First Published July 2021
“MUSIC IS COMMUNICATION”
It’s been a while – too long, in fact – since we last had a new reason to enjoy the glorious voice of OLIVIA BURKE. But thankfully that all changed last Friday with the release of her brand new single, YOU’RE ALIVE. A superb songwriter in her own right, You’re Alive sees Olivia take on the role of artist only, as she brings this Keith McLoughlin and Grace Day penned creation to life.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Olivia last week on the night before You’re Alive officially entered the world, and we kicked off our chat with her explaining how she became involved in this project…
“Well I’ve known Keith for a good few years, he does a radio show on the station Dublin South FM, and I’ve done a couple of interviews and performances on the show. And we just stayed in contact. So Keith wrote that song with Grace, and I believe they did most of it over Facebook video-calls, because obviously with the pandemic and everything they weren’t able to do it in person. Then they passed it onto me and asked would I be interested in singing it. The minute I heard the song I said yeah, it’s definitely something I’d like to be involved in. I just thought it was really catchy, there’s just kind of a good vibe around it in general. After that, I got involved in the pre-production side of things, and took part in some of those video-calls with Grace and Keith, along with Rohan from Beardfire Studios who produced the track.”
From the time Olivia first heard a version of You’re Alive, to the finished product that we were all about to hear a few hours after she and I spoke, how much did her involvement change the song?
“The melody mostly stayed the same, the lyrics and the chords stayed the same. There were a couple of bits, little sections, that were shortened and things like that, instrumentally, when we went into the studio. Over the video-calls, we all had a lot of input in picking out songs that would be good reference tracks, to the point where we were actually listening to tracks and saying do ya know what, we like the drums out of this track, and then listening to something else and liking the guitar out of that. It was a very focused approach to it in that regard. When I did hear it first, though, it was only an acoustic demo with Grace singing and playing guitar. So we did, we changed it a lot. One thing led to another. When we were discussing it we said we might take it a more pop route instead of going acoustic country with it. Although it still has those nuances to it, it’s definitely more kind of radio-friendly…although country and acoustic would be as well…I don’t know, it’s more universal, I suppose? Just because it is hitting the pop scene.”
I’ve known about Olivia for a good few years already, and always as being a songwriter herself. So I was wondering, with something like this, where she was coming on-board as a vocalist, was it her first time doing that? And if it was, what was her reaction to being asked?
“Yeah, absolutely, my first time doing anything like this. I went and studied music for four years in college, in BIMM in Dublin, so I was doing a lot of collaboration, but nothing to this level, but just playing with other people and performing original music from other people. And I really enjoyed that collaborative side of it. So when I heard Keith and Grace’s song, I knew I liked it, and that it was something that I’d like to be a part of. I was absolutely delighted to be a part of it. Of course, it was kind of a different experience, coming at it from the perspective of a songwriter. But I thought the song was great, so in that sense, it wasn’t something that felt too far out of my comfort zone just because I’d been used to playing with other people over the last couple of years.”
So as an artist who is also a songwriter, what was Olivia’s approach to getting ‘inside’ the words of other writers?
“I think music is a form of communication, more so than anything else. And you really want to communicate with the listener and get the message across. So I suppose I took the same approach as I would to a cover-song, when I was thinking about how to approach the emotion in it. Because you need to connect with whoever’s listening to it. I spent a lot of time reading the lyrics and trying to come about those emotions in my mind, the ones the song was representing for me, and trying to convey that in the way I sang it. In the studio recording it, I think we took three vocal takes for the main vocal. And every time Rohan was pushing me to put more emotion into it! [Laughs]. He’d be saying, you did great in this line conveying the emotion, now push it for the next line. And it worked in the end. In a way, there is a bit of drama to it, I suppose [laughs]. It’s a bit like acting in a way, isn’t it.”
Was Olivia able to link the lyrics to something in her own life to make that personal connection, or was it – as she had just said – more a case of acting it out?
“I think in a way, all lyrics – even when it comes to ones I write myself – you want to make them universal so that it’s something that everyone can relate to. But at the same time, this song deals with the feelings around the end of a relationship, or a friendship, and drawing parallels between that and the feelings of grief if you’ve actually lost a loved one for any reason, death, or if they’ve moved away for some reason. So I suppose they are things that I would relate to, but also that everyone would relate to as well. Although it’s a personal song, it’s not very specific. So I was able to approach it from my perspective as well.”
As Olivia had mentioned, she’s just finished four years studying Commercial Modern Music and Songwriting at BIMM in Dublin. So I asked her to tell me about her time there and what it’s set her up for next in her career…
“Well, first off, I had an absolutely amazing experience there. I’ve been slow with releases and everything the last couple of years just because I’ve been trying to focus on that, and wanting to make the most of my time there. I’ve made amazing connections with other musicians that I know will be life-long friendships, and life-long musical partnerships, hopefully. Covid has put a bit of a spanner in the works because it’s harder to collaborate with people and work with people. BIMM is so great because they teach you about the business side of it [the music industry] and the law side of it. I feel like, as a musician – when all you want to do is play, and write music – you push that more practical side of it to the back of your mind. In the sense of what you need to do marketing-wise, business-wise, what you need to know about the legalities of it all. So learning about all of that, as well as being able to perform, was absolutely amazing. We all like to think that as musicians we’ll be in a position where one day we’ll have people dealing with all that kind of stuff for us [laughs]. But at the same time, I think it’s good to actually have a base in all of it, and know what you’re talking about, and what’s right and what’s wrong. If you’re offered, let’s say, a contract or something like that, to know that you’re not getting screwed over, basically [laughs]. But it was a great experience, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough for musicians, or anyone else interested in the music business in general, because you learn so much. It was four or five days a week, four years, so a level-eight course, so a proper bachelor’s degree. Which is unusual in itself for a music course which is so modern. As you know, in Ireland most courses are related to Irish music or classical music. So it was really cool, even though it wasn’t all just sitting around and playing music. Even though that would have been great! [Laughs].”
So when did the thought of going to BIMM first come into Olivia’s head? Was it always her plan for after secondary school?
“Absolutely! I think when I was in third-year, or transition-year, I heard about it for the first time, and I knew that was definitely what I wanted to do. There were obviously other things I was interested in school, but I said ya know what, I want to go and pursue my passion, and see what comes of it. I believe when I was filling out the C.A.O. form that was the only thing that I actually had written down [laughs], I was just banking everything on that! [Laughs].”
So now that Olivia has completed her four years in BIMM, how will everything that she’s learned, as well as all of the relationships and connections she’s made, help to lead her into this next stage of her career?
“Well, I’ve found a new love in music, in production. I love producing music now. A lot of that was through BIMM and what they’ve taught us in relation to demos, and different software to make demos. A lot of the assignments on the course I did would be submitting portfolios of songs. I released a single in May called ‘Anybody Else’ that I self-produced, and just recorded at home. And I have other stuff that I’m working on and I’m hoping to bring out. So it’s benefited me in that way, especially at the minute because even with the worry of Covid, it means that I can still get music out without having to go and record somewhere else, ya know. And it makes it easier to show people your ideas, if you’re able to throw something together at home and say look, this is what I’m thinking of. Rather than trying to explain yourself and maybe not being able to find the words. Music, as I said, it’s a lot about communication. And that comes down to working with other people as well. And BIMM has been great for giving me that knowledge, to be able to show people what I’d like to do.”
Olivia is still only twenty-two, but even six years ago, at just sixteen, she released her debut EP, Notes On My Napkin. I remember being at that launch in Hugh Lynch’s in Tullamore, and being blown away by just how special a talent Olivia already was, even at that very, very early stage of her career. But to end up with an EP at just sixteen, means her writing career itself began even earlier…
“Ah, thanks so much! [Laughs]. Yeah, I started writing when I was just a kid. I always loved music. I was writing songs that were basically rip-offs of Britney Spears songs [laughs]. I’d take whatever I heard on the radio and try and make something [else] of it. But when I was about twelve, I think, I learned how to play the guitar. I started writing lyrics then, and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s second nature to me now at this stage, I suppose.”
Staying with Olivia’s writing, and her time at BIMM, I wanted to know how much that had helped to change, or develop, her approach to songwriting. By ‘changed’, I wondered if her approach now was completely different to when she first went to BIMM four years ago. And by ‘developed’, I wondered if her approach was perhaps the same, only now honed much closer to perfection…
“I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest. Because I would look at songwriting in a different sense [now], because I’m well-aware of all the theory around it, the practicalities of it, and the things that are in place that songwriters have been doing for years. Even taking thematic approaches to songs rather than just writing down lyrics that come to my head straight away. I don’t think my approach has necessarily changed, because I’ve always been someone who would write lyrics, melody, and music at the same time. But I definitely feel like I’ve become a more rounded songwriter. I can write songs now from other peoples’ perspectives as well, or about things I haven’t necessarily gone through myself. I think things like that are always positives for a writer. And as well as that, the practise of having to write songs specifically for briefs and assignments, has pushed me more. But in my mind, it’s always going to be quality over quantity anyway, so if I go through a bit of writer’s block, sure that’s all part of it [laughs].”
Olivia had briefly mentioned Covid earlier in our chat. I was wondering how it might have affected her life – not being able to perform, not being able to see people, all of that – and in turn, how that might have affected her writing?
“Environmental factors are always, always going to be a part of it, whether you’re even conscious of it or not. But I think music has shifted to becoming more…emotional in a way, I suppose. People want a little bit more substance to lyrics instead of just easy-listening on the radio. Not to say that stuff from the last couple of years isn’t good or anything [laughs], I love listening to pop music. But I think people want stories right now. With Covid, because it is such a universal thing, honing in to those emotions and those feelings that everyone has known; being stuck at home, or feeling a bit lost, that’s something a writer can use to try and connect with people a little bit more than maybe they could before. Because there is that solidarity about what we’ve all been going through.”
With You’re Alive due out only hours after we spoke, I asked Olivia what the rest of 2021 looked like holding in store for her…
“Well I’m hoping that as soon as things start to open back up for ‘live’ music that I’ll be out doing open-mics and stuff back in Dublin, and hopefully a few gigs. I’m working on a new single that will hopefully be coming out at the end of August as well, called ‘Graves’, which is an original. So hopefully that will be out around the end of August, early September, I’m not entirely sure yet. But that’s another self-produced one. There’s a lot of ‘hopefully’ involved in looking ahead right now [laughs]. ‘Graves’ is a song I wrote when I was in my first year in college, it’s about people using different vices to survive in life, whether that’s drugs, alcohol, toxic relationships, that kind of thing. It’s a song about self-sabotage. It’s written as a love song. It’s an interesting one, it’s an interesting one [laughs]. I’ll be sticking with the pop route, but it’ll be a little bit heavier than ‘You’re Alive’, but still radio-friendly. More Billie Eilish than any country kinda vibes! It’s a little bit more hip-hop inspired, I suppose.”
If Olivia wrote Graves in her first year in college, four years ago, does that mean that she probably holds onto a lot of songs for a long time? Until she feels the time is finally right to finish them and send them out into the world?
“Absolutely. There’s songs that I’ve written six and seven years ago that I’d be happy recording and releasing now. But at the same time, the last single that I released back in May, ‘Anybody Else’, I only wrote that one over the pandemic. And it was to do with what we were just talking about, those feelings of loneliness, grief, and everything people were feeling over lockdown. Feeling a bit detached from yourself, ya know. I wrote that and released it very quickly afterwards. So it just depends really. I’m only getting to a stage now where I feel confident enough with my production to actually release things properly. So I have a lot of things built up. Folders upon folders of lyrics and songs that I’d like to get out into the world. Look, it’ll be a long time before they’re all out there [laughs], but hopefully we’ll get there someday!”
~ YOU’RE ALIVE, the brand NEW single from OLIVIA BURKE (written by Keith McLoughlin and Grace Day), is OUT NOW, available on all digital platforms and to request from radio.