o's news jessie mae

Mississippi Legends Magazine - September 2011

A Soulful Southern Transplant

It's almost like watching a movie, the mental image of Southern-transplant Olga tearing down American back roads with her kindred spirit, Jessie Mae Hemphill, in the passenger seat. They would be in a red convertible, their guitars in the back seat and hair flying freely in the wind on their trek to New York from Hemphill's hometown of Senatobia.

Fast forward a decade or so and the image changes dramatically. Olga is now in Black Wings Studio in Water Valley with Mississippi's Cody Dickinson, laying down tracks to a new release, their hair flying in the reverberations of the 80s riffs pumping through the speakers. And in reality, both stories exist (although the red convertible is imagined), a testament to the ethereal and fluid Olga (she goes by the sole name), who got her musical start studying with great bands like Los Lobos and legends like Hemphill and who's deep, soulful voice takes command of the blues, then twists into an 80s-infused upbeat musical dynamic – all during the same day.

“Music is cyclical,” says Olga, a San Francisco native, who now makes her home in New Orleans and is enjoying the merits of her new release Whatever You Want. “Everything is cyclical. I hear even shoulder pads are coming back.” For those who didn't grow up in the 80s, the decade passed with relatively no significance. To those who did, pop still reigns, reminiscent of an escape to a bouncy, upbeat, happier and more carefree time. “Both of us grew up in that time,” she says of co-collaborator Dickinson. “Cody is a big pop guy, and I've always known that about him. In fact, earlier Allstars records experimented with pop. It was a great time to discover music, riding down the road and hearing the Thompson Twins or Simple Minds, I'd crank up the radio.”

Dickinson, drummer for the North Mississippi Allstars, which recently earned a Grammy nomination, and whose alternate project is the electric yet boldly raw Hill Country Revue, at press time was in Russia on tour with his brother, Luther Dickinson, and Robert Plant. “Whatever You Want,” aside from being a trip down Memory Lane, was a catalyst for something larger – a lesson learned for Olga, that there are no holds barred in the recording studio. “This was a whole new territory of exploration and discovery,” she said. I didn't realize I could write guitar hooks, but I'd play something and say, 'We need an extra note in there,' and Cody would agree. He'd say, Absolutely. Dead on.' It was great to discover that part of myself, that ability that I had in me.”

Olga met Cody and Luther during a performance in Boulder some 12 years ago. She had been formally trained in music at an early age, fallen in love with the blues through Jimi Hendrix, apprenticed with Maria Muldaur and had been coached by the band members of Los Lobos. When she saw the North Mississippi Allstars, she couldn't deny the pull to the distinct Hill Country Blues sound. “They were my age, and they were white and playing the blues,” she said. “We were kindred spirits. Then through my friendship with them, Luther one day said, 'You should move to the South.'” Olga promptly packed a truck and headed for New Orleans. It was there that she extended a friendship to Hemphill. "I found her address and wrote her a letter, and to my delight and surprise she wrote me back. She wanted me to call her and come see her.”

Olga took the invitation to heart. “I would go up and stay with her,” she said. “It was like hanging out with Grandma. She would cook for me. I would help her with her bathing and her hair. I have a lot of funny stories about driving around with Jessie Mae. Once we took a road trip to New York. Martin Scorsese was doing a documentary and one of the producers called me and wanted Jessie Mae to be a part of it. The Allstars were there, and that spurred the whole project that we wound up doing.”

Olga's lyrics stem from her experience living in the South, she says. The release is simple -- about accepting the past and moving forward. “It's the yin and the yang,” she said. “My experience living the South, living in Mississippi, spending all that time with Jessie Mae. Sometimes we'd argue, sometimes it was a challenge, but in the end there was still that connection and love that at the end of the day, that's what stays with you. Everything I write is blues-based and truth-based.”

“Whatever You Want” easily translates pop into an acoustic blues sound, Olga says. "Acoustically, you'll hear the blues and the Mississippi Delta influence. I write about my experience and I keep it as close to home as possible. I think the more directly you associate music with yourself, the more people can connect with it. The songs on this album are rooted in the truth and as I know it in my life, rooted in the blues,” she says. “But we changed the sound so a broader audience can experience them, hopefully in a positive way.”

“This record has been a process of finding my soul again and reminding myself of what I need to do with my life. It really took on quite a life of its own, quite naturally and unexpectedly, and I am thrilled with where it has led me.” Olga, a newly-elected member of the Blues Foundation as of last month, played several instruments on the release including guitar, and the studio's owner, Winn McElroy, filled in the spaces between her instruments and Cody's drums.

Listeners won't find the release on CDs as Olga opted for a new, more earth-friendly marketing strategy with “Whatever You Want.” Instead, seed-embedded drop cards are sold as a musical component. The listener simply goes to a specific web site, enters the code on the drop card, downloads the music – and then plants the seed-embedded drop card from which wildflowers will grow. “It's a hip way to pass around music,” she said. “No one is buying CDs anymore, so we're embracing the whole digital thing. It's symbolic of the music and the project and of what life is.... out of the seed comes life, and that's what music is.”

“Whatever You Want” is distributed online via Itunes and Amazon and other online retailers via wav and mp3 files. Liner notes and videos are also available. To get a drop card, or for more information, email Olga at www.laolga.com.

-Marianne Todd is the Publisher of Mississippi Legeneds Magazine

[ back to news ]