Oh! My Blackbird

As part of the release of Digcast VIII, the second episode to focus on NYC music, I’m posting on each band in the podcast over the course of a few weeks.

Follow the link above to listen to Annie discuss “Faking,” songs that sound sweet musically but have biting lyrics, and her favorite New York City park.

Oh! My Blackbird is a four piece band of Annie Sullivan, Nick Jozwiak, Veronica Kohl, and Zack Walters. They put out their debut album Dare Me earlier this year after releasing two EPs in 2011. As I learned in an interview with Annie, which you can read below, the band has morphed from a five-piece to a three-piece lineup that recorded Dare Me, and now it’s a four-piece. By the time they recorded the album, Oh! My Blackbird honed a very tight, well-crafted sound. There is a beautiful interplay of voices in particular, but all of the instrumentation is well unified, too. And let’s be honest, if cello is involved in any way, chances are I’m going to enjoy a recording. There is some excellent playing here.
Annie is the primary songwriter and she cites classical music and 60s folk revival as primary influences, which you can certainly pick up on while listening. The emphasis on acoustic instruments and keyboards, the harmonies, and portions of the lyrical imagery feel at home in both those traditions. What I like is how they seem perfectly blended; you can’t easily imagine any of the songs without either aspect. Of course, it’s too limiting to say there isn’t anything else present. As Annie and I discussed, a song like “Broken Hearts & Leafless Trees” is a great encapsulation of the Oh! My Blackbird sound and definitely a standout track on an album full of great music. It carries a listener on a dynamic journey, it finds the members all clicking in together vocally so perfectly, and the lyrics are strong.

Strong and striking lyrics are present throughout Dare Me. Annie said that a lot of her creative process is often a cathartic way to work through different experiences and situations in her life. While nothing feels diary-level ultra specific, you do get a clear sense of personal identity and a singular vision – even when she’s taking on multiple perspectives at once, like on the song “True Story.” The stories are especially compelling because they paint complex portraits where the narrator could be as flawed as the person being addressed, who is ostensibly the one doing the wrong things. “Stick Song,” which pulses along to an infectious melody, is one such example. Is the narrator admirable for trying hard to save something she believes in or is she a fool for not recognizing how it might be broken beyond repair? Both? Ultimately, each listener will decide for themselves.
There is a lot to think about and there is a lot to enjoy on Dare Me. Oh! My Blackbird has a wonderful, distinct sound and feels very assured. As has been the case for the other bands I’ve profiled for this NYC podcast, I’m both impressed at the greatness of their debut and excited to see where they go from here.
As of this writing, Oh! My Blackbird are playing tonight (10/16) at 8:00 PM Left Field and tomorrow (10/17) at 3:00 PM at Spike Hill. Both shows are part of CMJ and you can find a little more information and RSVP here.
I met Annie at Think Coffee for our interview. Besides the band, Annie is in grad school, with an interest in studying post-punk subcultures and the involvement of women in them. She’s incredibly bright and insightful. We talked about many of the songs on Dare Me, the evolution of the band thus far, Tarot cards, and more.
TWD – “Little Bird” was released before the most recent album. There is music video for  it and it’s cool. Who made it?
A – A good friend of mine whose name is Max Sorensen. He went to college with my sister and post-graduation he got really into stop-motion animation. I emailed him, saying “Here’s a song, do you have any ideas?” He’s such a genius, he built this elaborate set and did all the stop motion animation. The whole thing was his idea. He’s really, really awesome.

TWD – How long did it take to animate?
A – I’m trying to remember, it was over a year ago. I think it was over a month to do. The parts that actually have myself and Nick took us a day to film. Even those parts where we’re in it, it’s all photographs. Where we’re sleeping for 15 seconds, it’s like 45 minutes of us actually asleep. It took a long time, but not as long as you would think. There’s more prep work to get all the material. Because he did animation with our faces, he had to take pictures of us making different facial expressions to animate it. That was the part that took like a month.
TWD – It is really cool.
A – Yeah, thank you. I love it. I’ve always, my whole life, liked the visual component of music or pairing visuals with music.
TWD – I do too.
A – It’s so exciting. I also love working with other artists and seeing what they come up with using my music. To see what visually what that makes them think of, that’s really cool for me.
TWD – I feel like the listening experience is often visual. Maybe more for some kinds of music than others.
A – I think it is. All the senses can be affected by music. Obviously with lyrics if there’s language involved, but actual chord structure and melody are beyond language. It’s more like a universal language that people experience that’s evocative in ways that other art forms aren’t. So it lends itself to being mixed with other mediums.
TWD – Can you tell me a little about the band’s formation and the other members?
A – Sure. The current lineup is myself, Veronica Kohl who plays tambourine and sings with me. She and I went to high school together and she has been my best friend for the past decade. Nick Jozwiak, who plays basically every instrument we can get him to play: cello, upright bass, electric guitar, electric bass, autoharp. He sings as well. He’s from the suburbs of Chicago and we met in college at the New School. I did my undergrad at Eugene Lang and he went to the New School for Jazz and contemporary music. Freshman year, he was friends with some people I was friends with, lived in the same dorm. The three of us have been playing together basically since then. Recently, like in the past two months, we added a fourth member, Zack Walters, who’s also in another band called Mainland. He’s from New Mexico and also went to college with me at the New School. He plays keyboard and electric bass and he’s really awesome. That’s the current lineup. We’ve been playing together under the name Blackbird for the past four years and then Oh! My Blackbird for the past two years. We used to be a five piece electric band, then we were a three piece acoustic band, and now we’re a four piece semi-electric acoustic.
TWD – It’s evolving.
A – It is constantly evolving, which is good.
TWD – Dare Me was the first album, right? And there were some EPs before it?
A – Yeah, we had two EPs, but Dare Me was our first cohesive creative output.
TWD – Has it been well-received?
A – It has been really well-received. I mean, like always, we would like more people to hear it, it’s not like we’ve reached the apex of what we want to reach. But we’ve been really pleased with the response. Generally people seem to really like it.  We’re really proud of the product. We spent a lot of time working on it. I also have to thank my producer Oliver because he is a genius as well and helped us arrange almost all of the tracks. He really has an amazing ear and totally understood what we were going for. The album is the first time that the songs were fully actualized into what we wanted them to be. Since we were a three piece acoustic band, everything was more low key. We wanted to be more of a rock band and not just a folk band, so that was thanks to Oliver. And since the album, we’ve finally reached that point.
TWD – Yeah I like it, it’s a good album.
A – Thank you. I’m glad you like it.
TWD – I got to see just a teeny bit of you guys performing recently. It was that show with The Great American Novel, who is also going to be in the podcast.
A – Oh really? Layne was the drummer when we were a five piece electric band. He and I went to high school together. He was a freshman when I was a senior and he’s one of my best friends. Oliver, who produced our album, also produced his album at the same studio in Windsor Terrace, which is called Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen. We’re like a little musical family. Great American Novel has that young boyish-ness. A lot of buoyancy, a lot of life.
TWD – That’s a funny connection that you are all friends.
A – Yeah we are, it’s nice.
TWD – I’m definitely a lyric person and I thought on the album there were a lot of good stories, good lines, things I could easily relate to. Some of it I was even like, “Uh oh, I feel like I’ve done some of these things.”
A – Well thank you. That’s the goal.
TWD – Sure. Something I like to talk about is how it’s interesting that being more specific makes something more universal.
A – Right. Yeah. That is very true. The songs are, the majority of them, very specific to events in my life. I’ve found what you said is generally the response most people have had. By writing about something that’s specific to me, I’ve been able to tap into something that a lot of people have experienced. Which I guess goes to show that there is a universal experience of being young. There are common themes that happen to a lot of people, if not everyone.
TWD – Was it ever hard for you to be honest? Does that come easy?
A – It does come easy. I would hesitate to say my lyrics are honest because they are biased from my opinion.
TWD – Or to say what are you feeling, maybe?
A – I’m a very open person emotionally. I usually don’t have a lot of confusion about how I feel. So, they were cathartic for me to write. It wasn’t hard for me. No, it’s not hard for me to do that.
TWD – It doesn’t sound like it was. I think some people, though, they want to get it out there but have difficulty.
A – Yeah. Sometimes you worry about people hearing something and realizing it’s about them or feeling awkward or something like that, but you can’t worry about that, is how I feel about it. You just have to do what you feel. I don’t know if that’s the most sensitive thing, but that’s been my line.
TWD – No, I think it’s key despite the possibility of collateral damage.
A – Right. I also don’t ever flaunt it at someone. I’m never like “I wrote this really nasty song about you.” I just do it. I’ve only ever had someone ask me if something was about them once, other than if I’ve told someone that a song is about that, which is rare. I’ve only done that once too, with my current boyfriend. That’s because I wrote a nice song, “Dare Me,” about him. It’s a nice thing to know that song’s about you. It won’t destroy you. Other than that, I try to keep it more about me. So even if people do think it’s about them, it’s not really about them, it’s about me.
TWD – Speaking generally about the songs, one thing that’s kind of fascinating – and maybe it’s not intentional – but the dichotomy of this independent streak, of finding yourself, “this is what I need to do” against these people in your life and their needs and trying to balance that. How sometimes that’s possible but sometimes it’s not. I think about that a lot. What do you think about when you’re might be running together with someone and then you get to a certain point and it’s clearly going to diverge?
A – I’m not sure. I feel like up to a certain point, my life was a lot more chaotic. I was more haphazard, doing what I wanted and not necessarily thinking of the emotional repercussions of it for myself. Trying to negotiate being in a relationship with someone and also being yourself, I still struggle with that. How to mediate between the two. It’s confusing to even talk about for me, because how do you do both? I’m kind of a black and white type of person, where, if I want to do something, I’ll do it, and that’s for a whole range of topics. So it’s hard for me to blend things together in my life, which is why it probably comes across like that. I do struggle with making the right choices. Not that I make poor choices, but I am hard on myself to make the right choices.
TWD – That’s very difficult. Especially doing it and not regretting the other choice, which hurts the choice you did make.
A – Exactly, there can be a lot of doubt.
TWD – “Dare Me,” you said is a happy song.
A – Yeah it’s my only truly happy song that’s about something specific.
TWD – I get that, especially with the line “I can do anything that I dream” and “we should fall in love.” That song also starts with that long cello passage. The cello is an instrument that to me is a little bit more despondent but this song is really happy. Is there any intention behind starting with that and how it slowly builds?
A – The idea was to get the listener in the mood to listen to the album. At the end of the last track, “Broken Hearts, Leafless Trees,” Nick does a shorter outro. So it gives it symmetry or a shape.
TWD – So it’s more an album thing than a song thing?
A – Yeah. I’m not necessarily sure how we first came upon wanting to do that or came to that idea. I think because Nick is such a virtuosic cello player, he basically can play the cello in a crazy way that most people don’t. He even does noise punk on the cello. You just want to let him do his thing sometimes because he’s really amazing at it. The way that “Dare Me” starts, it sets the tone. It allows it to build up a lot when it gets to the chorus, because sometimes I worry about songwriting. My musical sensibility is almost trite. I really like things that are pretty and symmetrical. It’s hard for me sometimes to get more of an interest going in the song structurally or musically. I rely on Nick to help me flesh ideas out like that which really allow it to be more textural and interesting. Also we’re influenced by the Beach Boys and like “Good Vibrations” and using the cello as not only like a vocal instrument, but a rhythmic instrument as well.
TWD – I think the cello is a really awesome instrument.
A – Me too. I love the cello. It’s like my favorite instrument, even before guitar. It’s so close to the human voice, it’s really expressive. It has a wide range of emotion.
TWD – Yeah, definitely. You mentioned the outro of the album, “Broken Hearts and Leafless Trees,” I like that track a lot. It kind of does a mini-version of that album arc itself, starting with the a capella and then having that outro. I really like the harmonic thing you guys are doing in it too. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on.
A – That’s one of our all-time favorite songs. To me, it’s a quintessential “me” song. It’s the type of song that I would write. I know that sounds weird because I did write it, but it has a lot of the qualities I like in music: good harmony, the lyrics are strong; it’s also pretty, and interesting. I like that one a lot, too.
TWD – That’s got to be a good feeling when you can say “this is something I would hope to have written.”
A – Yeah. It is a very good feeling. It also expressed how I felt really well. It was a very satisfying song to sing. When I first wrote it and it was relevant to my life, it was a very cathartic song. It has a special place in our heart. It’s also one of the songs that pushed the band out of being a five piece electric band and into being an acoustic band and focusing more on singing harmonies.
My start as a musician was as a singer. I sang classical music for basically the first 18 years of my life. So my main focus has been voices and vocal harmonies. Once Nick tuned into that after playing with us for awhile in an electric band, we were really able to focus in on writing harmonies that were intricate and interesting and let the music evolve from there.
TWD – I like that. And “I’d rather write love songs than figure this all out,” that struck me as a moment where it’s like “I don’t want to deal with this anymore, I have to focus on this,” which is compelling. After the journey of the album and even the song, it’s a little more powerful.
A – Exactly. That is kind of my general feeling life, that I can’t figure this out and I don’t want to figure it out, I just want to be myself  to get some sanity. I generally live my life where I get to the point until I can’t take it anymore and then I go do something else.
TWD – The classical background, it does come through. I’m not a big expert a lot of that, though. Is there a particular song that’s informed by your classical sensibility that may not be as obvious to a listener?
A – I’m not sure. Any song that involves the three of us singing in harmony typically. Like “Garden Walls,” that’s a song we wrote that’s about literally nothing. We just wrote it because we wanted to sing those kinds of harmonies. We wanted something that all three of us could sing at the same time and that was intricate and involved.
TWD – The classical piece is mainly vocal?
A – Yeah, and I think my love of structure and symmetry and everything resolving. There isn’t a lot of jazz in my music. I have a classical sensibility in my ear. I want things to sound like Mozart, even if they’re a folk song. I want there to be pretty harmonies and emotionally evocative chord progressions that are more based in Western musical tradition than not.
TWD – On “Garden Walls,” there’s that contrast between when you dug your grave and when life can be grand.
A – This is going to make us sound really spacey and new age-y, but Veronica, Nick, and I are all into Tarot cards. And in the Tarot, the Death card means a death, but it’s not like death is the end of everything. It’s death as the end of one thing and the beginning of another. To die isn’t always necessarily the end; it’s to start something new. So it’s like “to die to live.”
TWD – Are you a person that can move on easily?
A – No, I am constantly stuck in the future and the past. A lot of times my lyrics are things I wish that I could feel or want to feel, convincing myself to feel. I try to live in the present, but I don’t often successfully do that.
TWD – It seems like “No Exit” may be a little like that.
A – I didn’t actually write that song. It was a song written about me by an ex-boyfriend from way long ago. It sounds totally different, you can find the original on iTunes, the band was called The Problem. It was very much new wave, pop punk. We all liked the song and I had devised my own version of it before I was in the band and I played it a long time ago. We totally changed it, we even changed the melodies kind of, but the lyrics and song itself was written by someone else. It has its own meaning for me, both personally literally in the lyrics and then in the greater context of my life as well.
TWD – When you say past and future, that line “You don’t need nobody to tell you it won’t be alright,” seems like something that someone that’s not in the moment would be the subject of.
A – Yeah. That makes sense. It’s kind of hard to not tell you all of my deepest, darkest secrets while telling you about it though.
TWD – Oh, I don’t want you to, I respect that kind of thing. Let’s see, “True Story,” does that have two sides? Am I hearing that right? Like you’re telling things from two points of view? Or is that just me?
A – It’s kind of, yes. Because that song is about “I am frustrated at you, but I’m still trying to make things work out.” So there are two points of view, but they’re both mine. It’s like when you’re trying to keep something in the air when you know everything must come down again. The two different sides are on one side. That’s complicated.
TWD – That’s interesting, too. It doesn’t seem as common. I like that, when people create – even if it’s the same person – a significantly noticeable other perspective.
A – I think it’s like being aware of the negative side of a situation but still wanting the situation to continue. Or hoping that the negative side will no longer exist. Certain songs were written around the same time, like “Faking” and “True Story,” I feel like the tensions in those songs are similar and about wanting things that I know are bad.
TWD – Isn’t “Stick Song” like that too?
A – Yes. That’s interesting that you can pick up on that. They’re all written within the same six month span, including “Broken Hearts and Leafless Trees.” Not the whole album, but those four songs in particular are the oldest and came from a similar place.
TWD – When you said “Keep things up in the air when you shouldn’t” that really hit me on “Stick Song” a lot. I’ve been in those situations on both ends. I find the thing that’s difficult is that before it gets acted on, you usually know it, which is problematic. You have to admit you’re not dealing with it forever. That song is good too because it’s sort of convincing even though it’s about something that’s not ideal. You sort of sympathize.
A – Yeah. It’s about accepting mediocrity. Accepting an imperfect situation because you want something so badly that it’s better than not having it.
TWD – Right. Which is not sustainable.
A – No. It’s not, unfortunately.
TWD – It definitely is powerful.
A – That song packs a punch. I feel you have to be grateful for all of your experiences no matter if they’re hard or if they suck. Again, it’s trite to say, but any negative experience I had that I created a song out of, it’s fine by me that it happened. There’s an equal exchange there.
TWD – Do you find you relate to one side more than the other?
A – I don’t know. It’s hard for me to be totally divorced from my songs. I am always able to remember my point of view. I don’t usually think about my songs in this kind of way, dissecting them and knowing what they are about because they happen to me, I create them, it’s a very introspective process. Until I physically write the song, it’s about me and it’s all internal. I don’t necessarily have to explain to myself why I’m writing something or what something means, I just know that it’s how I feel.
TWD – The song “No” has that line about Cinderella in the verse. I don’t want to sound insensitive here, but, there’s a contingent of women who have problems with Disney and its morality or message. On the one hand it’s just this little tale, but on the other, certain values get imposed. Do you ever think that these stories have negative influence and that there other different stories that don’t get told in popular culture?
A – I definitely think that. One of my friends didn’t write the lyric but said to me right before I wrote it, “Did you ever realize if you watch Cinderella backwards it would be the story of a princess turned into a scullery maid.” It’s the opposite of what the story really is. I do think that there is a gross misrepresentation of reality, especially for women, in every form of art and media about what you’re supposed to be like, what you’re supposed to expect or allow yourself to go through to be in a romantic relationship. Or just be a woman in general. I feel hesitant to wax poetic about it because I think it’s obvious to most people. It does bug me. I feel like I personally was affected by it as a child and maybe that informed some of the bad decisions that I’ve made. But at the same time, I also believe that you can’t blame Disney if you’ve had a bad boyfriend, you know? It’s a part of life in this day and age.
TWD – I think it’s a fine line. Ultimately we are responsible for our actions. But on the other hand it’s undeniable that society has pervasive influences on people.
A – Sometimes you have to experience life before you are able to know that it is a misrepresentation. Or maybe it’s unfortunate that people have to go through negative experiences to learn the realities of life. But people are just so focused on sugarcoating things. On TV, love is always really perfect or it’s over. There’s no in between phases. There’s not a lot of realism in lots of forms of media.
TWD – Is that something you’d ever explore more?
A – In my academic career, yes, it’s a primary interest of mine. Musically, maybe. That lyric was more clever than meaningful. It works in the song and it’s meaningful in the context of the song, but it wasn’t meant to be a larger commentary. Although it could be and it is related to my interests outside of music.
TWD – In “Maudlin” that line where it says “Did I live or die when I let you go?” struck me as “Yeah, you’re not dead. It’s going to be ok eventually.” I thought that was a cool way to do it, asking it. It was a striking part of that song.
A – Thank you. Sometimes life and death seem like the same thing. Kind of like what I said about Tarot cards, not to bring it back to the weird place. When things end, you can feel destroyed by it. But things have to end for new things to start, an if-you-close-a-door-open-a-window type thing. Sometimes you can’t tell. You’re in a point where it’s ambiguous if you’ve lived or you’ve died, if it’s a good or bad. It’s neutral.
TWD – Do you think that it gets easier or is it one of those things that’s always hard to go through and you just hope for the best?
A – I think that life surprises you. When you start to make smarter choices based on the things you’ve done before, different problems can arise. You can never save yourself from being hurt. It’s impossible. Or from making a mistake. You can’t anticipate what it is that’s going to turn into a disaster or what it is that’s bad. You just have to be, not suspicious or on guard, but accept uncertainty and that that is a part of life. Which I don’t like to accept but I can say that I’m accepting it.
TWD – It’s hard. Like what you were saying, there’s all these platitudes that people can tell you and it feels like “Oh, that’s just something someone sewed on a pillow.” Until you feel it and you’re like “Oh… Now I get it.”
A – It’s interesting. You can’t understand something generally until you’ve like experienced it. Your brain can’t wrap itself around a concept that it hasn’t experienced firsthand a lot of times. Then when you do, it’s like “Now I get it” but before then, it’s hard.
TWD – I know. It doesn’t really seem possible. There’s been a few times in my life where I’ve told myself “Here’s what I’m supposed to do based on this knowledge from wherever.” And still, until it eventually happens and you really feel it, it’s nothing.
A – There are things you know right away in your gut. Any uncertainty generally comes from your mind. Your gut though generally knows. Whether you want to accept that or not, that’s the problem and you could be keeping yourself from a good thing or a bad thing. But your gut generally knows.
TWD – Yes. One thing I like to ask about is musical and non-musical interests and influences. What are some of yours?
A – I have to say that the majority of art that has influenced me is musical. I kind of sometimes exist in a vacuum. I don’t listen to a lot of new music. I listen to the Beatles or classical music or my friend’s bands. They’re all really influential for me. And 60s folk revival has always been influential.
In terms of other arts, I love movies and films that use music well. We were talking about before the connection between visual and audio. Surprise, surprise, I like Wes Anderson. I really like Woody Allen. Any artist that has a cohesive world that they create, they have a ethos in which there’s a logic. Something that’s really itself inspires me.
TWD – Any recommendations or things you’re really into lately?
A – I watch lots of terrible television. I’m into this show Misfits, it’s a UK show. I’m really into Nick Drake right now. That’s like 30 years old, but that’s what I’m into.