Q&A: Anchorage songwriter Oliver West returns from Europe with his second record
Oliver, at 25-years-old you’ve already had a pretty full life...
I grew up in Anchorage and went to school at UAA. Then I received a Fulbright Grant to teach English in Germany, so I moved to Europe four years ago and I’ve been doing various things to keep securing my visas—teaching English, getting my master’s degree.
But even with a pretty busy schedule, you’ve also managed to carve out a pretty nice niche as a musician.
Growing up I played in bands, but I didn't start really writing songs hardcore until I was in Europe and had a whole bunch of time on my hands and I was like “OK, well I think I can do this.” It’s sort of what I did to keep myself busy and process my stress of being in a foreign country where I didn't know anyone.
How has living abroad influenced the direction of your music?
I mean a lot of a lot of songs are about sense of place because I'm in between several places right now—very literally—and trying to figure out what’s next. There’s a line on my new record which goes “whiskey, sex, weather, flowers and architecture/at best three at a time but never five together.” I think my music is an exploration about how I fit into the world around me and how the world around us sort of shapes us for either good or bad. I've always sort of considered myself more of a lyricist than anything else. Like, I don't consider myself much of a singer, but I do it because I have to transport my words somehow.
So, you have a couple of albums out, what was that experience like?
For my first album, I just sort of went into it thinking if I didn’t do it now, then it was never going to get done. It was one of those things where I had an iPad and super crappy condenser microphone with a few guitars and some pots and pans [laughs]. I recorded 20 songs which were super rough around the edges because I recorded and mixed them on this iPad with no plugins. It was really Spartan! It took about 8 months to record and I put it out in June 2016, on the day I flew back home to Alaska for the first time, so it was kind of this symbolic thing for me. But at the time I had no idea how to market myself, so I guess you could say it was a relative flop of an album [laughs].
Wait, so you really used pots and pans in your first album? That’s definitely using some Alaskan ingenuity to make things work!
Luckily, I recorded my second album up here at Mirror Studios, so I went a little more upscale.
You’re now two albums deep and working on a third. How has your sound developed over the past four years and where do you think it’s going now?
When I first started out my music was definitely folk but at some point, I just got tired of writing four-chord songs in major keys. I wanted to do something else and to get into some weird chords and weirder song structures, so I got into some alternative guitar tunings and eventually I started playing my guitar flat on my lap, so I could use it more percussively. It also lets me just get more notes into a song to really fill out the space.
Your music has a decidedly unique sound that’s almost vaguely R&B wrapped together with folk and jazz.
I definitely like a lot of jazz chords, but I think my main influences are Justin Vernon, Ben Howard and Tallest Man on Earth. It’s kind of a lot of white dudes with guitars which I feel kind of bad about but then again, I am a white dude with a guitar [laughs].