15 minutes with Olympia

Words by Maeve Kerr-Crowley

On a high.

Olivia Bartley – known simply as Olympia – entered the Aussie music scene on a high when she released her debut album, Self Talk, in 2016. The singer’s unique style and conceptually-charged lyrics then earnt her an ARIA Award nomination and a spot on the shortlist for the Australian Music Prize.

Now, after a couple of years spent scheming, researching and plastering her studio walls with notes, Olympia is ready to drop her second album.

Ahead of the release, we caught up with Olympia to talk fashion, eavesdropping and her upcoming appearance at Melbourne’s St Kilda Festival.

So, you’re gearing up to release a new album. What’s different about this one?

We wrote it in a completely different way to Self Talk. Even though I’m so proud of the last album, I wanted to challenge myself. So I was like okay, what can we do to try and create something new, and something original, and something bold? This record is a little bit more visceral than Self Talk. I tried to capture a feeling rather than an idea.

What was the feeling at the heart of your latest single, ‘Star City’?  

With every song, I’m trying to create an alternate reality. It’s a whole new world, and each song kind of forms part of that. With ‘Star City’, I was really trying to capture this idea of a character who’s two drinks in on a Friday night, heady, a bit arrogant, singing out loud. For me, the biggest thing that I carry into my work is a dry sense of humour.

What can you reveal about your next release, ‘Shoot to Forget’?

‘Shoot to Forget’ is going to be a little bit different again. I think it’s quite a different sound to anything on the radio at the moment, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it sits here. For the album, I would carry around this diary and I had notes all over the walls of my studio. But ‘Shoot to Forget’ is one song where I really relaxed into it and just had fun.

You play a pretty big cast of characters in the video for ‘Shoot to Forget’. Can you talk us through the process of creating the clip?

This video was made with Leilani Croucher. We worked a lot on the how characters looked, trying to get them just right, then we used movie references to decide how each one would act. For me, it was great to work with someone who does as much research as I do when I’m creating stuff. Then when we were on set, I heard Leilani describe to someone on the crew that the video was about – you know, as a woman you’re expected to be so many things. But you can’t be too crazy, or too funny, or too pretty. There’s this assumption that you’ll be in the middle in that safe space, being non-threatening. I thought that was a really interesting take.

What would you say is your most unconventional source of inspiration?

Going forward, because I think the most important thing is just being open to everything, I think catching the tram. Eavesdropping, and not listening to music, but listening to how people talk…

It helps you get into how different people use language, and what they talk about.

What’s something you’ve learnt recently on the tram while listening to people?

It’s just unfilteredness. When people feel comfortable enough to be themselves in public, there’s a certain sense of unfilteredness that happens. In a good pop song, there’s not so much to think about – it’s quite an immediate sentiment, whatever it is. Sometimes you can catch people talking like that, like a stream of consciousness.

You’ve got a performance at St Kilda Festival coming up. Do you get excited playing festival shows?

Sure do! We’ve always wanted to play St Kilda Fest particularly, so we’re really excited to be part of it. We’re gonna be on the O’Donnell Gardens stage, which is quite a privilege. Ceres will be on the same stage, Slum Sociable, Haiku Hands… It’s summer. I can’t wait to get out there. It’s gonna be hot, but it’ll be great.

Your style is something that’s spoken about a lot. Is it safe to assume that fashion is important to you?

Yeah, I’m definitely interested in fashion and design. I’ve actually studied a Bachelor of Fashion.

Do you find that there’s a connection between fashion and your music?

Ironically, it was studying design that informed my songwriting process more than any traditional channels. You get an idea, do your research, bring in all sorts of random influences, then you create something unique. Have you seen that Alexander McQueen doco? Every young songwriter that comes to me for advice, I tell them to watch that. I find fashion and music really interesting to compare. Everyone wears clothes, so there’s this idea that everyone understands it. It’s the same as songwriting because you’re using words, and everyone uses words and everyone watches X Factor and thinks they understand music criticism. So there’s this idea that everyone can do it, and it challenges the idea of value in the same way.

Do you have a dream item of clothing to own?

It’s funny you ask that, because I always wanted to own something from Comme des Garçons. And before the ‘Star City’ video, in a moment of 11th-hour anxiety, I did buy an amazing secondhand Comme des Garçons yellow dress. Then it didn’t get worn in the film clip, and now I’m desperately trying to sell it on eBay so that I can pay the rent. You gotta be careful what you wish for.

You can catch Olympia at St Kilda Festival on February 10. Head here for more info.


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