With her newest work, the singer-songwriter thinks beyond her jazzy roots.
The earliest known photograph of Olivia Castriota singing onstage was taken when she was three years old at the county fair in York, Pennsylvania. In true 1980s glory, she’s wearing a rainbow striped one-piece jumper, her hair coiffed into a mullet. Today, thankfully, Castriota is far from her mullet days—she’s instead known for her purple lipstick, nose ring, and top knot—but she’s still singing. Today she debuts her latest single, “Weekend Lover,” a pop-soul ode to the lover who’s “the king of consistency,” who’s “sweet and dependable like coffee and pancakes on a Sunday morning.”
The release of “Weekend Lover”—whose video release is slated for August 17—comes after a year of the New York-based singer-songwriter creating new music, working with different producers in different states, working with new writers, and finding her style as a musician. While Castriota’s 2015 debut album All at Once functioned as a way for her to showcase what she could do with her voice and songwriting, her new work allows her to think beyond her usual musical choices. “My voice is always going to sound soulful and bluesy and jazzy, but the music that’s surrounding my voice doesn’t necessarily need to match that,” she says. Accordingly, she’s been experimenting with electronic pop and other genres along with her traditional vintage soul.
Castriota is especially inspired by the emotive storytelling of artists like Ed Sheeran, D’Angelo, Joss Stone, and Melissa Etheridge, how they reveal so much soul in their work. She hopes to project their same level of power, emotion, and feeling. “I try to always incorporate that and bring my best energy forward whenever I’m performing,” she says. “I really want the audience and listeners to be on the same wavelength as I am, like they’re right there as the story is happening.”
Castriota’s own story starts on a farm in her hometown of New Freedom in York County, Pennsylvania. “I was training myself from the time I was a little girl with my hairbrush to be able to perform in front of thousands of people with a full band,” she says, and regularly sang into a sparkly purple hairbrush in front of the magazine cutouts that lined her walls. Her grandmother knew she had great pitch when she was four as she sat in backseat singing ‘Tinkle, Tinkle, Little Tar.’ “I couldn’t pronounce the words right but the pitch was perfect,” she laughs.
She began taking voice lessons at 14, and envisioned only stardom. “Dad,” she said, “I’m not going to college. I’m gonna go to New York as soon as I graduate high school and I’m gonna go be a star,” she laughs now. She remembers constantly researching singing competitions within a four-hour radius of her town, looking for and traveling to any opportunity to be onstage.
Castriota did end up going to college, though, studying communications at York College. She moved to New York after graduating and worked an office job. It was, to say the least, not for her. “After nine months, it was like, okay, you deserve a way better life than this, this is not what you’re cut out to do,” she says. She’d have to give herself almost daily pep talks in the office bathroom mirror: “You can sing! Get out of here, what are you doing?”
Soon after, Castriota put in her two weeks’ notice and found herself singing at The Apollo’s (in)famous Amateur Night. Having seen the performer before her booed off in seconds, she was nervous. However, singing Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” she placed third and was invited back the following week. She’d eventually compete two more times, gaining confidence each time.
After her Apollo appearances, she started taking voice lessons with performer Irma Seleman, and through Seleman was introduced to a guitarist who offered to produce her album. The creation of All at Once was, well, done all at once, with Castriota learning the finer points of crafting an album on the fly, “with a lot of Googling, a lot of late night texts like, ‘Hey guys, how do I do this?” she says. She recorded the eight-song album with live instrumentation in two days, did a photoshoot, did the CD booklet, the works. It was an album she made to show what she was capable of. She has now performed all over the country, with SoFar Sounds, and in her own show with a live band called “The Women of Jazz” at The Groove, a club in New York’s West Village. She feels proud to have come from a small town, to show her family it’s possible to make the life she wants in the big city.
Castriota finds her work now is more polished. Her own songwriting process usually starts in the shower, when she’ll often think of a cool melody, then run to her phone in the kitchen to record a voice memo with soap still in her hair. “All my voice memos have running water in the background,” she laughs. She’ll make the chorus in the shower as well then bring everything to her songwriting session. Through the rest of the year, she will be releasing the singles she’s been working on with other writers, a process she feels is especially rewarding. While she wrote her first album on her own, with one song written by her brother, she finds it’s more fun to be around other writers, listening to their input and seeing what they would change about the song. “Weekend Lover” in particular was co-written with Zach Berkman of Razor & Tie Music Publishing.
Writing her own work continues to be important to her. “I like to be able to share my story and share what’s going on in my life. I think it’s important to be relatable as an artist and as a creative because people want to know who you are and what you’re going through, like who’s the real you. Through songwriting you can really get that out into the world,” she says. “It’s easier to sing than to talk sometimes.”