Change and exchange are at the heart of Olive Tiger’s new classical-rock EP, Softest Eyes: Side A, the first in a planned series of three records. Imbued with eerie, evocative sounds and trenchant wit, the EP is, in Olive’s words, “an exchange of energy and vulnerability.” The magic of this EP for me is how the music takes the energy of frustration and rage and doubt, reorganizes it from a lightning ball into an orderly electrical circuit, and hands it back as healing and power.
Olive explains: “When I think about music I create, it’s a way to replenish my own spirit, which feels like a crucial element of sustainability. My own creation of my own music is something I find so deeply satisfying, the opportunity to create something from nothing and to add something beautiful to the world that didn’t exist before.”
Also playing on the EP are Jesse Newman (violin and synths), John McGrath (drums on “The Boys” and “Choir”), and Dane Scozzari (drums on “Vapor” and “Crucible”). It was recorded at San Serif. Olive notes that taking a song into the studio has, for her, the feel of bringing it into a divine space. There’s an act of service in making it ready to share, as you “step into the moment of having the performance that’s going to crystallize a song.”
With live venues booking and festival season upon us, the world is reopening to what Olive sees as a third level of energy exchange: the interaction between performer and audience that feels sacred and creatively sustaining when everything clicks. (Spoiler: the next EP is slated to include “Crooked,” which is about playing an emotionally difficult show, pre-pandemic.)
Fire up your Spotify (embed at the bottom) or hie yourself to Bandcamp as we look at this EP track by track.
The EP opens with an eerily, entrancingly, percussively sweet inquiry into familiar moments in femininity: the mace in the purse, the keys clenched between the fingers, the expectation of wearing make-up. The third verse hits so hard for me with “why aren’t boys praised for sweetness?” — way back when I was seven, one of my mother’s friends announced “girls don’t have to be smart, they just have to be sweet” — that I needed a minute to catch up with the power of how each verse ends.
Rather than a chorus, the sole repeating element (other than “why?”) is variants on “because I love me,” which for me points up the differences in how women are served by self-love versus being loved-at. The song was inspired by the Kavanaugh hearings and “reflecting on experience as a woman moving through the world.” The final verse, with the Senator staring at his shoelaces, captures the combined rage and ambivalence of what it’s like to sit through yet another “as a father of daughters, I care” speech. We’re expected to applaud — it’s right there in the beat, with irony — and it feels like it’s cycling back into the same old trap as the first verse.
“Vapor” weaves together musical genres to show the emotional journey of “being in a place where you’re falling into a relationship and feeling your spirit getting invested in it and it not working out.”
Structurally, it artfully demonstrates setting up expectations that won’t be fulfilled. The intro feels like a sultry torch song. We know how torch songs go: it’s either hot love, longing or betrayal, right? The mood shifts into folk and rock, before an almost-final tying together of all the musical threads into an orchestral, operatic surge, each match the mood of a relationship stage while also capturing how it’s the energy of being fooled into thinking “I’ve got it, I know where I am, I know where this goes.” The final lines — so similar to the beginning, yet somehow the feel is different — feel like the aftermath of every fight where we’re exhaustedly promising next time will be different.
“Choir” was three years in the making. Olive recounts: “It started as an invitation for the muse to come visit, while feeling stuck after the energy of the first record.” As the song developed, it took on two complementary meanings; which one stands out depends on the light and mood you listen in.
One dimension is a welcome to strangers and outsiders, intended as a response to anti-immigrant rhetoric. The references to “sanctuary” and “come to my country,” set to a folk-worldbeat sound that builds from loneliness to vast numbers, is a musical statement of being better together and stronger as a mass movement.
The other dimension is a feeling of “inhabiting my muse, being at the height of creative powers, creating the feel of a real physical space to welcome people into.” The reverb and mix reinforce a sense of real space. The tension between the well-defined “everyday rhythms” and the implied “chaos and clamor” also shape into a space — it’s especially moving that unity into a choir of everyday rhythms defeats any sort of clamor.
Here is a stunning example of the rule that you never know when a song that feels profound started with a trivial incident. Olive recounts that the initial spark came from losing a pair of sunglasses in a river, deciding to rescue them, being daring at it, and still not quite succeeding. This became the battery for a bigger concept of “finding yourself up against a task that’s beyond what you thought you could do and the experience of pushing yourself into that,” which in turn “became about life as a queer woman and acceptance of that.”
It’s fascinating to me how the opening bird chirps and gently lilting verse reproduce the spark in literal terms, while having the feel of the new day dawning that comes from the larger theme. The music flows in a direction that combines the mood of Appalachian Spring-esque ballet with internal struggle in both classical and rock idioms. The final section is a deep exhale of relief and acceptance.