An Interview with Olivia Khoury

I chat to Olivia about the making of new single, ‘Heath,’ the development of her career so far, and what can be expected from her upcoming album

Image: Nanne Springer and Olivia Khoury

Olivia Khoury is a singer-songwriter from Montreal, Canada whose appreciation and experience in multiple areas of the arts world allow her to develop a sophisticated and thoughtful sound in her music. New single ‘Heath’ demonstrates just that. The track has an ethereal tone that is built from a single guitar and enchanting voice. The lyrics were inspired by London and transport the listener to the same experience Olivia had whilst walking through the city. The single is the perfect soundtrack to the upcoming winter months as it has the instant ability to make a listener feel warm inside.

As a result of this release, I was able to chat to Olivia about the making of ‘Heath,’ the development of her career so far, and what can be expected from her upcoming album.

‘Heath’ is a beautiful track that has been described as similar to a ‘cold breath in winter.’ You wrote the song in February of last year and are releasing it this week; was it an intentional decision to put this song out during the winter?

It was going to be released in spring around the time I wrote it originally, but then Covid happened and things just took a lot more time. It was either that or I wait until February 2022, but I wanted to get it out there and I thought that it would be nice now as well with the seasons changing. Of course, it’s not necessarily the same in the UK, but seasonal depression and the lack of sunlight really hits people, so I thought it would be a good move to put it out now before the snow in my case. So, it was intentional in that sense to have it happen when the cold weather hit and you start wanting to be covered up.

How did you channel your experience of walking through London into the song?

The song really just flowed out through me and the lyrics just came out. I was very literal in the sense that it was a bit rainy and it had rained the whole day before and I was literally just walking to the bus to go to my class. I was just describing like I was writing out my journal verbally and just decided to record it on my phone. I was literally saying what I was experiencing so it felt very natural. The first lyric is like I am walking on this street and walking to the bus is what I was doing. It was very explicit and descriptive. Often in the past, my lyrics have been a bit more hidden, less explicit and less literal, so it was the first time just accepting that I was going to say what I was doing in a very clear and open way.

I was just describing like I was writing out my journal verbally and just decided to record it on my phone

Now that you are describing your process like that, the lyrics remind me of Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira because the lyrics to the title track ‘Hejira’ start: ‘I’m travelling in some vehicle / I’m sitting in some café.’ She also fed a similar experience into her lyrics and I can definitely get that from your song as well.

I love that album. That’s amazing because I didn’t even realise and I listen to that album a lot because I really like it. There must have been some connection somewhere for sure.

Who musician wise would you say you are influenced by?

Well Joni Mitchell is a definite one. Recently I have been listening to a lot of Lianne La Havas, another British artist that I really enjoy. I also really like Jordan Rakei, who is also based in the UK. On the Canadian side, I really enjoy Feist and there is a Jazz artist called Esperanza Spalding who is a vocalist who does all kinds of things. So those are my influences at the moment, but for sure Joni Mitchell.

Going back to ‘Heath’ and your experiences of going through London, I know your songs are inspired by your travels. Do you travel to look for inspiration for music or do you travel and the music comes to you? Or do the two go more hand in hand?

I think they go hand in hand. I was in London on exchange so I wasn’t necessarily there to write new music. It just happened, but I was also studying music. They go hand in hand for sure. I get inspired and then I just start writing, but I haven’t necessarily done a trip with that sole focus to write new music.

Is that the sort of thing you would like to do in the future?

For sure. I have travelled for workshops, like I was in Amsterdam for an improvisational workshop that wasn’t just music. It was also theatre and dance and I did end up writing a song there that will be on my new album called ‘Seek.’ I guess I go for inspiration then if it comes out through music then parfait. I was in Lisbon and that’s where the song writing really started actually. In 2016, I did a workshop there about song writing but also band leading. It was a music workshop and that is where I started really realising that I enjoyed writing more and then I did my EP. Then I started doing shows and that’s kind of what instigated everything.

You have just returned from your tour. Did you perform ‘Heath’ or anything from your upcoming album?

I did perform what is going to be on my album. I don’t think ‘Heath’ will be on my album though, I think it will just be a single on its own. I did perform ‘Heath’ a few times but because I wrote and produced the song with another person that is not part of my album, I played it sometimes stripped down with just guitar and voice. I am thinking of integrating it for future shows because I really enjoy it.

What sort of reaction did ‘Heath’ receive when you performed it live?

People find it really touching and comforting. Most of the time they make sounds and they put their hands to their heart more than describing things.

How did it feel being able to tour again after Covid?

Exhilarating. I remember just the whole time we were like: ‘this is amazing we have to keep doing this.’ We were in awe and grateful – a mix of all emotions. We also didn’t have a lot of time to rest, we were trying to keep up with everything. It was very clear to me that next year I want to tour with the album. Hopefully a longer tour because it was super short and last minute. Obviously, I would really love to be in the UK and Europe and do a real big tour.

It was very clear to me that next year I want to tour with the album

During the pandemic, you did some live sessions for your YouTube channel. Is this something you are eager to maintain post-Covid or are you more focussed on physical live shows?

Most likely, but I have been so consumed with finishing the album and then the single. Just imagining how I’m going to put that out and thinking of how I want to launch it and everything that I hadn’t really thought about the live sessions. But you bring up a good point. I am playing a show in my town in December and it will be recorded so I most likely will share at least one live session in the new year for sure, and there will be music videos to be released. For ‘Heath,’ there is a lyric video coming out if not Friday, then next week for sure. I’m excited about that because it’s a really personal lyric video. My boyfriend came to visit me just before lockdown because we didn’t know that I would be back so soon. He had filmed a bunch of our moments together walking around London so that’s the lyric video – beautiful images from my stay.

When you do a lyric video like that, it’s obviously very personal to you. Is that something you find exciting to be able to put out to other people or is it a bit nerve wracking?

There’s not so many videos of me per say, it’s more a lot of nature and walks. For me, I realise they are wonderful memories that feel so far away that I get to enjoy. So, I think perhaps it’s not that nerve-wracking. It has sentimental value to me, but people can find what they want in it. Hopefully people will understand the vulnerability and intimacy that I am trying to bring with that song. I think that it is nice. I hope that people will be able to have access to that.

Hopefully people will understand the vulnerability and intimacy that I am trying to bring with that song

You also have a jazz project called ‘The Olivia Khoury Quartet.’ Is that something you are looking to keep distinct from your solo work or do they work alongside each other as a development of one another?

The jazz quartet arose because I was studying jazz and I wanted to put that into practice. Since lockdown, graduating and working on the album, I put it to the side because otherwise there are just too many things to think about and I haven’t really been pushing it. The members of my jazz quartet are also the members that are in my band, my band just has more people in. So yes, I do want them to be separate because jazz quartet is playing standards and really focussing on improvisation and jazz sound. My music, yes has a lot of jazz influences, but I am trying to show that it is also accessible as a singer-songwriter type thing. There are lyrics and less improv, and the songs on the album will not have lengthy improv like my live sessions, so they are more accessible.

When it comes to performing, which do you prefer: longer improvisations or something you have pre-planned?

I like both. They are really different, they put me in different kinds of energies. With improv and the unknown, it’s very exciting to think about where we can go next and what we are going to do. It’s a different kind of energy in my mind-set and my body. If it’s something that we set out, it’s exciting to be like, ‘let’s present this, can we do this,’ and hope that people can see where we’re going and enjoy the ride. I enjoy both.

On the topic of side projects, you are an interdisciplinary artist with regards to dance and music. Do these two sometimes cross over or would this be something you would be looking to do in music videos for example?

For sure. When I started my first EP and was doing shows, I would have dancers with me. My EP launch in 2017 had dancers dancing whilst I was performing the songs. That was super exciting. I loved it but it just became hard to sustain because it’s a lot of people. Most venues for music are like bars so there’s not really space for dancers; it just became complicated. But it is something I really enjoy and want to explore more. There will be a music video coming out next year with dance. I’m not sure yet what my album launch will look like, but in the next year I really want to re-integrate that part of me and of art in my process.

In the next year I really want to re-integrate that part of me and of art in my process

That’s really exciting! In the past you have released some songs in French and some in English, is there a language you prefer to sing or express yourself in or do you enjoy having the flexibility of being able to choose either?

I like the flexibility. It’s really instinctive. It seems I’ve been writing more in English, but I’ve also been listening to more English music so it kind of makes sense. But I also don’t want to stop myself if I think of something in French. I also find I am pickier and harder on myself with the French language. I find it harder to play with, but I find it a beautiful language too. The album is going to be half English and half French and that’s part of the Vivacité Bursary I received.

Moving onto the Vivacité Bursary you were granted from the Quebec Arts Council for your upcoming album, how much did it mean to you to have that bursary behind you?

I actually ended up getting a bursary as well from the Canadian Government, so I got one from my province and I got one from the country which I was over the moon about. It meant a lot also because, I haven’t been as public about this as other artists are, but I am mixed. Both my parents are from visible minorities, which is how we say it in my province anyhow. The bursary I applied for was designed specifically for people who fit that category. It meant a lot to me because it was the first step into recognising my identity and that was my pitch for the album. It’s not really jazz, but it’s not really folk. There’s French and there is English. It’s going to be a whole melting pot which is what I identify as. Often at times it was hard for me to pitch my music in the industry where I am here. I think London is a lot more open and that’s why I am inspired by it because when I was there I was like, ‘oh wow, there’s all kinds of music and all kinds of people,’ and people are just going with it. I love that energy. Here it is a bit more old school I find, so it meant a lot to know that I had the support from these councils to push forward with my idea, even though I didn’t necessarily see others around me fit that category.

How has working with producer Jesse Mac Cormack changed or evolved your work?

Working with Jesse was nice and nerve wracking because I had never given my music to somebody else to work with. So far, all of my music has been DIY; self-produced as an artist on a shoe string budget. So, it was exciting to have somebody else take that responsibility to see these songs, to see how they can develop and not just be in my own head. But it is also such an intimate thing, so I was like: ‘here you go, but I like it and it is mine too.’ He was very supportive of my ideas and he helped me because he is more of a pop and indie producer. I haven’t worked with that before because I was graduating from jazz which is a lot more technical and academic. Anybody graduating any programme is like, ‘okay here are the rules, I want to break them.’ So it was nice to realise that it’s okay to tone it down and it can just be a simple song. ‘Heath’ for me is one of my simpler songs harmonically speaking and lyrically speaking. It’s very clear and open so to accept that and recognise that that’s beautiful as well, and that it doesn’t have to go into solos or anything complex necessarily, it doesn’t take away from the beauty or richness of the music. I enjoy two chord folk songs of course any day, so it was nice to be reminded that I can just enjoy that.

What can we expect from your upcoming album?

It will be different for sure from ‘Heath.’ The songs from my album actually existed before ‘Heath’ so it’s like a compilation of songs from the last three years. It’s going to be eclectic of course because it is French and English. It’s an album of all kinds of textures. I hope the sense of voyage will transcend itself to listeners. I find that one song is super cinematic and then I was surprised at how it came out in the studio and am really excited about it. That’s something I think is very important. I’m very critical of my music and sometimes when I am working on a song, I get super excited and infatuated with it, then the love dies down because you’re working in it. But recording these songs in a studio rekindled my love for them and I went: ‘oh wow, yes I love this.’ So that felt really good to enjoy listening to the songs again. I think that’s rare for me because I am critical with my music. So yeah, it is cinematic, there is voyage, playfulness and I hope that it will be dreamy. They make me dream so I hope that will shine through the songs. I hope to be back in the UK next year. My goal would be once ‘Heath’ is released and the album comes out, I can maybe book a small tour.

They make me dream so I hope that will shine through the songs

You told me you would love for your music to reach UK ears. If you had to describe your sound to someone who had never heard your music before in three words, what would they be?

I would say dreamy. In French, you would say paysage which means scenery, so I guess visual in that sense – painting a picture with sound. And heartfelt.

Dreamy, visual and heartfelt are definitely the perfect adjectives to describe Olivia Khoury’s music. ‘Heath’ is available now via Olivia Khoury.

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