There were times when I wondered if Olympia (Olivia Bartley) has a secondary career as a comedian, as she trotted one compelling tale after another, mainly concerning her private life and encompassing her Samoan father, Uber Eats, drugs, and catching a shark and putting it in a bath-tub. She’s a born entertainer, that’s for sure.
She’d brought the Melbourne weather with her too so it was a pleasant surprise to find a cool, blue-lit, air-conditioned basement venue, the seats of which, she observed, were laid out like those of an aircraft cabin. Well, what we got was a First Class performance from a singer-songwriter who has been making waves for all the right reasons in Australia, including a nomination for the Australia Recording Industry Award in 2016 for her debut album ‘Self Talk’.
She recently toured here with Julia Jacklin and the return journey (there will be more) was mainly to promote her second album, ‘Flamingo’ which was released a couple of weeks ago. She’d appeared with a band a couple of nights before in London but this was a solo show.
Accordingly, some of the set comprised songs from ‘Flamingo , but not all. Olympia is not an easy artist to pin down. Hardly any of her songs sound the same, she’s quite experimental, she’s a dynamic live performer and wields her guitar around, but always in control, she never completely lets go.
A fairly late starter into the business (she released her first EP in 2013) and someone who writes all her own songs uniquely she’s been compared to a host of artists from the obvious ones like Anna Calvi (not really, except that she plays the guitar with a similar, circular motion), St Vincent (possibly) and even Debbie Harry, while retaining her own individuality.
She opened with four songs from the first album and the set really got going with ‘Smoke Signals’ which has a truly memorable tune, especially in the chorus, as this live show in Australia demonstrates.
The highlight though was her rendition of ‘Nervous Riders’ from the new album. A ‘let-down in love’ song, the notes she reached were quite exquisite. I said in the album review that I felt it didn’t go on long enough, that it had another chorus in it, but to be fair in the live version it was nigh on perfect.
That was the first of four consecutive tracks from ‘Flamingo’, each one showcasing a powerful soprano voice, deft timing and highly professional presentation. The strongest track of the evening was a toss-up between ‘Shoot to forget’ and ‘Star City’ both of which permit a strong personality to shine.
Chatting to Olivia later we discussed her recent opening for Anna Calvi in Australia and she confessed she’d found her “terrifying”. Calvi can be intimidating, such is the power of her live persona but this Australian lady is no shrinking violet and I have to agree with those who have said previously that she could be more demonstrative herself. That wouldn’t have been possible in a solo set but with a band there is plenty of opportunity to let rip.
And she’d dressed the part, too. No scruffy jeans and T-shirt, but a colour co-ordinated light blue roll neck top and bright red trousers.
The total package is an art-pop star. Melodic songs, flair on the guitar, thoughtful lyrics, a pleasant personality and top-class presentation. Breaking into the UK from 12,000 miles away can be difficult but Kylie, Natalie, Delta, Sia and the rest have done it and there’s no reason why Olivia shouldn’t join them, though it will probably take another tour or two and some decent airplay.
And she must have been disappointed by the size of the audience. Unfortunately, playing individual shows here in the height of summer is not advisable for anyone as you’re in competition with holidays, outside bars, innumerable festivals, and the vast majority of Manchester’s huge student population has gone home for the summer.
Hopefully, the next time she’s here there will be far more folk sampling her musical delights.