From Techno to Acoustic and Beyond
When there is seemingly nothing new under the sun, the creative genius turns inward for inspiration. Singer/songwriter PJ Olsson is one who does not seek creative motivation in contemporary music. “I try to focus on writing and being creative without too much modern day influence,” says Olsson, 29, who’s been a musician since the age of five. With songs that integrate elements of folk, pop, and modern electronica, suffused with evocative, disjointed lyrics, Olsson has arrived at a songwriting formula that produces genuinely unforgettable music. “I just rely on the ‘closed eyes’ theory,” he says of his approach to conjuring lyrical images that tease and play with the mind’s perception of traditional poetics. “I used to second guess [myself]. If I had an idea, I’d say “What are those words in my head?’ and I’d re-write them because I thought about them too much.” Now that he’s comfortable with who he is, personally and artistically, “Whatever line comes out,” he says, “I figure it must be the right thing.”
The result of Olsson’s unique creative process is a self-tilted, nine song collection released in early January, designed to give audiences a preview of his Columbia records debut, due in the spring. What is most striking about Olsson’s compositions is the way they tend to metamorphosize in shape as they play out. “Visine” begins with acoustic strumming, recalling the solo of work Stephen Stills or Paul Simon, then drops in subtle, electronic effects and plants an almost hallucinatory chorus over trip hop beats. Likewise, the killer cut, an opiated, space-age love song entitled “Thorazine,” is a perfect example of his eclectic lyrics. In his malleable, seductive voice, Olsson croons “Love is my Thorazine/ Lithium Hell and Hand Cream.” Don’t think too much about any literal meaning; there’s a cohesion in the message that transcends his stream-of-consciousness musings. “Thorazine” will appear in a different version on the upcoming Columbia release.
PJ Olsson recently completed a national tour opening for critical favorite, Rufus Wainwright. “I’ve been feeling really positive throughout the whole tour,” he says. “People are very receptive and seem to be tremendously supportive.” Olsson spoke to me — literally — from the road, calling on his cellular phone en route to a gig in Atlanta.
What is so interesting about the record is how it starts out seeming very folky, like Stephen Stills, but then drops in all these electronic bits and trip hop stuff. That’s very modern sounding. How did these sounds work their way in there?
Actually, first and foremost, I was into keyboards and sequencers. My first love was ambient music with beats. Then, slowly, [from] doing gigs and getting in front of people, [whom] I wanted to touch, I guess, I started to write more words and more songs. That [desire] came out of switching over and going to the guitar. I did kind of go back to that organic, folk rock type of thing, where you’re sitting writing with an acoustic guitar…but always knowing that, in the end, I’d go back and put in the types of sounds that I wanted there to be underneath. I think that some of the modern sounds that go along with the stuff I do just happen to be there because I love to record music and I’ve always been about really well-recorded music. [I’m] trying to get a cool sound or something that’s at least different than the sameness of a lot of albums today.
I think it’s great the way you mix styles. Do you think that takes a lot of people by surprise? What kinds of reactions have you gotten at your live shows?
There were some people at our last three gigs who were there for all three, so that was really nice. Most of the time I feel that for the first three or four songs, people are like ‘What is exactly going on here?’ Then by the end, after you hear one song without the beats, and you think ‘Oh, he can sing’ or ‘Here’s a different kind of song’ maybe by the end of the show the audience is like ‘Wow, that band was really good!’
You seem to be winning folks over through your live shows. I wonder why you didn’t put more tracks on the CD, since you obviously have a stable of material.
Well, because we wanted [this record] to be more than an EP, but a little less than an album. It just happened that those nine tracks worked the best, better than the thirteen song [selection] that didn’t quite work as well. I believe that there’s eleven or twelve on the album right now.
The ninth track, which is uncredited on the record sleeve, is very intriguing.
That’s actually one of my favorites, “Woman with the Womb.” It’s like the stuff I started doing when I was 15 or 16. That’s why I was trying to come full circle and at the end of the album have something that was more like the music I’ve always done. Not quite so song-related.
I read where you had started experimenting with trip hop beats and sampling Middle Eastern music, and some of your vocals on that particular song resemble this type of guttural chanting done by Tibetan monks. Was that intentional, and do you know what I’m referring to?
Yeah, I know what your talking about. I think that [vocalization] was just guttural from really going deep within the throat trying to emulate a woman’s womb. Emulating the whole process…just the canvas of sound that the girl [who] I have in my life had to offer through giving me children. I tried to come up with a sound to represent that.
What’s the song “Plastic Soul” about?
I’m a skier, and my ski partner had his knee blow out on him. He had a new knee put in and it was plastic and, after a year, the ligaments actually grew around the plastic. I thought it was incredible how that, even with all these crazy toys and all this stuff that’s around that’s plastic — and it’s all bullshit — that there is some great thing that can come out of that sort of man-made material. I thought it was neat how the human body actually wrapped itself around his new plastic knee and made it a part of him.
Were you trying to take that idea to the level of a person actually having — metaphorically speaking or whatever — a plastic soul? Or is that just the name of a song?
No, at the same time that I was talking about how there’s such a real part to the plastic environment that we have, [and I was juxtaposing that] there’s such the fake part of the plastic environment. That’s kind of contradicting itself by the end of the chorus, when I’m asking myself if my “plastic soul is all I have for me.” By the end of the song, I’m asking myself if even the fakeness that I have in my life is worth resolving to.
Yeah, your lyrics are really great and trippy. “Thorazine” is a good example of that: a really incredible beautiful song, and I love how the lyrics are so abstract. And the song “Yesterday” really reminds me of an “I Am The Walrus” kind of thing. Is there any Beatles influence going on there?
I think there’s always a Beatles influence in everything I do. I think they’re one of the influences I could never escape, because it was such a constant thing growing up. Definitely, there are [Beatles] influences in [that song] although I can’t say that’s what I sat down and wrote on. I really don’t write off of songs. In the end I was like ‘Wow, my influences snuck up on me again.’ A lot of times you’re wondering ‘How did this happen that [the song] came out like this?’ Then there’s also times that you find a song could sound [a certain way] and you maybe almost take it there…but you don’t. That’s part of me, and that’s all right to go with. It’s all right to be proud of certain influences and let them brew in you for the future.
With you coming from a musical family, your parents both being involved in music, and finding yourself on tour with Rufus Wainwright, who obviously has a very famous set of musical parents, do you find that you and he have much in common?
Yeah, I think that we slowly found that we did. I mean, I have a family with children, and he doesn’t. I’ll tell you, at the Bowery Ballroom show, I felt strong similarities towards the end (when Wainwright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle and sister, Martha Wainwright, joined him onstage). I was thinking, “Wow, that’s how [my family] grew up.” Definitely, I find a little bit of classical, folky influences that he has kind of sneak up [on me] in the same way.
This is not your first record, is it?
It’s my first real record. I had a record out on Hit It recordings out of Chicago…in 1992 or ’93. I recorded an album when I was 17, when I was in Germany, but nothing ever happened with that. Then, right before this album that I recorded, I recorded for two years for a techno label in Germany. As I got done with [the current] album, I ended up getting the Columbia deal, so I went right back in and re-recorded everything. You can only barely sustain your life with advances, though. You actually have to sell albums to pay your rent. That’s why we want to be out touring and playing as much as we can; to sell albums, so that I can feed my kids and pay my rent through music.
Going back to the year that you spent in Germany, as a teenager, what was that like? Do you think that really shaped your musical direction?
That year was very important. I think it definitely shaped a lot, because growing up with my father, I’d never really been able to show him that I was actually a songwriter as well, even though he always believed I could be. That trip to Germany made both of us kind of respect each other a little bit more than just [as] Dad and Son, and opened up a lot for me in the way of letting him help me, letting him show me some things and letting me show him some things. Also, the moral respect it gave me to finally get respected — which is important, especially at a young age — made me proud and made me say ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and go forward. You do immature things when you’re 17, but I’m alive still (laughs) and I feel pretty darn good.
College radio has been picking up “Visine” for airplay and Jed the Fish has been playing the song on the famous KROQ radio station in Los Angeles.