A commonplace word, one you encounter everyday, but it has some powerful and complex meanings. It’s a fabric you’re probably wearing right now, but Bloomington, Indiana, singer-songwriter Amy Oelsner knows it’s also a state of being: flexible, stretchable, expandable, contorting itself but always snapping back to its original shape.
Elastic is also the title of her exuberant new album as Amy O, and she did not choose that word lightly. In fact, you might say it chose her. “It hit me that this is the concept of the album. That word perfectly captures it for me. This is an album about how I’ve been able to grow and heal, how I’ve had to adapt to new and sometimes difficult circumstances. That to me is elasticity.”
That word similarly describes the sound Amy O makes with her band: tightly coiled indie-pop music indebted to Sleater-Kinney and the Roches, Helium and Laura Nyro, defined by unruly guitars, excitable vocals, rambunctious performances, and supremely hyperactive hooks. Elastic snaps and pops exuberantly, zigzagging constantly, its joy infectious and its craft undeniable. You might try to put the title track or “History Walking” or even the slower “Sunday Meal” on in the background, but every song pushes to the foreground and demands to be heard.
It’s either her second album or her ninth, depending on how you count, which means Amy O is both a new artist and a veteran. Growing up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she taught herself to play guitar and write songs, eventually recording a series of lo-fi albums as she moved around the country for college and work. She released them independently, with little regard for sales or promotions. The endeavor was more about her own experience: the thrill and the discipline of making art. “Songwriting became a way for me to process things and make sense of my life. I got hooked on it emotionally.”
She didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a good grounding for her career as well as her craft. In the mid 2010s—after living in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn—she moved to Bloomington to work at Rhino’s Youth Center, which offers creative after-school programs to teenagers. It’s a school, an art gallery, a music venue, a theater, a community center, and pretty much everything else. Among her many other duties Amy O leads the Zine Writing Program, which encourages adolescents to share their own stories, to engage with the public in creative ways, to define and address the issues that affect their lives on a granular level. Zines, she says, can be a “space to be yourself and share your views. A lot of teens don’t feel like their voices matter, but I feel like a lot of people really do want to listen. It’s hard to make that exchange happen. A zine is a really good way to let them share what’s going on with them.”
In other words, a good zine works like to a good song as a vehicle for self-definition and self-expression. As she wrote more songs, Amy O grew more confident in her musical and lyrical voice, which she channeled into 2016’s Arrow, which “was my first thing that wasn’t just me at home on my computer.” Many of the songs were inspired by the death of a close friend, a tragedy that pushed Amy O to become much more candid and ambitious as an artist. “That shaped my passion for sharing my music. It really made me focus on what I want to do with my life. What brings me joy? What brings me satisfaction? If it’s music, then I need to do that. After a bad experience, I need to access joy again. As soon as I released the record, I knew I wanted to do it again, right away, as soon as I possibly could.”
Elastic is the first album she recorded at a professional studio—specifically, Russian Recording in Bloomington. The place itself is homey and comfortable, and the cats who live there (including local internet celebrity L’il Bub) provided a break during particularly stressful moments. “I’m a little bit allergic, but I would pet them during breaks. It relaxed me.” But what led her to the studio was owner Mike Bridavsky, who had mastered Arrow and took over production duties for Elastic. “I knew that we would work well together, but it’s amazing to work with someone who is excited about your music and personally invested in the project.”
Over the course of several weekends, Amy O and her backing band worked on these dozen songs, her best and most personal to date, until they became delirious earworms, the confectionary melodies delivering love and death and joy and sorrow and everything else that makes up life. “Sunday Meal” might have been inspired by a trip to Connecticut and the death of her grandmother, but with its shifts in tone and tempo, the song is less a eulogy and more a celebration of a long life well lived. Her grandmother was an avid sailor her entire life, which inspired the central line, “She is calling me: ‘Come on home, steer the wheel along.’” “That experience made me think of home and all the forms it can take. The life I am building for myself is home, the shared history I have with my family is home.”
That’s the entire motivation for this music-making project: making something substantial, relatable, fresh, and meaningful. In other words, something that sounds like home. “When I’m having these feelings that I can’t deal with, I’ll get super inspired to sit down and write a song. It can be a last resort, but it feels good to go through that process. Still, I try to keep my songs a little vague and open to interpretation. It can be in service to the song not to overshare, because I want them to be universal and relatable, not just me me me.”
Elastic ultimately is an album about learning to live in your own inescapable skin—a challenge that defines not just Amy O’s life, but everybody’s existence. Identifying that universal truth has shaped her into an exciting and insightful artist, one who is no longer making music for herself but is working to command whatever stage she steps onto. “I always had an aversion to being a girl onstage with a guitar singing quiet songs. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I always knew I wanted to do something with a bit more volume, a bit more anger. I’m just now figuring out how to represent myself, and I think a lot of that has to do with feminism—learning how to be loud and take over a room, when those are things I’ve been socialized not to do. It’s been a very powerful realization that I can do that.”
Psychedelic folk is starting to become sorely missed. The sub-genre has never not been a staple in the diets of most record collectors. It proves its timelessness with each passing year, defying the laws that chain most other styles to their respective eras. As everything else ages, psych-folk darts in and out of decades, covered in the residue of each, but not necessarily beholden to the tropes of any single one, appearing new and welcome each time. On I See You Among the Stars, Chicago sound-weaver Jessica Risker is nudging the category back into plain view, setting a proper place for it at the table in 2018 and beyond.
Comprised of eight aural vignettes, the album is a wood-grained, amber-hued world respectfully orbiting influences like Nick Drake, Sibylle Baier, and the softest moments of Broadcast. Paisley fabrics fade beneath an uncovered window, while dust and smoke billow gently through the sunbeams that never fully reach the dark half of the room. I See You Among the Stars achieves what the best music in the genre does: pictures with tangible depth, color, and detail painted with only a few well-chosen pigments.
The title track “I See You Among The Stars” trots the album in with bouncing acoustic guitar, lulling the listener into perceived safety before curious chord changes and synthetic chimes remind us we’re entering the land of the slightly askew. This tell-tale lysergic, ominous wonder deepens as the album progresses into tracks like “Anyway When I Look In Your Eyes”, a song that parallels the somber honesty and intelligent songcraft of Elliott Smith who borrowed equally from Risker’s beloved pool of influences. “Zero Summer Mind” gleams off the cobwebs like moonlight, plodding down a darkened hallway with mellowed affliction. Like so many moments on I See You Among the Stars there is a perfect thread of quiet despair that renders the playfulness of its surroundings subversive and slightly wicked, making the whole affair psychedelic in the actual sense of the word. Sure, the colors may be brighter, but the shadows are also longer and darker.
It’s apt that Risker, a musician and sound designer since her teens, embodies the dichotomous foundation that makes acid-folk so timelessly intriguing. “I tend to approach music from two different angles” she says of her process. “The first is just songwriting — melody, chord changes, lyrics — those basic elements. The second angle is more an exploration of sounds, with the idea that there are no constraints. It’s very much myself playing with recording. The idea is to create one big flow.” Tellingly, Risker released a mod tapestry of electric noise and rhythm titled Big Forever in 2016 before following her more delicate inclinations into what would become I See You... No matter where her music ventures, curiosity and experimentalism are clearly with her at all times.
It is also interesting to note that Jessica Risker is a former social worker and currently practices as a licensed counselor. If the throughline of all psychedelic music is that it casts an inward eye on the subconscious-- and the symbols and emotions therein-- then certainly a mental health care professional is equipped to convey what can be glimpsed in that space.
As such, I See You Among the Stars is an exemplar of spaced out psych-folk that seeks to convey the intimacy and introspection of a woman going about her simple matters at home, while creating an atmosphere to provide melancholy accompaniment to these very tasks. But the final result is something much more: a polyhedral, exploratory, and mystifying peer into a detailed pop-up storybook that reflects the mind and heart of its luminous creator.
Marriage and career have failed to make Emily Jane Powers feel settled. Her new album Restless, written during a period of what Powers describes as "restlessness and discontent" is a bracingly intimate meditation on the strains that monogamy, work, and family place on identity and desire. Whether she's leading a hard-charging rock arrangement or singing quietly to herself, Restless is united by a confrontational level of honesty and vulnerability.
The product of three years of writing, arranging, performing, and rearranging, Restless is a diverse but cohesive statement. Much of the record is heavy on Powers' looped and layered guitar, which has simultaneously grown more formally ambitious and somehow more slangily loose. But there are moments of quiet piano, lush woodwinds, and soaring strings. Sonically, listeners will hear touches of everything from Courtney Love to Sade, but unified by the emotional intensity of Fiona Apple or Cat Power.
Powers' music has been a well-kept secret for over a decade. New listeners who stumble upon her back catalog will be overwhelmed by its size and richness. Starting in Michigan in the early 2000's, Emily wrote and recorded an album nearly every year, honing a bedroom pop sound that was simultaneously lush, intimate, and playful. Fiercely independent, her albums were generally DIY in spirit and technique, reaching perfection with 2009's Undertone, a joyfully luxuriant assembly of sugary and multilayered pop. 2014's Part of Me introduced a more collaborative and polished approach, paving the way for the sonically-intimate and emotional explorations of 2018's Restless.