Oceanator on “Nothing’s Ever Fine” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 28th, 2024  

Oceanator on “Nothing’s Ever Fine”

One Long Day

Apr 18, 2022 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Two years ago, indie rock singer/songwriter Oceanator (aka Elise Okusami) found herself predicting the end of the world. On her debut, Things I Never Said, her grunge ’90s alt rock inspirations became the site of cracks in the world and towering apocalypses, a perfect encapsulation of the prevailing feelings of the year 2020. Unfortunately, it is two years later and the world feels no less volatile and disaster often feels just as imminent. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t come as a surprise how closely Okusami hews to these themes in her latest effort, Nothing’s Ever Fine.

Though she doesn’t depart too far from the themes of Things I Never Said, with Nothing’s Ever Fine Okusami nonetheless goes bigger than ever before. The sound of the record is huge, with a newly massive low end adding a pummelling grunge crunch to the guitars. Meanwhile, those moments of crushing weight stand next to an equal amount of driving power pop tempos and playful surf rock melodies. Though Okusami clearly started with the same building blocks that formed the foundation of Things I Never Said, every bit of it sounds bigger, thicker, and louder.

“I definitely wanted to make it huge,” Okusami says. “It wasn’t necessarily intended to be bigger than the last one. I had like a bunch of little pieces of songs floating around. And then I had the only fully completed one, ‘From the Van.’ Everything else was just a riff or most of a song, but not fully decided on structure yet.

“Then I got a baritone guitar and the day of I wrote the riff. The one that keeps coming back. The three songs and then also ‘Evening,’ I wrote all those parts. That’s when I started hearing the record in my head. Even though it wasn’t finished, I could hear what the world of it sounded like and the world of it was very big.”

With each moment of the record, the craftsmanship with which Okusami and her collaborators approached the album is evident. Simply put, the album (especially the guitars) sounds fantastic. In no small part, this is thanks to Okusami’s co-producers—Bartees Strange and her brother, Mike Okusami—but Elise also took on a large role herself in creating the record’s sound. Nothing’s Ever Fine is the first record Okusami has been credited as a producer on, but as she describes, she had basically been self-producing all her work prior to the album.

“I didn’t really know what it meant before this,” she laughs. “So I just never had a producer credit on any of the records, but basically I’ve been producing all of them with my brother. We’ve been co-producing this whole time. I was talking to Bartees and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what a producer is? I’ve been doing that.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I know! What do you mean?’”

In concert with Bartees and Mike, Okusami began to shape the massive sound of Nothing’s Ever Fine, drawing upon both collaborators’ extensive audiophile knowledge. “Bartees and Michael both have this really extensive knowledge of sound and gear,” she says. “So, it was extremely helpful to be able to translate what I was saying into sounds. Maybe I could have gotten some of the sounds on my own, but it would have taken like 10 years.”

As the sound of the album began to take shape, so did the contours of the world it inhabits. For Okusami, this world is just as visual as it is auditory. She places you inside living, breathing vignettes, ones of joy, loss, and longing. These evocative lyrical moments populate the album and bring it to life; moments such as speeding around the National Mall at 2 a.m., listening to the cicadas on a summer night, or reaching your hand out of a speeding truck as you search for a new home in a burning world.

“I like to also give things visual cues,” Okusami explains. “The hand out of the pickup truck, specifically for ‘Solar Flares,’ is that they’re escaping [the disaster] and trying to find their way back home. You’re actually looking for a new home because your old one’s destroyed, and you’re trying to find a way back to the feeling of safety from being at home. Usually, when I write a song lyrically, there’s a whole music video in my head. Like I’m writing a little mini short film or a short story with the song.”

For Nothing’s Ever Fine, that short story could track a single long day or an entire life. The record makes the smallest moments resonate with meaning and passion, shaped by the visual language of Okusami’s mind. The record’s progression is traced in abstract terms, but follows a clear arc, beginning with the massive guitar theatrics of “Morning” and concluding with the soulful power of “Evening,” backed by a gorgeous string section. “Morning,” “Post Meridian,” and “Evening” form the skeleton of the record, all based around a single looping guitar riff.

As Okusami recalls, “The main riff [of ‘Morning’] I just really liked, and I kept playing it over and over on my guitar at home. I had originally thought it was going to be like just a regular old song. And then and then I got the idea and realized it worked with ‘Evening’ as well. So I guess this song should end the record. But I thought maybe I should just have that be a leitmotif. So I was thinking of it as the intro of the record.

“And then I had two versions of it that I was playing where I was playing in 6/8, and I was also playing in 7/8. I was like, well, let’s just do both. Why not? And so I put the 7/8 one in the middle of the day. And that one’s like the heaviest one, I would say. I was thinking of it as a reset, almost like we have to get amped up again since it’s the middle of the day and we’re fading.”

Within that loose structure, Okusami carves moments of joy and devastation. In a similar vein to her previous record, she once again found inspiration in the end of the world. In some cases these disasters can be personal and internal, as in the anxious wanderings of “Nightmare Machine,” but Okusami is equally capable of bringing them to devastating life, as in the burning world of “Solar Flares.”

As Okusami describes, such imagery sets the scale of the story, yet it provides the chance to tell a smaller story within.

“I think even in stuff I like to watch and read I gravitate to those sorts of things, because it’s very dramatic, and the stakes are super high,” she explains. “But really with a lot of those stories, the point of it is a tiny little story within it, one or two little human stories with this backdrop of destruction. And it brings the story across in a more true way,” she continues. “I feel like if you just straight up said all the facts of it, that would just feel kind of dry and you wouldn’t really get the emotion of it.”

Those small human stories are what make Nothing’s Ever Fine feel so affecting. Amidst all of the anxiety, weighty meditations, and looming apocalypses, Okusami populates the record with indelible memories of summer joy, like warm nights spent with friends or sun-scorched beach days. If the record is envisioned as a single day, Okusami says those are the good parts of it.

“I feel like summer is supposed to be the good times,” she explains. “I wanted to write some songs about some of the good parts of life, and a lot of those are—for me at least—in the summer.”

The sentiment is in keeping with the closing song on Things I Never Said, “Sunshine,” a track that finds Okusami clinging to the vestiges of hope that everything will be okay. Two years later, and it is oftentimes harder to hold onto that sentiment. In contrast, “Evening” is almost muted and meditative. For all the album’s moments of blown-out catharsis, the record ends with Okusami not remembering summer fun or contemplating destruction, but simply listening to the rustle of trees and the call of cicadas. She ends her biggest record yet with the placid quiet of a rare peaceful night. Disaster could still very well lie ahead. But in this backdrop of uncertainty, the small human stories of Nothing’s Ever Fine are a comfort worth treasuring.



Read our interview with Oceanator about Things I Never Said.

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