WOMEN IN PRIVATE
A private conversation, shared with you.
If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it my way...
K. I’m picturing you as a little kid right now. Growing up listening to music and figuring out you like to sing. Do you remember?
O. When I was really little I was shy about some things but not about others. You could not get be to sing a fucking note in front of anyone [laughs] there was just no way. I was actually talking to my dad about this the other day. I had a walkman with the headphones and microphone on it and I’d record myself singing over all kinds of stuff. So somewhere in the world there’s probably hundreds of hours of my karaoke from when I was like 7…so that’s cool.
K. Hell yeah [laughs] do you remember thinking that you sounded good?
O. Literally no. I feel like I did so many of them because they didn’t sound good [laughs] I was always trying to decide how to sing because it could be country or RnB and it was just a hot mess.
K. It was probably good and better than I could do now.
O. I’d have to listen to them which I really don’t want to do but in my mind at the time I was like, this is just not good. I’d record them and wonder why it didn’t sound good.
K. Were you trying to sound like the singer or just what you thought was good?
O. What I thought was good but like... didn’t happen.
K. Did your parents tell you, you were a really good singer?
O. Oh yeah but like their my parents. [Laughter]
O. I was also in chorus and I would sing formally but not …cool music.
K. What about now, do you know you sound good or are you critiquing yourself?
O. I go back and forth. I’ll listen to something and be like,
“Fucking ew, throw it in the trash that’s disgusting.”
But then I’ll also record a bunch of versions and just leave it. Then go back and listen a month later and I’ll like it and it will be the first fucking one I recorded. It depends on my mood. I feel like that’s why me and Ben get along…
K. Because you’re both insane?! [Laughter]
O. Because he’ll be like,
“This sounds fucking sick!”
And I’ll be like,
“It literally does not.”
So then we’ll have to meet in the middle and it will work itself out, It just depends.
K. Did you have any other bands before Zenizen? Wait, when was your first attempt to record a body of music, like a full project? A first attempt at trying to create a whole something...
O. Other than my archive of childhood recordings? [Laughs] I would record all these weird recordings but I remember being at my Dads wife's house at the time and she had this built in program on Windows with a sound recorder. She had a usb mic or something I dunno… I guess to use the webcam and stuff. I’d use the mic and it had reverse and other effects on it, so I’d dick around but I wasn’t trying to make something that other people would ever hear. Once I quit the school band, I was in marching band…
K. Why’d you quit?
O. It just wasn’t cool [laughter] and it wasn’t a good time. Our band teacher was such a funny dude but there was no reason for me to be doing it. I wasn’t having a good enough time to be spending my time doing it. So I basically never played music again until after college.
K. Hmmm! So you didn’t make music in college?! I pictured the opposite.
O. My friend wanted to re-start this club called Columbia University Records that had been an established thing... before they spent all their money. So I helped her start it back up. I was doing a lot of music stuff but I wasn’t actually playing any music. We’d book shows, have guest speakers, and battle of the bands. I was organizing stuff and after college I joined my friend Julian’s band called Napoleon.
O: Then it just snowballed and I didn’t want to do it.. [Laughter]
K: What kind of music were you playing?
O: It was Rock music. Kind of a 80’s smooth rock situation. It was good, I liked all the music that he made but I was like, I’m not fucking playing music.
K: Why not?
O: I was like, whyyy? But then he convinced me and three years later I was still in the band. [laughter] Then I started playing in a band called Peers.
K: Playing keys?
O: Yes and singing a little bit more. It’s been a progression. Originally I was just playing keys, filling in here and there, then it was like, “Can you sing a little backing vocal here?”
And I was like *eye roll* okay. And then it was, “Can you sing this whole thing?”
Eventually I was singing enough that someone decide I should just be in the band. I didn’t mind because it was music that I liked but wasn’t music that I personally wanted to be making. So I thought if I was going to be out here spending my time, I’d rather make something that I really want to make.
At first I was really unwilling and now I’m just here and doing it. I’m so picky but if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it my way.
K: I find that interesting that you were so resistant to do music because your voice is not just casual. You have this crazy tool that you weren’t trying to use…the fuck?
O: I don’t know, I was always singing around but to be a performer was not what I wanted to do. So I’ve been singing but not intending to present it to people.
K: You know how some people say anyone can sing and some people think you have it or you don’t…what do you think? That people can be taught or it’s just innate?
O: I guess it depends on what you’re going for. I think anyone can learn to sing something. [laughter] Even if you’re tone deaf you can still learn what it feels like when someone else says that you are doing it right. I don’t think everyone has taste but there’s something for everybody. It’s harder if you’re not already wanting to do it when you’re young. Kids learn stuff so much more effectively than adults do and they explore more...shit you kind if loose when you get older. If you’re introduced to things earlier and take an interest early it makes a world of difference.
K: Yeah kids are a blank canvas.
O: Yeah they are so fucking thorough, I feel like you can’t get anything past a child.
K: Yeah they will read you down.
O: They’re like, what about this chord and your like damn. [Laughter]
K: Yeah, kids are fucking honest. Wait what does Zenizen mean….where did that come from? Was it a thing before you went to Australia and recorded that EP?
O: So like, my friend and I started the project…that’s a good question. I can’t remember if it was before or after I went to Australia the first time. I went in January 2015 and I think we’d just started it a couple of months before.
K: Did you go out there to record that or it just happened?
O: The first time I went I had met Perrin who is the drummer from Hiatus Kaiyote and his girlfriend Maria who is now his wife. We ended up hanging out for a month and then they went back to Australia and asked me to come visit. I thought it was highly unrealistic for my life lol. I was working full time at Condé Nast and playing in a band here and my schedule was beyond full. I really wanted to go so I was trying to figure out how I could take a month off. Then my boss got fired….they gave me the option to leave and gave me a severance. So it worked out really well and I used the money to go to Australia.
O: We had started writing a couple things but the old version of the band was a DJ and singer set up, kind of like Aluna George. Kinda tacky to be honest [laughs] it was a good version of it but I didn’t want to be a black lady singer with her white guy DJ.
K: Got it hahaha!
O: The first time I went there I ended up recording the first song we put out as Zenizen. The old version. A song called ‘Fiver,’ that Ben is obsessed with.
K: Have I heard it?
O: Ugh, no. It’s private on SoundCloud.
K: The nerve.
[Opal Plays song]
K: Yeah! I’ve heard this, Ben must have played it for me.
O: For me it wasn’t my ideal product but even I know I’m going to have to give it up at some point and let it go. So we did that and a couple other songs. I recorded the vocals to ‘Fiver’ in 2015 when I went to Australia and then mostly I just hung out. I came back and we were playing shows just the two of us and I had asked Harry, our drummer now to play a show with us. I really wasn’t trying to be that two-person electric soul outfit. So he played a show with us that Norvis Jr. booked actually, that was really good. I was subconsciously making it into a band and then I went back to Australia in January of 2016 with the intention of writing something. I’d met this guy Liam who’d recorded the ‘Fiver’ vocals in Australia through a friend. So I hit him up and told him I had these tracks written and want to get a band together. It was going to be super loose. I’d been working at Rubber Tracks with Ben on stuff and it would be fucking annoying because every time I’d go in there he’d be playing the fucking tracks on the loudspeaker and I’d be like go away!
K: Oh my gawdddddd
O: I told Liam I wanted to do 5 songs in 5 days, so I wrote the songs and he helped be get a band together to track all the stuff. We ended up doing 3 songs in 2 days which ended u being the EP. So everything was written for a full band anyway and basically I had this EP that was played by these musicians in Australia and then came back and was like now I need a band to play them here in NYC. So it’s been a band ever since. I think we played our first show in April of 2016.
K: Seems like much longer….
Mmmmm smells like popcorn…
O: I was thinking about making dinner later….
K: It all seems so simple from the outside looking in... to be an artist. Like first you write a song and then record it and ultimately put it on the internet. But not everybody is willing to be that vulnerable. I know that you’re pretty critical of yourself and I can’t imagine what it feels like to put it all out there for strangers to have an opinion about. What’s it like to share your music?
O: Usually it’s me dragging my feet and whining. I’m a huge baby and then someone, usually Ben at this point is like,
“Just fucking put it out.”
And I’m like “Okay.”
K: How did you and Ben meet, I don’t remember.
O: I was booking those brunch shows At Baby’s All Right.
K: OH YEAH! that’s where I met you too.
O: I had asked Denitia to play because denitia and sene were on a hiatus and she had started her Denitia Adesuwa solo thing and she was like oh I play in this other band called IGBO you should meet them.
K: What a small world. When I met you at Baby’s All Right I remember that you were wearing these really cool jeans that were rolled up and I thought to myself, wow that girl’s outfit is really cool. But yeah he always introduces me to a million people when we’re out but he had told me you made really good music. You just never know who someone is until you know.
O: I think he asked if I wanted to work on something so we just went in and started from scratch. We wrote ‘Break’…I think he also wanted me to sing on a Black Spade track. I think that’s how it happened.
K: It just evolved.
O: I don’t like to finish stuff. I love work on it but hate to finish it because then I have to put it out.
K: What is it about putting it out?
O: You can’t take it back. It’s a fear of commitment, once you put it out then you can’t just forget about it, you have to do something with it. You have to put something out that you then want to promote and keep talking about. You want to make something you’re not going to get tired of and promote in good conscience.
K: Do you ever feel satisfied or are you always in the space of, this could be better?
O: Once it’s out I’m usually set because it’s what I agreed to put out and if I feel like I could do better I just make another one. But once it’s out I don’t think about it anymore.
K: Do you feel in love with your song when you’re making them? I can’t imagine what your own music sounds like to you...
O: I have demos on demos! Voice memos. Usually I have to write stuff pretty deliberately. I get inspired to create a kernel but then I only actually do stuff if I’m really disciplined about sitting down and writing a verse and a chorus and so on. I have to be pretty regimented about it. There’s moments where I like certain things but I don’t comprehend the songs as a whole.
Everything goes from that inspiration mode to purley work product mode. Maybe some people don’t like to do things that way because it’s not as magical but it’s the only way I’ll actually get stuff finished and not get too attached to it and be weird. Some people are really hype on their own stuff.. which I respect. I prefer to step away from it and let other people take it and have feelings about it.
K: [Laughs] I get that. On the Australia EP the lyrics for every songs are different stories and perspectives. Where were you coming from when you were writing?
O: I went to Australia very deliberately to write an EP. The first time I went down I recorded vocals for one song and thought I should do something more significant with my time while I was down there again. I basically gave each song a page and told myself to fill it up with chords, parts, a structure and lyrics, make a whole song on this page. For ‘Follow the Leader,’ I had driven out to Half Moon Bay with some friends. We were hanging out and there was a group of kids in the water...it was just so fucking funny to watch. There was a group of young kids drinking and being cool at the beach. There was that kind of bossy macho kid that thinks he’s really cool and everyone else thinks he’s cool. And then there was the kid that’s not usually cool but he’s drinking so he feels cool lol. It was this whole ecosystem of being really young and drinking with your friends on the beach. So I wrote a bunch of lyrics for that before I wrote the music for it. I sat in a lot of pubs and wrote. I also had rules for the songs to make me finish them. Each of the songs had to be the same structure, verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge, chorus chorus. The chorus couldn't be more than three words and the bridge couldn't be more than 5 words.
K: Where did you come up with this?
O: If I leave it too open that’s when I start to hate what I make. I start to question it. I made all these rules to force myself to trust my system lol. I created a legitimate song structure to prevented me from overworking or over thinking it.
K: Ummm that’s really cool.
O: It allowed me to feel creative without doing some crazy shit.
K: I think I’ll listen to it differently now. When you’re performing live, what does that feel like? It seems so easy when I’m watching someone perform but if I were to actually put myself in your shoes I’d die.
O: [Laughs] I totally feel you. I was super reluctant when I was in Napoleon, I was in the back like, see ya! Let me play these little keys back here and do my job. Then it’s like,
“Do you mind moving up a a little...do you mind singing a little backing vocals?”
And all the sudden I’m in the front and I’m like what am I doing here? In the other band I joined, Peers I had played a show with this guy Dom who had asked me to play keys. It was a Glam-Rock show so I brought my key-tar and wore some gold lame studs and it was just a fun show. These guys Ricky and Sam from the band Peers were there and apparently they were like “Oh she looks cool we want her in our band.”
And I’m down but I think because I’m a black female musician in the Brooklyn indie rock scene so I stick out anyway. There’s a sense of not wanting to be anyone else’s cool points.
O: I’d rather do what I want to do. Instead of someone being like can you stand in the front.
K: Whether it’s intentional or not it’s still….
O: Instead of being dragged up to the front I’d rather do it on my own terms.
K: Yeah, I mean you are who you are and that’s how you experience it.
O: In the past, well meaning white guys would be like, “Hey my bands just a bunch of white guys and I know that’s not cool so I’m looking diversify.” And I’m like that’s good but are you just now diversifying for the sake of diversifying because it’s not cool to not. You have to judge for yourself on a case by case basis. Right now culturally being a woman of color isn't necessarily easier but I wouldn't want to be a sis white male lol. At this point they’re probably getting the tea handed to them all the time so I’m [giggle] sorry. I’m all for well meaning people but I’d rather run my own show than have to be in someone else’s situation where I’m questioning my role in it.
K: That’s interesting that people have straight up been like, "we’re trying to diversify…"
O: It’s not cool to be four white guys on stage anymore.
K: [Laughs] That is something I thought about when seeing you guys on stage for the first time, 2 white guys and 2 black girls...I was like oh this is interesting I don’t know what it is. But then again I know all you guys personally so…
O: It’s music first, I wouldn’t hire a musician that I didn’t really want to play just because they aren’t white.
K: I mean looking at it I know if formed naturally it wasn’t a strategy. I know people are like they’re cool they’re different but you guys didn't even try it just is what it is. Some people try to create a certain something.
O: There’s always going to be tacky people that get a girl or a black person in their band
K. Yeah not anything new I guess.
O: It’s cold…..
K: Hahaha that blanket looks like you have a huge mermaid tale going on.
Soooo, growing up with white parents….
O: Incredibly white.
K: [Laughter] Yeah well you know my mom is kinda like white too and I had no idea there was a “difference” until someone told me there was. I didn’t think about it and I don’t think most kids do until they are told or taught to.
O: My parents are like well meaning white people. I knew I was adopted...they would try and do black cultural things.
K: Like Kwanzaa!?
O: It wasn’t that crazy! [Laughs]
K: Bahahaha NOT KWANZAAbishhh!!!!!
O: People are like “Kwanzaa” ...I’m like, okayyy girl it’s not that deep.
K: LOL any black child with a white parent(s) has experienced a Kwanzaa or two.
O: We lived in Jamaica for a while and my mom’s second husband was Jamaican.
K: Where were you born?
O: I was born in Alaska, casually. There was always a black person around...kind of.
K: When do you remember realizing?
O: I don’t think I thought about it because I was always doing so much all the time that I didn’t have time. I was like I have a hairstyle to complete, why are you talking to me? Lol You kinda know but in my parents immediate community it’s a discussion and a non discussion at the same time. You talk about it because it’s visibly obvious, but it wasn’t like “We don’t see color.” It’s more so just highly irrelevant.
O: I was exposed to so much stuff when I was a kid, I didn’t notice any overt racism. I did take African dance class instead of ballet which was kind of wack…
O: I don’t like to talk about the fact that I don’t think about it much because obviously it’s a hot button issue and that’s something I haven't been in a situation to feel like I need to address it.
Did you see Get out?
O: There’s this kind of “Oh yeah we love the blacks.”
K: *Rolls eyes* girl, I can’t.
O: Depending who you talk to some people might think it’s more sinister to have well meaning white people around. In school I don’t remember thinking about it.
K: For the most part it is irrelevant until other people bring it to your attention. I mean that’s my personal experience. Like I was living my blissful youth until someone called me a nigger on the playground so...
O: If the racism is aggressive it forces people to think about it and I didn’t have to.
K: [Picks up a pair of Opal’s high heels off the floor] There’s no way I could wear these in my life.
O: Try them on, what size is your foot?
K: 8. Girl. No way I’m pissed off and I’m sitting down lol. [Puts shoe on one foot]
O: Wait stand up.
K: Ughhhhh never in my life. [Stands up] my high heel days are over. Speaking of heels girl! That’s my segue into the world of femininity.
O: My knee actually hurts right now thinking about wearing them. Some people are aggressively feminine just to prove a point. For the most part I go with the dress down.
K: Feeling comfortable is more important to me now a days but then I also admire my femininity and the days when I would go hard with the makeup and outfits…. Like why was I wearing heels to a wack ass club, so insane. But also like, yas gwerl werk lol.
O: Sometimes I wish I had a bit more of a beauty regiment. Like face moisturizer ...I have a night cream but I don’t use it you know what I mean. But when I do that stuff I feel pretty cute.
O: Like I paint my nails and that’s an outward look I think. It’s a way you can care without wearing sequence again lol.
K: Haha! Thinking about all my/our friends now, none of us really wear makeup ...or I mean excessive makeup. I just admire woman who don’t fall into that Instagram world of creating this extreme face and just feel comfortable without doing the most. But also like do your thing I admire that too.
O: Yeah I had a co-worker that was really into Instagram levels of makeup. She’d come to work in a shirt and jeans and a full face of makeup. She said she just likes doing it and I get that. Sometimes I spend a lot of time on my nails just to be like, “Got eeeeeem!” But also I just don’t have that much time, well listen...I know I could find some time lol. Mentally It can be a break and something to do for yourself and not focus on any other crazy shit that’s going on.
K: Yeah you obviously enjoy doing your nails and it’s creative as well. Sometimes I wish I had the energy to give a fuck that much but I’m kind of glad that I don’t.
O: You can kind of tell when someone is doing it for other people versus themselves. I’m like girl you woke up at what time in the morning to do all this before work?!
K: LOL! Either way more power to you. I can appreciate it and also when you don’t usually wear makeup and then you do put it on, you’re like OH SHIT HEY GURL! It’s nice.
O: I was trying to get dressed up on Valentine's Day. It was an inspiration, I wanted to get all my single friends and dress up and go out. I got halfway through just looking for a place to go out to and I was like girl …...hahaha I’m tired. I’ve lost the will to coordinate and execute this plan. It was fun to think about for a while but I was like you know I’m not about to put on a heel and go outside it’s cold.
K: [Laugher] Also being in New York sometimes staying in is just the move. These trains and this weather honey...no.
O: If I’m going to put on a fancy outfit and a crazy heel I’m not walking to the train. Sometimes I see girls on the train after work wearing heels...
K: Respect girllll lol I’m over here in my dirty as Converse.
O: I’m like what stretcher is going to be arriving?
K: Bahahaha I think we are through here.