Interview: Oceanator’s Elise Okusami on New Direction for Sophomore Full-Length

Oceanator (the namesake of singer and songwriter Elise Okusami) is offering an exercise in contrast with her second full length, Nothing’s Ever Fine, out now via Polyvinyl Records. On her debut record Things I Never Said, she established a balance between grungy indie rock riffs and sugary pop melodies that belie deep introspection and existential dread. This time around, she pushes her songwriting sensibilities further in all directions, with denser guitars underpinning even sunnier-sounding hooks. It’s a vibe that was unlocked in part by an encounter with a certain instrument that was purpose-built to deliver the sort of growling aggression Okusami had been chasing but couldn’t quite achieve through conventional means. 

“I just always wanted things to sound heavy, and they were sounding pretty heavy, but not heavy enough,” Okusami says. “And then I finally got to play a baritone guitar at a music shop when we were on tour once, and I was like, this is it. This is what I needed.  

The duality between pop hooks and gut-punching guitars provides the perfect foundation for lyrics that capture apocalyptic vibes and have permeated the collective consciousness in recent years. Yet it’s also a personal document for Okusami, one rooted in reflection on the past while confronting an uncertain present, an unsettled collection of songs that she says can be seen as optimistic or despairing depending on how you choose to look at them.  

“I’m just writing feelings in a more storytelling sort of way to try and illustrate them,” Okusami says. “It’s… I guess reflecting, but not in a ‘I’m going to hold a mirror to society’ kind of way, but just on how things are feeling in the moment. And I think often, most of the time, they’re just feeling mostly confusing and weird.” 

There’s nothing prescriptive for solving the woes of the world here; only a series of snapshots that capture moments in an uncomfortable time, presented as they are, without varnish or artifice. Initially envisioned as the score for an accompanying feature film that was eventually scrapped, it isn’t exactly a concept album per se, though there is a thematic undercurrent that ties everything together.  

“I think of it as going from beginning to end, day to night, birth to death, but it’s definitely not literally charting that,” Okusami says. “It’s just taking little snippets of those times.” 

The video for lead single “Bad Brain Daze” is an incisive, slice-of-life glimpse into a doom-scrolling day spent indoors. The Chris Farren-directed spot started as a feature film idea condensed down into a more compact format, featuring forest animals that turn from friendly to ferocious in just under five minutes. Oh, and it also features a surprise appearance from Jeff Rosenstock, who enters the picture with a searing saxophone solo.  

“I played all the guitar parts on this record, which I usually do, but I’m extra excited about it this time because I decided not to be so self-conscious about it,” Okusami says. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can play the guitar, so just go for it.’ So, there’s a couple of solos on there that I’m really excited about.”

For a record that dwells on themes of survival and isolation, Okusami is in good company. She was also joined in the studio by her brother and longtime collaborator Mike Okusami and genre-busting wunderkind Bartees Strange, along with numerous vocal contributions from members of Sonder Bombs, Late Bloomer, Groupie, Long Neck, Alright, and Maneka. It’s Okusami’s sensibilities that everything revolves around here, though, and this time around, she isn’t holding back her chops. If the world is indeed on the verge of collapse, she’s going out shredding. 

Watch the video for “Bad Brain Daze” here:

For more from Oceanator, find her on Facebook, Bandcamp, and her official website.

Photo courtesy of Miranda Jayne Nathanson

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