Cover Photo by Anna Powell Teeter
Ahead of Amy O's upcoming album release, the indie-pop musician and founder of Girls Rock Bloomington spoke about allowing for surprises in the song creation process, her work in music education, and what advice she'd give her teenage self. Shell comes out tomorrow on Winspear and follows her hit 2017 release of Elastic, and Arrow from 2016.
'Shell' is your third studio album. How did your mindset going into recording this album change for you? Did you have specific goals or expectations you wanted to change or experiment with your own sound?
After releasing my last album ‘Elastic’, I went through a long period of needing to be more internal. A lot of cycles were naturally coming to an end and new ones beginning- resulting in quite a bit of reconfiguration in my life. I was involved in an excavation of sorts and the songs for ‘Shell’ came from that place. There was a lot of parsing through the past, as I was noticing a gap forming between my adult self who was moving forward with her life and parts of my younger self that were stuck behind. The process of writing and recording helped in getting some of those stuck parts of myself caught up and able to join me in the present so that I could move forward in a more fully embodied way.
A goal I had with ‘Shell’ was to make more room for surprises in the recording process. In the past, I’ve gone in with almost everything decided upon beforehand. It’s a tricky balance - having enough worked out that you can make sure the final product is up to par, but at the same time leaving space for studio experimentation - both in performance and mixing.
As far as process, I wanted to be flexible and open to others’ ideas/strengths - but always listen to my intuition when it came to making the final call on something. I also decided to experiment with using electronic drum beats on a few of the songs. I collaborated with Jon Meador on this and he came up with some really great stuff.
In the song creation process for your new album, what sounds stood out to you? Was there a particular process, whether in the lyric writing or in the post-production engineering, where you wanted to make sure a sound and a possible mood carried through? How did you know if a harmony or a lyric was right?
I like to use a warm, crunchy guitar track as a building block to my sound when recording. With the vocals, we spent quite a bit of time finding the right mic. I wanted it to have a roomy, breathy quality. In post-production, the biggest thing was probably knowing when to take elements out. We ended up recording more tracks than we needed so we had plenty to work with.
Once we got to mixing there was a lot of sifting through and clearing space so the intended mood of each song was able to shine through. I wanted to bring in some of the elements of my early home recording projects that I felt I had lost a little of in past studio albums. For example, there are parts in the songs “Crushed” and “Shrinking” where the sound kind of devolves into distortion - I really like playing around with that, especially in contrast to the general poppiness of most of my songs. I guess I knew if a harmony, lyric, etc was right if it didn’t make me cringe with embarrassment at the idea of sharing it, haha.
With Girl's Rock, what projects are you most proud of? What vision for the future do you see for Girl's Rock in Bloomington? What kind of local music and arts programming do you wish you'd see more of? Can you speak on your projects with Girl's Rock or music education programming you have planned?
I’m most proud of putting on our first Summer Camp this past July. It was at Ivy Tech Main Campus, with a final performance at the Fell Building. There were 20 campers ages 7-14 and about 20 volunteers who took on the roles of Instrument Instructors, Band Coaches, Kid Wranglers and Roadies. It was amazing how much the kids were able to accomplish in only 6 days. Most of them had never even picked up their instruments before. My favorite part was seeing how supportive everyone was of each other - adults and kids alike.
Documentary of Girls Rock Bloomington Summer 2019 Camp & Final Showcase - Eric Ayotte
My vision for the future is eventually expanding to putting on workshops/classes throughout the year, creating a gear loan program for our youth participants, hosting a weekend rock camp for adults and promoting all-ages events in town where more teen bands and people under 21 can perform.
In general, I’d like to see more music and arts programming for young people that just let them do their own unstructured thing. Like gives them the tools but then allows them to dig in as if they were an adult, approaching it with that same kind of independence. Rhino’s Youth Center was amazing in that way. I was the Assistant Director, Visual Art and Zine Making Program Director there from 2013-2018. While there, I co-created a music program called "Make A Band," in which local teens were supplied with instruments, gear, and mentorship in starting their own bands, creating merch and performing at a final concert. It was sort of a prototype for Girls Rock Bloomington. Some of the bands that started there are still going to this day (shout out to Static Rats!)
Before moving to Bloomington, I was the After-school Program Director of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn, NY and volunteered with the New York camp as a guitar instructor and band coach. This experience heavily influenced my desire to found a Girls Rock Camp here. I also started teaching a Songwriting Course at Ivy Tech last year and plan to continue with that.
With both "Rest Stop" and the location of the gas station in the "Crushed" music video, it feels like a very specific Midwestern ennui. How has living in Bloomington (as opposed to being in New York) changed your creative process/lifestyle, inspiration, or your relationship with music? Or maybe speaking on what is consistent and has stayed the same?
Living in Bloomington has been a homecoming of sorts to what I’m most familiar with. I grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas so moving to Bloomington felt like returning to a certain pace of life that I had been missing on the East Coast. I like the unpretentiousness of the scene here and how so many people are deeply engaged with the creative process in quiet, consistent ways- not necessarily making a big deal of it or trying to inflate their self-image. I find that inspiring to be around.
I also get a lot of ideas from being close to nature - I love going for walks in the woods and letting my mind run a million different directions. Also, the relationships I’ve made here have been hugely important. Having access to other musicians to collaborate with (who I also love as people) and an incredible studio that I feel at home in (Russian Recording) has made such a big difference in my development as a musician. People were busier in the city, so there’s a higher chance of someone saying yes to being in my band or playing on my record here than there was in New York.
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Are there any hopes/changes you wish to see in the Bloomington music scene?
I hope to see more diversity and for anyone who may have reason to feel unwelcome being consciously asked to participate and made to feel at home. It also seems that there are cycles of trendiness where only certain bands will get asked to play shows- but there are so many good people playing music in town, so not getting caught up in the popularity game and remembering to ask a broader spectrum of people to play if you book shows. I’d like to see more established people taking younger musicians under their wing and helping them with booking/general advice - it can be hard to break into the scene! I’d love to see more dance, theater, experimental performance, etc woven into shows too!
Who do you listen to when you're in a creative rut?
I like to listen to music that’s totally different from mine when I’m in a creative rut. Ray Lynch is one of my favorites- especially ‘Deep Breakfast.’ I also love classic country tunes like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Lucinda Williams. And sometimes I go back to really early influences for me like Heavenly, Liz Phair, Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill and Mirah.
7. For many Bloomington teens, Rhino's was an institution and an important cultural space to just exist! What kind of advice would you give your teenage self?
Good question! My advice to my teenage self would be: try not to equate self-worth with productivity or validation from others (still working on this one..) Also, you don’t have to work with or be around someone if they make you feel bad about yourself or uncomfortable in any way- no explanation necessary. And this is an important one for young women or other marginalized people in music- there is no right way to do things so don’t let your ingenuity be mansplained away by anybody. If you feel marginalized in any way, that probably means your voice/perspective needs to be heard more than ever!
Amy O's new album, 'Shell,' comes out Friday, October 25th on Winspear. Check out Amy O on tour and also on her upcoming album release show on November 16th at the Blockhouse!