In addition to fronting her own band. Olivia Jean’s tenure at Third Man has included sessions and tours for other artists, playing guitar and bass. The most notable are Wanda Jackson and Karen Elson. Photo by David James Swanson
When you record every instrument yourself, every track is completely isolated, obviously. On this album, did you allow the instruments to bleed into other mics, or do you still try to keep that isolation?
I really prefer the live room sound with the whole band in the room. We did “Night Owl” that way, with live sound and bleed in the microphones. That’s my favorite song, production-wise, on the album. Doing things in isolation is necessary, but I prefer doing everything live as much as I can. You don’t have the freedom of saying, “Can I do that again?”—just stopping if you make one tiny little mistake. You feel like a jerk, stopping the entire band. You get things done faster, it’s more real sounding, and you can play off each other.
Do you have tricks for miking your amps?
Usually, we have the mic straight onto the amp for overdubs and such. If we’re doing live room sounds, we’ll have one of the amps isolated in a different room just to make sure that all the melodies are easy to hear. We mess around with isolating amps, especially for heavier songs.
When you play bass, do you approach it like a guitar and play it with a pick?
I play bass with a pick. I’m a guitar player and I tend to write bass lines like I do guitar riffs. They are very busy bass lines. Usually, my bass lines are so busy and fast that you need to use a pick—especially since I like the bass lines to poke through. I don’t like them to sound too muffled. I like the melodies to poke through.
You play drums, too.
When I first got into surf instrumental music, I started picking up all the instruments so I could record everything on my own. I became addicted to recording instrumental music.
What were you recording to?
When I was a teenager—and actually, the demo that I gave to Third Man, too—that was recorded through one of those long computer microphones that stand up like a stick. I was just recording through a free recording program. I think it was called Audacity. I would “mix” the songs in my car. I didn’t know what mixing was at that point and I didn’t know I was mixing. I didn’t grow up in a musical family and I didn’t grow up with any mentors for equipment, recording techniques, or whatnot. I just did it.
Where did you grow up?
I am from the suburbs of Detroit, but I would be in Detroit for everything music. The music scene was awesome. I lived on Nine Mile, so Detroit was just a couple of minutes away. It was easy to go to the city and see bands.
It didn’t matter that you were underage?
I never had a problem getting into a show. It was mostly local bands at bars. There were art-house shows that a lot of the musicians would have—not in venues—that I would go to when I was really young. I probably shouldn’t have been there at my age and I’m sure people were like, “Why is this child here?”
When you got to Third Man, was that your first experience doing sessions and playing other people’s music?
Yes, that was my first experience as a session musician. My first sessions would be the Wanda Jackson project. I was also the bassist for Karen Elson—that was another big one I did, touring-wise. It was really fun and I was excited to learn all those songs. I was excited to play other people’s music. I miss that a lot actually—playing other people’s stuff, instead of being in charge.It’s just less pressure, I guess.
How do you approach playing as a touring sideperson?
I try to play it exactly as they have it recorded, exactly as they want it. I take it very seriously, constantly playing those songs so I know them forwards and backwards. It’s still definitely a creative outlet, for sure, performing and such. I feel like you can live in the moment a little bit more when you don’t have that much on your shoulders as a frontperson.
Has that experience impacted how you write and record music?
I want to say no. I haven’t really changed much since I was a teenager, to be honest. But you definitely become a better musician when you do these sessions. You have to learn different techniques.
You sometimes play acoustic, but are you mainly an electric player?
Yes. Definitely. As the years have gone by, I realize that if you can’t play a song just with an acoustic guitar, then there’s a problem. I feel like writing on an acoustic guitar is something I should definitely start doing more, to get the backbone of the song done first.
What’s that acoustic you’re sometimes pictured with?
That acoustic is a Gibson L-1. It’s the famous one that Robert Johnson had. It is from 1917 or 1918. It’s a very special guitar and that’s my one acoustic guitar that I have. Only the best … [laughs].
Night Owl is your first outing as a producer. Did you work the board as well?
After the album, I feel like I can be an engineer for sure. I was there for the entire process. It was just me and the engineer in the room most of the time. I worked with two different engineers: Joshua V. Smith and Logan Matheny. There was a lot of one-on-one, just learning the board—learning the things that a musician doesn’t need to understand when you’re just being a musician. As a producer you have to take into consideration so many different things, and I learned a lot from those guys.Like EQ. It opened up my eyes to a whole new world.
When you record your songs, do they evolve from your original vision or is what we’re hearing basically what you had in your head at the outset?
What you hear on the recording is basically what I heard in my head when I first heard the music. My songs are very music driven. I’ll hear the riff in my head. I’ll do a full demo with drums, bass, and guitar. After I get the music down, which is what I hear first, then I’ll go and write lyrics. It is kind of backwards.
Are you one of these people who has a library of riffs in your phone?
I have in my voice memos tons of different guitar riffs that I hear in my head. There are really embarrassing ones, too. I’ll listen back and think, “What was I thinking?” I have a ton of song ideas, so that’s nice. I go through my riffs and listen for different things. Sometimes it works out where two riffs work together—where one is a guitar line and one is a bass line. With lyrics, I jot stuff down and I have a notebook full of ideas. I’ll go through that notebook, pick a topic, and see all these lines I’ve written thrown together, David Bowie-style, like picking them out of a fishbowl.