Oliver Hill is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and arranger who has worked with the likes of Dirty Projectors, Curtis Harding and Benjamin Booker. As one half of the American indie pop duo Pavo Pavo, Oliver explains to us what it was like recording with bandmate Eliza Bagg after they split from a six-year romantic relationship.
You’ve picked five songs to accompany this article. Would you like to say anything about your choices?
Click here to read Oliver’s responses.
I mean there’s of course, you know, there’s all kinds of different music. It kind of depends what goggles you’re putting on… I mean I have some pretty specific things I look for in songs. I care a lot about chords, I like when there’s emotion in the actual notes like in the music part of the song. When there’s emotion that suggests sort of like a a chord will set up an expectation or point towards something and then it’s either thwarted or fulfilled. I sort of want to be taken on a journey with the actual, you know, with the notes and rhythms of a song and then the lyrics can kind of support that or have a narrative that like is in opposition to it or you know what I mean, like I would love to have a song where even in a different language I sort of understand the intention of the song through the chords and then the lyrics kind of seal the deal.
Congratulations on the release of your second album, Mystery Hour. I was surprised to learn that you wrote this album while you were separating from a six-year relationship with your bandmate Eliza (Bagg). You playlisted Fleetwood Mac and I can’t help but draw comparisons to that band with the situation you find yourselves in. Have you drawn influence or guidance from them in keeping the band together?
(Laughs) I actually don’t really the ins and outs of their story. I know that they all, that I guess maybe the the four of them all kind of dated each other at one point and then there was a lot of sort of anger and resentment and just sort of heartbreak, but they prioritised continuing to make music together and sort of funnelling it into creativity. I guess that’s in that sense yes, I mean it’s not like we were thinking of Fleetwood Mac, I think we were just kind of doing the same thing, or we had the same thoughts (laughs). You know, just seeing that there was something special in our musical chemistry and wanting to honour that, you know, even if the other sort of forms of partnership were falling apart… We didn’t know that it would go down exactly that way, I mean we split up and then I wrote the songs myself. And then I kind of demoed them out and when it was time, just since we’d made so much music together, a lot of it was the first call. You know it was just like okay, like what would it sound like now if you sang, and she has always had such wonderful arrangement ideas and sort of sense of texture and production. And so I thought it could be really special to have tag her in and kind of bring them to the finish line together.
It sounds like there may have been a time when you considered pulling the plug?
Was it simply a case of needing to fulfil contractual obligations with Bella Union?
(Laughs) Yeah, I think it definitely would have been different if it weren’t for Bella Union. Um yeah, I mean I think that it woulda been different – not so much contractual obligations I guess so much as you know, just having this record deal as an opportunity or like an impetus to do something a little bit outside our comfort zone. Um, yeah but I mean there coulda been a moment when these songs would’ve turned into something else and then we would’ve figured out some other personal material and we would’ve chosen to make the next Pavo Pavo record something different with different songs or more collaboratively written songs. But these were the songs and so as soon as we started working together it was like okay, this would be a really interesting follow up to to our first record.
Being in a band relationship is a very intimate thing and it’s a very stressful thing.
I note also that David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors was in a six-year relationship with bandmate Amber Coffman but couldn’t hold things together after they split. Having arranged strings for Dave, have you kept in touch and/or discussed the impact of dating bandmates with him?
(Laughs) Um yes, actually yeah. We’re pretty close friends and we have discussed a bit of those parallels, yeah. I mean, you know, I don’t wanna put words in his mouth, but I think that being in a band relationship is a very intimate thing and it’s a very stressful thing. And you know, traveling together, always just like there’s gonna be a lot of situations, there’s a lot of really trying situations basically with band life and so when that’s combined with a romantic relationship and trying to build a future together, it requires like just incredible, I think, emotional maturity and trust to actually have it last. So I mean anyone with any examples of really long standing bands with a relationship at the core of it, I tip my hat to them cos yeah, both of our experiences with it was that it became nearly impossible after a few years.
What’s Dave like to work with? And as a follow up question, I couldn’t actually find which tracks you worked on?
Oh yeah. Yeah, there’s one from the self-titled one called “Ascent Through Clouds” and then there’s two others that have not come out yet. He’s one of my musical heroes and has been for a long time so I feel like ah, I think I learned so much you know, every time even we’d talk about music, he has a really unique perspective… there’s nothing predictable about his taste, he just has a very weird set of ears that you know, creates beautiful music, so I take all of his opinions very seriously. So I would say that the experience of working with him is you know, never quite knowing what he’s going to think. But then like always learning a lot.
I understand you’ve also recorded with some exciting artists such as Curtis Harding and Benjamin Booker. Do you have a highlight from all of these sessions, and what advice would you have for aspiring arrangers or session musicians?
Yes! Yeah. I mean those were both really fun records to work on… Ben actually lives right like just a block away from me now in Los Angeles and is one of my closest friends. But originally both those records were produced by a guy named Sam Cohen who was one of my best friends in Brooklyn and he had kind of – when he produced records it was kind of like a wrecking crew type vibe where he had maybe 15 people that were on call for the band and back up vocals and the arrangements and stuff. And I was his string guy, so it was a couple of years when I was living in Brooklyn where I just made lots and lots of records with Sam or did you know, strings on lots and lots of records with Sam. Both the Curtis and the Ben record were from then and I mean my favourite moments in the studio are always when you know a path is being followed and a risk is being taken. And you kind of have something in your mind, like you have some kind of finished product idea in your mind but you’re trying to get through the bramble and like find your way towards it but like along the way it isn’t sounding right and it’s like you’re not sure and other people in the room aren’t sure but you basically persevere and keep trying and then eventually the risk pays off and everyone’s glad that it went down that way as opposed to just kind of trying to capture it in the most obvious way or something. Yeah, so I guess my advice would be ah well I mean God, there’s so much. My advice would be take risks in the studio. And don’t spend too much money on studio time so you feel stressed out and like you can’t take risks, you know what I mean? Like record at home, record with friends, and spread it out, take your time and take risks.
The music on this new album is pretty eclectic and draws upon influence from a range of artists. “Around Part 1” reminds me of Electric Light Orchestra, and your vocals occasionally remind me of Daniel Rossen from Grizzly Bear, but I’m not sure you could say any one track is representative of the album as a whole. How would you describe this album and its influences?
I think so yeah. Yeah, well I mean I think I would describe this one, I would certainly compare it to the first one as much more compact and – I guess it’s simultaneously compact but also maximalist, like it’s very densely orchestrated and there’s a lot of music packed into each song. But the forms are very tight like pop song forms, it doesn’t have too many like digressions or like there isn’t too much stuff that just sort of focuses on texture. Like very much it’s about like building towards choruses and sort of riffs after choruses, you know what I mean, it’s kind of trying to make each song its own full and compact statement I guess. Was kind of a mission statement with this one… When I was making this record there was a band called Slapp Happy from Hamburg that I was listening to a lot and you know, classical music always, you know my background’s in classical music. I was listening to a lot of Schubert, I would say I listened to a lot of Brahms, um let me see, I’m just gonna kinda poke through my Spotify, see if anything from that era comes up. Um, there’s a wonderful (Swedish) band called Amason that was definitely a big part of it. I mean having the kind of co-ed vocals and kind of tight songwriting and production. Also listening a bunch to Broadcast.
The political situation in America has definitely affected every aspect of everyone’s life.
As an American, has the Trump presidency impacted on your songwriting at all, and do you have a solution to the partial government shutdown?
Oh wow (laughs). I would say that I mean, you know, the political situation in America has definitely affected every aspect of everyone’s life. And I would say the way maybe that it’s affected my songwriting is that it’s gotten me – I used to be more explicitly interested in retro-ness and I kind of like romanticised a certain era of American music, and I still love that music and it’s still a lot of the music that I was raised on, but it’s kind of having such a retrograde administration that’s you know, with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, that is so focused on kind of reclaiming the sort of ‘good old days’ and there being in the political subtext being the ‘good old days’ of you know, white supremacy and just kind of like generally backwards thinking. It’s kind of gotten me more interested in like contemporary pop culture, and it’s gotten me just like a little bit less romantic about the past and a little bit more interested in what’s the next thing. And like how can I help contribute to the next thing and kind of move the ball forward.
If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Wow (laughs). I’m in like a Vincent Van Gogh phase right now like ah, you know of course everyone loves him but I just got a book of his stuff and I’ve been sort of cutting them out and hanging them up around the house. And just the way that it’s so pop-py, you know what I mean, it’s so like universally delightful like the way that his colours – and how gestural it is, um it’s like the best, it’s like the best art (laughs). And so I would say him maybe. I think it would be amazing to do like a Fantasia-esque like animated thing with him, if he were able to come here now and we were able to make a music video together.