Olivia Awbrey Is Strong As Hell: An Interview
Portland, Oregon native Olivia Awbrey is an activist, a singer-songwriter and a storyteller. While her music often offers commentary on current events, she still maintains a sense of optimism and compassion that’s clear in her songwriting. Her music is very rock’n’roll, in both a literal and figurative sense, and she shreds on guitar. She’s currently working on a follow up to her 2017 debut album, Fight or Fight, with a Kickstarter to fund production running through April 4th.
You’re raising money through Kickstarter to fund your newest album, that you’ll be recording in England.
Yes! My bandmates and I actually already recorded the bass, drums, and guitar here in Portland at Destination Universe with Victor Nash and Elly Swope. This project has been very slow going, which is really nice and feels right.
Last year, I met songwriter Chris T-T, My Bloody Valentine guitarist Jen Macro, and their friend Jon Clayton in Brighton, London. I’ve been a long-time fan of that scene and the music that comes out of such a small community. So, I asked Chris if he would co-produce my album and he said yes, and I’m going to London to record the rest of it there with the three of them.
I’ll also be touring around the UK for most of April with local artists Chloe Hawes and El Morgan. I did my first UK tour last year, and really felt that I clicked with the people I met there, and I’ve been looking forward to going back.
It feels really good, and really feels like a step up from what I’ve been able to do over the past few years. There seems to be a level of professionalism in the UK with their shows, which is nice. And I’ll have some downtime while I’m there too, so I’ll get to hang out in London for a little bit, which should be fun.
You just left a full-time social work job to focus on music. How are you feeling about that?
Feeling a lot of things! I think a big part of why I enjoy songwriting, and also a big part of this album, is deeply rooted in social justice and activism. I just stepped away from a social work job that I’ve been doing for the past three years, and that felt like a big part of my identity, so there are many conflicting emotions right now.
It’s very authentically punk that you’re a social worker.
You know, a big part of punk rock is kind of about being yourself and really caring about the people around you, and the solidarity within that community. There’s a lot of crossover between doing community-oriented social work and carrying on a music career that’s really focused on talking about important issues.
You recently wrote a piece discussing the #metoo movement in the music industry for local Portland music publication Vortex Magazine. How was that experience?
Last fall during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, it was such an emotional time for so many people, especially survivors, so that was a really tough day for me. A lot of my social work career has been focused on sexual assault; I volunteered at the Sexual Assault Resource Center for about a year, and my most recent job mainly focused on adults with disabilities, but I worked with many survivors in that capacity. That day kind of smacked me in the face. I wrote a blog post about it on my website, really just to get some thoughts out.
I was very overwhelmed by the news coverage of the hearing, and it felt like it was everywhere —I mean, it should be, that was such a historic thing—but for survivors, you try to step away from it, and then you get on social media and you see everyone talking about it, and not always in a way that is trauma-informed. Even if the intention is to support people, it’s amazing how much language can play a part in triggering and re-traumatizing.
So, I saw a lot of that happening and that’s what the blog post was about. And then Chris (Editor of Vortex) hit me up and said he wanted to publish it, so I tweaked it a little bit and discussed the history of sexual oppression. And I know that at this point, most everyone is aware that women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have always been oppressed, but I don’t think that everyone always thinks of sexual assault in that framework. So, I wanted to write an article that would provide that framework, while talking about the Kavanaugh hearing, and how that affects the music scene.
One of the things I wanted to focus on in this article was really debunking the myths of what assault looks like. Because it’s not always just like a stranger in the back of a music venue, it’s often someone you know.
I love that you used what was essentially a journal entry from that super emotional day and developed it into a well-researched, trauma-informed piece.
It was definitely hard to write the piece, but I think we’re at a time right now where that’s a topic that people are willing to listen to and learn about. And the response has been awesome! I did an interview on International Womxn’s Day with KBOO, and have had some really supportive emails in response to the article, so that’s felt really special.
What I wanted the article to really address was what it means to be trauma-informed, and especially in an art or music scene, how can we be trauma-informed and still host awesome rock shows and get drunk together, and just be good to each other? That’s really what the article is about, and it felt really nice to put it out into the world.
Going back to your album, was there anything else that inspired you besides politics?
The new album is a concept album, and I wrote most of it last winter, sitting in the basement room that I was living in at the time. The whole album is very rooted in a sense of place and draws a lot from location. One song is set at the Portland Art Museum (PAM), and another is set at a social security office that I would go to a lot for my job.
A lot of it is speaking from personal experience and kind of the activism that I’ve been involved in. The song that’s set at PAM is about hanging out with my great aunt. She was a feminist activist in the 1970s, and helped a lot of women get abortions before Roe v. Wade. She’s been a big influence on me, so I wanted to attribute that song to her. Another song is about technology, and how that influences the ways that we connect with one another.
So yeah, technology, feminism, and grain activism are big influences on the album. And I think the overarching message of the album is asking what value means today, in our world, and what are we placing value on? And what are we feeding our souls? Or are we feeding our souls? I wanted to ask those questions, and write songs that make people think about those things.
I also wanted to discuss politics, but I didn’t want to write an album that was just a “fuck Trump” album, because there’s a ton of that. And I think it’s awesome! But I wanted to push it a little bit further, and kind of acknowledge that, yes, we have a racist homophobe in office, but if we’re just focusing on him, then we’re not focusing on the good things that we could be caring about.
Things aren’t going to get better overnight, even after Trump is out of office, and that’s what the album is about. It’s kind of asking, “What are we doing here?”
What’s your plan when you get back from recording?
Once I get back from the UK, the plan is to reconnect and get involved in Portland’s music scene more than I was able to when I was working full time.