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Live & Direct: Olivia Barton

Nashville-based singer-songwriter Olivia Barton joined WYEP recently for a Live & Direct session. Olivia talked about her new release, Big Sad, and her viral hit “If I Was a Fish” — a song about fitting in, self-expression, and individuality. Olivia's style has been compared to The Staves and Phoebe Bridgers.

Courtesy of the artist

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kyle Smith: Olivia Barton is here in the WYEP Studios. We're really glad that we're able to record this session. Olivia Barton's from Orlando originally, and now lives in Nashville. What a what a change of, of scenery.

Olivia Barton: Yeah. Well it's closer to home than where I went to school. So I moved to Nashville from Boston. So it honestly feels like a coming home in a way to the South.

Smith: And you went to the Berklee School of Music. Just a little bit of your background for, kind of filling in some pieces for people who are just tuning in for the first time, classically trained?

Barton: Yeah, I would say so.

Smith: So have you known for quite a while that you've wanted to make music your career?

Barton: Yeah, it's pretty much the, the only thing that ever really — well, I grew up dancing, so I did love to dance, but by the time I entered middle school, I was sort of like, ‘I think singing might be my thing.’ And that's when I started taking voice lessons and doing musical theater and stuff, and then it sort of just stuck, you know?

Smith: Well, you've been doing this for a while, like touring and playing since at least 2018 was the first release.

Barton: Yeah, I released my first album right after I graduated college and started sort of then.

Smith: And, you've kind of, well, this last year has been pretty interesting. [00:11:05][4.2]

Barton: Very.

Smith: Yeah. Why don't we talk a little bit about the song that his vaulted you to some prominence and also, a recent appearance on CBS This Morning. I woke up one morning in December, and there you were. Let's talk a little bit about ‘If I Were a Fish’ the song. Why don't you fill us in about how that came about?

Barton: Yeah. So my partner Corook and I, we wrote this song together that was supposed to just be, like, a sort of a little lullaby for ourselves. And we put it on the internet, and it went wild. And over the last eight months, we've just gotten to do some really, really cool stuff. So, like the CBS interview, like you said last week, and that was because we made it into a picture book, so I did.

Smith: That's what I didn't realize until seeing that you turned it into a picture book. If people aren't familiar with the song and TikTok and people were covering it and the viral nature of it, but it's really a song about acceptance.

Barton: Absolutely accepting yourself for who you are. And in the face of other people not doing so.

Smith: Do you think that it's caught on real quickly just because a lot of folks using social media?

Barton: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of people well, honestly, I just think it's that everybody feels like they don't belong and everybody feels strange, and like there's something about them that is not accepted by other people. And so I just think it's one of the most universal sort of themes, ever. So I think that's kind of why I connected with it.

Smith: How has it changed how you've approached shows and performing since this has happened?

Barton: It was pretty crazy. You hear everyone sing it back to us. I went on tour right after it came out and I played it. I was opening for Lizzy McAlpine and I played it for, I think it was like 3,000 people and it had only been out for like a week and everybody was singing the words. It was really crazy.

Smith: Yeah that's got to be quite the feeling after being a singer-songwriter for a few years, probably as an independent artist struggling to get a foothold.

Barton: You know, what's crazy is I just got off of my headline shows, my first headline shows ever, and I got to hear people singing the lyrics to my other songs for the first time, too. So it was so hard to grasp, honestly, like that people would spend that kind of time, you know, with something that you've written and it's really beautiful.

Smith: I noticed that when you were here opening up for Field Medic last year that everyone was there, moved up close and were quiet, respectful, but they were also singing along to some of those songs as well.

Barton: I'm so grateful for that. I mean, it helps that it's quiet. So my songs are quiet, so if anybody's talking, everyone’s going to hear them.

Smith:Well, I would love if you would play us a couple of songs. We'll come back and talk a little bit more about ‘Big Sad.’ But you’re going to play one now that’s a couple years old?

Barton: Yeah, this one's a handful of years old. It came out on my last album. Album's called ‘This is a Good Sign’ and this song is called ‘I Don't Sing My Songs.’

I Don’t Sing My Songs

Smith: ‘Big Sad.’ That's the title track to the new EP. And I read recently when I was listening to some of your music that somebody said a ‘pure voice, swimming in dark guitars, singing about sad things she never intended to tell strangers.’ Is that pretty spot on?

Barton: Yes. It is. Yeah.

Smith: Well, how do you write for everyone else? I guess when, when he went in to make this EP. How has it changed over the last few years when coming up with these songs?

Barton: Yeah. Well, it's interesting that you bring up that quote because I always sort of joke about the fact that when I'm writing, I forget that anyone's going to hear it, and that's the only way that I'm able to be as honest as I am. But that has started to change over the years because it's harder and harder to convince myself no one's going to hear it because I know that I'm going to share it. So it's really challenged me to stay as honest as I possibly can. Even when I know I'm going to sing it for a bunch of strangers.

Smith: Is it tough to, maybe, edit yourself or be too vulnerable?

Barton: Yeah. You know, I don't write for other people. I really write for myself. Like, it just is a tool that I use. And so I don't really consciously decide to be vulnerable or not, although sometimes I do have to push myself to be like, ‘Is that really what I mean?’ You know, can I be even more honest? There are some things that I haven't shared in songs, and maybe I will, maybe I won't, you know? But, ultimately, I hope that it continues to be a practice that I use for myself.

Smith: Have you always been a solo creator or do you like to collaborate or is that something that is a work in progress?

Barton: I was very anti co-writing in the beginning because again, I didn't really trust that I would say what I really mean if there was someone else in the room. But I've started actually really enjoying it. I think it's just about me working with people that feel safe, and that I trust in some way, even just creatively. And so I've started enjoying collaborating more.

Smith: I thought I'd made a note because the first song you did in this session was ‘Sonic,’ and I thought I made a note when I was listening to it that that was a co-write.

Barton: It was. Yeah, that was an interesting co-write because it was with, first of all, one of my songwriting heroes. His name is Evan Hall, of the band Pinegrove. So I've been listening to his songs for years and years, and then we got connected on Instagram and started writing that. We wrote it all remotely, just over text message, sent each other voice memos and stuff back and forth. It was really fun.

Smith: Wow. Fantastic. Well, it's pretty amazing how that has happened. What are some of the struggles that you've come across over the last few years? Not just the pandemic, but just with being an artist and an independent artist.

Barton: Yeah, well, there are about 100 hats you have to wear at all times. And I think, honestly, the biggest struggle has been seeing this as a job as a business. Because like I said, songwriting has always been an emotional tool for me. And so I have really had to sort of like put my big girl pants on post-college and be like, ‘Okay, if I really want to do this, you know, if I really want to be out there and touring and making albums, I'm going to have to be a business owner and, you know, just, be smart and optimize my time and things like that.’ So, the song, the songs are the easy part. Everything else is hard.

Smith: So what's the biggest challenge, or the biggest chance that you've taken so far?

Barton: I mean, there are some scary things I've done. Opening for Lizzy McAlpine was pretty scary because those were the biggest audiences I've ever played for. But honestly, probably the biggest chance was quitting my bartending job. A few years ago. Well, yeah, maybe two years ago, I quit. I teach lessons and do other musical work. But yeah, quitting the restaurant was a big one.

Smith: I used to be in the service industry and do that as well. Yeah, it can be fun, but also problematic.

Barton: I have the utmost respect for everyone in the restaurant industry. I think it's an incredibly hard job that is underappreciated.

Smith: And probably everyone should have to, at least do one for a year.

Barton: Yeah, that's so funny. My dad has said that my whole life: Everyone should have to be a server.

Smith: I agree with you. You'll learn a lot about people that way, that's for sure. Yeah. Well, do you have a lot planned for 2024? Have you lined up tours yet or what's maybe you'll be coming back through for a live show in Pittsburgh?

Barton: Absolutely. Oh, am I going to be in Pittsburgh? Oh, gosh, I should know this, but I can't remember if it's on the routing. But I'm opening for Madi Diaz. Good friend of mine in Nashville. I'm opening for her. The tour starts February 21st. And I'm on the first few weeks of the tour, so I'm excited about that. I've begun writing and recording my next album, so I'll be working on that over the next six months.

Smith: Well that's fantastic. All right. Well, we would love to have one more song from you, Olivia. And also wish you success with, ‘The Big Sad.’

Barton: Yes. Thank you so much.