Olivia Awbrey is a storyteller who writes songs about politics, relationships, and anger with read-along lyrics and crunchy guitar riffs. Jami Fowler spoke with Olivia about her writing process and the importance place plays on her new album, Dishonorable Harvest.
Jami Fowler: Your songs seem very lyric driven. How does the writing process work for you? Do the words come first?
Olivia Awbrey: Songs always start out as little stories in my head. Usually a first line, or maybe the chorus, and it develops from there. I try to let whatever subconscious process happen on its own terms and I try not to force anything. I’ve come up with chords/music first before, and also lyrics, and sometimes they all come at the same time.
JF: Do you have a favorite place you like to write?
OA: No one particular place comes to mind. I usually need to be totally alone and without distraction, which can be hard to come by. I wrote a lot of Dishonorable Harvest is a basement bedroom where I had a lot of privacy.
JF: What is your favorite song on Dishonorable Harvest to play?
OA: Oh that’s tough. I think it might have to be “I Thought it Was You” which is a long, drone-inspired song with a fun and repeating guitar riff. When the band plays it live, it just builds and builds and rips and feeds back at the end in a way that feels overpowering, and I like that feeling.
JF: You seem to have one foot in Portland and one in England. How have those locations influence or inspired your writing?
OA: Yeah, I generally live in Oregon, but have made a few trips to England recently for music and those experiences became a big part of this album. I am always inspired by location and tend to lean heavily on place-based songwriting. That’s why the album mentions so many specific landmarks in Portland that are emblematic of the city but also emblematic of who I am and where I’ve grown up. I’m a big fan of songwriters who can literally capture the physical environment/landscape around them: thinking Bruce Springsteen with Welcome to Asbury Park or Nebraska. I guess because I grew up listening to a lot of music from England, certain parts of the British rock (and folk punk) scene have become major players in how I think about songwriting and song structure.
JF: The album was recorded at both Destination: Universe and OneCat recording studio. How were those experiences different and how did they influence the sound of this album?
OA: Both recording studios and the musicians/engineers that work in them definitely have their own styles and approaches to recording, but I think thankfully they’re more similar than different and I think that helped with the cohesiveness of the record. When we recorded at D:U the full band was with me and we recorded live – we were all playing at the same time and got down big chunks of songs that had a really raw, energetic performance aspect to them. And because the band is such good friends, there was a level of comfort that made recording at D:U extremely fun – Victor Nash and Elly Swope were the engineers and they’re both very friendly and supportive engineers. At OneCat studio in London it was a bit different because it was just me and I was recording with a small group of people I didn’t know as well but had listened to a lot of their music and work and liked what they did. It was more challenging to be far away from home and in an unfamiliar setting, but I liked being pushed in that way and learned a lot from working with folks who have more experience than I do and a slightly different recording approach.
JF: Your songs have a literary feel to them. Do you have any writers that inspire your writing style?
OA: Yeah, I read quite a bit and that has had an influence on some of my songwriting. I really like Ursula Le Guin, who I was reading a lot of when I wrote the album. But I would say that I listen to songwriters who are very lyric-driven and writerly, and they have an influence on how I approach my writing style more than fiction or prose or poetry. I would say that a lot of my songwriting peers are also writers, and there’s a pretty gray cross-over in that area. Overall, songs have always been short stories to me. Listening to an album through is like reading a novel or watching a full-length movie. I think it’s really cool when songs have very visual elements to them and can pull you into a world the way a novel does, like a little journey for your mind when you’re stuck at home or at the office!
Dishonorable Harvest is out now on Quick Pickle Records.
Jami Fowler is a writer, music obsessive, and collector of tiny things.