Amanda Carr sits down with singer, musician, songwriter and actress Olivia Brownlee
Your career has been unfolding over the last few years and you have a lot of irons in the fire. Is it hard to keep your focus?
It just kills me when I double-book! I keep a very detailed calendar and do my utmost to make certain it’s updated…but every once in a while something falls through the cracks and I’m forced to disappoint someone (besides myself). My folks taught me to always go with your first commitment – no matter what it pays or how much of a hassle it is – since being branded as a greedy flake is no good for any kind of career. Otherwise I really relax in variety. I love being able to do and be a part of a lot of different projects. Growing up it was something of an identity crisis much of the time, but I found myself juggling focuses on different interests and eventually, I come back around to each one. And I guess that really hasn’t changed. It’s how I learned guitar, how I got my Master’s, and the reason I’m a Piano Technology Apprentice now. I’m still a Jack-of-all trades, but at this rate maybe I can be a Master-of-All by the time I’m 105.
You are a multi-faceted woman: singer, musician, songwriter and actress…, and probably even more that I’m not mentioning! Does being interested in so many aspects of artistry become confusing when you’re trying to promote yourself?
Absolutely. I’ve just changed the title of my website to “Olivia Brownlee Music…& Junk“. It used to be my “Online Portfolio,” but through a series of decisions, successes and misadventures I decided to make music the outward focus. I just didn’t have the heart to delete the other pages. I worked really hard on those! My card says simply, “Entertainment & Art” – and I like to think that covers it. I’ve been making up other ways to encompass who I am and how to market myself and although they are all fun to describe to people in more detail, they’re also all a little esoteric. “Forensics of the Imagination,” for example. In describing my music: “Say Joni Mitchell married Gene Autry and gave birth to a muppet…” Or explaining my work in Boston: “I’ve been a wench, a pilgrim, a piano junkie, a theatre techie, a busker, an illustrator, a collaborator, a teacher, a student…” the list goes on and on!
You’re from the Northwest part of the country, can you talk a little bit about where you grew up and the influence the area had on you as an artist? When did you move to this area and how do you find the Boston artist’s scene?
While Spokane, WA is a fantastic place to raise a family, it isn’t exactly a booming market for musicians yet; I am not convinced that Boston is, either, ultimately, though it is a bigger pool for sure…but I guess when you get down to brass tacks it doesn’t matter where you live as much as who you know and what you do. Charlie Wright said: “It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s what you’re doing when you’re doing what you look like you’re doing.”
Amanda: Talk about some of Boston’s hidden gems for performers and fans of music?
Olivia: Cambridge’s open mics. Especially Tom Bianchi hosting Lizard Lounge and Geoff Bartley hosting at The Cantab, both on Monday nights. The Lizard Lounge is the site of the first concert I went to on the East Coast (Josh Ritter, secret appearance). There are also some wonderful weekly hidden blues dancing (also on Monday nights) at Radio Bar in Union Square. Great scenes, all of them!
As an actress, tell us what plays you’ve been in and what’s on the horizon for you?
In Boston, I played the Oakie Mother in Emerson’s Esperanza Rising at the Majestic; I have worked with Fort Point Theatre Channel on a few projects, most famously as the Homeless Lady in The Good Person of Setzuan; I have been a wench at the Medieval Manor for 3 of it’s 40-year run. Most of my involvement in the theatre world here has been as a technician with sets and lights (which I advocate for all actors to get into – you learn more about working as an ensemble doing that than you ever will taking acting classes, and they PAY you!). I have a couple of prospects pending with Fort Point Theatre Channel, and I hope things work out. They’re a sincere group with a great track record.
Would Broadway be a desirable goal or do you prefer the intimacy and versatility of community theatre?
I thought about LA for a while, since that is where I was born – and it’s not off the table – but I’ve never really been interested in Broadway for some reason. I think I prefer to fill a niche rather than fight tooth and claw for fame and glory.
What have you learned about the music business in the past 2 years?
It’s changed dramatically in the past ten years. That popularity contests are intricately rigged. That social media is probably the most effective tool for promotion, although it’s really hard to do it on a consistent basis. That no matter who may represent you and want to take you higher, you are totally responsible for your own career. Also, maybe most importantly, you are the only one responsible for your rest, and space.
As a songwriter, do you like to sing all the songs your write or do you write sometimes for other people?
I write sometimes specifically ABOUT other people, but has another entertainer commissioned a song from me? If so, that hasn’t happened yet, but I’d be really into a project like that. What a stamp of validation. I’d still want to have the rights to perform it, though.
Do you find the struggle of supporting yourself as an artist a distraction to creating art?
I don’t find it distracting so much as disturbing! But in all seriousness, I would love to be able to support myself and perhaps a couple others by performing all week long. Luckily, until I solidify the good habits that lifestyle requires, I have a few other flexible jobs with very understanding employers! The thing is, I have to put as much discipline into creating as I do into supporting myself – I even have a songwriting accountability partner and we do a weekly check-in on each other’s creating! It is important for humans to keep growing, I think. Above all, I try not to complain about money, even when I’m stressed out by the lack of it. If I’m broke, I need to try something different, something new, and do it in a way that doesn’t compromise my artistic integrity (a hard, but worthwhile balance). If that means doing drywalling for a while, I’ll be the most artistic drywaller in the country!
You’ve recorded 2 CD’s of original material. How difficult is it to market your own stuff?
It’s really difficult because I cover a broad range of genres – for example, I could send my blues tune to a blues radio hour, but they wouldn’t have much use for the rest of the album. On the other hand, that versatility tends to get more awe and compliments in today’s market than criticism. I think the American consumer prides him or herself on eclectic tastebuds and that’s good for me. The first CD is only digital, so I don’t generally sell as much of that one – those songs defy classification anyhow. Both can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, Bandcamp and Spotify.
What would you like people to know about you that I haven’t asked?
I write a column for ThrivingAndStrivingMagazine.com under the title of “Doin’ Music.” And I have an exciting show coming up on August 23 called a “Songwriter Roundup” – this is where four songwriters form a band for one night only to perform each other’s original material. The writer-musicians are Agona Hardison, Mary Casiello, Kaiti Jones and myself. The show is at the Armory in Somerville. I think this is a good kind of project for independent songwriters.
Also if you’re feeling up for an adventure, my parents are coming to visit and we’ll be doing a special concert together on November 29 at a place on the Cape known as No Place Special.