By Abigail Jay
Olivia Sisay, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Pennsylvania, released her first album Atlantic Salt in October of 2021. Her Instagram identifies her as a “gay rock star,” and the record establishes her as just that. With Sisay’s soft voice and poetic lyrics, and production by Jeremiah Bermel, Atlantic Salt pulls the listener into a world of beauty and heartache, with vulnerability bleeding out of every note. With Sisay’s album release show on the horizon, set for December 5, 2021 at ONCE at the Rockwell, WTBU spoke with the artist on the topic of her debut album.
Abigail Jay (AJ): What was the inspiration behind this album?
Olivia Sisay (OS): I can’t say it was any one thing, I think mostly just play and experimentation, because I really haven’t been writing for very long. And so it was kind of just me exploring language, and figuring out how to express myself through music, because it really is kind of a new language for me. And also, just, I mean, if you’ve listened to the lyrics, it’s about heartbreak. And it’s about being in love and losing people and kind of finding yourself as well. So it’s not any one thing, but a lot of just fidgeting and playing around. And not knowing what I’m doing.
AJ: What did you experiment with?
OS: A lot of it was figuring out where my limitations lie with instrumentation, because I’ve been playing guitar for a number of years, but I’m not great at it. And I’ve been singing for a long time. But it was kind of figuring out how to write lyrics in a way that felt natural, and maybe not too corny. And then also figuring out how you play to a melody that you sing, and really starting from a bare bones kind of place. And then once I had these little skeletons of things, I would just play them over and over again, to myself and to my roommates. And one of the people I was living with at the time last year, his name is Jeremiah Bermel. He’s my producer for the record. He’s also a dear friend of mine, who I’ve known for many years. He would hear me playing around the house, and he very generously offered to produce any project that I wanted to do, which is never something I thought about before. I never wanted to put out music or play shows. But we started working together, we recorded the first demo for the record in my bedroom, which I’m in right now. And a lot of it was collaboration and a lot of vulnerability and trusting him. And just being able to kind of know nothing and dive into things. It’s really fun, too.
AJ: Do you do the instrumentals on your songs?
OS: I play all of the acoustic guitar on the record. I do play guitar. I learned music on violin when I was a little kid. I was like four when I started.. Other than those two instruments, I really am not well versed in anything. I’m getting better every day.
AJ: So this is a really recent project. You only started in the last year.
OS: Yeah. With one exception. I wrote the record from September 2020 to January or, no, December 2020. So it was really only three months of writing, with one exception I wrote maybe two years ago. It was a quick writing process and then a very long production and recording process.
AJ: What song did you write two years ago?
OS: I wrote “Good For Tonight” in January of 2019. And that’s my baby. I love that song so much. And it was probably the first one that I felt really proud of. I was like “this is exciting and I want to play it for people and I think this could be something,” and then I didn’t think about a record for a really long time, until fall of last year when I picked it back up again.
AJ: Was that like your first time trying your hand at songwriting?
OS: Not the very first time, I think for a few months before then I was writing songs, not super frequently. Just trying to figure out what I was trying to say. And if I even liked songwriting as a medium of expression for myself. I loved singing and poetry, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do that together. So I put it off for a really long time because I was really scared of making something terrible. And then I kept writing and kept writing and they’re okay things and they’re really special to me now, but I just wasn’t quite there. But I really liked “Good For Tonight.” And I showed it to some friends early on, and they reassured me that it wasn’t awful. That’s what I needed.
AJ: Do you have a favorite song off the album?
OS: It changes. “Atlantic Salt” is by far the most fun to play. But I’m really proud of “Pusher,” which is an underrated song. Like no one says “Pusher”’s their favorite, and it crushes me because I love that one… It was the first one we recorded because there’s not much to it. And I was really comfortable doing it. So I think it was the first one we finished. And I was like, I had to close it with this. It comes from like, the most soft part of my heart. I love that song.
AJ: You said you are new to songwriting and performing? Is this like one of your first shows, then?
OS: I have played music with friends for a really long time. But this is one of my first shows as Olivia Sisay, which is really cool. I’m so excited to play for people again, it’s like, the most euphoric experience in the world. And I love being able to make friends that way.
AJ: What have you done before this with performing?
OS: I used to do like, coffee shops and open mics and kind of busking situations. When I was a kid, like an early teen, like 14, 15, 16, I would play with a friend of mine. And then I didn’t pick it back up until now. But when I was kind of locked down at the beginning of the pandemic, before we were vaccinated, I was lucky enough to live in a house of artists, there were 10 of us. And I got to play all my songs for them. And honestly, those were my favorite performances that I have ever done because they’re so sweet. And they felt like, I don’t know if I’ve ever been listened to in that way before. They’re really special.
AJ: So what are you most excited for about the album release show in December.
OS: I’m just stoked to play with my friends again. The people who are in my band right now are just so lovely. Their names are Ben Walker (guitar and synth), Sam Nazaretian (bass and background vocals) and Sean Thomas (drums and background vocals). I had the pleasure of meeting them through Jeremiah, because he’s in a band with them, they’re all in Bowling Shoes. And I made a joke to him a few months ago that I was going to steal his band. I finally did it. They’re just like so awesome. And it’s just ridiculously fun to play with them. They’re all really lovely.
AJ: How long have you been playing music?
OS: I started violin when I was four, but then picked up guitar when I was maybe 14. From this awesome woman, her name is Alison Youtz. She was someone my mom knew from my hometown, they did roller derby together. And she was like this crazy role model for me. She’s a really great musician, too. And then it was just guitar and singing from there. And I always say, like, from a really young age, it was my favorite thing to do. Mostly, like in my bedroom, or at home. But yeah, the writing came later, for sure.
AJ: What kind of music inspired you and your growing up? What did you usually sing in your bedroom?
OS: I sang a lot of music. I loved Britney Spears. I loved Avril Lavigne. I loved Shania Twain. I still love all the music that I was listening to as, like, a baby. It’s kind of still the same music that I listen to. Maybe just a little more expansive now. But I loved, like, just a pop girl. Because they’re just so good. Anything a teen girl would listen to was probably like, my favorite thing to sing.
AJ: So is this like a passion project? Do you think you’re gonna pursue music after this?
OS: I don’t know. I want to keep doing it for as long as I can sustain the good feeling that it gives me now. I don’t really see music as a career for me. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about, like, monetizing this part of myself. Of course, it feels awesome to book shows. And I fell in love performing and you know, getting to share all of this stuff. But, to keep some of it in here. And I’m hesitant to let too much of it escape me all at once, because I don’t want to burn out from it. So I’m really trying to, like, ride out the high of this project right now, and keeping it for as long as it feels exciting, for sure. But I’m not done yet.
AJ: Are you still writing songs?
OS: Yeah, I’ve been writing. I think it ebbs and flows for me. Right now, I’m having some downtime, because I’m working on other parts of music, which are performing and figuring out the business side of things, which is also exciting. But I think the writing needs to kind of be still in me for a second. So that something can brew and then like the bubbling over can happen, and the good things can happen.
AJ: You mention leaving your home state of Pennsylvania in the song “Atlantic Salt,” what was the transition to Boston like for you? Did it affect your music at all?
OS: I think moving and traveling in general changed me a lot. I left Pennsylvania to go to college in New York City. I was there for about two years before I came here. And I came to Boston because I was so in love with this person. And I had been with them for a little bit and needed a change of scenery. So I left New York and I came here and just got, like, thrown around emotionally here, which was actually really good for me. And while doing that, I was able to connect more with like, my queer community here. A lot of really amazing people. So many talented artists and musicians. So it was definitely good for me. And it inspired me a lot because I don’t think I would be writing again if I had stayed in New York. I don’t think I even touched an instrument for like a year and a half while I was there. So I don’t know if I can say Boston as a city has helped me, but the community and the little pockets that I’ve found myself in here have helped me grow a lot for sure.
AJ: And then in “Atlantic Salt,” you follow a lyric about leaving Pennsylvania with the lyric “I’m coming home.” What does that mean? What is home to you?
OS: I think I’m still trying to figure that out. I think really, home for me is wherever I can be myself and be around people who take care of me and will let me take care of them. And so by that definition, I think I have a lot of homes. Which is like, the best case scenario. But I think in regards to the lyrics in that song in general, it’s really hard to leave somewhere that you can have roots in. One, because you miss it. And two, because I think, at least for me, when I leave the place, I always wonder if they’re, like, waiting for me to fail at whatever place I’m going to next. And kind of just like, waiting to see me f*ck up and then have to come crawling back. And that goes for, like, the people there. And also just the land itself, I wonder if it misses people when they leave? And so, to answer your question, I think home is any place that still is calling me in some way. So I have a lot of those.
AJ: A lot of the songs on the album, as you said, reference heartbreak and are about losing people. What was it like, writing about those tough emotions? Was it therapeutic? Or was it like reliving the experience?
OS: I think it was both. Definitely cathartic, definitely good for me. But a lot of those songs, as I was writing them, I was also still living those experiences. And while I don’t think any of them are necessarily about one person or one situation, they’re really honest and just extremely vulnerable. And so it was one experience to write them, because it was like, okay, I can somehow get all these things out and maybe make sense of what I’m talking about here and what I’m thinking. And then later on recording them, and then performing them was like a whole other monster. They change every time.
AJ: What does it feel like to perform them?
OS: It’s a release. But it’s not quite as emotional as you might think it would be. I think, because once you’re there, you realize that that person who wrote those things isn’t the same person that’s sitting there playing them in the moment. And that’s kind of, more than anything, really thrilling. And so, to get to play these things, as a different version of yourself, is kind of reassuring and terrifying. And then also, to get to do it amongst friends and to an audience of people is just exhilarating. And makes all of the really sad things that you’re writing about kind of less sad, and more, like, just a little thing to put in the filing cabinet. Which is really nice.
AJ: How does it feel to be sharing all those emotions with people listening to your songs?
OS: It feels good. I think in some ways, it’s never not going to be self indulgent. And so, I’ve been trying to really just lean into that and accept that. It’s a selfish expression of emotion, but hopefully never harmful. And always a little bit scary. Because it’s not really something you would do. If it wasn’t music, I would never get up on a microphone and just talk about any of these things. So to be able to have that outlet of like, of music being an acceptable way to like, scream all these things into this void that is like an audience of people is really cool. And not something everyone gets to experience. So I feel really stoked that I get to.
AJ: How would you define your voice as a musician? Do you tie yourself to a specific genre?
OS: I’m definitely in an indie rock, folk kind of realm. Jeremiah, my producer, describes my music to people as a mixture of Phoebe Bridgers, Bonnie Raitt and Radiator Hospital, which I think is really funny. If people ask me that, I’ll usually just tell them that I make music for lesbians. Which is true… I’m kind of just a person, like, throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. But I think like, no matter what it it kind of always is for gay people. I’m still trying to figure out how much of that I want to be part of, like, Olivia Sisay’s brand, because it’s definitely a big part of me. But I wonder how much it’s acceptable to say it out loud or like to make it, tons of features of what I’m talking about, because I think the music kind of does that for itself. But I do think it’s really important. Because I mean, I don’t think I was ever aware of lesbian singer-songwriters when I was growing up. Of course, they were around, but like, I just, I didn’t know they were there. And maybe if I had, I would have started writing sooner, you know?
AJ: Did you write poetry before you started writing songs?
OS: I did. I think that was also something that was still really scary. I think, for a long time, I kind of felt like words were betraying me, and I couldn’t make them work. And, you know, I was a visual artist before I was a musician. So I kind of gave up on it after a little bit where I just felt like it just wasn’t sticking. And it was, like, for some reason, embarrassing. I was just humiliated by not being able to get it right the first time. And so it took a long time to like, have the courage to read poetry, and then the songwriting kind of came soon after that.
AJ: What kind of art did you do before you became a musician?
OS: I did a lot of different things. I did painting and sculpture, a lot of seamstress work with fashion, a lot of like, textural things to weaving fibers, I kind of played with everything. Which is kind of the same way that I make music now. It’s just very, like, adolescent level, playing all the time.
AJ: Were you at school in New York for visual art?
OS: I was actually there for fashion business. So it was a lot of marketing and accounting, a lot of math actually. But all geared towards fashion and then after being there for two years, I was like, these people exhaust me. I think this is evil. Like I don’t know. I don’t think they were my people. So I tried the art thing too. And some things clicked. And some things didn’t with that as well. But it was a very weird trajectory to end up doing music. I’m glad I did.