by Michael McCarthy
Olga Bell was born in Moscow and lived there until she was seven and her family moved to Alaska, but she was still a teenager when she left Alaska to pursue a career as a pianist, having played since she was a young girl, at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the oldest and best music universities in the country. When she graduated, she could have gone off to have a successful career as a classical pianist, but she’d been falling in love with electronic music for years and it finally reached a point where she decided that is what she wanted to make. She then proceeded to move to New York City to go about doing that. There, she frequented all sorts of dance clubs, people watching and absorbing the music. She wasn’t quite ready to make her electronic pop masterpiece just yet though. Instead, in 2014, she released an album that could be referred to as world music called Krai (Google translation: Edge), which was in Russian and inspired by traditional Russian folk music. I would highly recommend it, as it takes you on an amazing journey with layers and layers of vocals, strings, percussion and, yes, electro-flourishes. In some ways, it reminds me of Björk’s acapella album Medulla, which probably influenced some of the vocal arrangements, being that Björk is one of Olga’s favorite artists. However, her new album Tempo, out May 27th, is much more informed by Björk. It’s an electronic pop masterpiece that also calls to mind Olive, Coco Rosie and Bat For Lashes. Perhaps, though, two of the artists Olga has been most inspired by are Dirty Projectors and Chairlift, both of which she has played with. Tempo definitely has the quirkiness of Dirty Projectors and the keen pop sensibilities of Chairlift. It’s a truly brilliant album that any self-respecting electro-pop fan should add to their collection. Now, onto the interview…
MM: You came from Alaska to Boston, which is our big city, to study at the New England Conservatory. Was there any culture shock?
OB: Well, first of all, can I ask you where you are? Are you actually in Boston?
MM: I’m just outside of Boston.
OB: Cool, cool. I have a deep, deep affinity for New England, Boston and that whole part of the country. It was the first big city feeling that I remember having. I was born in Moscow but I don’t remember very much of it. So, I moved to Boston when I was seventeen and I loved it. I don’t know if I would call it culture shock, but I just loved Boston and being there so, so much.
MM: Did you study piano before you went to the conservatory?
OB: Yes, I started playing the piano when I was seven on a very focused classical music track until I was twenty one.
MM: When you first started studying it did you want to or was it a situation where your parents said you had to?
OB: I guess it’s sort of a combination of those things. It’s like gymnastics or ballet training. Of course, I guess it initially began with parents and teachers and coaches, but then you start to get good at something as a child and then you win some competitions and it starts to kind of define you and it really was the focus of my life. Yeah, it was definitely forced practice but then I really enjoyed, and still enjoy, performing. It was a good foundation.
MM: Why did you move from Boston to New York City when you decided to pursue electronic music?
OB: I guess I just wanted a fresh start. New York seemed like a good place for people trying to find themselves, you know? That in between zone when you’re no longer a student and you’re not quite yet a high functioning professional. [Laughs]
MM: What were some of the albums you heard that made you desire to switch to electronic music?
OB: I distinctly remember the moment that I heard or saw, I guess, Radiohead on MTV. I was like eleven or twelve. That song “High and Dry.” Of course, The Bends isn’t, you know, a massively electronic record, but even then I think some of their compositional ideas were really already leaning toward something that was very different from other, you know, rock bands. Or whatever you might call an early Radiohead record. So, I became pretty much obsessed with them from a young age. And they’re definitely the number one influence on me. It seems so pedestrian to site them as an influence because everyone has this completely crazy adoration for them now, but Radiohead, Björk, and when I was in college in Boston I met all of these amazing musicians from all over the world and a lot of the other classmen friends of mine clued me into the Warp label and that catalog really blew my mind. Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, et cetera.
MM: What equipment and programs did you use for making Tempo?
OB: Primarily Abelton Live. Lots of the OP-1 Synthesizer by Teenage Engineering. Yeah, lots of samples. Samples of myself. Samples of other beats that I rearranged. All kinds of stuff. [Editor’s note: there was a bit more to this answer but the tape had a brain fart; yes, I still use regular cassettes to record my interviews!]
MM: If I understand correctly you set about writing the songs on Tempo by first deciding what tempo you wanted to write in. Is there a particular tempo that you kept going back to?
OB: I was trying to always do sort of the opposite of what I had just done. So, when I worked for a while on a fast song I would sort of challenge the brain space I had just been in, seeing if I could do something in the low end of the spectrum the following week and just sort of kept pushing into, I guess, contrasting zones.
MM: How many tracks was the average song when you were finished?
OB: Um, that’s a great question because when I was younger when I started my songs were probably like thirty or forty tracks. When you’re young there’s a tendency to have sort of maximal-ism because you’re trying to flex every muscle and put everything you possibly can into the production. With this record in particular I really wanted to make sure that every element has a purpose, and identity and a reason for being there. So, I tried to be very spartan about the tracks and I actually am proud of the fact that they are not these sprawling – I would say that on average there’s probably five vocal tracks and five instrumental tracks up to ten instrumental tracks and then maybe a handful of sends, like four or five sends, so I guess it should be on average about fifteen, which I think for me is, and maybe in general, is pretty spartan. [Editor’s note: We asked Olga what “sends” were post interview and she explained: “ A send track receives audio from another track (for example, a vocal track or a group of vocal tracks) and is usually used for effects only (reverb, delay, etc.).”]
MM: Did you record Tempo in a traditional studio or doing it at home with home computers?
OB: I produce all my music myself and I write, compose and demo everything extensively on my own. I just do it all on Abelton in my home studio and then when it came time to mix the album then I went to an amazing studio in Pawtucket. I spent some time in Rhode Island mixing it at this really great studio called Machines with Magnets.
MM: On “Power User” you sing about somebody who uses people. Is that about someone in particular? If so, what did you learn from the experience?
OB: I kind of set out with titles and I really liked the idea of “Power User” because in our technological time that can be a very coveted sort of title. You’re like a power user of this software. But of course, especially in the last six months or so, there continues to be, and there’s sort of been, a spotlight on power dynamics in the music industry and our society at large. I’m most captivated by songs that express an emotion vividly but then leave room for the listener to find their own specific association in it. So, that was sort of the goal of that song to both be about a specific situation and something general.
MM: On “Doppio” you sing “you’ve got me feeling like a weirdo” and later on “Regular” you sing that you want to be “regular.” Is that true or are you content to be a weirdo?
OB: [Laughs] Thank you for listening to the songs and reading the lyrics. So, on “Regular” I actually say I want to be ‘a regular’ and I think if you don’t see the lyric sheet it could also sound like I’m saying I want to be irregular because I say I want to be ‘a regular’, which is interesting but “Regular” is more about finding transcendent, almost a meditative kind of tranquility by maybe going out and having a few drinks and feeling like a part of the community with the bartender realizing you’ve had a few too many. So, I think what’s really great about, especially dance culture, club culture, that you can go out feeling like a weirdo and then feel like you belong with all the other weirdos. That’s a pretty cool thing.
MM: You refer to “a pic with a million clicks” on “Doppio.” How active are you on social media?
OB: I guess I’m pretty active. I try to limit the time that I spend on it. So, I sort of just do it in bursts and then close everything down and not check it constantly.
MM: One of your songs is called “Randomness” and finds you singing “I guess we’re that randomness.” To what degree do you feel like things are random?
OB: Um, well, I don’t know. I sing a lot about weird existential questions, so the very fact that we are on this planet with like a Goldilocks atmosphere is pretty random, really, if you think about the cosmic scale of things.
MM: In 2014 you released an album in Russian called Krai. Is it pronounced like cry?
OB: Yeah, yeah.
MM: And I understand that you’ve performed it at museums. Why museums –
OB: – At the Gardner! At the Gardner Museum was the last performance, in fact.
MM: Cool. Why did you perform it at a museum as opposed to a traditional concert venue?
OB: Well, it’s more of a performing arts piece. It’s for a small ensemble and there’s like a narrative arc to it. There aren’t a lot of dancey bangers, so it’s a piece that is little more appropriate for their spaces. We premiered it at the Walker, which has a beautiful theatre. I don’t mean to make the piece appear like it’s museum worthy or anything like that. It’s just those places have really great concert halls and it seemed like an appropriate work for a hall.
MM: Each of the songs on Krai represents a different region of Russia. Did you travel to each of them for research?
OB: Digitally. I traveled to them digitally. I Google-mapped all around them, walked around as a little yellow Google map creature. [Laughs] And I listened to lots of audio and video from each of the regions. I virtually traveled to them.
MM: Streaming has become one of the most popular ways people listen to music. What are your thoughts on streaming?
OB: You know, it’s complicated, isn’t it? The whole situation is very complicated. As an up and coming artist, somebody that most people don’t know about, I think it’s really exciting that anybody in the world that has Spotify or Apple Music or any of those services can just dial up my music, you know, with ease. But then there’s the whole other side of the iceberg. The revenue streams. Equity the labels have. And then the fact that these companies as business models, or anything, aren’t really turning a profit and if you think about Google and Apple they make their money elsewhere, so they’re not even – anyway it’s extremely complicated. [Laughs]
MM: These days artists have to tour extensively to support themselves. Will you be doing a lot of touring behind the new album?
OB: I hope so. Yeah, what you’re saying is very true. I’m going out to Europe in June for a few dates and, yeah, I hope to do lots of touring.
MM: Will you tour in the U.S.?
OB: Yeah, I hope to tour in the U.S. Kind of towards the end of the summer.
MM: If you could either open for a popular mainstream artist like Selena Gomez or headline clubs, which would you choose and why?
OB: I would like to open for a popular headline artist like Radiohead. And that would be amazing because it’s Radiohead. It would be a crazy, crazy honor. Yeah, there’s lots of people I would love to open for. I have never done my own headlining tour and that would also be amazing because then, of course, you’re playing to people who know your music.
MM: At the end of our interviews we ask some random questions. Is that OK?
OB: Let’s embrace the randomness!
MM: Do you have any aspirations to write a musical someday?
OB: Maybe like an opera. I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a few years ago and I thought that would translate really beautifully into an opera.
MM: Do you have any pets?
MM: Can you name all five of The Spice Girls?
OB: Of course. By their Spice names? I don’t think I could name them by their actual names.
MM: Sure, the Spice names are fine.
OB: You’ve got Ginger, Baby, Posh, Scary and Sporty. Can you name all five Spice Girls? You’ve done this before?
MM: Yeah. I don’t want to waste time saying them all though.
MM: Are you a big fan of texting? How many times a day do you text?
OB: Oh, I text a lot. I text more than I would like to admit. But I am proud of the fact that I have some friends who I call. I brutishly call them because I also like talking on the phone.
MM: Name a favorite book, album, movie and TV show.
OB: All those things? OK, oh boy, let’s go backwards. I just started watching The Wire. I don’t watch TV normally, but I just started watching The Wire and the show that I watched before that was The Office, so that tells you about my TV watching habits. Book? Well, like everybody else in the world I read The Martian and I loved it and I couldn’t put it down. Movie? The Revenant, I guess. That was amazing. What else did I forget?
MM: Album. You can name a few if you want.
OB: Do they have to be new ones?
MM: No, no. Anything.
OB: Oh, then I should’ve named any movie. I shouldn’t have named The Revenant. You know what movie more defines me is Being John Malkovich. That’s one of my favorite movies of all time. And it’s so silly, that magical realism in it. An album? Oh my gosh, album, album, there’s so many albums. Post by Björk.
MM: That’s a great one.
OB: Yeah. What’s another one? Syro, the last Aphex Twin record. I loved from the bottom of my heart. My ring-tone was track five from it for a really long time.
Much thanks to Olga for taking the time to do this interview and to Chris Schimpf of Sacks & Co for setting it up.
June 5—Berghain Kantine—Berlin, Germany†
June 7—Botanique—Brussels, Belgium†
June 8—Pop up Du Label—Paris, France†
June 10—Oslo—London, UK‡
June 13—The Hug and Pint—Glasgow, Scotland
June 14—Waiting Room—London, UK
June 15—Eagle Inn—Manchester, UK
June 16—De School—Amsterdam, Netherlands†*supporting Nancy Whang
†supporting Empress Of
TEMPO TRACK LIST