Odessa Chen Talks to the Animals For New Album

odessachen.JPG
Shoka Shafiee
Odessa Chen
Odessa Chen decided four years ago that she was done with romance -- at least until her next CD. For her current project, Archives of the Natural World, the singer-songwriter cast aside songs for an ex named Jeff (not to be confused with Mr. Jeff Buckley, to whom she's often compared) for a love affair with animals and nature.

Already two CDs deep (One Room Palace and The Ballad of Paper Ships), Chen's voice settles comfortably into a delicate, high range. Her dad, who moved from Shanghai to the United States as a young boy, taught her to appreciate classical music. Her North Carolina mama showed her the beauty of simplicity through country music. And her friends, the poets who kept her company during the long, winter days while growing up in Baltimore, were the catalyst for her poetic lyrics.

Leading up to a frenzy of performances this weekend, we talked to Chen about how high school depressed her, the best spot to hike in San Francisco, and whether she's actually an angry man. She plays tonight at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and at the Lab in the Mission on Saturday. And, of course, we hope you'll come see her at the All Shook Down Festival this Sunday. 

What material will you be performing this weekend?

Odessa Chen: I'm performing songs from my new record [Archives of the Natural World, due for release in late 2010 or early 2011], which is through the lens of endangered and extinct animals. It's really sad how our generation was robbed of knowing about some of these animals, because previous generations decided they weren't valuable.


Have you always been a big animal person?

OC: I became really concerned about animals in high school. I felt very overwhelmed, and felt helpless to do anything. So I spent most of my life just being sort of depressed about it. [laughs] The process of making this record was also a process of realizing I have the power to change my own life and make a difference. I was able to go to this artist in residence program in Oregon and spend time writing in nature.

Can you tell us more about that program?

OC: There's a bunch in the U.S. You propose what you'd like to do if you were able to just work on music or whatever your discipline is, and why it'd be important to be in that particular setting. They didn't pay me, and I had to bring my own food, but they provided me with a space in  the national forest with five other artists for three weeks. We all just worked and talked. It gives you a chance to really focus.

Since you went to Oregon to focus, when and where do you write in San Francisco?

OC: I wrote [my other two albums] in my room. I figured out when I went to that residency that the way I work best is in isolation. I like to write at night, when there's nobody else around and it's quiet.

Your music sounds like it would be written on a cold night.

OC: Yeah, well I grew up in Baltimore, so winter is like nine and a half months of the year. [laughs] There's a lot of time to do work growing up there.

When did you move out west?

OC: I lived in Baltimore until I was about 19 or 20, and then went to the University of Arizona and California College of the Arts. I majored in graphic design and poetry.

Does your music draw upon poetry?

OC: I definitely read poetry when I'm writing music. I love Jack Gilbert. He's about 80-some years old now. My favorites are mostly modern poets who are still alive. I'm very lyric-based, since the music that I like has really good lyrics.

Whose lyrics do you admire?

OC: John Prine, Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann, and of course, Bob Dylan's not too shabby.

On the subject of words, where does the name Odessa come from?

OC: I think it's a place in the Ukraine. It's also a small town in Texas.

Do you know what it means?

OC: I don't know, but if you find out, let me know!

Now I'm interested. I'll look it up.

OC: Google - woo!

It means "angry man."

OC: [laughs] You're kidding! That is hilarious. Do I feel like an angry man? No.

Well, you've been compared to Jeff Buckley, so...

OC: He's not angry, though! He's a lover.

Is it unusual for an artist to be compared to another artist of the opposite gender?

OC: That's very unusual. Most people definitely think of other women. And generally, whoever most recently released a record. [laughs] But I've gotten compared to Jeff Buckley on more than one occasion. It's a wonderful comparison. He's one of my favorites. I don't have a problem with that, except that he's way better than I'll ever be!

How did having parents from two very different backgrounds influence your sound?

OC: My dad was an organist and choir director, and very into classical music, so I definitely draw on that, just because I heard so much of it. And then my mother is from the South, so she listened to a lot of country music. There's a record I'm working on that's after the Archives called Giving Up the Ghost, and it's back to love territory. It's definitely taking a turn toward having a bit of a country influence. It's a lot simpler and folk-country based than anything I've been doing up until now.

Did you like Baltimore?

OC: Not really. [laughs] I like San Francisco.

Do you have a favorite area of the city?

OC: I sort of go a little bit here, a little bit there. I like hiking and getting out into nature. That's what I most like to do when I have the day off.

Is there a hiking spot you recommend?

OC: Alamere Falls in Point Reyes National Seashore. It's just incredible. You end up at waterfalls that go off the cliff into the ocean. You go past three lakes, and you get views of these sandy beaches where there's nothing around. You also hike through a path that's redwood forest - huge, gigantic trees. Little kids were hiking it. I would describe it as not being strenuous at all. [laughs] It's the best hike I've ever been on. I get inspired.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown and @TaylorFriedman

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