'Until My Body Breaks," the title of Olive Tiger's debut album, also serves as a mission statement.
"I'm here to make music for the long haul, and this is really the first brick in the road," says singer-songwriter Olive (she prefers not to use her real name in interviews). "I'm planning on doing this until my body breaks, and probably after that, too. I'll find a way, after my body gives out."
At a recent Cafe Nine show, Olive sat on a chair. She played lines on the cello, capturing them with a loop pedal, allowing them to circle back and reverberate. With careful control, she sang minor key lines that sounded almost improvised (they weren't). Standing, she howled, banging out fuzzy electric-guitar chords. Drummer Dane Scozzari and violinist Jesse Newman — bassist John Greenawalt hadn't yet joined — played with drive, and sometimes with the delicacy of a classical chamber ensemble.
Olive Tiger toasts the release of "Until My Body Breaks" with a show at Lyric Hall in New Haven on Friday, Aug. 19, with Becky Kessler (Violent Mae) and the Brazen Youth opening.
"We lovingly call it a democratic dictatorship," Olive says. "I definitely consider Olive Tiger my project and my baby, and I do have the final say in what happens, but at the same time I don't want to lose out on that cohesiveness that a band has. We are definitely family now."
Four years ago, Olive, a native of Oxford and Seymour, returned to Connecticut after completing a graduate degree in music therapy at Florida State University. Looking to build a musical network, she started playing at open mikes, where she met Newman.
Early Olive Tiger shows were loose folk-and-Americana-leaning jams, sometimes involving up to nine musicians. "I wanted to operate the band kind of like a jazz band," Olive says. "Let's see: Who's gonna play bass, who's gonna play drums? We'll have a practice or two, it's gonna be great."
Compositions grew more intricate, gaining distance from traditional folk. Olive stripped the band down to just herself, Newman and Scozzari. She introduced electronics into her setup, though she sounds almost apologetic about using a loop pedal.
"It's a way to lay down a musical structure underneath the songs," Olive says. "Also, it's kind of hard to sing and play cello at the same time because of the lack of frets. I kind of used the looper as a crutch on my way to being able to sing and play cello at the same time. So I'm finding that I'm relying less and less on it over time. ... It's really useful for creating that kind of neat little song structure format. It allows a lot of freedom to expand on ideas and to kind of get lost in them."
"Until My Body Breaks" was produced by Olive and engineer Eric Dawson Tate at Horseshoe Hill Barn in Harwinton, and also in New Haven. Tate helped with string arrangements, and Henry Lugo and Jared Gardener played bass (Greenawalt joined Olive Tiger after the album was finished). Songs were mastered at Alan Douches at West West Side Studios in New Windsor, N.Y. It's being released by Rich Martin's Telegraph Recording Company, a New London-based label behind recent albums by Violent Mae, the Hempsteadys, Quiet Giant, Elison Jackson, Daphne Lee Martin and others.
Listening to her songs, and also speaking with Olive, you get the sense that music is therapy for her, too. You hear dark oceans of sound, strings playing in counterpoint and octave lines, layered vocal harmonies, hip-hop beats and odd-meter grooves, Gypsy jazz, hand claps and electronic glitches.
"Find myself within you," Olive repeats with urgency, on "Find Myself," a sort of twisted, folktronica sea shanty. She sings unaccompanied at the start of "Dark," over a wash of white noise; "With the chains of the well-behaved," she sings, as the song swerves into a disco groove: "Oh, leave me here behind in the dark."
Olive writes pieces of songs, stitching them together a verse at a time, "like one of those creepy dolls," she says. Echoes of that song return in "I To You" — once linked with "Dark" into the "Evening Suite," and still usually played together at live shows.
Sessions for "Until My Body Breaks" wrapped in August 2015 — exactly a year ago. When we spoke, Olive had just picked up the final product. The Lyric Hall show marks the official release, though "Until My Body Breaks" is already in the hands of some Indiegogo supporters.
"It's really an accumulation of my songwriting up until this point in general," Olive says. "Each song definitely has its own personality, and I think that's kind of a result of the span of time over which it covers."
Olive Tiger hopes to tour. And while Olive enjoys music therapy, she expressed a desire to play music full-time. For a little while, anyway.
"It's the first time I've had anything officially musically, and I've been playing music for quite some time. I feel speechless about it."
OLIVE TIGER performs at Lyric Hall in New Haven on Friday, Aug. 19, at 7:30 p.m., with Becky Kessler and the Brazen Youth opening. Tickets are $10. Lyrichallnewhaven.com.
Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.