Former guitarist of the Black Belles and longtime Jack White protégé Olivia Jean anchored her musical tastes around American surf and garage rock at an early age, and some of those influences can be spotted on her sophomore solo album, Night Owl, released last month. Recorded primarily at Third Man Studios in Nashville, the collection sports wicked guitar work, melodious hooks and well-considered lyrics, as well as distant echoes of The Cramps, Dick Dale and the earlier work of The B-52s. Pro Sound News spoke with Jean about being a perfectionist in the studio and what it was like to sit in the producer’s chair for the first time.
On her sophomore solo album
I’ve been recording bits and pieces throughout the years, but I felt inspired this past year to get back into the studio and finish the album. I would say that I had finished about half of the songs, and then I was working on the other half as we were going in the studio. There are also a few songs on there that I wrote when I was a teenager, when I was really heavy into surf music. Those songs—“Garage Bat,” “Tsunami Sue” and “Siren Call”—are the songs that I play all the instruments on.
On sonic milestones
Every single day that I wasn’t making this album, I was thinking about making the album. This time, I was able to produce everything. I wanted it to sound not so polished, with elements of garage and surf rock from the ’60s—I hope I accomplished this. I recorded it in three different studios: Third Man Studios in Nashville, Herzog Studio in Cincinnati and Big Light Studio in Nashville. The engineers were able to jump on board really quickly and understand what I was going for.
On fuss-free tones
I used my Fender Twin basically on everything. I use it both live and in the studio. I also used my pedals, including the Fulltone OCD, which I had on for basically everything. It’s an overdrive pedal that adds just the right amount of dirt to the songs. Also we dove really deep into plug-ins, which was kind of dangerous because once you go down that rabbit hole, it’s really hard to stop. Ultimately, we ended up stripping away a lot of the plug-ins and just went analog. In the end, you can accomplish a great sound with just analog equipment in a fraction of the time it takes with plug-ins, which can be like quicksand. We used all analog equipment and we fed this through the Fairchild compressor, which was great.
On being a perfectionist
Usually I am a perfectionist when it comes to doing takes. I hear the melodies in my head and I really want to nail it down exactly as I hear it; if it is not exact, I will go back and redo, redo and redo until I get it down. There is not a lot of organic songwriting that occurs when it comes to guitar riffs and stuff like that—I come in with a specific plan, so I try to nail it as close as I can. To save time so I wouldn’t have to lay down all the parts myself, I brought in musicians to help me out. I would write out the parts for them and they would play the parts back for me. It’s really nice to have the live sound on the record, and those that I recorded this way ended up sounding the best.
On working with Jack White
Jack [White] had gotten my demo when I was a teenager, which was basically all surf instrumental music—and Jack is a huge surf music fan. I was really lucky that he had listened to it in the first place and that he happened to really like surf music. I got a call from Third Man to fly into Nashville to lay down some songs so we could feel things out. Then I was in the Black Belles for a few years. After we stopped playing together, I continued to work with Third Man and started working on my first solo album. I’m super comfortable working at Third Man Studios. I’ve done not only my stuff with the Black Belles and my solo albums there, but I’ve also recorded on a ton of their Blue Series records—a series of 45s records that came out with different artists who were rolling through Nashville.
On Third Man Studios
The studio is cozy and filled with tons of really interesting instruments that you wouldn’t think you’d ever use in a song, but then you end up using them and it sounds awesome. Jack has a lot of analog equipment and he can achieve whatever sound he’s got in his head. All the engineers he works with are into vintage equipment as well. It’s a very creative space and Jack is super open-minded about whatever you want to record. He likes to give input, but ultimately he wants the artist to just go for it, which is great. Most of this record was recorded with tape, but then we did a lot of overdubs in Pro Tools. We needed to get these tracks laid down quickly, so Pro Tools was a time-saver. I would have preferred to do everything on tape, though.