The famed Kübler-Ross model of grief and its five broad ‘stages’ – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – represent a system that, for Olivia Bartley, isn’t complete. To the musician who performs as Olympia, there’s an entirely present, equally layered and critically important counter to their darkness: love. “I wanted to create from inside [the experience of grief] rather than simply explaining it,” she says of her new album Flamingo, which grips all places in the spectrum and boldly lifts them high above head.
“I have to take the audience – and myself, as a writer – to the source of where this feeling is,” she explains. And she wanted, she says, for it to be an enveloping story: “It’s almost like a garment you put on.” In comparison to her lauded 2016 debut Self Talk (which was nominated for an ARIA Award and shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize), Flamingo is a deliberate effort to try something different. “I’m so proud of Self Talk, but it was a very different weather system,” she says. “The main thing [with Flamingo] was like, right, let’s go right there – let’s not pretend.”
She applied the method both lyrically and instrumentally, with Flamingo’s mix pointedly drawing no veils. “The vocals are up front, the guitars are up front,” Bartley explains. “The vocals are hard – there’s no passivity and no apology. It’s like an Annie Lennox style of singing.” Achieving that sound took some stretches of waking and working hours, co-producing with celebrated long-time collaborator and friend Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett, DMA’s). “I’d never done this before, but we would work all day in the studio and then I would stay up all night re-writing the lyrics, to make sure that they felt kinetic and alive, and not too revised – which is terrifying for me!” she says. “And that was probably the biggest risk I took on the record.”
The results are undeniably red-blooded, as in stand-out Easy Pleasure, in which Bartley plays with melodic inversions during the repeated earworm of a line “Lay it down on me.” “It might’ve been about 5.00am at this stage, and my voice was quite fatigued,” she says. “I’d just re-written all the lyrics to the verses and the tone of my voice was so different – it was like a smoky whisky. I was pretty exhausted as well, so I would have had a bit of attitude on the mic.”
Similar is true for single Hounds, whose tambourine, horns and heavy snare on every beat give a huge, communal, Big Band feel amongst the unabashed electric guitars. (Bartley says she knew the accompanying video had to have a “Bollywood” vibe.) “It’s a very unusual song – there’s so many lifts in it,” she says. “About six months before [Burke and I] made the whole record, we tried some experiments, and Hounds was the most complete experiment to come out; it’s the result of two people that know each other really well kind of celebrating. There’s an alchemy when we work together, and Hounds is a real symbol of that.
“We’re workaholics. I’m coming to know myself more and more – what works and what doesn’t work for me – and I love the process.”
Transforming The Dark
Bartley and Burke looked to one specific record to help them connect the dichotomy of dark material and bright sound: Lou Reed’s seminal 1972 album Transformer, and in particular, David Bowie’s production work. “I think [Bowie] was 21 when he did that, which is kind of gross and amazing,” Bartley smiles. “It’s such a lyrically and conceptually dark album, but you don’t feel that in any of his tunes – there’s this levity. And that was really big for us: how can we keep this light? What would David Bowie do?”
Flamingo by Olympia is out July 5 via EMI.
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