Forget’ which have a lot of other stuff going on.”
It sounds like you’ve tried to keep the conceptual aspect of your debut, except you’ve put a bit more of yourself underneath in the lyrics for people to unpick this time around?
“Yeah, I think that’s just how I am!”
‘Shoot to Forget‘ is out now, via Opposite Number