“No tears in the writer,” American poet Robert Frost once wrote, “no tears in the reader.”
Melbourne-based indie pop musician Olivia Bartley, better known as Olympia, took this philosophy to heart for second album Flamingo.
The follow-up to ARIA Award-nominated 2016 debut Self Talk features 11 songs, including rocking singles Star City, Hounds and Shoot to Forget, radiating from a relationship which ended due to addiction.
“Self Talk was very observational and cerebral, whereas Flamingo is more unhinged,” Bartley says from a library in Melbourne where she is gathering inspiration for future songs.
She goes on to describe her new album as “visceral and kinetic and confronting”.
“I really wanted people to feel something and for me to do that I needed to get way out of my comfort zone,” the Wollongong-born artist continues.
“I needed to bring people right to the source of my ... well, it’s essentially pain, grief and love.”
Flamingo is, in part, a love record, fuelled by contradictory forces of hope and hopelessness — plus her trademark hodgepodge of cultural touchstones ranging from musician icons Annie Lennox and Lou Reed, painter Francis Bacon, poets Natalie Diaz and Nick Flynn, photographer Alex Prager and late German dancer Pina Bausch.
“Highs and lows,” Bartley offers. “If you’ve ever loved someone who suffers from addiction, there’s siege mentality, there’s this feeling of being trapped, of being helpless.”
Later in the interview, she cracks a little as the emotional impact of discussing these personal songs threatens to overwhelm.
If Olympia was part pop moniker, part creative armour for Bartley’s transformation after a false start as a folk artist, then Flamingo sees her peel back a few layers.
She dramatically describes the early stages of writing the album as being “as open as a wound in a hospital”.
“I really wanted people to feel something and for me to do that I needed to get way out of my comfort zone.”
“It was a new challenge for me to be this vulnerable,” she says. “I’ve always laughed at writers who would talk about their heart. It’s a muscle of the body, an organ — I don’t get it.
“But I allowed myself to use language that I wouldn’t use in my real life, like ‘come back’ or ‘I need you’. It’s unlocked this huge valve of feeling within me.
“You want to take risks, and you want to discover new parts of yourself as an artist, but ... there is a personal toll there. I feel immensely sad. So, I won’t be talking about my heart any more, thank you.”
Working again with producer Burke Reid, Bartley pushed herself to take risks emotionally and sonically, often recording vocals in ways that could not be recreated during gruelling, protracted sessions in the Grove Studios in NSW.
“We blew out how long it took to make the album,” she explains. “We worked through our birthdays, which are the same day. We worked through Burke’s holiday, which he was meant to have between my record and (Sydney singer-songwriter) Julia Jacklin’s record.”
Speaking of holidays, on the recommendation of videographer Alex Smith, she embarked on a writer’s retreat to Taiwan where her lack of preparation and language barriers resulted in a less than five-star experience.
“I did do Taiwan one solid favour,” laughs Bartley, who kicks off a UK/European tour this month. “I didn’t write any TripAdvisor reviews because I didn’t have a great trip.”
“I ate the same thing every day and I stayed in an artist’s studio — it looked like a Soviet bunker, a concrete box.
“I am a masochist as well as pretty rash.”
Flamingo is out now.