Olivia Jean Just Wants to Make Surf Music

Photography by Angelina Castillo

Olivia Jean has a silent songwriting partner. If you live in Nashville, you may already know this. You may have even spotted them around town, working on music together. If you blink, you’ll miss them—they move pretty fast. Olivia’s songwriting partner is her black Volkswagen Beetle. It’s named Beetlejuice, and she drives it around the city, singing along to her own music.

It helps her to write songs, to sort out the layers of melodies playing in her head. Sometimes, she gets lucky. While she was working on songs for her new record, Night Owl, the 30-year-old musician would play the instrumental demos in her car and let loose, vocalizing different ideas for an audience of one—that’s how the unexpected B52s-esque burst of “Ba Ba Ba Ba’s” made it onto the verses of “Rhinestone,” a song that ended up being one of Olivia Jean’s favorites. “I love playing it live,” she says enthusiastically. “I love all the moving parts.”

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Today, though, driving to the offices of her label,Third Man Records, located just south of downtown Nashville, Olivia Jean was feeling a bit more basic. “I love ‘90s pop a lot. I listen to ‘Drinking in L.A.’, that song by Bran Van 3000. I was listening to “Naked Eye” by Luscious Jackson on the way here,” she says.

‘Here’ is the Blue Room at Third Man Records, so named for the walls, which are painted in the same saturated hue that adorns the label’s 7-inch series. The cavernous performance space, which is supervised by a large taxidermal elephant head that’s mounted to one of the walls, is one of the less overtly strange rooms at Third Man’s Nashville HQ—which is sort of like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, if Willy Wonka were Jack White. The space hasn’t been designed so much as art directed, every architectural flourish and piece of decor reflecting the eccentric tastes of the founder. The interior of the windowless warehouse, where they prepare items for shipping, has been made to look like the exterior part of an old motel; the walls in the label offices are painted a cartoon-bird yellow; the coffee table in the waiting area is decorated with two giant horned skulls—it’s the kind of stuff that could set off warning signals reading “Not Punk” in the casual observer. But next to the coffee table is a Third Man-branded stereo system, and a pile of records left out for workday listening, with albums by the Cocteau Twins, Prince, and Shabazz Palaces in the front. Underneath all the aesthetic is something real. And because everything—from the label offices to the photo studio to the distribution center to a direct-to-acetate recording facility—is all under one roof, the self-contained Third Man Records are, actually, very DIY.

“I always think of it as Andy Warhol’s factory, almost,” says Olivia, who has been with Third Man her entire career. “They have their art department, a videographer, they have an archivist. Everything is all in-house. It’s awesome, it’s like a family unit.”

Olivia has shown up today dressed like she’s still in the Black Belles, the all-girl “goth garage” group she was part of when she first moved to Nashville: black dress and tights, her long black hair and bangs ironed pin straight, and topped with a black brimmed hat. Like her label, Olivia Jean has no fear of thoughtful aesthetics. She worked as a hairstylist and make-up artist before she was able to make music full-time, and used to sew her own ‘60s-inspired outfits to wear to garage rock shows back home in Detroit. As a kid, Olivia Jean once dressed like a member of the Hives to go see them play (she didn’t tell the band this when she opened for them.) She has a sense of humor about it all, though. When I ask Olivia Jean if she has a casual mode, she says that this is her casual mode. (A quick look at her Instagram leads me to believe this is true.) “I don’t even own sneakers right now,” she says, pointing to the lace-up, black-heeled booties on her feet.

But her outfit serves a strategic purpose, as well. Later, Olivia Jean will be previewing Night Owl to press and fans at Laser Quest in downtown Nashville—during a game. The all-black outfit means she’ll be harder to spot under the black lights. This is a good thing, as Olivia Jean fully expects Third Man fans to corner her in the maze and shoot her with lasers while her own record plays over the speakers.

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Olivia Jean is essentially inseparable from Third Man. You won’t find her name on the inserts for underground tapes or on punk flyers circa Detroit in the mid ‘00s. Olivia Jean never played in bands before the Black Belles—she was a teenage loner who recorded herself playing guitar in her suburban bedroom. Her family isn’t musical. She hasn’t released music on any other label. Her professional career started with a bang after famously giving Jack White a home-recorded demo tape after a Dead Weather Show, and he actually listened to it. While her association with Third Man instantly gave Olivia Jean a level of visibility it takes most musicians years to reach, it’s also meant that she’s had to figure out what kind of musician she is in public.

That hasn’t been without its challenges. Initially, Olivia Jean was a session player, contributing guitar and bass to records by Wanda Jackson and Karen Elson. She moved to Nashville permanently around seven years ago and joined the Black Belles, who were given a healthy media roll out, which included things like recording a 7-inch with Stephen Colbert. It would’ve been an overwhelming experience for any group of non-media trained young women, but the Black Belles also had to deal with having their music, their existence, dismissed as vanity project: Jack White’s very own all-girl Monkees, except make it goth and put it on late night. Which was far from the reality.

“Those chicks and I had so much chemistry, we would’ve started that band anyway,” says Olivia. “We were all musicians in our own right. It was not ‘put together’ because of an aesthetic that we had. We worked really, really hard. We weren’t being told what to do. People had the assumption that it was put together, but really, we all just met in Nashville, and it worked out. I would never have allowed myself to be part of something that was put together. I appreciate music and my songs too much to give them away to something like that.”

“It actually took quite a toll on all of us, because we were really new to everything and we had been put onto a huge platform,” she continues. “We were really lucky—super lucky—to have had that experience, but it was a lot.” And it wasn’t just online—she remembers how the band used to attract snide comments from Nashville locals when they’d walk down the street as a pack in their matching black outfits. The Black Belles released one full-length, toured the world, and dissolved in 2012, although a reunion isn’t out of the question. “We’re all still friends now that we’ve grown up and learned the music business,” says Olivia Jean. “That chemistry, I really miss it. I hope we get back together. Every male musician I’ve worked with is super cool and has never treated anyone differently ever, but it is nice to be with other females and be a unit and be ready to fight anyone who says anything to you.”

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Olivia Jean put out her first solo record, Bathtub Love Killings, back in 2014. While the Black Belles were a rock band, the moody Bathtub Love Killings tended more towards coquettish ‘60s pop. White produced the album, an aspect many music critics focused on in their reviews, despite the fact that Olivia wrote all the songs, and it was her name and face on the cover. Olivia was also subject to more sexist commentary on social media, calling her talent into question and speculating about her relationship with White. It became so toxic that she lashed out publicly on Instagram, something she regrets doing and says she’s learned from. But it still took its toll. How could it not?

“When you work so hard it’s absolutely heartbreaking and uninspiring,” she says, her voice a little shaky. “That’s kind of why I took a break after my last record to be honest, ‘I was like if people aren’t even going to listen to the music, and insult me before listening to it, why am I pouring my soul into something?’ I was bummed out for a long time.”

Olivia Jean has poured her soul into Night Owl. It is, she thinks, a truer expression of the kind of music she really loves—which is surf music. Which is somewhat ironic; although Third Man carries the torch for almost every genre of rock imaginable, you won’t find any Surfaris 7-inches tucked in with copies of Jack White’s collaboration with Muppet band The Electric Mayhem in Third Man’s Novelty Lounge (a.k.a. gift store). But surf is the music Olivia Jean always wanted to make. Remember that tape she gave to White, the one that launched her career? It was full of original surf instrumentals, mostly. It’s her native musical tongue. “What I love about surf is, whatever the vocal melody would be, that’s what the guitar is playing. That’s still how I write music, and that’s why I layer so many things. I just hear melodies that build and build,” she says. “With my last [record], I tried to sneak in as much surf as I could, but it didn’t end up translating in those songs.”

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Though you can subtly hear the surf in Bathtub Love Killings, most tellingly in the winding melody lines, Night Owl fearlessly brings those elements to the forefront, with added pick slides, washes of reverb, and lots of twang. The record isn’t 100% surf—Olivia Jean’s musical tastes are un-snobby, like her label’s, and she has an appreciation for pop stars whose musical adventurousness is matched by their aesthetic adventurousness. “When I was recording, I had a bulletin board with Siouxsie Sioux, a big picture of the B-52s, a big picture of Missing Persons, a big picture of Adam Ant, and Frida Khalo quotes,” she says.

The result is a record that growls like a garage, glistens like new wave, and is packaged like a piece of bubblegum. But at its heart, it’s in love with just two things: melody and electric guitar. Olivia Jean’s favorite tracks on Night Owl are the surf ones. She plays all the instruments herself on three of them: lead single “Garage Bat,” “Siren Call,” and “Tsunami Sue.” There’s also a raucous cover of ‘60s Indian rock number “Jaan Pehechaan Ho,” famous for inclusion in Ghost World. “Surf is what I really love,” says Olivia simply.

One of the reasons Olivia Jean was able to bring surf into the mix more prominently is because this time it was she, not White, who was in the producer’s chair. It felt important to take full ownership of the record. Olivia Jean is a musician in the most literal definition of the word, something that’s consistently overlooked in judgments people have made about her work. Whether or not you enjoy Olivia Jean’s music, it is and always has been hers.

“I don’t play everything on the album, but I wrote all the instrumental parts, so Third Man thought giving me control over the entire project would be really cool,” she says of the decision.

There are some remnants of White’s production quirks on Night Owl, notably the panning of sound to give the music a three-dimensional feel. “It’s cool, because if you’re sitting in front of a huge speaker system it’s, like, interactive. You can feel the music, which is really neat,” she explains. Mostly, Olivia Jean learned the importance of keeping things simple and “of making quick decisions and sticking to them.”

“There’s the luxury now of plug-ins and digital effects, and that’s a wormhole,” she says. “You could go through those plug-ins for days. But going through analog, you can get it in first take, and it’s done. I really learned to truly, truly appreciate how important analog equipment is, and doing things live in the room.”

And Night Owl does have interesting production choices, especially on the back half. With its handclaps and layered call-and-response vocal harmonies, “Siren Call” has the punky feel of early Go-Gos, another band who occasionally splashed around with surf tropes. There’s also proto-metal-meets-power-pop “Perfume,” which starts out with a spoken-word sample that may or may not be a subtle dig at her haters. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

“You should be able to play a song on an acoustic guitar and that’s it,” Olivia Jean says of what she ultimately learned through producing Night Owl. “You shouldn’t need to have 20 people onstage playing it with you.”

Olivia Jean only has three people onstage with her the following night, when she opens for the Raconteurs at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. It’s the kind of big, balling professional rock show that reminds me why people pay a lot of money to attend music events that aren’t held in illegal basements. Olivia’s only going to be doing limited touring for Night Owl, so this is a big deal for her. It’s the first of three sold-out shows at the historic venue, and the crowd, all of whom have had their phones stowed away at entry, is bristling with energy. Olivia’s two-guitars-bass-and-drums set up is far more punk than the Raconteurs’, but she sounds nearly as big as they will, tearing through tracks on Night Owl and flawlessly executing the lead on “Jaan Pehechaan Ho.” She also looks extremely cool, dressed in a hot pink jacket and black leather pants, shredding out for an audience primed for rock and roll.

But it’s not her audience. Back at Third Man, I ask who typically attends Olivia Jean shows. “It’s a lot of Third Man fans, who are very dedicated to Third Man,” she says. “And a lot of little kids like my stuff! Which is so weird, because I thought I was scary. But I’m like a cartoon character to them. I love when little kids come to the shows. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write some stuff for Disney Channel. That would be cool!”

Olivia Jean is a bit like a cartoon character, dressed all in black and sitting pretty in the magical rock and roll playhouse that is Third Man Records, itself a simulated world not unlike Disneyland. This impression is doubled at Laser Quest, where Night Owl makes the perfect soundtrack for a playful event that occasionally feels like a child’s birthday party, with hot pink balloons, pizza, and gift bags for everyone. It’s also just fun: hearing the chiming, cheerful riffs of “Can You Help Me?” play out over the speakers as I attempt to hide from Third Man employees—all of whom are shockingly very good at Laser Quest, Olivia included—in a maze is surreal and funny and cool. That people play Laser Quest in silence is a shame.  A bunch of Third Man Vault Subscribers have been invited to play a game with Olivia, and she poses with them for a group photo at the end, her smile wide and genuine.

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There’s a lot of that genuine joy in Olivia’s music, and an innocence that probably appeals to developing tastes, since there’s no condescension in her songs, no danger of “not getting it.” I describe it as “building block rock” to a friend, which sounds like a dis but really I just mean that it’s non-abstract. The reference points are clear, the songs are straightforward. Genres aren’t blended as much as stacked. This is the garage progression. This is the surf beat. This is the Beatles guitar tone. What’s wrong with that? You want people to like it. It’s as if current wisdom dictates that the appearance of complexity automatically confers depth, that knowingly pretending to be something you’re not is a more respectable act than just being what you are, as if favoring broad strokes and primary colors in your work makes for less serious art (in which case, I invite you to listen to a band called the White Stripes.) Olivia Jean does take artistic risks—huge ones, every day, the biggest being continuing to make records, even though she knows there are people who will dismiss her as a phony before she can even open her mouth.

Writing lyrics has always been the most difficult part of the songwriting process her so perhaps that’s also why Night Owl is most transcendent when Olivia says nothing at all. Take dreamy closer “Tsunami Sue,” as elegant and faithful an instrumental surf track as you’ll hear in 2019. There are no vocals, aside from a gentle count down and Olivia’s guitar sounding like velvet, the whole thing introduced with the instantly recognizable sound of waves washing on the shore—one of those accents that’s as hokey as a lava lamp, but sounds just right when delivered with the kind of deep affection it is here. “Tsunami Sue” is a glimpse at the real Olivia Jean, the artist she is when removed from the context of Third Man and her career up to this point. This is who Olivia Jean really is inside: a weird girl from the shores of Lake Huron who cut class to play surf guitar alone in her room. The closer her music gets to that girl, the more natural it feels and the realer it becomes. If there is any fair standard by which to judge the “authenticity” of Olivia Jean’s music, it should be this.

I ask Olivia if she’d ever consider doing a full-on surf cover record, like an Olivia Jean Plays the Ventures EP, maybe for Christmas or Record Store Day. It seems exactly the sort of thing Third Man Records would do well, and that people would really like. She loves the idea. “Consider it done,” she says, then adds:  “Be in my band! It’s so hard to find other people who like instrumental surf.”

It seems like it would be hard to do in Nashville, which brands itself as the home of country music. And Olivia Jean? She doesn’t really care for country, although she makes sure to stress that she truly appreciates the skill and talent it takes to create good country music. She shouts out her labelmate, Lillie Mae, as an exception: “She has a great twist on country that’s awesome, I really respect her,” she says.

I hang around town for a few days following the interview and, by the end of it, I agree with Olivia Jean. The longer I’m in Nashville, surrounded by rhinestone dresses, cowboy boots, and reminders that I am on “hallowed ground” and must “show respect,” the less I care about country music. To be fair, most of the people milling around Broadway this Saturday morning, dressed in matching red University of Georgia jerseys while drinking vodka out of plastic cups on the street, also don’t seem to care about country music. Starved for some rock and roll, I seek refuge in the Musicians Hall of Fame—nominally a tribute to the session players behind all our favorite oldies, but in reality a sort of try-hard exhibit of mostly consisting of instruments used on popular recordings from the past 60 years, heavy on the hagiography. One of Hendrix’s guitars is there, as is a pair of Roy Orbison’s sunglasses. There’s a lot of stuff about Johnny Cash. It’s pretty cool.

The last room in the museum is filled with radios and record players from over the decades. It’s fun to see how the designs mutated over time, becoming especially whimsical in the mid-twentieth century. There are turntables decorated with bright characters and radios made to look like toys, remnants from an era when the intersection of art and commerce was a more colorful place. One record player has an album propped up against the lid. It’s the epitome of mid ‘60s design, with an orange and white color palette, the cover art showing a pretty blonde woman in a ponytail and gold bikini posing on her side, looking sideways at the camera with a tiny half-smile. The LP spins silently on the platter. It’s Golden Greats by the Ventures.

-Mariana Timony

One Comment

  1. Posted October 19, 2019 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Salute to Olivia. I love the album.

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