Nashville based singer songwriter Olivia Barton, sees making music as her personal diary Barton’s musical style consists of her and her guitar telling her story. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Indigo Girls and Shania Twain Barton tells honest stories through her emotive vocals, snappy strumming patterns and heartfelt lyrics.
The singer’s musical style leans heavily into conversational style with lyrics like “Is this a right of passage/ Or a bad one woman show/ ‘Cause I keep crying in public/ Riding the Red Line ‘til it’s closed” that feel like a true insight into her mind and life. Barton sat down with A1234 to chat about her sophomore album “This Is a Good Sign,” storytelling and her music community.
How did you start your music journey?
I always loved to sing. My grandma loves to say that I was harmonizing when I was four years old. I was always a singer but I didn’t start writing music until probably the end of middle school. And then in high school, I did a lot of musical theater and acapella and that was huge for me. That was like how I started performing. But I didn’t really grow up in bands, or around a lot of people that were doing original music. So building my community started when I went to Berklee, for college. It went from a lot of musical theater and acapella, into more of my own folk music and then from then on, I’ve basically just been focusing on that.
What was the highlighting of creating that music community?
Because I wasn’t around a lot of people writing and performing their own music, that was just a huge shock for me and getting to Berklee, building community, to me, just meant being in awe of the people that were around me. I was just so inspired by how hard working people were there. There are people from all over the world at Berklee so I was so inspired by everybody’s ambition. I think in spaces like that, a lot of the time, people have trouble with the competition that inevitably follows. But I didn’t have a problem with any of that, I was like a little kid in a candy shop there. I just loved it, I was obsessed with how much music was going on all the time, and just so open to anything. And so I was just a little sponge, and I wasn’t really trying to take away anything in particular, while I was there, I was just trying to soak it all up. I’m still friends with quite a few people that I was friends with in college. But also I’ve noticed that like, the web just spreads so far, that I have been able to continue building my community from Berklee with people that I didn’t even know in college. It’s been amazing, I definitely would not be where I am now, if I didn’t have that community.
What was the push that made you release your debut album “I Could Have Smiled at You More”?
It’s funny when I think about that question I remember this one particular day. I recorded that album my last semester in college mostly. And then, when I graduated college, I had such a rough time in that transition. It was so hard for me, I was sitting on that music, [it was on] a folder on my computer, and I had no idea what to do with it. I kept waiting around and saying to the people in my life, ‘I just don’t know enough about the industry to go for it and really put it out and I don’t know what that all entails and I don’t know how to make it successful.’ I was so stressed about that and I remember this one day, I was living in New York for just a few months after I graduated with my partner, Corrine. We were sitting at this pizza shop, and they were like, ‘Olivia, you can’t keep waiting anymore, you’ve got to just put it out. You’re not going to learn until you start.’ I was so mad at them for saying that, I was so pissed, I was like, ‘You don’t know me’ but they were 100% right. I feel like nothing has helped me more than sort of a motto ‘Start somewhere.’ Releasing that independently was me being like, ‘Fuck it. I don’t know what I’m doing but I have to start somewhere.’ I asked whatever friends I had ‘How did you do it?’ And I uploaded it online and just posted about it on Instagram, but there was nothing really else behind it and I’m really proud of myself for doing that.
Do you think you would have found that motivation within yourself, had your partner not said that?
It would have taken a lot longer, I think. I would have eventually, but I’m a little anxious bunny. I did the same thing with this album. But it looked a little different, because I had some more experience, and more community around me. But my tendency is to wait, until I have it all perfectly planned out. I would definitely not be where I am without the people telling me get off your ass and just try.
How do you think that you’ve learned and developed since that first album?
I just feel like a different person. So it’s interesting to try to distill it down to something specific. I think the fact that my community has grown so much, knowing so many artists who are also going for this in the way that I am. That has changed the way I go about everything, because everybody’s advice is just so different and so helpful. Some people say, be patient, trust the process, don’t jump the gun, and some people are more like fuck it, put it out, just get your stuff out there, it’ll work out. And so I just feel like, similarly to Berklee, I’ve just been a sponge to my community and learned all the different ways I can go about this. I still very much feel like I’m in the beginning but I’ve learned a lot about the industry and where to put my energy. It has gotten easier since then to know what I want to spend my time on: playing live versus posting on social media or how often to release songs and all that stuff. I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit more intentional and savvy about that, rather than when I released my first album, I truly was just like, throwing shit at the wall. So I think I have a little bit more of an intentional process now, which saves energy and feels better.
Which side of the line do you think you fall on: the fuck it attitude or the I really need to like refine this in order to put it out?
I find that I spend 100% of my time on the I have to be patient and make it perfect side. And then within the snap of your fingers, I switch all the way to the other side. I will say the more that I move to the other side, the happier I get. For me, that pendulum is all about perfection and like I have such a hard time with my perfectionism. That’s like what keeps me isolated and small and so the more that I adapt that ‘fuck it’ energy is really just me letting go of that perfectionism and just letting myself be seen and made mistakes.
Last week you released your second album, “This Is a Good Sign.” Congratulations. What is the inspiration behind the album?
A couple of [these songs] were written in that period of time after I graduated college, which was really hard for me. But most of the songs were written during the time that I was recording it, in 2020. Pandemic life was just really isolated [me], which was not an unfamiliar feeling for me. So the pandemic just exacerbated what was already there.That’s sort of what the album is about. I was really diving into therapy in a heavier way than I ever had. So that was a mixture of me processing really specific traumatic events in my life and was also just me grappling with that process I was in; being in therapy and being in an extremely reflective stage of my life. It’s a lot about trauma, it’s a lot about therapy and there are love songs sprinkled in there, because I’m in my longest relationship, and I’m in love and also so scared of losing it. So it is all of that wrapped up. I didn’t have a message that I set out to get across with the album, it was more like these are the songs that I was writing at the time, and I put them together, and that’s an album. It’s about a lot of different things but it encompasses that year and a half of my life.
Your album is incredibly personal. It’s really dissecting these aspects of your life and telling these stories. What about songwriting as a storytelling format helps you process?
The day before the album came out I felt led to post a video of me on Instagram, just talking about how I felt about releasing the album. And what ended up coming out is sort of my answer to this question. I have always struggled to be my full, honest self in front of people. I mean, I think we all do, it’s just like a human experience. But part of my trauma is being such a chameleon and being whatever I think people want me to be in front of them, in social situations. And songwriting feels like the only place that I have where I have no filter, I have no desire to please. It’s my only safe space really, to just be exactly what I am and say exactly what I feel. In that way it is a form of therapy for me. I’m definitely not sitting down to write a song like ‘What do I want to write about today?’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that but that’s just not the way that I go about it. It is the process of me acknowledging how I feel in real time with this idea that no one can hear me right now. This is just mine and I am totally alone right now and I can say whatever I want. So that does make it tricky when I then go to share it because I’m no longer alone anymore, everybody’s listening now. But it’s such a natural process for me I’ve just it’s always been a place that I go to be the most honest.
Being so raw in your music, how is it grappling with knowing so many people have so much of you in your music?
I don’t think I quite know how to handle that yet. I know, theoretically, that people are listening. But when it comes down to it, I think it still really scares me. It’s not like a conscious fear that people are gonna judge me or they’re not gonna like me. It’s just the nature of vulnerability, and being known […] Most of the time, I feel it is a really positive thing, because then I get to connect with people, strangers over things that we never would have gotten to talk about otherwise. So most of the time, it feels extremely positive. But right now, right after releasing the album, there’s definitely still some fear involved.
Is there a fan interaction that has really stuck with you, connecting through your music?
Oh, my God, so many! It’s not like my dms are flooded. But when people do reach out, it’s always meaningful. […] I went on my first tour last month, and I was opening for another band so I didn’t really expect anybody to be there for me. But at pretty much every show, there was somebody there for me. And I was so touched by [the fact] most of them said ‘I’ve been listening to the songs for years’ most of them had found me from the first album, which I was really surprised by. And so it is really meaningful for me when I hear that people have been listening on their own, in private, and they never reached out and never said anything. And now I just get to meet them and hear that it meant something to them for so long and I had no idea. That just always blows my mind. I get in my head about thinking that the only people you’re impacting are the ones that you know about. But whether you’re a musician or not, there’s always somebody out there that you impacted in some way that you don’t even realize. And it sounds so cheesy coming right out but it feels really profound as it’s happening. Especially the song “Erotic” from the album any messages I get about that feel probably the most poignant, because it’s just so painful. When people feel like they have somebody that understands their experience, that always hits me really hard.
Where does the name “This Is a Good Sign” come from?
I don’t even know where I got it but I had this yellow street sign that said, “this is a good sign” on my wall forever. I remember when I was first starting therapy, and really in the thick of all the things that are talked about on the album. I remember looking at that sign and what it meant to me was that all of the difficulty that I’m experiencing and all of the muck that I’m wading through in how painful that experience, the pain of that is actually a good sign that I’m moving in the right direction and I’m looking at the right stuff. Not all pain is a good sign, obviously, there are things to move away from, but I feel I’m getting more and more in tune with my own intuition that says this is the right direction. Just because this hurts doesn’t mean it’s wrong it means you’re really feeling through something important. My favorite little metaphor for it is when you have a splinter. When you’re going to find the splinter with tweezers or something, the more that hurts you know you’re getting closer to the wound. You have to move towards it in order to get it out and experience the relief of it. So it really is all about like a clearing of all of it so that you can feel better.
Is that what you experienced while writing the album?
Yes, absolutely. Every song felt like I was scooping out a little bit more.
What do you think of upcoming projects will kind of be like now that you’ve processed a lot of what you’ve gone through?
That’s a good ass question. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the term sophomore slump, this is my sophomore album. However, I spent a lot of time writing it. I think this sophomore slump is referring to when you have all these years to like, come up with your best work and then there’s a lot less time in between the next thing because people are sort of expecting something else. I don’t really know what’s gonna come out. I have been writing and I do think that writing will always feel that way. I hope it will feel like me going to that really honest place and scooping out what doesn’t serve me anymore. I’m still doing that but I’m definitely also in pursuit of joy [ and connection] in a way I never have been. I’m hoping that shows up somehow, too. I do write about joy and love but I’m wanting even more of that and I don’t know exactly how that’s going to manifest. But I’m excited to see what the next thing will be. I’m sure it’ll always be like a conglomeration of lots of different feelings.
So much of your discography is just you and a guitar, what about that stripped back sound appeals to you?
I have a lot of friends who grew up in bands, playing lots of different instruments and so maybe they write on different instruments, and therefore, they can hear lots of different things in what they’re making. […] But for me, it’s always started from voice and guitar. So it’s the only way I’ve ever written songs and without that, it just doesn’t feel like mine. I sort of tried on the album, we did try to push outside those boundaries. The first song that we recorded was “I don’t do anything.” And we’d give ourselves this funny little limitation, which was that we couldn’t put any acoustic guitar in it. And so we started with that in mind to get outside of the box. But ultimately, I was like, ‘we have to add a guitar because it just doesn’t feel like me without it.’ That’s what I grew up listening to, it’s so acoustic guitar voice heavy. […] I think it just feels like home to me. It’s just so familiar. I’m sure one day I’ll do something crazy, but for now, I’m just so deeply satisfied by an acoustic guitar that I’m just going to, ride it until I get sick of it.
Is there any part of you that wants to expand outside of that?
It’s funny because even though I just said an acoustic guitar and voice sounds like home to me, I actually don’t listen to a lot of music like that anymore.I love pop music. So I’ve been listening to MUNA and they’re a huge, huge inspiration. And my partner’s music is more electronic based and more 80s. I can see myself doing something like that eventually just for the hell of it because I really do like the way that sounds as well. Really fun sounding music with sensitive and introspective lyrics is a favorite combination of mine.
What is something that you hope that listeners take away from the album?
I just hope that they’ll feel more connected to themselves after they’ve listened. I don’t really need anyone to learn anything from me, I don’t really set out to teach or to help, I am trying to help myself. And I’ve found that that’s really the only thing we have control over anyway. When I’m in the presence of someone that’s helping themselves, it makes me want to do the same and so I hope that there’s this reckoning with how you actually feel about your own life and your memories and your relationships. And that there’s this sort of quality about it that makes you feel more like you by the end of it.
This album was independently released, was there a moment that stood out to you whilst creating this for everyone else to hear?
It took a long fucking time. I changed a lot and learned a lot in the process. I try really hard not to think about it, like taking something really personal and turning it into a consumer product. And more so [think about] what is the visual world that is going to be the companion to this song. I’m was really a perfectionist about that in the beginning, and wanted to make these perfect videos and package everything up really nice and have an exact plan for when I was going to release each thing and be really diligent about it all, especially because I was doing it by myself. And what ended up happening was I sat on it for a year and was making all these meticulous plans and then by the time I actually went to start putting it out, every single plan I had made changed based on intuition. […] I was trying to have a stranglehold on it as a result of doing it independently, [I thought]I had to be really, really professional or else I wasn’t going to be taken seriously. And by the end of the process of releasing it, which I started last March. By the end of this process, I feel like I just need to go with the flow for the next thing I do. If it’s independent or not, I just want the turnaround time to be quicker and trust myself more.
Following the release of the album, what is next for you?
I’ve got a call with my manager today to figure that out. *laughs* I think the goal for this next year is to play live quite a bit more. And try to get some opening slots for artists that I love. And lean into my live show. I’m also, hopefully, writing a bunch more music and recording it differently than I did the last one. I want to go one by one and instead of thinking of whatever the next album is going to be and start building something big [I want] to start recording as I write things and then decide after the fact how I want to put them together. I want to do a lot more collaboration. I’ve been co-writing for the first time, which has been really, really fun. I want a little bit of a mix of everything. And just trust myself and trust the music.
Finally, who are you counting in?
I’m counting in Medium Build. I went with whoever I’m listening to obsessively right now. He’s definitely not at all blown up the way I know you will. His music is amazing, it’s just really heartfelt, really personal, heart forward and honest. His live performance is amazing.