Back in 2009, when garage-goth outfit The Black Belles formed in Detroit, the Motor City’s famed garage rock scene that burned so brightly in the ‘90s had morphed into something more eclectic. Genres were blending, cross-pollination was occurring. The White Stripes’ final album was two years gone, and Jack was on his way to Nashville with Third Man Records.
But White has always had an eye for talent, and he quickly snapped The Black Belles up to Third Man. And when that band went on hiatus in 2012 after one self-titled, quite excellent, album, he kept vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Olivia Jean on the roster — a savvy move.
Jean was brought up in St. Clair Shores, a suburb of Detroit and notably the place that Patti Smith and her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, called home. The budding musician would venture into Detroit proper regularly, to soak in the music scene. Still, the Detroit River and the Great Lakes do little to explain the surf vibe that’s all over her music today.
“I got into instrumental surf music at a young age, and that was from my dad playing the B-52’s for me when I was just a little kid,” she says. “That slowly transitioned me into getting into surf music, because they’re highly influenced by surf music as well. So I would record music on my own, and that was just an easy genre for me to record songs all on my own. The first demo I gave Third Man Records was instrumental surf songs.”
Here in SoCal, where Dick Dale (RIP) is properly iconized and the Beach Boys are standard-bearers, surf makes more sense. But even in Motown, there were precedents.
“I think the Amino Acids — I would say that they definitely had the surf thing going on, a little bit harder than what I do,” Jean says. “I think a lot of the garage rock bands were influenced by that ‘60s guitar sound. You can hear it all over the place, but for some reason for me I have a passion for it. I really love writing melodies on guitar like I would a vocal melody and blending everything together. Doing instrumental music like that is really fun for me, especially on my own. Other than the Amino Acids, the Gore Gore Girls sprinkled some surf onto their stuff as well.”
Jean was the writer of the Black Belles’ songs, and it was always in her head as well as the labels’ that she would do a solo record next. Now that she’s going it alone, she admits that she likes the freedom.
“I miss the dynamic of a band, but as for creativity it’s easier for me to control where a song goes because, recording all the surf stuff on my own, that’s what I grew up doing,” she says. “I’m kind of a control freak in that way, when it comes to songwriting. So creatively I really like the solo project, but I do miss the band dynamic because it’s nice to be surrounded by people who are all in the same boat. Ready to climb your way to the top. Being a solo artist is kind of scary sometimes.”
That said, there’s a spirit of collaboration at Third Man that Olivia Jean can tap in if she so desires.
“Yeah, when I’m in the studio I’m always open to ideas, collaborating with other musicians,” she says. “If I’m working on my solo stuff and somebody has a suggestion, I’ll definitely take it. Especially with microphones and amps, and different effects to use. It’s nice to have someone there sort of producing what’s going on because when you do everything on your own you become too attached so it’s nice to have somebody to feed ideas to me.”
While Jack White produced the Black Belles album, Olivia Jean self-produced her solo records as she wanted to retain a garagey, raw quality. This being her first time behind the desk, it was all a bit trial and error as she learned the ropes and the lingo. It all turned out fine, which is unsurprising as she’s known at the label as somebody who can play any instrument, do anything she sets her mind to.
“Honestly, half the time I don’t know what I’m doing on the instrument I’m playing because I just play by sound,” she says, modestly. “I think that does help a lot. I’m around a lot of people that can play multiple instruments, but specifically for me it’s because maybe I don’t play by the book and I just play by sound that I can do that. I can bring more interesting riffs or whatnot to the table, not having the technical side embedded into my brain.”
Olivia Jean moved to Nashville when she was about 22 and, while she misses Detroit, she’s made her home in Tennessee. This week, she’s coming to Los Angeles to perform at the Redwood Bar, and she’s excited to get here. It’s been too long, she says.
“You can expect me to play songs from my new record, Night Owl — that’s the majority of the set,” she says. “I do throw in some Black Belles songs as well, and some songs from my first solo record [Bathtub Love Killings]. I’m playing with an awesome band from Nashville, backing me up. I think it’s gonna be a cool show. When we play live, the songs are a lot heavier and louder than they are on record, which I like to do. I think it makes the show more fun for us and also more of a punch in the face when we start playing. On my record, it’s kind of mellow, surfy and ‘60s girl group doo-wop sound. But when we play it’s a lot heavier. Lots of distortion. So it’s a different take on the songs. I alter them a little bit for live shows.”
After that, she’ll be headlining a Woman’s Day celebration show in San Francisco. She’s on a roll now — a couple of albums in and Olivia Jean is in her surfy groove. Now watch her rise.
Olivia Jean play with Electric Children, Soraia and Cosmic Kitten at 9 p.m. on Friday, March 6 at the Redwood Bar.
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