- 05 May 21
Transition Year student Ollie West curated 'We Can See Blue' after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close.
While some of us are feeling a strange pressure to be productive during Ireland's lengthy lockdown periods, others are facing creative burnout. The latter can't be said for teenage musician Ollie West, who managed to self-make an entire album of alternative folk music while balancing his Transition Year studies at St. Conleth's College, Dublin.
With schools closed, the former child theatre star of Dead Centre's production of Hamnet decided to record a rake of tracks using a set of headphones and guitar, using garage band to mix the 10-track, 20-minute We Can See Blue.
Not content with making the rest of us look talentless, the DIY album of lo-fi beats and infectious hooks manages to embody an impressively mature, quirky sound - despite West's age. With teenage music talent along the lines of Billie Eilish, Ireland's own Smoothboi Ezra, US artist Chloe Moriondo and Nigerian-Scottish musician Tayo Sound breaking down the music industry's borders, age really is just a number.
Speaking to Hot Press over Zoom, with the support of his director/writer/actor parents Annie Ryan West and Michael West, Ollie's down-to-earth nature makes the chilled out We Can See Blue all the more authentic.
“I really wanted it to be an album that dropped out of nowhere, but I felt like I needed to get some feedback to improve it," Ollie smiles, noting that a debut release usually doesn't have that sense of artistic self-assuredness yet.
"I uploaded it to Soundcloud first, and then to my Instagram music account. St. Conleth's put the Spotify link to it up on their website, which was nice! In terms of album's impact on those around me, ‘Volatile’ always seems to be the most popular song. It’s a good one, but I feel like the other ones need some attention."
“The album probably took around two months to make in total," Ollie adds, mentioning the sudden onslaught of free time offered to him as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
"There was a stage where the songs were coming together every two days. I’d be in a Zoom class watching the maths teacher with a guitar hidden under the screen, recording. I’d spend all day making songs, because I didn’t have anything else to do, so it happened really fast. I made ‘Volatile’ before the rest of the album. I thought it had decent potential - i surprised myself in that way! I didn’t really think it was possible to make an album with the tools I had, but ‘Volatile’ gave me the confidence to keep going.”
We Can See Blue sees one person in Ollie's life enter the subject spotlight in particular, acting as the part-catalyst, part-muse to the overall project.
“The whole project is pretty much about one girl. I over-exaggerated what actually happened to make it more interesting," Ollie laughs. "She knows it’s about her. Her reaction to the album was fairly normal and laidback, actually. We’re really good friends, there was no weirdness about it.”
“Doing something like this was always in the back of my mind. I knew that, eventually, I would make an album. I wasn’t expecting to do it right now, though," the student continues. "I assumed that I’d finally do it when I got some decent equipment, because all I had was some headphones and my guitar."
The right tools were in his arsenal, as it happened.
West had an early start in the music and drama world, portraying the lead character in a near one-man show about the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son five years ago. Hamnet was written and directed Bush Moukarezel, who performed the role of Shakespeare, and Ben Kidd. Ollie was just 12-years-old at its premiere at the Schaubuhne in Berlin, and later played Dublin Theatre Festival and toured to the UK, Holland and US. He was nominated for Best Actor for the role at the Irish Times Theatre Awards 2018 and won Best Visiting Actor at Boston's IRNE Awards 2019.
“It was a lot of fun," Ollie says, reflecting on his time as Shakespeare's son. "I don’t have that many memories of performing the shows themselves, because I knew everything off by heart. The best part was after the show, in the hotels we stayed in while on tour. I was the youngest in the group. Another kid eventually took over, when I got way too old. They’ll probably keep passing the torch down to other kids, but I was the original!”
"I’m way more passionate about music than drama. I’ll perform acting roles to gain traction," the teenager grins, "but I love music. It feels like my main thing.”
Although his parents still circulate in the drama universe, Ollie's childhood was influenced by their music choices. We Can See Blue also has New York indie-folk hero Sufjan Stevens at its essence.
“Both my parents love David Bowie, so that made a major impact on me when I was younger. I love (New Zealand comedy-duo band) Flight of the Conchords - they’re another childhood gem. They make good music as well as nailing the humour side of things. I listen to Sufjan Stevens a lot. His music would always be playing in the car when I was around six-years-old. 2005's Illinois is probably my all-time favourite album. I’d like to make weird, alt songs - mine usually end up more in the pop sphere.”
"I’m definitely going to make more albums, but I’m so new to all of this," Ollie acknowledges. Unassuming when asked about future plans, what would he say if record labels come knocking at his door?
“I’ve only ever worked with myself, so I’m open to producers and labels. I feel like I don’t know anything about the industry. My friends and I joke about playing concerts around different parts of Dublin, places where I hang out in particular. It would be interesting to see whether that could actually happen, I guess. I’d like to have loads of fans who would never leave, but not to have everyone in the whole world knowing your name; that sounds terrible! I’m sure my parents would be in shock, as would I. Ireland is a good place for that, though. Even the most famous people don’t get that much attention when they’re out and about.”
“I just want people around me to enjoy the album," the teenager tells me.
"I made it so people could have a catchy tune to hum. If it even gets stuck in their head, I’d be happy.”
Never one to sit still, Ollie is travelling to West Cork to begin shooting Michael Kinirons’ first feature film, Sparrow. Kinirons offered the 16-year-old the lead role firsthand. It seems like his creative talent can't help but get noticed...watch this space.
Stream the brand new We Can See Blue below: