Interview w/ Olivia Kaplan

By: Ava Mirzadegan

A few weeks ago, I was able to chat with LA-based artist, Olivia Kaplan, over the phone. Her song, “This is What I Do”, serendipitously found me via the internet and has since become one of my favorite songs from this year. Since I first came across her, she’s put out an equally impressive second single entitled “Barely Above.” I also got the chance to see her perform in Tim Darcy’s band, Ought, alongside Waxahatchee at the 6th annual U+N Fest in Baltimore.

So far, Olivia doesn’t have any plans for any upcoming touring. But on January 11th, she will be having a release show in LA at the Bootleg Theatre for her EP, At the Seams. She will be joined by Gabriel Wax and Anna St. Louis.

Read my full interview with her below:

A: You were just in the Bay Area for Thanksgiving. But you’re not from there, right?

O: I was born and raised here (in LA). My father’s family is from the Bay Area, so we go up there for most Jewish Holidays. Thanksgiving was an exception.

A: Okay, so you’ve spent time in both places, but you’re definitely a west coast person.

O: The only time I spent time on the east coast was when I went to school in Montreal.

A: What were you doing in Montreal?

O: I studied music at McGill for the two years of my undergrad. I was in their jazz program and was also studying cultural studies in their arts program. And that was… it was good. I kind of fell in love with Montreal. It’s a pretty amazing place and I feel forever changed because I lived there. Music school, I learned, was something wasn’t right for me.

I learned a lot and met amazing people. The jazz program is a bit of a boys club. I knew that going into it, but you become painfully aware of it.

A: Did you ever feel like it affected you at all?

O: It affected me enough to influence my decision to leave. My decision to leave McGill and Montreal was tied up in a lot of things including that sophomore year itch that everybody gets. I was playing in a duo, an experimental improvisational electronic duo with my friend, called Owla. We played about 5 or 6 shows, and they were always kind of shitshows, but they were fun and expressive, Montreal just has an amazing scene for that. You can play a show wherever you have an audience. But, I just felt like I didn’t want to be in school and needed some time off, so I left and traveled a bit.

A: Where’d you go to?

O: I took a two-month road-trip. I left Montreal by train and went down to Vermont, New York for a second. I have some friends that live in southern Virginia that have a lake house and I spent some time there. I went to visit my friend in Asheville. Did a two-week residency with a woodworker in Tennessee and then I came back to LA. My parents were willing and able to spend money on college, and that’s an amazing, amazing thing and eventually, I wanted to go back to school. But I got to record my first EP on that year off, which was lovely.

A: So where was that recorded? Was it while you were doing on the road stuff or back in Montreal?

O: Most of the songs were written either in Montreal or on that road-trip. I know “Emily”, the third song on the EP- that one was definitely written on the road. My idea was just to get at least some of my songs down, and if I could match it with someone’s aesthetic, like a producer’s aesthetic or engineer’s aesthetic it might enhance my music with a little more character.

I thought of my friend Phil who I made music with in high school, he’s an amazing songwriter and a studio rat. He and his brother have this great studio at their parents’ house in the valley. They’ve always been really lo-fi, straight-to-tape type of people. It’s a bit noisy. So, Phil’s brother, Greg, was in LA and we got together. He was amazing. I think we spent a total of maybe 8 days or something recording. I would lay vocals and guitar down and he would kind of go back into the tracks and lay weird viola sounds. It wasn’t to a click or anything, it was just kind of pieced together. But it ended up well- it’s now certainly a time capsule for that period. Which is nice. There are so many things that I would have done differently, but you can’t think that way.

A: One of the things that I’d noticed on the EP was that, in terms of arrangement, it’s a bit sparer, and you talk a lot about stillness and silence. You even draw upon that just by how you’re doing it. I was just wondering, because the singles sound a lot more loud and punchy, and you feel more present rather than being reminiscent. Maybe it’s just because that one’s from 2014 that it feels reminiscent because I know that it’s older. Do you feel like you’re finding your voice in your newer stuff or that it’s more you? I mean, what’s the difference between what you’re working on now?

O: I think that, God Damn I Miss You was something where I didn’t fully have a plan laid out of what I wanted to record, or how it was going to- well, I had a vague idea. I was obsessed with this guy, Blake Mills, during that time. Do you know his work?

A: Mm-mm, no.

O: I was obsessed with his music. He has this first record, called Break Mirrors. I wanted it to vaguely sound like this. As far as references go, sonically that’s what I wanted it to sound /feel like.

Looking back, I mean, I was never writing songs to record them. If I had the opportunity to record, I’d go back and see what songs I consider fully fleshed out, or remotely finished. On Goddamn I Miss You, I had 4 that I knew could really sound good. They were all pretty nostalgic, I think. Especially since I recorded them in LA and they were retrospectives, looking back on time in Montreal and relationships that were gone in some way. Missed opportunities. I’m generally pretty nostalgic and it’s hard to keep that out of my music. I was leaning into that a bit more in the first EP.

“At the Seams” I mean, the whole recording process was phenomenally different- but most of the subject matter of the songs were informed by very concrete things that happened or conversations that I had. I think my songwriting definitely became slightly more focused- not that anybody can tell because sometimes my lyrics are pretty vague and open-ended. For me, at least, they were about something very concrete. I see this one as a bit more empathetic. A lot of the songs are about other people’s experiences.

The fundamental difference between this EP and the last is that this was recorded slightly more professionally. We were able to achieve a lot more sonically than the previous EP, just because of the amount of people and instruments that were contributing. I recorded this one with about eight musicians and worked with my close friend, Adam Gunther, an amazing musician and producer. I’m also in his band called Dzang.

A: Is that the other stuff that’s on Spotify?

O: Yeah!

A: Okay, yeah, because I’ve seen that and couldn’t find it on bandcamp and was thinking “I don’t know if this is the same Olivia?” But it’s definitely different, but it’s good. I like it.
O: It’s so confusing. I need to figure that out because it’s so different. It goes from my sentimental stuff to like “I know you’re in love with me.”

A: It’s catchy though! That song got stuck in my head for a while.
O: Good, I’m glad. It was on the season premiere of Ballers, I don’t know if you know that show.

A: No idea- I don’t watch television.

O: It’s featuring The Rock.

A: Wait, that’s so funny that your song was playing on a show with The Rock.

O: Dude, I know.

A: You’ve made it. That’s it.

O: It’s not my song, but it’s my voice. And I’m more than happy with that.

So Adam, basically, I wouldn’t have done it without him. Because he had a studio and this free weekend to record and he said “we’re getting these songs done.”

A: Yeah, because you said that you don’t write these songs to be recorded. You just write them for yourself.

O: O: Exactly. I mean, when I need to activate that part of my brain, I can. But I don’t have a home studio, so I’m not able to layer and build songs with multiple ideas. For now, I work with just piano, guitar, and voice. So, it’s pretty limited what I have to experiment on.

I have this vision, that someday I’ll be able to come in with charts for strings section, with the exact setting on the mellotron that I want. I’m just not there yet, and that’s fine. I think it really takes time to get to a place of confidence and I’m still getting comfortable letting my ideas breathe in the studio. Adam especially, is an amazing listener. And he actually brings a lot of ideas out of me, but still, expressing what you want in the studio setting is hard to sometimes.

A: Plans for the rest of an album, which I think you’d said is coming out early next year- How far along are you in that process? What’s happening now into next year?

O: Yeah. As you saw, I’m playing with my friends from Montreal that are in this band called Ought. Ugh god, we just finished the tour with Waxahatchee. Basically, I’d taken a break from playing shows in LA to tour with them. Which has been really fun, and totally a different page. Like complete post-punk world and also side-person world. It’s really nice and refreshing for reasons that I’m still processing.

We talked a bit about how she’d met Tim Darcy and the rest of Ought back in Montreal during the student strikes of 2012. Kaplan was able to join them on tour alongside Waxahatchee. When discussing her experience, Kaplan described her fellow musicians with warmth and admiration. She says the tour made her year and she even found some inspiration along the way. In reference to Katie Crutchfield’s all female and queer-identifying band, Kaplan said, “Just watching [Waxahatchee] every night was so inspiring. Katie’s vision for what she wants is so clear.”

“Yeah, so January 11th. I have so much to do, it’s insane. I still have to order the hard copies of the CDs and everything. Then I’ll have that out. It’s interesting since it’s been over a year now since I recorded it. I had all these little plans to push it and maybe see if there was any label interest or anything. It’s basically all me and it’s tough. I definitely could have done more.”

With the help of friends, Kaplan is finding her way through the difficult aspects of the music world. She is still very excited about the prospects of creating and being a part of the music community as a whole. She’s not non-chalant about it, and is still a bit of a fangirl sometimes. She’s even framing one of the Ought/Waxahatchee tour posters from a show in Gainesville, FL.

A: One last question. In regard to musical influences, what makes you want to make music?

O: I think the way you phrased that is good. “What makes you want to do it.” That changes all the time.

She mentioned having been inspired by songwriters like Fiona Apple and Cat Power when she was around 13 and 14, as well as canonized writers like Neil Young and Paul Simon. And she's "always listening" to Bill Callahan, Big Star, Lucinda Williams, Talk Talk, Ruth Garbus, Wilco, and John Prine.

Right now, I’m listening to a lot of this guy Chris Weisman from Brattleboro, VT. Also, so much Big Thief, like everyone in America, because they’re the best band ever. I die. I just die. It’s so good. They make me feel the same way Neil Young makes me feel, which has been missing in indie music.

We talked a bit more about more current bands she’s listening to like Jay Som, King Creosote/Jon Hopkins, Daniel Caesar, and Slaughter Beach Dog. (I will definitely be making a playlist based off of her recommendations.)

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Olivia Kaplan is the kind of writer and musician I’ve been yearning for. Clever and composed, her words and melodies perfectly intertwine to evoke an overwhelming and lush wave of nostalgia. Keep an eye out for her upcoming EP, and check out her singles and first EP, God Damn I Miss You, on bandcamp or Spotify.