In Conversation: V.V. Lightbody and OHMME

Last May, the Chicago artists and friends sat down to catch up.

OHMME — aka Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart — and I talk about meeting each other for the first time, tour memories, singing and playing together as women, how we inspire each other, our future touring, St. Vincent, Fiona Apple and other inspos, and sauerkraut. Honestly, I love it because we don’t really talk about quarantine.
— Viv McConnell, aka V.V. Lightbody

Viv McConnell: We’re sitting here in Sima’s backyard, socially distant. I wanted to ask you guys if you remember the first time we met and what it was like? 

Sima Cunningham: My memory of the first time we met is kind of through Macie. It was at the Marrow show, right? 

Macie Stewart: Yeah — that was gonna be my memory of the first time we met! [Laughs.] It was at the Marrow show at Schubas, and [Viv’s former band] Grandkids played. I remembered seeing you on stage and being like, I need to be her friend so bad, I love her so much! I was just obsessed with everything that happened. 

Sima: And then I remember when I got to the club — because I got there I feel like in the middle of your set — Macie came up to me and was like, “I found another one.” [Laughs.] Basically like, “I found someone of our tribe, she’s a really cool rock chick who, like, rocks out and goes for it and has the hair.” It was funny, you were so young then. 

Macie: I was probably 22, 21. 

Sima: You were 20.

Macie: Really? 

Viv: 20 years old, not even legally allowed to be in Schubas.

Macie: Kick me outta Schubas, c’mon.

Viv: So that’s approaching six years ago. Wow, six years of friendship. 

Sima: She was like, “Viv is one of us.” 

Viv: It’s funny, I was probably really overwhelmed by playing at Schubas, because I don’t even know if I was living in Chicago at the time. 

Sima: I remember that Urbana[, IL] was still a big part of your life. 

Viv: I remember from there, you guys kind of poached me, friendship-wise. I was really grateful for that. You had me do the I Hear Voices video [a series by the Chicago theater Constellation; Viv’s video was produced by Sima], and I think that was before I played the first OHMME show. 

Sima: I was talking about this with someone else, about how V.V. Lightbody and OHMME were kind of birthed around the same time as an idea. At that time, when you played I Hear Voices, you were still going by Vivian McConnell, of Grandkids. 

Viv: The first OHMME show was “OHMME featuring Vivian McConnell.” So V.V. Lightbody — I think maybe I’d been chewing on the name. I was about to birth it. 

Macie: It’s so crazy to think that was that long ago.

Viv: I was thinking about how I’ll never ever forget the feeling in the room when you guys hocketed for the first time and people were losing their shit. People were screaming. And that still happens when you guys do that. People love harmonies, we know that, but that was just a really killer moment and I feel lucky to have been there for that. 

Sima: That was the birth of, “Man, you guys are great, when you guys do that uh-uh-uh-uh thing, it’s just…” [Laughs.] Not to be an asshole about it, it’s awesome, but it’s so funny — you can almost predict the words that are gonna come out of people’s mouths. Like, are they gonna call it “ping-pong,” are they gonna call it “hockey,” or “uh-uh-uh”? Are they a nerd, are they gonna call it the stereo effect? [Laughs.]

Viv: Also, are they gonna come up after your set and ask what time signature your song is in?

Macie: I mean, that’s our favorite. We love it. Everything’s in 1/1. [Laughs.] 

Viv: We went on tour together in fall of 2016 — a V.V.-OHMME October. 

Sima: That was right when Matt [Carroll, drummer] joined OHMME, and he was obviously playing with you too.

Viv: which was really special. 

Sima: We saw a tree fall in the woods on that tour.

Macie: That was so special! We went hiking in Indiana. 

Sima: We were like, “It made a sound!” [Laughs.]

Viv: The van got a flat tire and I’ll never forgive myself for that, because I was driving and I think I hit a curb. We pulled over and some guys in camouflage just came out of the woods.

Sima: They gave us a bunch of apples — we pulled into the driveway of an apple farm and they pumped us up so we could go down the road to a tire place. But the son of the owner of the farm was in full camo, bow-and-arrow hunting. 

Viv: He was like, “Just came back from huntin’.” Yeah, that was a really beautiful time. I think touring in the fall, it’s like, mandatory one apple orchard visit.

Macie: You have to!

Viv: Which leads me to: We were supposed to go on tour starting in [June 2020], and I renamed it the “June-Now-January Tour.” [Laughs.] [Ed. note: 🙁 ] But I guess I just wanted to talk about how excited we were, and how crushed we felt.  It feels monumental to me because of the 2016 October tour. It was such an amazing time, and I think our sounds really compliment each other — sonically, and friendship-wise, I fit in your van. Sima brings the foam roller.

Sima: Butt massages. 

Viv: Which kind of made me nauseous the first time I used it.

Sima: You have no idea how much tension you carry in your ass until you start opening up that Pandora’s Box. 

Macie: I feel like we reference that tour every time we talk.

Sima: I know, and can you imagine how many more memories we’re gonna make? 

Viv: That was the same tour where someone came on stage and started playing drums while I was playing. I don’t want to say who it was or what city it was in, but that was really intense. Then the person came back to the house we were staying at and put on a Halloween vinyl—

Macie: It was just screaming.

Viv: And I was trying to nap. I was just talking about how important it was that we’re going on tour together — ever since the 2016 tour, it was like, “Can’t wait to do it again!” Kind of waiting for the right time, because we didn’t want to burn out on the V.V.-OHMME collaboration, and I think we were both just waiting until we reached a certain moment in our careers. It feels exciting because I think we both have made some huge strides since 2016.

Sima: We both have records out. It just felt like it made a lot of sense for so many reasons. And for not reasonable reasons — because we knew it was going to be so much fun and feel good to us.

Macie: I mean, a huge part of touring is the relationships you have on tour. It can be such a grueling experience if you’re on a bad tour. I think that’s probably one of the worst feelings ever, because you just feel stuck. So when there is an opportunity to tour with your best friend, and someone that is endlessly inspiring — we love your music so much — it just makes sense to do it again. 

Viv: It really does. And right back at y’all. I was talking to someone about how your music inspires me, and I think that we’re still making pretty different music, but I feel really pushed by you guys in this beautiful way.

Sima: Same. I feel like your guitar-playing is definitely very inspiring to us, and your songwriting. 

Viv: One of the things we do on tour is we get on stage together and sing three-part harmonies. That, to me, is one of the most powerful feelings in the world. We’ve been doing it for a while, and I feel like I’m a way better singer now. [Laughs.] I’m kind of joking, but it is partially because of you guys. You push me not only musically, but also talent-wise; your ears are amazing and have taught me to be a better listener, and think about singing in this really cool way. Also I think was just collaborating with mostly men my whole life, and then you were the first ladies I kinda got together and sang with. That felt so good. 

Macie: Talking about that first memory of watching you play, and meeting you — up until then, every band I’d been in was all dudes. It is really important to collaborate with other women. 

Sima: I think now it’s easy to take for granted. It seems ridiculous to get all focused on, “Oh, there’s a woman in the band,” because all rock bands have women, or gender-non-conforming people, especially in Chicago at least. But really, the whole indie rock world feels really gender-integrated these days. But again, it was definitely different five years, it was very different 10 years ago, and it was very different 15 years ago when we were getting into the indie bands that influenced us. Right now, it feels like, “Well, duh.” I forget sometimes that, like, Gwen Stefani, Neko Case — these were all revelations to me when I first discovered them. Now I feel really lucky that it doesn’t even seem like something that I think twice about. 

Viv: I was thinking about the first time I saw St. Vincent in 2010 in Champaign-Urbana.

Sima: I saw her that summer too — I sold merch for her at Millennium Park. It was her second album — I remember being like, What the holy fuck!

Viv: I had to go to class the next day, and I remember walking around listening to her in my headphones — that was the moment for me where I was like, I wanna be like her when I grow up

Sima: I feel like what was so inspiring about St. Vincent was, it felt like rock & roll but not in this kind of playing-it-like-men sort of way.

Viv: It still had a femininity. 

Sima: It was so melodic, I didn’t feel like she was changing her voice to sound masculine or more aggressive at all. It sounded really natural. It was really revelatory. 

Macie: The thing for me was that she could fully conceptualize these ideas. Listening to each record, it’s totally its own thing. Up until then, I didn’t really play guitar. I played some acoustic guitar to kind of write songs, I guess.

Viv: D-chord, G-chord, C-chord.

Macie: “Gimme the G-chord, open-E!” But yeah, that was the extent of my guitar knowledge. To see her play — and at that time I was touring with a band of, like, seven boys — I really felt like I was having a lot of trouble at that time identifying… I don’t know, being the token woman, or the token anyone, in a group is a strange feeling. I think finding St. Vincent really opened a door for me. I mean, here we are today. 

Viv: What were some or your other specifically female musicians [you looked up to]?

Sima: Feist. Every time I’m about to make a record, I listen to a Feist record. I’m like, How do I make a record like Feist makes a record? 

Viv: Absolutely same. Metals

Sima: Metals is the most under-appreciated record. I mean, Pleasure is also so sick, but Metals I feel like is really under-appreciated. I know it was kind of a thing that that record flew under the radar for how incredible it is. 

Macie: “The Circle Married The Line.” I’m getting teary just thinking about it [Laughs.]

Sima: I feel like Let It Die was my figuring out how to date in my early 20s record. 

Macie: Fiona Apple. That new record is so good. But she was probably one of the reasons I started writing music in general. Listening to Extraordinary Machine was mind-blowing; it still is when I go back and listen to it. 

Sima: I was always kind of more into the songwriter ones. I never got that deep into the riot grrrl world of music. Now I’ve explored it more a little bit as an adult, but it wasn’t necessarily something I gravitated toward as a teenager. I was really into songwriters in high school. I remember listening to Lianne La Havas, who’s kind of more of a contemporary of ours, but I remember when her record came out and I was like, Whoo. I grew up listening to Liz Phair and Aimee Mann too. 

Macie: I came to those pretty late, I think.

Sima: Bachelor No. 2 and Exile In Guyville — my dad was actually just blasting Exile In Guyville the other day.

Viv: That’s amazing. Those are kind of later entries for me as well.

Macie: Yeah, I think I only listened to them because you were playing them in the van. 

Sima: I was really into Dresden Dolls when I was, like, 14.

Macie: Hell yeah.

Viv: [Laughs.] That makes so much sense. 

Sima: I was into the whole kind of punk-adjacent stuff — Dresden Dolls and Gogol Bordello. All that sort of over-the-top shit.

Viv: I was actually just revisiting Have One On Me, which is one of mine. Joanna Newsom for me was — I was thinking about how I reference her records a lot when I’m making a record. She was just a huge, huge inspiration for me. 

Sima: I’ve got a question for you: Can you talk about the role you think fermented food can play in a touring musician’s life? And tell us about how you have gotten into fermented food? Someone was asking me about it the other day.

Viv: Really?

Sima: Yeah, because I was talking about kraut and I was like, “V.V. opened me to the world of fermentation.”

Viv: So, bacteria basically controls us. Bacteria created us — there’s a lot of theories, and I really believe this. Your gut is where a lot of your health is. If your gut is able to digest properly — which fermented foods help you break down foods and keep the healthy gut bacteria — you’re going to get more minerals and nutrients from your foods and help fight off any bad bacteria. So that’s kind of the basic science behind it. Having a healthy gut flora can really help. I eat fermented foods almost every day. Not only are they tasty, but they’re so good for you. I think it’s really important for you. specially as a touring musician, you’re eating probably not the best. Good on you if you are, but I think it’s really important to make sure you’re having some fermented foods daily if you can, or whenever it’s available. 

Sima: Do you feel like kraut needs to be refrigerated if it’s traveling around with you in the van? 

Viv: Yeah. I mean, technically it doesn’t have to be.

Macie: It was sailor food — you’d make it in barrels so you could get vitamin C. 

Viv: I prefer cold kraut, but I will eat kraut at any temperature. I don’t really like hot kraut, unless it’s vinegar kraut.

Sima: Awn a sawsage. 

Macie: “I like hot kraut awn a sawsage!”

Viv: I think I’m really always trying to maintain a healthy gut flora, and it’s helped me a lot. Honestly, I don’t really get sick. It’s probably not all because of my gut bacteria, but for me it’s of utmost importance. 

How are you guys feeling about your record coming out? What’s the vibe? I just released my record, and generally it’s been positive, minus not being able to tour on it. I’m curious about how you’re feeling. It’s kind of cool that we’re releasing records within a month-ish of each other. 

Macie: Isn’t that just beautiful? 

Sima: I feel good about it. I feel sad to not be able to play it. We were just starting to really play the tracks. I was actually just walking over here and thinking about performing live and singing with other people and it made me start crying. So I definitely feel the pain of not being able to perform for people live. But I think we’re feeling really good about the record, and excited to put it out and give it to people to enjoy and listen to in their houses for now. I just can’t wait to play it live 

Viv: It’s an incredible record and I’m so excited for it. Macie, what do you think? 

Macie: I’m excited for the record to come out in general. It does suck that we can’t tour. A fun part about it is always figuring out the live arrangements and how you’re gonna translate it to the stage, so it’s kind of sad that we can’t really do that. But on the other hand, it’s cool to release a record and know that people are really eager to listen to new music. So I think that’s a nice upside to all of it. 

Viv: I feel really thankful for fans and supporters right now. Honestly I was so nervous about releasing a record during this time, but people are listening over and over. I feel really thankful for that, because it could have gone either way, I feel like.

V.V. Lightbody’s Make a Shrine or Burn It is and OHMME’s Fantasize Your Ghost are both out now. 

Chicago’s V.V. Lightbody coined herself as “nap rock”, but she’s the first to admit how much her sound is changing. Make a Shrine or Burn It, her much-anticipated Sophomore LP, came out May 1, 2020 on Acrophase records.