David Olney - Bringing some theatre to the songs

Money isn’t everything. The royalty cheques that came through David Olney’s letter box as a result of his song Deeper Well appearing on Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album certainly came in useful. There are other, more psychological benefits to having one of the greatest voices of the past forty years taking your song into millions of households, though.

“I felt like I’d been legitimised in some way,” says Olney down the line from his home in Nashville. “Having anyone cover one of your songs, even if it’s just the garage band down the road, is a compliment and I’d been playing my songs to audiences for quite a long time and they seemed to like them. But getting someone of Emmylou’s stature to sing Deeper Well gave me a certain credibility as well as a special jolt. It made me think, well, maybe I am pretty good after all.”

Olney has been convincing other people that he’s pretty good at least since he made the move to Nashville from his home state of Rhode Island in the 1970s. His songs have found their way onto albums by a range of artists including blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks, the Band’s bass guitarist Rick Danko, bluegrass superstar Del McCoury and country-rock sweetheart Linda Ronstadt. Like many another singer-songwriter of his generation, his original guiding star was Bob Dylan. Then a little later he encountered country blues master Townes Van Zandt and he’s been working the area between the two ever since.

“When I was growing up there seemed to be any amount of great music around,” he says. “Ray Charles and Roy Orbison were probably the first people I became aware of and The Beatles and the whole British invasion had a huge effect on everybody, I guess. But it was when I saw Bob Dylan singing with Joan Baez, when I was about thirteen, that I thought, this is what I want to do.”

It was another, slightly less obvious influence, at least for a singer-songwriter, who showed Olney the best way of going about performing his songs to audiences: James Brown.

“I think he’s been a big influence on everything,” he says. “Just the way he performed was a big lesson. The thing that struck me immediately was, there were no dead spots in his shows; they were constantly moving. And that’s something that’s stayed with me. I mean, I’m not going to get up onstage and do the splits. But for a while in music, if you did anything that was overtly showbiz, people thought you were shallow. That’s bullshit. I’m not just supposed to be standing there being sensitive and clever. People want to be entertained or at least engaged.”

Olney may not have kept up the interest in acting that he took up briefly while living in Atlanta en route to Nashville but he does tend to think of songs and performing in a theatrical way. His songs are rarely personal. He’s much more interested in creating characters and seeing how their stories develop. His latest release, the mini CD David Olney presents Film Noir, does exactly what it says on the tin, following the trail of the mysteriously disappeared Frank through five songs that are essentially 1950s/1960s detective music, focusing on the darkness without being bleak.

Onstage he’ll link a recitation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan with his own Way Down Deep, segue an elegy on Socrates’ last party with Sweet Poison, take the audience back to World War One through two lovers who have found a brief respite, or launch into the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, although his inclusion of this turns out to have a more functional origin.

“When my daughter was born I realised that I was getting a bit forgetful,” he says. “Now I didn’t want to be completely dotty when my kids got older. I wanted to be around and able to talk to them sensibly. My mother had given me a really nice edition of the Ancient Mariner as a gift and I started to memorise it. At my daughter’s bedtime I’d go into her room and recite it to her and she’d be out like a light. Then this poetry thing kind of took on a life of its own. I was playing at South By South West, the huge music convention in Austin, Texas, and it’s chaos. You do your soundcheck in front of the audience and I didn’t want to stand there going, 1, 2, check 1, 2. So I went into the first part of Kubla Khan, which I think is a wonderful piece of writing, and somehow got the audience’s attention. So I memorised that, too, and people seem to like it.”

His regular touring partner, the incredibly resourceful guitarist Sergio Webb, shares Olney’s fondness for giving musical performances a theatrical dimension and contributed to one song on Film Noir. Not that they’ll be taking their interest in the genre to the screenwriting stage. Olney says, at sixty-three, he’s too long in the tooth to change careers. He does have an interesting theory on the all-pervasive nature of cinema and television, however.

“We’ve become so aware of things like camera angles that I’m convinced we even dream cinematically,” he says. “It’s made me more determined not to just stand there and sing but to use colour and mood, which is something Sergio is brilliant at introducing musically, to give live performance that extra dimension.”


From The Herald, September 15, 2011.

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