Odessa: Best of What's Next

Music Features Odessa
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Odessa: Best of What's Next

To look at the official Facebook account or PR landing page for California-born vocalist Odessa, one would be meant to see a fresh face, a pop ingenue appearing from nowhere, seemingly fully formed. Her meager public presence is built around that mystique, simply and concisely summed up in a one-paragraph biography and a promise to “take you with her inside her song, into a world all her own, and paint a picture you have never seen before.” They sound like the words of someone taking her first uneasy steps in professional music, but they’re not. Because in truth, Odessa is anything but a newcomer to music—just pop music.

Back in 2009, she was Odessa Rose Jorgensen, a striking blonde violinist and bluegrass singer already perched on the edge of national prominence with a band of Alaskan string-pluckers known as Bearfoot. Her sweet but steely vocals had taken an otherwise competent string band and transformed it into something greater, infusing an edge of genre-bending intrigue. With Odessa as that band’s central focal point, they had buzz. Comparisons flew to genre innovators such as Nickel Creek or Crooked Still. There was only one problem—Odessa had never intended to be there at all. And soon enough, she was off on her own again.

“I was never really legitimate in that world, I don’t think,” said the singer, now preparing for the release of her debut, self-titled solo EP (streaming on Paste). “I’d never listened to something like Nickel Creek. I didn’t really feel the ownership, even of the songs I wrote. I became interested because it was such a departure from the music I was trained in, but I never wanted to sing bluegrass. I was also writing my own music by that point, and it was all so different.”

Odessa is the scion of a musical family, with a dad who played his way through numerous surf rock bands and kept the house well-stocked with California rock records. She began violin lessons at 4 years old, an age when most children would be praised for successfully identifying red from blue. She supposes it was likely her parents’ suggestion, because as far as Odessa is concerned, making music was simply something she was doing from as far back as she can remember. Childhood, then, consisted of music lessons, youth orchestras, even a teenage performance at Carnegie Hall. And that’s when she stepped away, first asserting a pattern of backing off from music that didn’t truly fit her passion.

“I was being prepped to go see Juilliard, to see these other schools, and that’s when I became really disinterested,” she said. “If you haven’t played classically, it’s hard to understand that world. You have to be 100 percent committed to it if you want to make it a career. I didn’t have that in me.”

And that’s how it went for Odessa, who showed obvious talent as a musician and vocalist wherever she went, but continued to search for the right avenue to harness it. Leaving Bearfoot, she found herself playing violin with popular Americana band Old Crow Medicine Show and bluegrass luminary Abigail Washburn. Through that association, she came into the company of indie rocker Edward Sharpe, who invited her to join The Magnetic Zeroes and tour the country. Though it was a generous offer, she would have turned him down, if not for having her life violently and literally rearranged at the same time. In a life-altering moment, she was hit by a car in Nashville while riding her bike, only weeks after dedicating herself to the first serious recording of her solo material.

“I fractured my skull, spine and knocked a few teeth out,” recalls the singer, who only mentioned the accident off-hand in conversation, seemingly not wanting to lean on the sensationalism of the story as part of the marketing of her debut recording. “I was literally unable to sing, but I could still play violin. So between that and the painkillers, I didn’t want to finish my own record in that state. So I went on the road with Sharpe.”

For the first time today, though, Odessa is making music for no one but herself. Gone is “Jorgensen” as a stage name, as is “Rose,” which she says probably sounded “a little too country.” She now swims in the waters between pop and singer-songwriter folk music, a conflux of genres where one-word names have a long and storied history. The results are revelatory, and would never be mistaken for tracks from any of her previous bands. Her voice is clear and rings like a bell, delicate and beguiling on tracks such as the dreamy “I Will Be There,” which sounds tailor-made for a national ad campaign. Suburu already thought as much: The lead single popped up in a few TV spots earlier this year, despite the fact that the singer didn’t have a single physical recording to sell.

Nor is she simply a vocalist on her debut, or a violinist. In fact, the singer says she only picks up the violin occasionally these days—on the EP, she instead can be heard playing everything from guitar and bass to keys and hand percussion. For the first time in her life, it’s truly her own project, from the ground up, and her influence permeates every aspect of production.

“I just wanted to make something that was all mine,” she says, seemingly satisfied to take full responsibility for the project in her name. “Now that it’s done, I can honestly say I love the entire thing, but also that the next one will be something different and new.”

“Different and new,” but still within the wide realm of pop music, anyway. Stand-out track “Hummed Low” reveals how far she’s willing to stretch those boundaries, with its lush orchestration of keys, lilting strings and deep, tribal-sounding drum beats. It tips its cap to a few of her influences while remaining refreshingly apart from them, tied together with the lace that is her silky voice. It doesn’t feel like something from a first record, and of course it’s not—but in a more important sense, it is. It’s the first time that anyone has really heard Odessa, the real Odessa, making the music she chooses to put forth as a calling card and statement of intentions. It’s what she intends to continue doing for the rest of her new career, which has indeed just begun. A full-length follow-up is already scheduled for January.

“This is what I’m doing from here on out, definitely,” the singer said. “Everything just feels right.”