Album Walkthrough: Olympia breaks down her new album, Flamingo
The long-time Australian pop favourite will be touring Australia through October.
Header image by Pierre Toussaint.
While she might not have the hyper-accessible pop that plagues commercial radio, Olympia is still an Australian pop star. Throughout the last six years or so, the Australian musician has blossomed into a cult-adored critical darling of our pop scene, finding her footings with a remarkable debut album Self Talk, which with its 2016 release, found itself an ARIA nomination and shortlisting for the 2016 Australian Music Prize - two very highly-sought after accolades within the Australian songwriting world. The time since then, however, has been marked with quietness; Olympia choosing to spend the years since Self Talk on the road before diving into the studio to work on her long-awaited follow-up Flamingo, which officially arrives today via EMI Music Australia.
Flamingo is an 11-track exploration of Olympia's many facets as a musician, capturing her many sides as a versatile songwriter as she swerves between sounds and textures - each one as polished and refined as the last. With the breathing room that comes with a full-length record, Olympia incorporates many elements to her slick pop hooks that make Flamingo are record built upon versatility and range. Some tracks feel distinctly electronic, with swirling synth textures meeting her soft vocal harmony that elsewhere on the record, meets everything from muffled guitar riffs to delicate keys. It's complex and multi-faceted, yet easy to digest - a sign of Olympia's continual brilliance as we enter a market saturated with up-and-coming pop stars.
"The record explores the idea of trying to hold hope and hopelessness together. I’ve tried to borrow from my own grief to create its inverse: something new; a territorial hope affair - a love letter from the living," she explains on the album, deepening its lyrical themes and capturing the depth Flamingo holds. "Filmmaker Jacques Tati used to say that he wanted ‘the movie to begin when you leave the theatre’, and with this record, I’d set out to try and create an atmosphere from start to finish, so that it’s immersive, like film."
The end result is powerful and moving, laden with vulnerability and intricacy you'd struggle to find elsewhere, and with the album's release placing Olympia back on top in Australia, here's hoping that the rest of the world catches on too. Listen to the record below with a track-by-track walkthrough from Olympia, then catch her on tour across the next few months (the Australian dates in October will see her joined by Emerson Snowe, Jess Ribeiro and Merpire).
While making this album I was living in the shadow of this huge weight, which was grief. When something like that is happening all you want to do is dance and fidget and look at your phone. You do not want to sit down and contemplate. Star City is perfect for that - whatever you do, don’t stop spinning. Keep going. Keep silence and reflection at bay. This album has a few songs like Star City – Two Hands, and Shoot to Forget – which are designed to forget yourself. These songs are heady and a bit obnoxious by design. The vocals are distorted, busy with guitar downstrokes. I wanted to create a fever. I describe them as the Friday nights in this world – cheap drunks, selfish and full of hubris. Like the nonsensical and impassioned conversations you have with someone when they’re high.
The title is a reference to a casino and how homeless people feed off the food they leave out for high-rollers. Addicts are incredibly resourceful. But the song is not a sad ballad – it’s sung from inside that feeling of impassioned nonsense. Taking on the ugly juxtaposition of the glittering casino’s lure of dreams and aspiration, as punters sit on pokies running through their super. The lyrics are some of the most honest I’ve written. About self-sabotage: ‘stunned with falling. Hoped [to achieve this thing] but always doubted [I could ever actually do it].’ That’s talking about capacity. Spanish artist Coco Capitán wrote, ‘What are we going to do with all this future?’ I love that.
“I would never tell someone to, ‘Come back, I need you. Never. But I think it unlocked an emotion within me I had probably kept shut. I always think when someone talks in a song about their 'heart hurting' or something like that, it’s bullshit. Something people say so much it becomes passé and meaningless. But I did use those words because I was trying to express its desperation. This unlocked something in me. It’s about walking in a particular glitzy tourist city, searching for someone and knowing they’re with someone else. There’s this line, ‘I’m outside her house, the lights are on’. I thought, 'postcard destination for honeymooners and jumpers,' was good too. A place that could be sought after for both those things must be so shit. Which could relate to anyone’s feelings.
This is about the idea of giving in to easy things, the path of least resistance. Be it the saccharine, addiction or bad company – it’s happy hour at the Holiday Inn and the drinks are coming through and you’re saying yes. Recording this, my voice was exhausted. I was still singing at 4AM and said to [producer Burke Reid], 'We’re going to do damage now.' It was like all the tone had been taken out of my voice. Just husk. We did a take and Burke just simply said, 'Amazing.' So that character became the song.
There are three characters on the album. Won’t Say That and Nervous Riders have their own. Star City, Two Hands, Shoot to Forget are others. There’s a strength in that that isn’t mine. That’s the difference between not performing under my own name. There is artifice and fantasy about it. If it was just me, I would not have put myself forward enough to make this record.
All the language is about gambling. 'Windows ache with race calls.’ Where my family grew up we lived near the trots. If the wind was blowing the right way you’d hear the races. It relates to this idea of when you love someone and they let you down over and over again, and you keep taking them back, you’ve got to decide if you can keep trusting them. Do you throw good love after bad? It makes you a nervous rider. This one always goes down well at a show. Everyone understands it. ‘Who’s ever loved someone that’s let them down again and again?’ At Wollongong University they cheered.
Hounds feels like the kind of escalating stomper Olympia has built into her corner. This driving, glam jam gains speed as it thrusts on, Bartley singing ‘you gotta get (your) shit together,’ until capitulating in a howling ‘I just released a single hound’ over claps, shimmying tambourine and the defiance that comes with anger. One of the first songs made for Flamingo, you can trace its influence through the album’s brash centre.
“Burke and I got together six months before the recording and jammed it out and created it,” she says. “I saw a line that said, ‘I just released a single hound.’ It really resonated with me. Imagine if instead of feeling anger, you could just deploy something? Release the hounds. It also hints at the simplistic panacea of religion, as does Flamingo, belying its rage. They all form part of the album arc, balanced by the contemplative First You Leave, desperate Come Back and the defeated, Won’t Say That.
Won’t Say That
Sometimes when someone’s going through something terrible, you can blame yourself for your perceived part in it. 'I’m sorry. I wish it were me. I love you.’ But when it’s constant, there’s also guilt at wanting to seek relief from it. A real push pull. I love you, but…
I moved to a new house and was trying to figure out what my neighbour did. While I was singing and making noise, she had different people coming and going at all hours of the day. Turns out she was a psychologist seeing patients. I didn’t want to meet her ‘cause I feel like she’d shake my hand and feel all the work that needs to be done.
This is such a fun song to play. There’s a line in here about my mum catching a shark, which is true. I was thinking about the strong women in my life. When I was writing about this the #MeToo was happening and I was thinking about the evolution I’ve lived through over the last ten years and the behaviour I've had to put up with. You get whiplash with how much society has changed with what we don’t accept anymore. So this is just a fun song about misogyny, my mum cutting her hands up with a shark and my neighbour thinking I’m crazy.
Shoot to Forget
[This is about being in] love and being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t treat you very well. But, you would do it all again just to have that feeling. John Berger, the English art critic, poet and painter means a lot to me. He had this quote which is, 'The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.' I love that so much.
This song was originally called Trombone. I was trying to write all these songs with hard vocals and confidence, and in a moment of frustration, so for fun I started to play the guitar riff, which moves up and down the fret like playing a trombone. Having rules was frustrating me, and to play like a trombone cut new pathways.
First You Leave
I heard an interview with a woman who grew up Mormon. She left [the church] at age 20 but it took her three more years to order a coffee. Because you can’t have caffeine when you’re a Mormon. And it took her five years for her to throw out the religion’s sacred underwear. When asked why, she said, 'first you leave and then you go.' So entrenched was her faith that even though she’d made the choice to leave the church, these ideas took a long time to move away from, or through. She was talking about process. A lot of my work is about memory and dealing with this weight of this burden. Thinking if I could have done that better, or about choices I’ve made, and living with that.
Flamingo is an incredibly powerful song for me. Perhaps the most successful on the record at what I was trying to create. It became something beyond me, something inexplicable. It’s the result of submitting to the record, to the hope and chaos. A transcendence of the individual and a sense of the unknown.
Some of the lines - “saw you go walk into a drink and disappear,” “follow me” – have this tongue-in-cheek, religious connotation to it. It’s a direct song at somebody who’s not in the light. It feels tender, flawed, so human to me. Like an argument with someone but you’re only hearing one side.
Trying to get a hold of someone who’s continually making themselves out of reach brings an endless anxiety. So we invent. ‘You don’t need to give me answers, just send me the mountains you dream about.’
You make so much up in your head. And you eavesdrop. You find yourself competing with the few remaining people close to them, because so much of it is intangible. Just show me something so I can help or see. It’s like these two separate arcs and they’re not hitting each other. Someone’s trying to be pragmatic and someone’s in a paranoid state, hiding. So everyone develops their own interpretation of what is happening, what it means and who is to blame.
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