Amy O started as the solo project of Amy Oelsner (pictured above) in 2004, and has evolved over the years into a full band. Based in Bloomington, Indiana, with Madeline Robinson on bass and backing vocals, Justin Vollmar on drums, Damion Schiralli on lead guitar, and Aaron Denton on keyboard. She submitted an excerpt from her new zine Yoko Oh Yes! to Issue 5 of Driftless (pictured below). The zine is finally here accompanying Amy's new record Elastic and we had the opportunity to talk to her about it.
What brought you to Bloomington, Indiana? How has the Midwest influenced your musical career?
Having grown up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I was aware of Bloomington through various friends and had admired the music scene here since I was a teenager. In 2013, I was living in New York working at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls after-school program and my job there was only funded for a year. When my time was up I was ready to move on from New York but wasn’t sure where to go next. After six years on the east coast, I felt called to live in the Midwest again. When passing through Bloomington on tour, I realized it would be a perfect next step for me. I love the humble, low-key nature of the music scene here. There is seriously so much talent in this small city that it’s mind boggling. In general, people are really supportive and there seems to be a positive shift happening in the active encouragement of women, POC, and LGBTQ+ musicians getting more visibility. Though of course, there’s always work to be done in that realm.
Your new album Elastic is amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about the history and making of this record?
Thank you! I started working on Elastic almost immediately after finishing my first studio album, Arrow, in February 2016. From February to August of that year, I wrote a lot of songs, many of which I ended up tossing, until I had 12 that I felt were worthy of recording. I then took the songs to my amazing bandmates (Madeline Robinson, Damion Schiralli, Aaron Denton, Justin Vollmar) and we worked together on fleshing them out and really bringing them to life. My friends Will Staler and Erin Tobey also joined in as guest musicians on the album. I had booked some time with Mike Bridavsky at Russian Recording for November and December, so we hustled to get everything ready by then. It was a relatively quick process — I wanted to get something new out there as fast as possible!
Tell us about Yoko Oh Yes! How long have you been working on this? What made you want to create this zine as a companion piece to your record?
I’d actually been working on the idea of Yoko Oh Yes! before I even started Elastic. In January 2015, I decided to make a zine of interviews with women musicians. It had been a vague desire of mine for a long time and I was at a point in my life where I was trying to challenge my perception of who I am and what I am capable of. I wanted to expand as a person and making a zine felt like a really good way to do that. I wasn’t sure how to go about the process so I just took my time collecting interviews for a few years. It wasn’t until I started collaborating with Jessie and Bethany from Shut Up and Listen that the zine really began to take shape. It worked out that Yoko Oh Yes! was coming to completion at the same time as the record and I realized it would be a perfect companion piece.
Tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Shut Up and Listen.
I know Jessie and Bethany through working at Rhino’s Youth Center, an after-school arts center for teenagers in Bloomington. They used to come in when they were in high school and do screenprinting, music, filmmaking, and radio. I was so impressed with them as teenagers, both in the quality of their work and the developed sense of artistry they had at such a young age. When they graduated and started doing Shut Up and Listen it made me so happy to see. I like the idea of working with other women as much as possible and it’s really important to me to support young women in particular, so it was a no brainer to talk to them about collaborating when the time came to work on the design aspect of the zine.
What do you enjoy doing in addition to playing music and creating zines?
I’m really interested in herbalism. It’s something I engage in as a mode of self-care and it deepens my curiosity and connection with nature. I also try to spend as much time hiking as I can, having access to so many state parks is one of my favorite things about living in Bloomington.
How can people get a copy of your zine?
Yoko Oh Yes! will be available locally in Bloomington at Landlocked Music as well as at any show I play, along with other merch. Out of town people can find me on Instagram and DM me to get a copy of the zine. I’ll also be working on getting an online store together on my website. I’m really proud of this zine and can’t wait to share it!
How many interviews are included in this zine? How did you decide who to include?
There are nine women interviewed in Yoko Oh Yes! I just asked people who I know and admire. I originally sent the interview questions out to almost 30 people, so it ended up a lucky accident that not all of them replied or else the zine would have been like 200 pages!
We are strong supporters of tangible objects — what has been your experience with creating analog media such as records, tapes, and zines in 2017?
My experience has been great. It feels like there is still a lot of interest out there for tangible objects even in this digital age. In some ways I think people need it even more. It feels unbelievably special and validating to hear my music on tape and vinyl. There’s a seriousness and a commitment that goes into creating a tangible object that doesn’t necessarily go into putting something online. It requires more planning and more patience and I think those are both very good things to do and be more of.
Amy answered some of the questions she typically asks the musicians she interviews in her zine!
Tell us a little bit about the band(s) and solo projects you’ve been involved with over the years — what instrument(s) you play and where we can hear your music.
I’ve been playing as Amy O since 2004. I started playing solo and mostly worked on material without sharing or performing very often until about 2013. I played in various other bands during that time, including Murderina and the Doo Wop Massacre (a zombie doo-wop band with my college buds) and Cat Cat Tiger Cat (a folk duo with my good friend Annie Dutka). In 2014, once I moved to Bloomington, I formed the band Brenda’s Friend with Erin Tobey. At the same time, I started asking other people to play with me as Amy O and it slowly developed into a full band with a very different sound from how it originated in 2004.
When and why did you start playing music?
I started playing music when I was about five years old. My parents are musicians and they wanted my brother and I to take music lessons as kids. They let us choose which instrument and I chose violin. When I was in high school I started teaching myself guitar and tentatively working on writing songs. As I got older I realized that it was a really good way of expressing myself and processing emotions — I got totally hooked.
Were there women who played music in your community when you were growing up? If so, what kind of impact did they have on you?
Yes! My mom played guitar, banjo, recorder, and directed a women’s choir. She’s a great example for me. My parents also had a lot of friends who played folk music and many of them were women. I used to go to punk shows at a local all ages venue and unfortunately that was a more male-dominated environment. That was the kind of music I was drawn to playing as a teenager, so I had trouble with that and craved more women role models in the punk scene. Every once in awhile a woman musician would pass through town and play at the venue I frequented. I would usually try to talk to them after the show, total fangirl style. I would buy their tapes or CDs and fantasize about doing what they did someday.
What’s your musical coming out story? How did you decide you were ready to start performing, recording, and sharing?
I feel like I was always performing in one way or another. As a kid I would do violin recitals and later I took voice lessons from a family friend and we would do little concerts at her house.
I also did show choir and I was super serious about acting. So I was comfortable on stage from an early age, but I didn’t really get serious about performing as Amy O until 2012. I’d been drifting for a few years prior to that and felt that I needed to step up my game and get serious about accomplishing some goals. I did a project for the year of 2012 where I wrote a song every day during the months of January, April, July, and October. I would then self-record an album using my favorite songs I’d written during those months during the two months in between each writing month. It was an intense experience but it really gave me the push I needed to develop my craft and from there it was a natural step to start performing more.
Who are some women musicians throughout history that you think everyone should know about?
Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Elizabeth Cotten, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Missy Elliot, Kate Bush, Kathleen Hanna, Nina Simone, Moe Tucker, Janis Ian, Sleater Kinney, Sandy Denny, Solange, Ani Difranco, Francoise Hardy, Heart, Kim, and Kelley Deal … too many to name!
How do you deal with comparing yourself to other musicians?
It’s a constant struggle, honestly. I try to remind myself that the jealousy is just telling me that I admire that person and have something I can learn from them. It’s really pointless to compare and it’s based in a patriarchal system, particularly when you find yourself primarily comparing yourself to other women musicians but not to male musicians. It’s hard to undo that cultural brainwashing, but I just have to be diligent in my way of thinking and call myself out when I notice myself getting stuck in the “there’s not enough room for all of us” mindset.
What advice would you give to yourself when you were first starting out?
Do things your way, it’s the best way for you. And don’t spend time with people who make you feel bad about yourself.
What advice would you give to someone else who is just starting out?
Learn to give yourself the validation you need, so you don’t have to rely on others to make you feel that you are worthy of sharing yourself. Notice your progress and celebrate it.
See Amy O on tour this fall!
07.27 | Nashville, Tennessee | Wilburn Street Tavern
07.28 | Carboro, North Carolina | Cat's Cradle
07.29 | Richmond, Virginia | The Orchard
07.30 | Baltimore, Maryland | New Six Flags
07.31 | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Lava Space
08.02 | Brooklyn, New York | Alphaville
08.03 | Turners Falls, Massachusetts | The Brick House
08.04 | Buffalo, New York | Hostel Niagara
08.05 | Cleveland, Ohio | Happy Dog
08.10 | Bloomington, Indiana | The Bishop
09.14 | Chicago, Illinois | The Empty Bottle