TALK OF THE TOWN
The gap between self-appraisal and stark reality informs Olympia’s debut album
Olivia Bartley remembers the moment she first heard her song on the radio. She was heading home from a day of rehearsals. “I giggled a lot,” says the Melbourne singer-songwriter, who performs under the name Olympia. “I was driving home ... and it came on and my partner actually filmed me singing along to the song.” The song that has been getting a lot of love is Smoke
Signals, a quirky pop number that shows off her vocal range and retro sensibilities. The video, featuring myriad Olympias in different guises, matches her aesthetic. It was filmed with a genuine camera from 1982. The song is from her debut album, Self Talk, to be released on Friday.
“The whole album, for me, is about the stories people tell themselves about themselves. Like, I’m a really fast runner or I’m a terrible swimmer,” she says. “I remember listening to Dorothy Rowe speak – she’s an Australian psychologist and she talks a lot about mental health and depression – she says it can make people fall over when they get to this point where they see a reflection of themselves and it’s not who they thought they were. I get it in fashion stores when I’m trying on clothes. That’s a very light example, but this is formulating how people see themselves in the world.”
While many of us suffer a lot of mean self-talk, that nagging voice that tells us we’re not good enough, the opposite can also be true, Bartley notes. “You see people who suffer from self-esteem,” she chuckles.
Song Smoke Signals tells that story. “It’s about the internal and unseen chaos of somebody who confuses reality with fantasy. It touches on that mental-health aspect, too. The chorus is nagging, and I wanted the backing vocals to be fun.”
While there might be several different Olympias in the video for Smoke Signals, there have been several Olivias in real life, too. She had a vastly different career before music got out of the back seat and took the wheel. She initially studied and taught fashion design, taking her skills to countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia.
“I got invited to go to Indonesia to help a woman set up her business through Australian Business Volunteers,” she explains. “I really love those organisations because the businesses identify they have a need. For some organisations it’s the opposite – it’s the volunteer who has a need and that need is to travel. I remember telling my parents, don’t worry, it’s a Buddhist country!
“I worked on a similar project in Cambodia, with women who make a choice to leave the sex industry, which is massive there. But they leave it and they have no skills. I worked with an organisation that wanted to provide a skill … sustainable design.”
Her experiences inform the music, she says. While she has been performing live for years, it was positive feedback from musicians she idolised that encouraged her to take her music dream further. “It was probably about the mid-2000s when I thought, I really want to back myself and put 1000 per cent into the music and see what happens. And then the momentum picked up, but everything has fed into it, so it’s all life experience, and over the last 20 years.”
Bartley grew up in Wollongong and spent her early family life as part of an evangelical church. While she may have left some of the beliefs behind, one thing that stayed with her is the musicality.
“Looking back, I didn’t realise how much I learnt musically from that environment. It’s a community environment. It’s not competitive. It’s very egalitarian, so it teaches you an innate sense of harmony and how to blend with other voices.”