A Conversation With The Champion Of Self-Talk, Olympia

By Ben Preece April 22, 2016

Innovative trailblazer Olympia has run into a bunch of success as of late. Premiering her debut album, Self-Talk, as a feature record at triple j and receiving stellar reviews across the country, the Melbourne native is gearing up for one hell of a 2016.

We had an old-fashioned chin-wag with her, and here’s what she had to say.

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Hi there Olivia, how are you? Where are you and what have you been up to today?

I’ve just arrived in Christchurch, NZ ahead of a show tonight as part of a tribute show to David Bowie. This is the third and final show, and so I’m feeling equal parts exhausted and full of sentiment for the people I’ve met – including Eddie Rayner (Split Enz), Zaine Griff (Human Instinct) and Finn Andrews (The Veils).

Congratulations on your wonderful debut album – Self Talk. It feels like a long time coming, what’s the feeling you have knowing people are finally hearing it?

Thank you! It has felt like a long time coming – you’re right. We spent a lot of time getting it just right, and now that it’s starting to find its way to audiences it’s becoming a real, living thing – instead of words on a page. It’s both wonderful and terrifying – it’s out there now and we have no control over how people will receive it.

And it’s now triple j’s Feature Album this week – so very good. From experience, this really does help lift the perception of your project. Did that elevate some of your first week jitters?

Absolutely! Actually, I was in Auckland when I found out and so absorbed in the shows we were working on, I’d forgotten to be nervous about the album coming out – so it such a great surprise.

Your songs are impeccable, your image is flawless and from what I’ve heard, you really a true artist through and through – what secrets can you tell me about the evolution of Olympia, the persona, the legend we see on stage and on record?

I guess it comes from an interest in ideas – and in treating the project as a whole. Having a design background has influenced that. I’ll first have an idea – and this is often triggered visually – and then will explore that idea: looking at how other artists have responded to it; reflecting on the idea personally – until the song has become this built thing. Almost like a little world. The audience may never know this, but it’s important for me, that the work has depth. It’s part of what makes the work authentic for me – without that, I’m completely disinterested. Even the lighter-seeming pop songs have teeth.

The song Honey was first inspired by photographs coming out of Utah of red honey. A beekeeper had decided that planting native tress required too much effort and instead crushed up candy canes. Well, bees are crazy for sugar, and every bee in Utah stopped by, resulting in beekeepers across the state opening hives to red, gluggy honey (you couldn’t really call it honey in the end). In France it went blue after someone didn’t close the lid on M&M waste.

It struck me that these images were the perfect visual metaphor for the effect we have on each other. And that’s where the song takes a personal turn. I was trying to evoke that moment where you run into an old lover you haven’t seen for 5 years – that charged moment that makes you look at where your life is, compared to where it could have gone, that ‘fuck, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life thought’.

What does the completed journey to Self Talk you undertook look like?

Piles of notes, photocopies and sketch books!

Smoke Signals is arguably the greatest thing on radio right now, and the video is supremely cool (everyone says it), it looks all so meticulously effortless. Is this all your vision and fine work?

I had given filmmaker Alex Smith some background to Smoke Signals before we made the clip. It was inspired in part by a Japanese reality TV show called ‘Sweepstakes Life’, in which a contestant had to win the value of $2m yen to be released from an empty apartment. The contestant was completely naked, and while he went into the apartment under the guise that he was only involved in a pilot, it immediately went to air – his man-parts animated by vege emojis. As the show went on, he became increasingly emaciated and a little (and understandably) mentally frayed.

I wanted to capture the internal and unseen chaos that we can feel. In the song, the backing vocals taunt, almost like school kids.

This was the context I gave Alex, however, the magic of that clip is all Alex.

Further, I really feel that what you see/hear/feel in the album, and in particular tracks like Smoke Signals, you are seeing the result of collaboration. My main objective when first working with Burke was ‘risk’, and while we’ve fallen into an almost pop record, it would not have sounded the same without the same people, the instruments we used, the places we worked.

The album was written in a deconstructive way. More akin to that of a visual artist. Pulling apart, teasing ideas. Producer Burke Reid mirrored that process in the studio -pushing every player, every instrument on the record beyond comfort zone. It makes the result rewarding in its surprise.

It might be easy to guess, but in your world, who are the leaders, the heroes, the inspirations and even the career aspirations?

I think the person I’d most like to meet is Gore Vidal, but I also adore the work of Carl Sagan, artists: Fiona Hall, Jenny Holzer, Bret Whitely; designers Rei Kawakubo, poets Dorothy Porter, Robert Adamson, and writer Peter Carey.

I’m always attracted to artists’ work that is process-driven and all of these artists work that way. As far as career aspirations go – these artists are like the cool kids on the block. You’re not sure if they’re going to kick your arse or not – but they make you want to be the best you.

I read somewhere that ‘Honey’ is your favourite track on your album. What does a song have to do or evoke to be your favourite?

The work has to have meaning. And they all do – otherwise I would have dropped them. Honey, while starting from those photographs, has a pound of my own flesh in it. Another part of that songs evolution was a ‘This American Life’ podcast, Is That What I Look Like. In one of the episodes a woman discusses waking from a coma of which she survived a horrific accident, wanting to be with her husband. Her family tell her that her relationship became increasingly violent and that she has been separated from her husband for two years. However, she has lost those two years of memories, and wants to be connected with the person she believes she is in love with. She begins to reconcile with her ex-husband, and slowly, the memories – and some quite violent- begin to come back, and she has to decide who she will be now.

It was such an incredibly moving story – much bigger than a song, however it helped shape this one.

And finally, hit me with some last words, some words of wisdom, a tip or, failing all that, tell me a joke.

Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. Whatever you want to do, start now and start boldly.

And a joke. In NZ, I had the pleasure of working with drummer Pat Kauhtze who is fluent with jokes – one being, and it’s pretty corny, ‘I’m friends with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know why’.

Thanks Olivia, good luck with Self Talk – I can’t wait to spin the vinyl and see the songs live.  See you soon.

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| ‘SELF TALK’ IS OUT APRIL 29 |
CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO PRE-ORDER THE ALBUM

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