Odessa Pushes Through the Low Points

The artist talks the death of her father, the "incredible difficulty of being human," and the myriad highs and lows that led to her new album.

The life of an artist is full of wonder and adventure, but it can also be very hard. There is no set path, so along the way you are making choices and following your gut and heart, and very rarely do you know the outcome of anything. I have struggled with this, and even more so as I get older. The uncertainty at times can be debilitating. My career has had some shining moments, like when my song “I Will Be There” sort of exploded a little over night. I didn’t even really have an Instagram account then, and it was really just people listening to the song that moved them. For that song to land in a Subaru commercial about a girl going off to college and her dad helping her change a flat tire took a series of big and small miracles to make happen.

When my father passed when I was 21 I didn’t know how I would go on. Everything I thought was true I started to question. I questioned the existence of God and the existence of good in the world. My dad held such a place in my little universe. He and my mother raised us with an outlook of endless possibility and hope for the future, and to see the depth and beauty in every situation life might bring you. My childhood was full of creation and expression. When I left home at 18 I had never been to a day of public schooling in my life, and I was free as the wind. Life has a way of making you grow up fast sometimes. As I began my solo journey as an artist I realized that I had to be strong inside in order to keep going. Sometimes it’s only you telling you that you’re going to be okay, that your bills will be paid, and that the things you are writing from your heart are important. 

The lowest point I have ever been at was during the six months after my father’s death when I was living alone in an attic room, in a small house in Asheville, NC. I began really writing then. Straight from my heart, straight out of the pain. My mother was such a friend during this time. We would talk on the phone often, and she would always tell me, “Don’t give in, just get up every day and do something that makes you happy.” For me this was music. 

It’s been 12 years since that time. Even as a teenager I was starting to write my own songs; I began playing violin at the age of four. There were always melodies swirling through my head. When I made my first record I was so naive to the ways of the music business, working with people, and how complicated these relationships can be. It’s a challenge to be a girl in this industry. It’s not for the faint of heart and sometimes it feels like I am in the middle of an uphill battle just trying to get the songs recorded. There have been times when I have been so broke that I counted out quarters to buy food, or tried to decide whether I should buy a car or a guitar. I bought the guitar obviously because I knew it would take me farther, and it did. Spring of 2012 I purchased my Les Paul and have played every show with it since. I had some money saved up to get a vehicle, but then I found this guitar. It spoke to me, I had to have it, and I walked with it the three miles back to my house on Belmont Boulevard after I purchased it from Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville. 

Some of the lowest times are the ones after a long tour. When you get home to an empty house or apartment, and you just have to be by yourself again after giving so much for days on end. Or being in the studio and dealing with all the emotions of performing and recording the music, and then coming home to sleep at night and lying awake thinking could I be doing this better? or are these songs translating? It’s a never ending battle between the evil and uplifting voices in my head saying you have this in you, and the other saying your words and ideas are worthless. I think this planet is full of people with open hearts that want to make it a better place. Jacquire King, who produced my first record, was such an angel in man’s clothing. He gave me the confidence to make my ideas come to life in my music. 

When I went into the studio to make this second record I was faced with a new set of challenges that I wasn’t really prepared for. Being on a major label is wonderful because you get a big advance. I didn’t have to worry about money for the first time in a long time, and that gave me the ability to move back to California from Nashville where I had been living for six years when I wasn’t touring. In the middle of making my first record I was almost killed in a bicycle accident. A car hit me from behind and catapulted me in the air landing on the right side of my face, breaking teeth, and leaving me with a nasty neck and skull fracture. I remember waking up in the strait jacket out of a short coma thinking, I must be paralyzed. I was given a second chance at life then. It was a profound moment. I wrote a song called “Full Circle,” which is about that experience and what it made me feel. The way that I get through the low times have remained much the same since I was a teenager. I love to run, walk in nature, do yoga, draw, explore new places, and dance. In some ways I am a pretty solitary person; I enjoy reading poetry and books about all kinds of things that lift me.

It’s so important, I have realized, to remember that nothing you are going through lasts forever. Through the making of All things I have been hit with emotional challenges that have caused me to have to go deep. I didn’t know my own strength yet. When I wrote the record over the summer of 2015 I was nearing the end of the rope with my label. They really wanted me to write a hit radio song, but I just wanted to write about my life, and about things that were going on in my heart. The way that I create is through living a real life, and then diving into those experiences and trying to understand them. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand anything, but I can see the layers, depths, and perspectives of things, and I can look at them objectively and that’s how I make music. When I am really going through something hard, I generally am not able to write about it until some time has gone by. As I get older and experience more and more of life, I realize how heavy it can be, and if I am not careful how I can continue to carry around the burden of my mistakes instead of letting them roll off and moving forward. My song “Live On” is about just this, and the lyrics go “live on like there will be no tomorrow, leave it all behind and let the moon rise and let the sunshine follow.” I have learned that for each difficulty I have gone through, there is always a new beginning in it if I can dig down and find the strength to meet the day again. 

I also rely on the incredible comfort of prayer. I have found that it really works and it has helped me through many dams I have come up against. After I wrote all of the songs for All Things, I was so eager to get into the studio. But the studio was hard almost every step of the way. I even moved myself to Minneapolis and tried to remake the record after Jonathan Wilson had produced it. I thought I could do a better job all on my own. I failed at this, and it taught me that I need others to help me make the music in my head, and to be less controlling. From Minneapolis I took a three year journey full of highs and lows trying to make this record.

The physical demands of being a musician are hard. I can really push myself sometimes and forget to eat and sleep; I make myself sick from over stressing about whether what I am doing in the studio or when performing is working or not. I have learned that to make something beautiful you have to let it go. You have to let that inner muse have it’s way and not be too hard on yourself. It’s from the deepest part of my soul that I write music, the most vulnerable place. I am still terrified of getting up in front of people, something I touch on in the song “Don’t Care.” Regardless, I want to share with you the beauty and gorgeousness I have felt and experienced through the things I have struggled with that have shaped and molded me so far. I am still learning how to navigate life, and how to live. Music is my gift to the world; it’s why I struggle so hard through this artist journey just to be able to bring it to you. I chose this path and I remember my dad telling me, “It’s not going to be easy, and you need to be able to write your own songs if you want to really succeed.” I think he would be proud of me; I hope so. 

Every day I can easily drop down to my lowest point, so every day when I wake up I try to say a little prayer before I get out of bed in gratitude for being alive and for having the opportunity to live yet another day, and for all of the love I have in my life. My mother and five younger siblings and the close friendships I am fortunate to possess give me the strength and fortitude I need to persevere when I feel like I don’t have the strength to keep doing this life. 

All Things is about the incredible difficulty of being human, and about the light and darkness in the world; I think that light always outshines the darkness. At this moment I don’t really know how I will get by, but I know that if I can keep on dreaming, living in those dreams, and helping my fellow mankind to reach theirs, that we will all meet at the finish line. 

This life we are living is so precious. Be good to each other, lift each other up. 

Odessa is a Los Angeles-based artist. Her new album All Things was produced in tandem by Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Conor Oberst), Wilco’s Pat Sansone, and Spoon’s Jim Eno. The collection is both psychologically raw and emotionally mature, a graceful meditation on acceptance and perseverance that’s fueled by ethereal vocals and elegant string arrangements. It’s a work of catharsis and release, to be sure, but more than that, it’s the sound of a songwriter rediscovering herself, of an artist reclaiming the strength and promise she’d all but forgotten she possessed.