Presented by Spirit of 68 and Upland Brewing Amy O
A commonplace word, one you encounter everyday, but it has some powerful and complex meanings. It’s a fabric you’re probably wearing right now, but Bloomington, Indiana, singer-songwriter Amy Oelsner knows it’s also a state of being: flexible, stretchable, expandable, contorting itself but always snapping back to its original shape.
Elastic is also the title of her exuberant new album as Amy O, and she did not choose that word lightly. In fact, you might say it chose her. “It hit me that this is the concept of the album. That word perfectly captures it for me. This is an album about how I’ve been able to grow and heal, how I’ve had to adapt to new and sometimes difficult circumstances. That to me is elasticity.”
That word similarly describes the sound Amy O makes with her band: tightly coiled indie-pop music indebted to Sleater-Kinney and the Roches, Helium and Laura Nyro, defined by unruly guitars, excitable vocals, rambunctious performances, and supremely hyperactive hooks. Elastic snaps and pops exuberantly, zigzagging constantly, its joy infectious and its craft undeniable. You might try to put the title track or “History Walking” or even the slower “Sunday Meal” on in the background, but every song pushes to the foreground and demands to be heard.
It’s either her second album or her ninth, depending on how you count, which means Amy O is both a new artist and a veteran. Growing up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she taught herself to play guitar and write songs, eventually recording a series of lo-fi albums as she moved around the country for college and work. She released them independently, with little regard for sales or promotions. The endeavor was more about her own experience: the thrill and the discipline of making art. “Songwriting became a way for me to process things and make sense of my life. I got hooked on it emotionally.”
She didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a good grounding for her career as well as her craft. In the mid 2010s—after living in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn—she moved to Bloomington to work at Rhino’s Youth Center, which offers creative after-school programs to teenagers. It’s a school, an art gallery, a music venue, a theater, a community center, and pretty much everything else. Among her many other duties Amy O leads the Zine Writing Program, which encourages adolescents to share their own stories, to engage with the public in creative ways, to define and address the issues that affect their lives on a granular level. Zines, she says, can be a “space to be yourself and share your views. A lot of teens don’t feel like their voices matter, but I feel like a lot of people really do want to listen. It’s hard to make that exchange happen. A zine is a really good way to let them share what’s going on with them.”
In other words, a good zine works like to a good song as a vehicle for self-definition and self-expression. As she wrote more songs, Amy O grew more confident in her musical and lyrical voice, which she channeled into 2016’s Arrow, which “was my first thing that wasn’t just me at home on my computer.” Many of the songs were inspired by the death of a close friend, a tragedy that pushed Amy O to become much more candid and ambitious as an artist. “That shaped my passion for sharing my music. It really made me focus on what I want to do with my life. What brings me joy? What brings me satisfaction? If it’s music, then I need to do that. After a bad experience, I need to access joy again. As soon as I released the record, I knew I wanted to do it again, right away, as soon as I possibly could.”
Elastic is the first album she recorded at a professional studio—specifically, Russian Recording in Bloomington. The place itself is homey and comfortable, and the cats who live there (including local internet celebrity L’il Bub) provided a break during particularly stressful moments. “I’m a little bit allergic, but I would pet them during breaks. It relaxed me.” But what led her to the studio was owner Mike Bridavsky, who had mastered Arrow and took over production duties for Elastic. “I knew that we would work well together, but it’s amazing to work with someone who is excited about your music and personally invested in the project.”
Over the course of several weekends, Amy O and her backing band worked on these dozen songs, her best and most personal to date, until they became delirious earworms, the confectionary melodies delivering love and death and joy and sorrow and everything else that makes up life. “Sunday Meal” might have been inspired by a trip to Connecticut and the death of her grandmother, but with its shifts in tone and tempo, the song is less a eulogy and more a celebration of a long life well lived. Her grandmother was an avid sailor her entire life, which inspired the central line, “She is calling me: ‘Come on home, steer the wheel along.’” “That experience made me think of home and all the forms it can take. The life I am building for myself is home, the shared history I have with my family is home.”
That’s the entire motivation for this music-making project: making something substantial, relatable, fresh, and meaningful. In other words, something that sounds like home. “When I’m having these feelings that I can’t deal with, I’ll get super inspired to sit down and write a song. It can be a last resort, but it feels good to go through that process. Still, I try to keep my songs a little vague and open to interpretation. It can be in service to the song not to overshare, because I want them to be universal and relatable, not just me me me.”
Elastic ultimately is an album about learning to live in your own inescapable skin—a challenge that defines not just Amy O’s life, but everybody’s existence. Identifying that universal truth has shaped her into an exciting and insightful artist, one who is no longer making music for herself but is working to command whatever stage she steps onto. “I always had an aversion to being a girl onstage with a guitar singing quiet songs. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I always knew I wanted to do something with a bit more volume, a bit more anger. I’m just now figuring out how to represent myself, and I think a lot of that has to do with feminism—learning how to be loud and take over a room, when those are things I’ve been socialized not to do. It’s been a very powerful realization that I can do that.”