Poetry, Pop & Personal Trauma: The Flames That Forged Australia’s Next Superstar, Odette

Written by Cyclone Wehner on September 11, 2018

Sydney’s Odette is primed for international superstardom – her debut, To A Stranger, entering the ARIA Top 20 on its release in July. But this auteur made a transcendental coming of age album amid profound personal struggle.

Odette might be the missing link between Fiona Apple, Adele and Alicia Keys. The singer, songwriter and musician blew up in 2017 with her compelling ‘Watch Me Read You’ – a soulful, percussive piano ballad utilising theatrical spoken word (and sampling civil rights great Maya Angelou). Odette was immediately hailed as a ‘next big thing’. Last summer, she opened for Sam Smith at the Sydney Opera House.

Odette has just wrapped her To A Stranger national headline tour – dates selling out. Now she’ll support The Cat Empire. Come October, Odette will appear at that “bohemian gathering”, Lost Picnic, joining a trans-Tasman billing with busker phenom Tash Sultana, Melbourne soulstress Meg Mac, and Kiwi alt-country crooner Marlon Williams.

“Far out – I’m so excited,” Odette enthuses in her husky voice. “I’ve never seen Tash Sultana live or even met her. I had the absolute honour of meeting Meg Mac once. She had played a showcase. I was quietly fangirling in the corner. But I’d love to meet Tash Sultana – she’s really cool.”

Self-possessed, vivacious and spontaneous, Georgia Odette Sallybanks, 21, is an engaging interviewee. She was raised in a creative atmosphere, her parents both gigging as designers in film and TV (Odette’s father Steven actually has credits for Harry Potter movies). In fact, the Sallybanks couple bonded while working on the blockbuster Titanic. Odette was born in Bath, England – her dad’s home. However, she bloomed with her South African mum in western Sydney. Exposed to a cross-section of genres through her family circles, Odette’s own musicality was encouraged. She followed a jazz-loving father (and grandfather) by adopting the piano. Odette composed her first song at eight and performed in primary school. In the interim, she discovered literature – notably poetry. Dad presented her with a John Keats anthology. This informed Odette’s lyricism – and delivery mode. In 2014, she uploaded tracks onto triple J’s Unearthed.

Most aspiring musicians experience a series of phases. But Odette consistently recognised what she liked. “I’ve always, always been drawn to piano – and I suppose that there are so many different styles and genres that involve piano. When I was younger, I listened to a lot of Regina Spektor. Then I grew up and got really into pop. Honestly, it hasn’t changed too much… I listen to a lot of music all the time. But I think that my personal musical journey has just been probably lyrically: writing less and less in simple sentences – because that would really frustrate me. I couldn’t get everything out that I wanted to say. So I just kind of let the boundaries down and let myself write and write and write until I couldn’t write any more.”

Today, Odette raves about Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. “The way that he arranges things in such a contemporary but also classical way is just insanely amazing. I’m definitely very much inspired by that.” Narratively, she identifies with Joanna Newsom, Florence Welch and Laura Mvula – “very honest and upfront artists.” Still, Odette isn’t necessarily highbrow: she stans pop princess Britney Spears. “I love Britney – thank you. She holds my heart!”

Refining her songwriting in the three years of prepping To A Stranger, Odette teamed with various collaborators – among the earliest Paul Mac, known for his dance music bangers. Mac intuited the high schooler’s sensibilities. “At that time, I was really into cinematic-sounding things and a lot of drama – I still am, but I like to balance everything out a bit more now.” They demoed ‘Lotus Eaters’, Odette’s initial attempt at spoken word, and ‘Pastel Walls’ – to which Mac asked if she wished to add a cinematic climax. Then “a bit shyer”, Odette’s esteem was boosted. “I was 15 or something when I worked with him, so I was very nervous and didn’t feel as confident kind of saying stuff. So it was quite nice to work with someone who just got it.” Ultimately, Odette recorded To A Stranger with Damian Taylor (UNKLE, Bjork and Arcade Fire), a glitch-oriented Canadian producer residing in Los Angeles. “He’s my all-time,” she says fondly.

To A Stranger maps Odette’s odyssey into her past, present and future. In songs like the delicate ‘Collide’, she chronicles a toxic relationship and the ensuing emotional trauma.

“I was pretty troubled when I was writing this album,” Odette begins. “I wasn’t in a good spot. I was struggling through a lot of things in my life. Usually, everyone goes through something once in a while. But, at that stage, it was every element in my life that just decided to stop working essentially. So I had to pave my own way. I was very young at the time, so writing has definitely always been a way for me to not just say how I’m feeling – which is very much what it’s about – but also to kind of start building my own ideas and thoughts and views on life.” Odette even cut a “revenge song”, ‘Take It To The Heart’ – groovy Afro-pop. The album title is derived from a Walt Whitman poem.

Odette is intrigued by how listeners individualise her confessional storytelling. “I find that to be very fascinating. I think music is one of those things – like it’s such a universal language. Going through these tough times, as I was writing the album, I was listening to other artists and kind of taking things away from that. I’ve gotten messages from different people who say like, ‘I connected with this during this struggle in my life and thank you for making music.’ It makes me cry a little bit, to be honest. It’s just very humbling, because one of the reasons that I write and put my music out there is to connect with people. I think that’s a very special and powerful thing.”

Mind, Odette does have her frustrations with the entertainment industry. She despairs that an act will be classified as R&B or hip-hop on the basis of race. “I think a perfect example of that kind of thing is FKA twigs. She by no means is an R&B artist but, because of her being mixed race and because of her experimenting with these different genres, she gets completely just boxed-in as one thing – which she isn’t. I think that it’s very common, especially for female musicians, to be boxed into a certain genre…

Maybe it makes it easier to market but, at the same time, I’m over it!” As such, she welcomes pop’s new fluidity. “The idea of genres is just slowly becoming more and more outdated. I think that eventually people will start embracing artists for their work instead of, ‘Are you an indie artist?’ ‘Are you an alternative artist?’ Because, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter at all. People’s music will relate to you regardless of what they come under.” Indeed, Odette did interpret Gang Of Youths’ ‘Magnolia’ for triple j’s Like A Version, eliciting praise from the band themselves.

Odette is restless creatively. “I’m already looking towards the next goal!,” she extols. “I don’t stop to smell the roses pretty much. I should – I really should. Everyone always tells me like, ‘Take your time – feel good.’ But I’m always writing.” Odette cracks up when told that, according to Wikipedia, she apparently busks part-time as a mime artist. Yet she does aspire to explore film (Odette also considered social work as a career option).

Odette has previously gigged in the UK at The Great Escape – and she intends to perform more internationally. “I have always dreamt of playing overseas; it’s just something that I’ve always been drawn to. I wanna expand and meet different people from all over the world – that’s an ideal situation for me.” Odette could base herself in the UK, albeit temporarily. “I would. I definitely would ’cause my grandad’s over there; my dad’s over there. So I would look at moving there – but it’s hard. I love Australia. All my memories are here. I couldn’t leave.”

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