Olivia Neutron-John’s Playful, Pointed Experimental Pop

Olivia Neutron John

Photo by Jen Dissinger

“When you don’t fit into any specific category, you make your own,” says Anna Nasty, aka Olivia Neutron-John, over the phone. “I use language as it suits.” Nasty describes Olivia Neutron-John’s music as “post-bro,” and if that, or the project name itself, doesn’t give it away, they’re very interested in artistic playfulness. But while wordplay and being clever are important, Nasty’s music and artistry is serious. Olivia Neutron-John combines Nasty’s Casiotone—used for synth melodies and drum patterns—with incisive lyricism, and fuses noise, post-punk, and synth-pop into one singularly delightful sound.

Only a handful of releases comprise the Olivia Neutron-John discography, but Nasty’s creative output is relentless, buffeted by their migratory patterns. At a young age, they moved from their place of birth in the Philippines to Hawaii, and then California, before making their way to Tempe, Arizona. Music was a constant—Nasty spent their formative years trawling the bookstore Borders for riot grrrl CDs—but Arizona was a space for actualization. They had played in projects before, but Tempe was where Nasty began to come into their own—it even marked the first use of their beloved Casiotone, which they used in the synth-punk band Ovariesy. Nasty also played with the playful, political post-punk trio Vegetable, noise-rock pranksters Pigeon Religion, and post-punk band Neonates, which had originally formed in Los Angeles.

Nasty decided to move out east while touring with D.C. post-punk outfit Priests and Providence punk band Downtown Boys. “That wasn’t my first time on the east coast,” Nasty explains, “but it was when I decided to live there.” A few days after arriving in D.C., Nasty got a call from underground fixture Ian Svenonius, asking if they would provide vocals for his band Chain and the Gang. Nasty was energized—“The east coast felt really different, active, and people took me for who I was,” they explain. “They took me seriously.”

OLIVIA NEUTRON-JOHN, their latest EP, is Nasty at the top of their game—the production is crisp, the songs memorable, the instrumentation precise (and now including bass guitar). It also took a lot of work. The songs have been written, tweaked, and captured many times, resulting in the clearest, catchiest, and best Olivia Neutron-John recordings yet.

There’s also been a conscientious shift in themes. Historically, the project’s compositions have been rooted in pain-based narrative, but on the new self-titled LP, Nasty foregoes that process. “One of my songs, ‘Death/Tango,’” Nasty says, “is about a friend who passed away. I play it every show. It got to be too much to relive—such vivid emotion about how awful that felt when he passed away. Death transforms you.” It’s a profound, impactful listen, but revisiting that experience each show is tough, and constantly creating from that sphere of emotion is limiting. It’s also not true to Nasty’s existence. “I think I’m a pretty joyous person with a lot of heavy feelings,” they say. “I wanted to figure out a way to get more into the playfulness of the project, trying out things so that the only emotion I’m expressing isn’t just the peak of my pain. I already harbor a lot of heaviness, and it got to the point where it wasn’t helping me.”

OLIVIA NEUTRON-JOHN opens with what Nasty admits is the first hopeful Olivia Neutron-John song—“16 BEAT.” It’s a seven-and-a-half-minute-long, techno-influenced banger that sets the tone for the rest of the album, leading into the album’s second track—the dark, throbbing anthem “MARCH.” Over text, Nasty comically mentions they’ve been called “Liquid Sky for the 21st century,” referencing the queasy synth score from the 1982 cult film. The comparison is apt.

“Life can be so fun, if you let it. Don’t regret it,” Nasty incants, sneering, on album closer “JOY OR…” It’s an appropriate sign-off. Sure, they’re no longer writing from the peak of their pain, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely out of the dark. Hope, and finding strength, make appearances on OLIVIA NEUTRON-JOHN, but so do longing and dissatisfaction. That’s real, and it’s a testament to Nasty’s ability to call on an emotional range in their work. Still, as they recite those final lines, commanding the listener, it’s hard to not imagine Nasty grinning.

Jordan Reyes

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