This Fender Player series Jaguar is one of Olivia Jean’s main electric axes, along with a Fender American Professional Jazzmaster and a Gretsch George Harrison Duo-Jet. Photo by David James Swanson
Olivia Jean is addicted to Scopitone. Don’t judge. If your thing is ukuleles and miniskirts, you might get addicted to the short, ’60s-era Scopitone music videos, too. It was while binge-watching them on YouTube that she stumbled upon “Jaan Pehechaan Ho,” the Mohammed Rafi hit from the 1965 Bollywood suspense thriller, Gumnaam. That song became an obsession—she even made her band learn it—and she recorded it for her recent release, Night Owl.
“Isn’t it ridiculous?” Jean says about the song and its beyond-campy accompanying dance sequence. “It’s so cool. It’s also in that movie Ghost World, in the ending credits. That was my favorite thing to watch on YouTube and I learned it phonetically for fun. I asked the band I was playing with at the time, ‘Would you guys be willing to learn this song?’ And they said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Pleeeeease?’ It’s extremely complicated. It’s more of an orchestral song, and if you listen to the original, the arrangement is all over the place. It’s very random. There’s a slight pattern, but not really, and that’s what makes it so difficult for the band to memorize.”
But ’60s kitsch isn’t Jean’s only addiction. In her early teens, she was hooked on instrumental surf music—or, more specifically, on recording instrumental surf music. She played every instrument and recorded to her laptop. “I would skip school,” she says. “My mom and dad were so angry at me for playing all day and night.” But her dedication paid off. She gave one of her home recordings to Jack White after a show, and he actually listened to it. He invited her to leave her hometown, Detroit, to join the team at Third Man Records in Nashville.
Jean started at Third Man as a session musician. She played bass with singer-songwriter Karen Elson, tic-tac bass with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, and worked as a multi-instrumentalist with numerous other artists. She toured and recorded with the goth-looking, garage-sounding Black Belles in 2012, and released her first solo album, Bathtub Love Killings, in 2014—again playing almost every instrument.
Night Owl is Jean’s second outing as a solo artist. She brought in other musicians to help speed up the recording process, but took the reins as producer. Songs like “Garage Bat,” “Siren Call,” and her cover of “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” have more of a twangy, surfy vibe than her last album, although the garage feel is still strong—especially on songs like the title track and “Perfume.” The numbers are short and the arrangements are tight, displaying her flair for economy. “I grew up listening to punk music,” she says. “A lot of the time I hear the melody in my head and I just need to get it out.”
We spoke with Jean about her experiences as a session player, the foundations of her guitar tone, the tracking and mixing of Night Owl, the mysteries lurking in Third Man’s bottomless gear closet, and the frustrations of being surrounded by so many expensive, unobtainable amps and guitars.
In the process of researching this article, I fell down a Wanda Jackson rabbit hole. What was your role in that band and what was it like working with her for 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over album and tour?
I was playing the tic-tac bass on a Fender Bass VI. Dominic Davis, the other bassist, was either playing standup or electric bass, and I would follow him with the tic-tac bass, to make it more prominent—me and Dominic were on a team.
You were playing in unison or were they interwoven parts?
Some songs we had interwoven parts. We had like 20 or 30 songs that we had to learn, so I can’t really name off the bat which ones we coordinated on—it was a long time ago, too—but we rehearsed the heck out of that set with that group of people. I was so starstruck that I didn’t even get a photo with her [laughs].
Is that Fender Bass VI yours? Do you use it on your albums as well?
No, that’s not my bass. I got to borrow that from Jack [White]. Before the Wanda Jackson tour, I’d never played one. I didn’t even know they existed. I never had a reason to look into it. I was really young when I went out on tour with Wanda Jackson. Growing up, I never had any mentors around me for vintage equipment or stuff like that, so working with Jack, that introduced me to a lot of stuff—vintage equipment, guitars. Before Third Man, I was like, “I’m happy with my $100 guitar, sounds cool.”
What vintage gear have you been turned onto since starting with Third Man?
I’m still getting schooled on vintage equipment. It’s hard when you can’t afford it to fall in love with it [laughs]. But Jack’s got a room full of amps—tons of vintage amps and they all sound great. I would say the one vintage piece of equipment that I want to steal is the Hofner bass. Maybe one day I can I afford one of those.It just sounds amazing. I had a rip-off Hofner bass when I was younger, but the actual thing is so easy to play.
Your basic guitar tone has just a touch of hair. Do you get your tone from your amp or are you more of a pedal person?
I use a Fender Hot Rod amp, which is great because it’s got drive on it and you can adjust that. I like giving it a little bit of drive and then, with my pedals, I adjust the dirt that I need. I always have my OCD pedal on, throughout the entire set. It gives you just enough dirt, but you can still hear the riffs. I don’t like using anything too distorted—especially because I have so many melodies going on in my songs, so many layers, that it really needs to poke through whenever I’m playing. I’ll use the OCD the entire set. For solos, right now I’m using the Westwood by EarthQuaker. I’m using the two drive pedals at the same time for solos. We play so damn loud onstage that I need to have easy access to those drive pedals or to my adjustments, because I will feed back like crazy if I don’t have it right in front of me. It’s mostly just my pedalboard that I control everything on. Otherwise I’ll have to run back to my amp.
TIDBIT: Olivia Jean’s new album, Night Owl, was recorded at Nashville’s Third Man Records studio. She produced, with assistance by engineers Joshua V. Smith and Logan Matheny.
So you’re constantly tweaking it?
I’m always tweaking it, because, unlike my recordings, those songs live translate really loud. Me and my guitarist are constantly battling over who gets to use more distortion or fuzz, or who’s louder.
But in the studio, you play all the guitars yourself?
For this album, I did bring musicians in to speed up the recording process, but I write everything. I write all the parts for all the instruments, let the musicians listen to it, and then mimic back exactly what I want them to play. Usually, I’ll do a demo for them.
And when you translate your songs for your live set, you’ve already dedicated the parts for the other musicians?
There’s a lot of coordination that has to go on with my songs. We usually have to strip them down because when I’m recording music, I don’t think, “Oh shoot, I won’t be able to have 20 guitar players onstage.” We translate the songs differently live. If I have a second guitarist on tour with me, I don’t want them to have to just play rhythm the whole time, because that’s boring. I’ll ask which solos they want to do and let them do a few solos and have fun onstage. And there are a few songs that I’m not able to play and do vocals at the same time—a lot of coordination has to go on, it’s like a puzzle.
Do you experiment with different gear in the studio or work with plug-ins to add variations to your sound?
A little of both. The good thing about recording at Third Man Studio is they have tons of equipment. I don’t need to bring anything, and usually Jack or the engineers know exactly what sound I’m going for. They’ll know exactly what amp or what mic to use. I’m really lucky to work with people like that who are so into gear. For my new record, I tried to mess around in post, too, but that’s actually something I don’t think I’m ever going to do again. Plug-ins are convenient and cool and they’re getting a lot better as time goes on, but it’s so much work if you don’t get it right when you record it, because it’s really hard to mimic the real thing. Especially with digital reverb, you can definitely hear the difference.