SXSW Interview: Olivia Noelle talks new music, a love for SZA and more

Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Olivia Noelle has been whipping up quite the amount of traction, thanks to a pop sensibility that has made her music catchy as hell, not to mention a live presence that has just continued to grow in strength and charm. We caught up with Olivia at SXSW, where she was scheduled to perform at this year’s VEVO House.

We chat with Olivia about touring through the US, new music and more!

​You’re just coming off [tour] with Hippie Sabotage.

Yes. This was my first tour. I went on the East Coast leg of their headlining tour. It was incredible. It was so dope. I couldn’t have picked a better group of guys to experience my first tour with. They were so open and welcoming, and their fans are incredible. I was just really blown away by every aspect of it, honestly.

​Was it what you expected it to be?

I don’t know if I had expectations. I think I was so out of my element. I just started performing my music maybe six months ago, if that. I am still just trying to get comfortable on stage and you know, get comfortable. I write all my own music, so that part of it is nerve wracking too; what if they hate my songs? They’re little pieces of me, you know? So, I don’t really think I had any expectations. I think all of it was just a nice surprise. I didn’t really know what would happen, but…nobody got arrested, so that was a plus.

That would have given a good story though.

We did almost get arrested, but not quite…

With the live show; taking your songs from a piece of paper to the production to the release, then translating it again onto the stage, was it a second translation? Or when you write the songs, is it done in such a way that it was easy? Does that make sense?

You know, I think that I’m still kind of in the process of that. As I said, I’m really new to performing live.

​So, how do you write your songs in the styling point?

Writing them is … it’s kind of just all over the place. It’s really when inspiration strikes, I’ll write down an idea or record a melody, or record a full song. Once we’re in the studio, I have something to go off of. I think the live translation aspect of it is something I’m really wanting to figure out and I don’t think it’s exactly what I want, but if you take it from the very first show I did five months ago to now, it’s a complete transformation and hopefully it just keeps getting better.

​I think now, after seeing a tour with thousands of kids in the audience and seeing what works and what doesn’t work, I have a better idea of the things I want to shift and add, and take away. I’m still definitely in the process, so it’s figuring that part out.

It must be an exciting process, though, because it just opens up a whole new … I mean, it must be what you’ve always been wanting to do.

Yeah. It’s crazy. I’ll have these little moments of “Holy shit, this is my life,” you know? When you’re in it, it’s such a whirlwind. You’re so busy with so many things happening all at once, especially these last two to three months. I’ve been unbelievably busy and I haven’t really had a minute to stop and be like, “Holy shit, I just toured the East Coast and went to seven states I’ve never been to before, and now here I am in a state I’ve never been to before.”

I’ve never even been to South By as a viewer, and now here I am as a performer. Everyone is being like, “Whoa, that’s so cool. What a great opportunity.” Then once I get a minute to stop, I’ll be like, “Wow, this is really fucking cool.”

So with that in mind, what is a kind year looking like for you? As there a lot more shows lined up? Are you going to be writing a lot? I imagine you’ve got a lot of music that’s kind of just sitting there, given the amount of time you’ve been writing for and what you’ve put out so far.

​Yeah, it’s different now that I have a label because I can’t just be like, “I feel like this song should come out on this day.” There’s a lot of different moving parts, which is good, because it really gives you a solid direction for where the songs should go and who you should target with. I have a tonne of music that I’m dying to put out. Right after South By, I’m heading to LA for the three weeks to finish the album. I don’t really know how to function. Somebody knows, but I don’t know.

They’ll tell you.

​Most people will let me know.

You’re on a need-to-know basis. When you do get to LA, when you do kind of finish up, based on what you’ve released so far, is that a pretty good taste of where the music is going?

Yeah, it’s a good taste, but I’m definitely coming into my own, getting comfortable in my own skin, and willing to take bigger risks  than I’ve already been taking. I would say it’s on the right trajectory, for sure.

What do you hope happens next for you? I guess releasing the album is next on the agenda.

I would love to really start connecting with people, and with people that hear my music, and like my music, and potentially become fans. I would love to connect with them more.

In like, the digital sense? I’ve noticed that you’re very active on Facebook, you’re offering tickets to your followers for the shows you recently did…

I’m still blown away that people listen to my music.

Never lose that. If you never lose that, you’re going to enjoy every minute of it.

I mean, I cried on stage on the D.C. show because the whole front row was this group of girls that knew every lyric from music I released in 2015, and it really blew me away. I’ve never experienced anything like that before, and in that moment, I was like, “I really want to continue.” Whether it’s touring, or in a digital sense … just continue to make music that is connecting with people, and being able to relate.

I just feel like I’m a really similar type of person to the person who listens to my music, and I got to meet these girls after and I love it. In that sense, that’s what I mean when I say I want to stay connected, and continue writing in a way that relates universally, you know?

And you know, it’s the boring question, but who inspires you musically and creatively?

Alive? Dead?

Either or! Who do you look to and say, that’s something I inspire to either creatively or otherwise?

Oh god, I don’t think it’s a boring question, I just think it’s so tough because I admire so many different people for so many different reasons.

​Yeah. Well, this idea that we point to one person and say, “That’s who I want to be like.” It’s that we’re the product of everything we’ve grown up with.

A thousand percent, yeah.

So maybe the better question is then what did you grow up with musically? What was played in your house growing up?

A lot of jazz, like Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra, Rat Pack, a lot of Motown, a lot of Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston. I grew up with a lot of music with soul in it. My brother listened to a lot of hip-hop and got me into a lot of hip-hop, or when I would sneak onto his computer and steal his music or whatever, and see what he is listening to. I grew up with a lot of that, and I hope those elements do come across in my music to a certain degree, but as I say, I also grew up on pop music with Mariah and The Spice Girls. I went to like, nine Backstreet Boys concerts, so…

That was just last week.

Yeah, that was just last week. So, it’s in my blood.

They’re still touring?

Yeah, they’re in Vegas. One of my friends is a dancer for them. They’re still a band.

That’s great! They’re kind of only the last ones standing, really, aren’t they? From like, the 90s pop world.

They have a new single coming out and it’s actually pretty good.

There you go. So, would you love to work with them one day?

No, don’t put that in there. The artists right now that I think are doing really special, like SZA and [inaudible 00:10:15].

She’s so amazing live, too. And you see videos of her when she just started and it’s like … that compared to now is … extraordinary.

Well, yeah, and that’s what you want to see. Unless you’re Beyonce, you didn’t like come out the gate a star. She was doing performances in her living room when she was three years old.

She was ready for it.

Somebody like me, or somebody like SZA … I was stealing my brother’s laptop to record on Garage Band, literally in my garage, and wouldn’t let anybody hear it, so to come out of your shell…when you write your own stuff, it’s just an added element of like, “Fuck“, you know? Whereas if you’re singing someone else’s songs, it’s almost a little bit of a scapegoat.

You could look at great entertainers like Britney Spears or J-Lo, but they’re not touching their lyrics so it’s not as, in my opinion, as terrifying as getting up there and being like, “These are literally pages from my diary.”

Yeah. If you were approached by Britney’s management to write a song for her…

That’d be so dope. I think she’s a phenomenal performer. I was just saying, I respect different people for different aspects of who they are and what they do. SZA, more than anything … more than her melodies, lyrics, production, stage presence, I respect her for her honesty and above all else, and I don’t see anybody else being that honest.

Since you’re playing the Vevo stage tonight, what can we expect for the set? How are you filling the set? I understand that there’s a little bit of a cover that you’ve been throwing in of late?

​It’s kind of a cool cover. It’s an Outkast song. Andre 3000 is by far one of my favourite lyricists to ever grace the airways, and I think that because his melodies are so dope also, his lyrics get overlooked sometimes, so I took one of his most popular songs … one of Outkast’s popular songs and stripped it down a little bit, revamped it. Finn was there when I had the idea. We were just kind of in the rehearsal room and I was like, “What would it sound like if we did something a little bit like this?” and we played through it eight times until we caught a vibe. It just happened. I just love the song so much. I think the lyrics are so prolific and he as a writer, just … goals. Just goals.

These days, he’ll just appear and do one verse in one song every year, and it’s the best verse of anything.

Yeah, it’s fucking insane. He gets on an Erykah Badu song, where I’m like, “This song can’t get any better,” and then I’m like…”Okay, I have to throw my life away.”

​Are you kind of testing stuff out? Using this opportunity?

Totally testing stuff out. I have the three songs that I released off my EP we’re playing, obviously, but there’s the original versions of them.

​So what’s the stage setup that you’ve got?

Me, my track layer Ben, and he’s triggering synths. Right now, obviously, one day I’d like three backup singers and a horn section and done!

String quartet, Pink flying in on the Cirque du Soleil.

Yeah, the Cirque du Soleil, yeah! For now, this is a really great way to just be super exposed and get comfortable.

Well, excited to see you here at South By. How many shows have you got?

I think we have four shows.

That’s good for the first South By. That’s perfect! A few high profile shows, not too hectic.

It’s not too hectic, yeah.

Come back next year when the album’s out, and do twenty-seven shows.

​I know, right?



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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.