“Regardless of what festival it is, when I look up, I always think ‘I need to get on that fucking stage’.”
Sam Olson laughs a big, infectious laugh. She knows full well that she doesn’t want her budding career to be some ‘singing project,’ some personal experiment that will eventually fizzle out when she settles for a more realistic profession, but rather, her livelihood — her raison d’être. While she’s humbled to be on stage, any stage, performing her music to at least a handful of people, her stadium-sized goals wait in the wings, ready to pounce on any possibly opportunity.
In person she’s bubbly, expressive, and prone to going on tangents—her smooth voice guiding you through memories that, kind of, sort of relate to what you originally asked, her trains of thought woven together seamlessly and unapologetically. Much like her personality, her music—categorized as electro-pop or synth-pop—demands attention. With transparent lyrics and an undeniable clarity to her powerful voice, Olson’s blend of pop is affective and direct. Tapped to play Canadian Music Week this year in Toronto, Olson will debut her new EP to a crowd of potential fans and potential labels, hoping that some of it—if not all of it—will stick.
Having been in and out of the studio for the past decade or so, Olson’s finally diving head first into her passion project with no distractions. In short, she’s talented, she’s driven, and she’s here to stay.
Q: Tell me about your debut album.
A: So I’ve been in the studio for the last couple of months—the producer’s name is Dan Cinelli, his big claim to fame is Arcade Fire—so I’ve been working at Planet Studios. I got bumped actually! I was supposed to be doing a recording session and Dan was like “I’m really sorry, but OneRepublic wants to use it while they’re here.” It’s kind of cool knowing that that’s what’s going on. So I have 20-something songs written, but we chose to do 7 of them; they have a sort of pop, electro vibe, with a little sprinkling of rock. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, my dad’s a huge, huge, huge rock fan… and then there’s Madonna. Those are my go-to’s since I’ve been about five. And Les Misérables — theatre, loved theatre. So [for the album] I kind of took everything I loved and melded everything into one. Also, Dan really gets my sound effects. When I try and explain that I want it to sound like ‘stars,’ he’ll know.
Q: And how did you meet Dan?
A: So I’d written some stuff but it was in demo form. I played it for a few labels, did a few things, but they weren’t huge fans of the production. They loved my sound—or at least they said they did—but told me to ‘find proper production and then come back to us.’ Initially I went out to L.A. to meet some guys… and I can’t explain it, but you know when you walk away from a meeting and you just feel heavy in your chest? When you just feel like it’s not right? So I was actually pointed to Dan through Nikki Yanofsky, just to go meet him, see him, and I left his studio and I was just like “this is the guy.” It just felt right. He’s a man of very few words, which is kind of cool, because in music everyone has a big story; everyone wants to sell you something about themselves that they cannot deliver on. I’ve worked with a bunch of people like that. So it was so refreshing to talk to someone who listened, and didn’t try to sell himself. He told me: “I want to make your music, and if we are working on something and you’re not happy with it, we’ll go in a different direction.” I was just kind of sold.
Q: A very non-L.A. mentality.
A: Yes, and everyone was always like “you should sound like this, you should look like this”, so it was refreshing.
Q: Montreal isn’t exactly a Mecca for pop music, how do you find working within the constraints of his city, instead of say, going to L.A permanently?
A: Well, I think there are only a handful of artists in Canada who are really respected. I find Canada really looks to the U.S. for its music, which is pretty ridiculous. There is a lot of talent here, but there’s almost this thing of — you have to make it in the U.S. for people to even look at you sometimes. And it’s strange, but there’s so much opportunity here. Radio stations are supposed to play Canadian content, and we’re protected through SOCAN, and there are so many grants that are offered here for music and arts, but we don’t always take advantage of it because we’re always looking to the U.S. A lot of amazing acts came out of here. It’s cool, I like all different music; I love Ellie Goulding, she’s like my favourite. Funny enough, for her first album, a lot of her beats were made in Montreal—a lot of people don’t know that. I found that out through working with Dan. A lot of pop acts come from here, more than people realize; it’s just that people leave here.
Q: How has the reaction to your newer music been, from the fans that have been there since the beginning?
A: Well it’s a scary thing—you create something and you hold onto it for so long, and then you let it go. So the first song I ever released was done through an electronic label — Perfecto, a subsidiary of Armada — so that got general positive feedback. Overall there’s generally good feedback, but anyone can say anything. The first time I saw something negative written, it was like, “whoa!” And it wasn’t even that mean! I’ve seen some terrible thing written about others to be honest, but you’re putting out your music to be judged by the world. I’ve developed a thick skin. I used to do acting auditions, and you’re told “no” so many times, so you become kind of immune to rejections—but it still hurts, man. With music you’re literally just putting your soul on paper, video, recordings, for everyone to watch. But people who have been there from the beginning, are commenting on how far I’ve come as a singer, and a writer.
Q: So from what I understand, your songwriting process is: jotting down what you’re feeling in the moment, and then seeing if it turns into something else.
A: Yeah! It’s all by mood. Like you know sometimes when you just feel blue? When you just feel sad inside for no reason? Maybe a little lonely? I was looking out the window, and it was raining, and I was literally just like “there’s something about the rain,” and I was thinking “song title!” I really just write from feelings. If you’re not bearing your soul, people aren’t going to connect. I just want someone to feel something, that’s what I want.
Q: And so how did your music career begin?
A: Well it started with theatre. I wanted to be Annie when I was a kid. All I wanted to do was be Annie, and then I graduated and I wanted be Fantine. But I’m not a dancer, I’m more of a “groover”… so give me a couple of glasses of gin, with a little lemonade, a little cayenne, and then I’ll groove. I was always that kid at the back of class that just couldn’t do the moves. So I stayed away from Broadway, because I knew that I wasn’t going to make it in that field of performance. When I’d be playing shows though, I would finish—and it would be like three, one-hour sets—with a lot of music, and I just wanted more. I just needed more. Don’t get me wrong, like if you have a cold but if you’re being paid to be at a gig, you take a shot of whisky and you go do it. Drop the key in the some of the songs, but you don’t have a choice. Theatre gave me a better sense of work ethic. You have to turn it on.
Q: And you’ll be turning it on at CMW in a week.
A: Yes, well I’ve been to them all, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Ultra, Osheaga, of course, but regardless of what festival it is, when I look up, I always think “I need to get on that fucking stage.” I need to get up there. I love the energy when you’re there—if I’m just standing in a crowd and I’m feeling the energy from a good artist, I can only imagine what they feel up there… Who needs drugs, you know?
Q: So is that where you see yourself? Playing stadiums?
A: Absolutely! But I’m super realistic. I know it’s a hard, hard business. There are so many people that want it, and yes, it is about talent, but a lot of it is about how hard you push and who you know. Like, I am annoyingly persistent. So I figure, if I annoy enough people, someone will be interested. So many people are not going to like what you do—so many people are not going to respond to what you do, but then someone will. And you don’t realize how amazing it is until it happens.