Get To Know: OHMME
"It’s really exciting because I feel like we’ve both been producing a lot of work in the last few years, and we’ve been working a lot on music, but there’s nothing that’s been out tangibly. It’s very satisfying to have something coming out that feels representative to us and where we’re at in our lives," Macie Stewart says about OHMME's debut album, Parts, which is out today via Joyful Noise Recordings. Since 2014, Stewart and her counterpart Sima Cunningham have endeavored to create a new sound together, following their years of experience playing music that fell into different sonic territory.
While the pair continues to split their musical talent into multiple projects, OHMME has remained Stewart and Cunningham's main focus over the past few years, which saw them put out a self-titled EP last year and tour nationally. With so much experience already under their belt, the release of their debut full length marks the beginning of bigger and brighter things on the horizon for OHMME. Ahead of the record release show at Thalia Hall tomorrow, tune into Parts and dive into these six facts I learned while chatting with Stewart and Cunningham earlier this month.
They're Both Classically Trained Musicians
If you live in Chicago and haven't seen Stewart and Cunningham perform as OHMME, chances are you've probably still seen them on the stage. Whether they're singing backup vocals for Twin Peaks, performing in the strings section at Whitney's show, or collaborating with Chance The Rapper, there's no shortage of ways to see the duo putting their musical talent to use throughout the city. Both Stewart and Cunningham are classically trained musicians and wear multiple hats in the music scene, experimenting with different genres, but they still recall their early days of first getting into music.
"I remember going to my mom’s work," Stewart recalled. "Going to pick her up, cause she’s a musician too. She plays piano in restaurants around Chicago. I remember being really little and getting to sit on the piano bench with her and being like this is really fun," she continued.
"I can kind of remember doing really, really early Suzuki violin, which I did not stay with," Cunningham pondered. Stewart chimes in that she understands that, as a former Suzuki violin teacher herself. Cunningham added, "I think one of my earliest memories was probably my dad would play the Boogie Woogie a lot on the piano and would just kind of like let us bang along or sing along with him on the piano. And do a lot of making up lyrics. A lot of just playing the blues. I think playing the blues with my dad, just singing with him..."
They're Pros at Time Management
With all of the projects that Stewart and Cunningham have going on outside of OHMME, they don't have much free time to spare, but they're quickly learning how to manage their time. Cunningham credits coffee with keeping them going through their busy schedule, while Stewart says, "That’s a difficult question cause I’m not sure that we’ve exactly figured it out. I think we’re really good at managing our time and when we have an hour free just by ourselves, we’re able to get stuff done that needs to get done. Probably what I’m learning is that I have to schedule time to be free. Instead of scheduling time to do things. I have to schedule time to be productive in that sense. It’s really impossible when your brain is flying through so many thoughts. Not even just working on music, just working in general, just life in general. You gotta make sure that you make time for your own brain space in order to be creative. That’s the thing that I’ve learned over the last year."
For Cunningham, putting one project as the number one priority has helped her manage her overall schedule; "I think in a partnership like we have with OHMME, both of us, kind of a year and a half ago, made the commitment to each other that [this] would be number one. That has made a lot of things easier for me in my life as far as making decisions and figuring that out," she says.
Their New Material Focuses More on Live Creation
After dedicating their priorities to OHMME, the pair set aside some time last year to knock out writing the album, and they set to work to record it with a loose plan in place. "I think it’s good to create loose perimeters for yourself for whatever you’re doing and then mess with those. That’s kind of a life mantra in general, for whatever you’re doing," Stewart says about their outline for the album work. Tracing back to the beginning of the process a couple of years ago, Cunningham says, "It's kind of interesting... there’s a little bit of a ping pong effect of like where the audience hears the music at because if you were in Chicago, some people might have seen us when we first started playing these songs. Some of the songs were about two years old, some of them are just a year old and we finished them right before we put them on the record. It was just kind of like we had this window and we knew we had to get the record done cause we’re gonna be on the road and we’re both really always busy and always doing stuff. So we had this nice window of time where we knew we had to finish the record," adding that they also didn't want to draw out the process. "We just wanted to put it out, record it and then get to work on making it come out and come to fruition. So a lot of that was bringing ideas to each other and kind of improvising on those ideas." She described plotting out the core of the melodies, harmonies, and arrangements with Stewart before bringing in their live band.
"Yeah, we kind of had a loose conceptual idea of what we wanted it to be, which was that we wanted it to capture what we sound like live more than the last EP. The EP that we put out was a lot of layering and just me and Sima. Kind of stacking all these things on top of each other. Not necessarily playing at the same time. Doing a lot of overdubs and writing things that way. We wanted this record to be more capturing this moment in time where we’re all playing together in a room, getting the energy of the songs and how they sound when we’re all communicating with each other. So that was kind of like the loose concept of the record," Stewart elaborated.
Prior to the studio time spent on the album, Cunningham and Stewart played a show at The Hungry Brain to test it in a true live setting. "I feel like playing a live show is worth ten rehearsals. It tells you a lot about the songs that you’re playing and where they’re at and about what works and what doesn’t. So that was really helpful to play a marathon show where we just played every single song. It was like a last minute thing at our favorite bar," Stewart recalled about the show, adding that they did gauge the crowd responses to the album, but they mostly judged their own reactions.
Talking outside subjects that inspired the writing on the album, Cunningham and Stewart credit books as the main medium that influences their writing tactics, but even then it's a faint influence. Stewart recently tweeted about the task of moving her massive book collection, but she says, "For this record, at least for the lyrical content that I created, it was mostly drawing from my introverted experiences in the world and how I am perceiving things around me. A lot of the time, we draw inspiration from books. I think that’s something we have in common. When we’re reading, it kind of sparks all these different ideas and sets us off when we’re writing. For this record specifically, I wouldn’t say that-- I mean I’m always inspired by that cause I’m around it all the time, but far as something that was purposely inspired by that, that wasn't what I contributed."
Cunningham agrees, adding, "Yeah I don’t really know if I can point to anything specific, but I would say that a lot of the lyricism of the album is drawn from thinking about things in a very tactile way, and thinking about little clips, little image clips and kind of trying to dissect them and peel layers back. I’m trying to think of what I’ve been reading a lot over the past year. I’ve been reading a lot of Margaret Atwood and I feel like I always love the way that she describes scenes. Parts of the album I think are very landscape-like."
Sheryl Crow, Sigur Ros, and Sofia Jernberg are all on Their Collaboration Bucket List
While they may not rely on other art forms as inspiration, the pair says they are inspired by working with other people. Reflecting on the biggest lessons they've learned, Stewart says, "I’ve definitely learned that I love collaboration. That’s my most ideal method of creating, is in a collaborative environment with someone. I’ve also learned that I need to get out of my comfort zone in order to get something that’s actually viable or that’s actually interesting. We recorded this record in Sima’s basement studio that she has, and it was really great. We recorded the first project there too so it was nice to record there because we knew how it worked there. It was also a different method of recording than we’re used to with this band... On the other hand it was like now that we’ve recorded this record there, I think for whatever happens next we need to get into a new environment to really push forward and make something that’s not the same that we’ve been through."
As far as their dream collaborations they'd like to be a part of in the future, Cunningham says, "I’d love to work with David Byrne, I think that’d be super fun. He just did that whole project that was really cool except that there were no women on it. His live show also looked really incredible. I just feel like he’s very much into putting on large performances."
Stewart adds, "I personally love Deerhoof a lot. They’re an awesome band, and I know that they also dabble in the free improvisational scene. We’re also label mates with them," before excitedly throwing in, "I wanna work with Yoko Ono!" A Le Tigre song came on in the a cafe where I'd met up with Stewart and Cunningham and both agree they'd love to collaborate with that band, while the latter also adds, "There’s a singer and composer named Sofia Jernberg who is in Norway. I’d love to collaborate with her sometime."
It's clear that the duo really does love collaborating and experimenting with other genres because they also mention Sheryl Crow ("St. Vincent just collaborated with Sheryl Crow!") and Sigur Rós as artists they'd love to work with before changing subjects.
Their Favorite Artists are Also Multi-taskers
As demonstrated by their endless involvement in the Chicago music scene and their massive nation-wide tour coming up after the release of Parts, it's obvious that Stewart and Cunningham are no strangers of multi-tasking, but as it turns out, many of the local artists that inspire them are also jacks-of-all-trades.
"I really admire Ken Vandermark actually. He’s someone who is in a bunch of different projects and is constantly doing a million things but he’s able to make things that are different from each other and still remain interesting and new. That’s someone that I look to for inspiration to keep moving forward," Stewart says.
"We have a lot of amazing friends around us. Our friend Alex Grelle...he’s a really talented theater performer and has been doing these amazing variety shows that I think influenced us but also everyone in our very close proximity into falling back in love with the idea of true performance," Cunningham added.
The pair has no trouble listing plenty of other local artists with work ethics that they admire, like Crystal Zapata and Maren Celest, who both assisted with their album art. Talking about the latter, Stewart says, "She shot our album cover but she’s also a musician and just released her own record. She does stuff with Manual Cinema, which is this amazing theatre, shadow puppet, multi-disciplinary company in Chicago. She works with them and she used to have a vintage shop in Chicago and she was doing all these things at the same time. But doing them all really well, it’s not even like she was just putting limited attention towards everything. She’s definitely an inspiration cause her work is always so unique and inspired. She’s constantly working and just trying to figure out new ways to do things." Zapata, who did the design of their record, works with The Normal Studio and creates other art.
"There’s a lot of inspiring people in Chicago. I feel like it’s an endless list, which is why we stay here," Stewart wrapped up the topic. While the two love Chicago and find infinite inspiration here, Cunningham mentioned they'd love to do residencies outside of the city. "Both of us are really craving to go do residencies in places. When we’re in Chicago, it’s hard for us to not be working all the time. I mean, whether it’s on OHMME or just music, it’s very exciting cause our lives are full of music and we’re busy, but in Chicago it feels like every minute of our time gets swallowed up sometimes. So I think giving ourselves an opportunity to go spend time away and just be with our own creativity, cause it can be hard to set time aside for it."