For an artist like Olympia with a relatively young career, she seems to have very quickly asserted herself with poise and a great sense of style. Only recently she returned from a whirlwind tour of the UK, as one of the many great acts at this year’s The Great Escape and Liverpool Sound City music festivals. She even managed to headline some of her own shows in London, allowing her most recently captivated audience, just enough time between songs to digest her startling sound. For this isn’t your typical synth-pop artist.
Behind Olympia’s interesting stage name, inspired by a confrontational gazing Manet nude, is an engaging, modest and fascinating woman called Olivia Bartley, who loves everything from poetry to the arts, and who would for instance, drop everything just to work with disadvantaged women in Cambodia, teaching them needlework and craft. Interestingly, much of her debut album Self Talk is a direct response to Olivia’s inquisitive nature to take snippets of our world, chew them over and spit them out as interesting little time capsules (songs). I’m not sure her intension is to emulate something so beautiful as the Voyager’s Golden Record compiled by Carl Sagan, but this is the type of women and artist we are dealing with, one that finds inspiration in places never thought possible. Interestingly, in the sleeve notes of her debut album she quotes Carl Sagan “Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others?” It is a curious question that only someone so well read and inquisitive as Olivia might also ask or want to point out. Sagan of course goes onto to say “…we are the sum of the influence and impact that we have, in our lives, on others.” Olivia Bartley’s influence and impact, of course, may not yet be as profound as Sagan’s, but she has definitely my attention!
Olivia, (35), found the confidence to chase her musical dreams growing up in Wollongong, NSW. She grew up in a religiously family, where going to church meant contributing, usually though song or by playing piano. It was here that Olivia got her first taste of what it was like to perform before an audience. From this humble setting its fair to say Olivia first found her calling as an artist. Importantly, her early beginnings set her in good stead for the innumerable number of shows she would eventually performed over recent years. But she wasn’t going to do that by playing piano, she had deliberately chosen a different instrument, one that has come to fit her like hand in glove, truly an extension of herself.
“Your talking mouth/ Breathes cigarettes/ Through your teeth white flags/ Smoke signals/ Pocket of Change/ A loose bone that moves/ namelessly through blood/ (You’re) my mirror, my wound…” – Smoke Signals (Olympia).
Olivia is one of the most engaging and unique guitarists of recent years in Australia, who has genuinely created a buzz of excitement in music circles. Stepping out on stage, usually in a get up that beckons disbelief, as Olympia she takes command of her shimmering and echoing guitar with a demeanor so confident, that it’s hard to believe she learnt to play guitar watching you tube videos. That said, it’s hard not to compare her to someone else whom I adore, guitar virtuoso Annie Clark, the woman behind St. Vincent. Both have interestingly chosen their performance name to give a little bit of distance between themselves and their artistic output. Both are engaging and modest. Both are artistically driven by their strengths and experiences. And importantly, both have the strength of character and personality to communicate with their adoring audience, something that not all artists do well.
Somewhere in between, Olivia telling bad jokes and blowing up amps, I have become one of her biggest fans, when late last year her debut album Self Talk made its way into my hands via a friend. Since then I have been playing her album repeatedly on my stereo for months on end. Every song holds up and has something to say, even if it means racking your brain around some of her more abstract lyrics and references. It seems Olivia has thrown out the rulebook on songwriting by absorbing the world around her. Nothing it seems is off limits from reality TV, science magazines to the chaos and surreal situations we find ourselves in life, in which she aspires to get her message across in somewhat poetic fashion. That said, her songs may not be entirely accessible to every listeners, but that’s ok. But what she does give you is certainly some food for thought. For instance, Olympia might like to remind us of the pitfalls of the unsolved nature of relationships in her song This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, but I wonder as somewhat of a history geek, what the line ‘Lucky Rome was built on misspelt tattoos’ in that particular song means? Is it a reference to stigmatas and slave ownership? Somehow I believe I am over thinking it. I’m sure there is a simpler explanation that Olivia might one day answer for me?
“I saw you on the street/ I saw you drop her hand/ Still enough goddam spark to/ Light cigarettes/ Lucky Rome was built on misspelt tattoos/ I’ll get over you…” – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (Olympia).
The album as a whole is still nonetheless breathtaking in concept and execution. The opening track Honey teases us with an atmospheric introduction before turning our world on top of ourselves with the line “Every lover you turn your back on/ turns up new in someone else’s arms.” Honey is in some respects a measure of the complicated mess of who we are. Like a wounded poet, on the same track, Olympia even has time to tell us a brief story of a beekeeper feeding his bees candy canes and in the process ruining an entire states honey supply. On Smoke Signals, she does much of the same with lyrics that are quite sad about someone’s internal and unseen chaos, where Olympia’s guitar is arguably the star, bursting into the sort of scratchy and echoing sounds, you would hear in indie rock. The album ebbs and flows with thought provoking tracks like Fishing Knots/Blood Vessels and Self Talk and emotional stories of love and loss with songs on Different Cities and Tourists. Different Cities probably contains the best line of the album with “You’re just a cab ride away/ But still years from talking to me.” Kudos also to Donny Benet’s bass guitar work on Tourists where he almost steals the show with his hypnotic bass line, on a song Bartley says, “Tourists was written in response to Jenny Holzer’s work: ‘In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy’, in addition to the work of photographer Lucia Nimcova who explores the contradiction between women’s dreams and the realities they live in”.
“Every lover you turn your back on/ Turns up new in someone else’s arms/ I don’t wanna know see/ Who I am in you now…” – Honey (Olympia).
It is through many layers of clever and imaginative songwriting, complimented by her synth infused sounds, that independent and youth radio stations across the country, realized Self Talk was musically a great success story. Melbourne based radio station Triple J, in particular, fell in love with Self Talk, making it one of their featured albums of 2016. Along the way, Bartley appeared on triple J’s popular segment Like A Version, showcasing her own spin on Beck’s song Dreams and performing her own original monster track Smoke Signals with good friend and colleague Sarah Belkner and co. Interestingly, on the strength of her album, Olivia would be nominated for an Australian Record Industry Award for best breakthrough artist in 2016 and short-listed for the Australian Music Prize in 2017, as one of nine outstanding albums of 2016. Olivia was of course humbled and elated that as an artist, she had struck an accord with critics and fans alike, even though she didn’t take home either coveted prize. Instead her reward it seems was her being content embarking on an ambitions national tour, selling out small venues and being part of some of the biggest music festivals across the country. She would have even more reason to smile when Universal Music Publishing signed her to a worldwide publishing deal in May, 2017.
“Can you see sharks from helicopters/ ‘Cause I can’t see them from planes/ Night is chocked by illumination/ Tourist are swimming in/ Their clothes…” – Tourists (Olympia).
These accolades she is receiving now are a result of hard work dating back a number of years, from her earliest appearance on Rockwiz to more recently sharing the stage with the likes of Paul Dempsey, Josh Pyke and City and Colour. But what impresses me the most about Olivia is her support of friends and colleagues and her openness to share some of what makes her tick. I have also come to realize I share some of her excitement for interesting characters like Carl Sagan and poet Richard Siken. On a mundane Thursday night, a few months ago, I had the good fortune to bump into Olivia at an album launch show for one of her colleagues. She was down to earth and modest, as I thought she would be. Sometimes they say you shouldn’t meet your favourite artists or heroes because they might end up really disappointing you. In my case, it was the opposite and a real thrill, especially because I received some invaluable advice from her, that I just might follow up on some day.
Olympia’s debut album Self Talk (2016) is out through Universal Music Australia. Also check out Self Talk on iTunes. You can also connect with Olympia via her Facebook page or twitter feed @olympiamusic.
Photo credits: The header image of Olympia is by flickr user badjonni and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. I am not the uploader of You Tube clips embedded here.