- 18 Sep 19
The second album by Australian pop star Olympia is a fantastic blend of the avant-garde and the catchy. She talks to Ed Power about the trials of being a female guitarist and how her conservative upbringing shaped her as a musician.
As a woman who plays guitar loudly and confidently - who "shreds" in the lingo - Olympia's Olivia Jayne Bartley has of course run a run a gauntlet of misogynist vitriol. Something about a woman plugging in and rocking out just sets a lot of people off. "All the trolls I get, it's always about the guitar playing," she says. "Usually it's men upset about guitar stuff. You see their profile pictures: they're clutching their guitars."
If they want to take offence, she's happy to give it. The roster of certified female guitar heroes remains depressively thin. Bartley is the latest in a proud but numerically modest tradition. You can count on one hand the number of her contemporaries who have received their due within the industry. "In the mainstream you only ever see male shredders," she says. "All the guitar magazines - it's always men they put on the cover."
As Olympia, Bartley takes on the status quo with wit and determination. She's a fantasy pop star, her songs influenced, in the finest magpie tradition, by Bowie, Roxy Music, '90s Riot Grrl and Fleetwood Mac. Her recent second album, Flamingo, is a glammed-up thrill ride containing multitudes. One of its inspirations is David Bowie's production on Lou Reed's playfully surly 1972 masterpiece Transformer. Just like that record, Flamingo is serious and avant-garde, but also shot through with a sense of fun. It's an art-rock record you could slap on at a mildly raucous party. "What I've always wanted is for each record to explore something different," she says. "It feels like a strange time to be doing that. And I don't know why. David Bowie did it, PJ Harvey did it. But now I feel a resistance to that. Transformer is quite a heavy record. But it's playful too. There's a lot of levity to it."
Bartley approaches pop as if it was a slightly mystical otherworld. To her it sort of is. She came late to music and it still, to varying degrees, blows her mind. She was raised in rural Victoria in a family of hardcore religious conservatives. Rock music was forbidding growing up. The more "exotic" the musician, the deeper her parents' disapproval. It sounds, in a very tiny way, as if they grew up in the late 19th century. "When I was a child I wasn't allowed to listen to Björk. English wasn't her first language. So it was taboo. That was a little bit xenophobic."
She is continuously struck by the low visibility in the culture of female guitarists. The degree to which they are underrepresented was made painfully clear when she gave a songwriting camp for kids in Australia recently.
"It's called Girls Rock! Australia. It's for eight to 13 year-old girls and non-binary children. They were all playing guitar. So I asked - 'What female guitarist do you listen to?'. One girl said Suzi Quatro. Which is cool. But that's probably indicative of her parents. That's shocking to me. The rest were saying things like One Direction. I couldn't believe it. That's rubbish pop, if we're being completely honest."
Bartley is based in Melbourne, which has positioned itself as a cool indie hotbed. That's in contrast to Sydney, home to Australia's corporate music machine. "In Sydney they have lock-out laws and they've lost a lot of venues to development. They've lost a lot of opportunities," she says. "Younger artists are coming to Melbourne. Rolling Blackouts, Stella Donnelly. You see a lot of great Australian bands just burn out. They only play Australia and then they run out of money - there are limits to how much you can tour there."