‘I Wanted To Write About Trauma Without Being Traumatising’: A Chat With Odette
"It's very condescending sometimes. You know, I've been through a lot. So that's why I'm here."
Odette reads. Not in a ‘we get it, you read books’ way, though her debut album To A Stranger is named after a Walt Whitman poem and incorporates spoken word.
And nor does she read in an exclusively Paris Is Burning way either, eviscerating her friends and foes with a distillation of their flaws — though we definitely wouldn’t want to be the person that her first single, ‘Watch Me Read You’, is about.
Odette — born Georgia Odette Sallybanks — is predominantly a reader in the way she moves through the world: while we chat, we loop back around the idea of encountering an image (in a song, a poem, or just on the street), and feeling seen and contained in it.
“Back in the day, I would listen to those beautiful women like Lorde and Florence + The Machine and feel exactly the same way as these people are telling me how they feel,” she tells Music Junkee. “It’s insane to me, that I could do that to somebody else.”
And there’s a lot to hold onto listening to To A Stranger, an eclectic embrace of R&B, spoken word and sharp n’ dark hooks. It’s not surprising that fans often reach out to talk about specific lyrics: snagging lines wait in each song of Odette’s, ready for a listener who hears themselves in them.
It’s also a jumble of experiences small and large: for example, on ‘Lotus Eaters’, a song written four years ago at 16, Odette intertwines trauma with everyday images taken from her walk home from school in Sydney’s inner-west.
Talking to Music Junkee ahead of her sets at Lost Picnic in Melbourne and Sydney this October, Odette opened up about reading, how spoken word can be a little shit, her secret blog, and whether it’s frustrating when everyone keeps talking about how she’s 21-years-old.
Let’s start with ‘Watch Me Read You’ because that absolutely blew up when it was released last year. Why do you think it resonated so much?
I don’t know. I think that there hadn’t been a lot of spoken word combined with R&B. Maybe that? I think it was a complete fluke, honestly.
On triple j’s Mornings, you told Linda Marigliano your favourite part of ‘Watch Me Read You’ was the build where you sing, “Don’t just see me, surround me.” What does that lyric mean to you?
When I wrote that song I was in such a dark, dark place. I was just yearning for a connection — that whole build is just me saying, ‘Just please stop watching me go through this. And just connect with me. Be there for me. Be there with me. And experience these things with me’. It’s almost like inviting someone to read my mind, I suppose.
I mention Whitman because To A Stranger shares a name with one of his poems. What exactly does his poetry offer to you?
It’s just like reading somebody read back to me my own train of thought. It’s all about just noticing the world around him, but in this sensory overload kind of way.
It’s just pages and pages and pages of ‘over there is the tree and over there is a boy with his mother, and over there…’. It’s just gets to the point where it’s ridiculous, [like] ‘well, what’s your point?’ [But] It always comes back to him observing life. And in those fragments of life, seeing himself.
I think that it’s quite a comforting thing. Because even though you can go through something which will make you feel so dark and fragmented, it’s nice to know that you can find comfort in the fact that life inevitably continues. And will always continue.
I wanted to ask about spoken word. While you didn’t invent it, it is a unique delivery style: did you ever encounter any pushback to it at all?
I think the only pushback came from myself, really.
Originally I didn’t even want to put ‘Watch Me Read You’ out as the first single. I was very nervous of how people would receive it because spoken word can be really good, but it can also be a bit terrible.
I want to talk about trauma in a way that isn’t traumatising.
There are so many spoken word performances that I love and I’m obsessed with — like ‘OCD’ by Neil Hillborn — but [too many are] as if someone is talking at you, and not to you. But I think a lot of people appreciated it for what it was.
So in an interview with Hhhhappy, you mentioned having a secret blog while recording and writing that you shared with your producer, Damien Taylor. Can I ask what sort of things you posted on there?
I posted really douchey things — I was 18, so I was like, ‘I’m so deep and I’ve got all these thoughts’.
[But] some posts were good. Some of them were like, ‘I want to talk about trauma in a way that isn’t traumatising’. I wanted to discuss things that are happening without making people feel like it’s happening to them — I don’t want it to be explicit, I want it to just be emotional. And I want people to feel the feeling and not the action.
I just posted a lot of songs as well. It’s just a bit of a messy blog.
There’s something really nice about being around that age. You can indulge those deep thoughts, in a way that even when you’re 21, you don’t kind of don’t in the same way. You feel self conscious, you know?
Yeah. Completely. [Though] I wouldn’t say I’m mature, not yet — but I’ve definitely matured since then. And when I read back on these things, it’s so cringey. I took myself so seriously.
But you kind of have to at the same time, at that age.
Yeah. You do. You do.
I feel like there’s a massive focus on your age. Which is understandable: but how do you feel about this idea that you’re a teenage savant?
I don’t know. I feel like people ask a lot, “How can you feel so much and know so much about the world at this age?” And the answer is, ‘No, I don’t know a lot about the world, I’m 20. I’m figuring my shit out’.
It’s important that people talk about their experiences, and starting at a young age is important. You don’t want to get to like 30 or 40 and realise that you have all of this stuff that you’ve never spoken about, that’s been weighing down for a long time.
It reminds me of what Tavi Gevinson or Lorde encountered, that demanding question of “how do you get to feel these things?”
It’s very condescending sometimes. You know, I’ve been through a lot. So that’s why I’m here.
Speaking of, to me the most devastating track on To A Stranger is ‘Do You See Me?’ Given the ideas of visibility and reaching out we spoke about earlier, the lines “I need to be silent” and “I swear I’m not that girl I always pretend to be” really stick out.
Yeah, it’s probably the weird, black sheep of the album — it still chills with the herd, but it’s not the same structure as anything. I wanted to be the most direct: it sounds quite smooth, but it’s not uplifting at all.
Those lines featured how heartbroken I was at the time: I was destroyed as a human being, really and truly. I thought that the problem: I thought that I needed to shrink myself to become who I should be. And the girl that I pretend to be was me being myself and who I am — I wanted it to be pretend, that’s why I said that. I wanted to be not who I was, because I hated myself so much.
I was pretty much pleading with people that I can be loved, [saying] I’m not this mad, obnoxious person. Which in a way it’s tricking, because I am the girl I pretend to be. It’s who I am, and it’s not a bad thing.
It reminds me of ‘Infected Glass’ when you say ‘Maybe I’m a bit too much’. Which in turn reminds me of Lorde’s ‘Liability’.
Yes! When ‘Liability’ came out I was just like, ‘oh Lorde, if only I could sit down and have a dinner with you’. She just seems like a sweetheart, you know?
Odette’s To A Stranger is out now. She is performing at Lost Picnic in Sydney and Melbourne this October, alongside Tash Sultana, Meg Mac and more.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.