Words: Emily Heylen
Melbourne multi-instrumentalist Olivia Bartley has been called many things: angelic vocalist, commanding performer, blonde bombshell, left-field lyricist – but (on stage, at least) she calls herself Olympia.
‘I’ve actually taken the name from Manet’s painting Olympia,’ she explains.
‘I love the painting, but mostly I love how much it upset everyone at the time. It had to be hung high to avoid food being thrown at it. It was an incredibly controversial piece at the time because it challenged societal values.
‘I cut my teeth performing under my own name – that was an age ago. The music is much different now – so is my approach.
‘Ironically, I think it was studying design that had the greatest influence on my approach to music. Looking at the concept-rich works of fashion designers Hussein Chalayan, Rei Kawakubo, or even the 90s United Colours of Bennetton ads, I started to look for ideas in everything. If something as ubiquitous as fashion can be idea-driven, why can’t music?’
Such varied influences underscore Olympia’s music, which is a little bit 80s, a little bit electro, a little bit minimal, but always with a catchy, pure pop melody.
And it’s not hard to get her to expand upon the fundamentals of her creative process.
‘The most important part for me is the idea,’ she enthuses.
‘The idea comes first, whether hearing a great story, or coming across some strange invention in New Scientist magazine that you’ve borrowed from your boss’ desk.
‘I admire artists who can illuminate an idea using everyday things as their vehicle. Writers Dorothy Porter and Peter Carey are masters at this.
‘I’m also really interested in that space between an artist’s experiences, their lives and their art.
‘How, for instance, Ian Fairweather tied bits of Japanese World War II wreckage together to build a raft, and essentially floated to PNG, almost missing it. Having only taken along a bag of bread and no sun protection, he was saved by locals.
‘The work that ensued (mind you, he had been thought dead in the interim, and obituaries were published around the world) was imbued with this experience.’
And the common thread in all of these disparate influences?
‘Something about all of these examples has cut through whatever I was doing and made me take notice,’ she explains.
It’s these inspirations which have helped shaped Olympia’s debut album, Self Talk, which has been racking up mentions in every ‘best of 2016 so far’ list worth its coffee table pozzie.
Produced by Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett, DZ Deathrays, and ex-Gerling, for those old enough to remember the boys with backpacks), the album centres on the stories people tell themselves about who they are – or who they think they are.
‘The songs began as observations of other people, or were triggered by a photos in the press,’ she says. ‘However, the songs all bear a significant part of my own personal reflections as well.’
For example, the title track was inspired by the documentary All This Mayhem, about professional skateboarders Tas and Ben Papas.
‘Perhaps it was its setting, or the lack of redemptive coda, but something about it was so moving I spent months looking into the story myself,’ Olympia muses.
‘It seems like such an Australian tale – so tragic.
‘The song itself has quite an unusual arrangement, and is tricky to pull off live. I love it all the more for this.’
Olympia is gigging furiously throughout the rest of the year – including with the likes of Paul Dempsey, Garbage, and newcomer Sarah Belkner, of whom Olympia is a particular fan – so chances are, you can catch the live version in person.
Look up Olympia’s tour dates right here, and in the meantime, you can enjoy the fabulous Blondie-esque video for her latest single ‘Smoke Signals’, directed by Alex Smith.