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Louder than the machine

Erin O’Dowd releases her first album and quiets her demons

Erin O’Dowd

Last September Erin O’Dowd moved to Nashville. After 18 years of living in Tulsa, she wanted a reboot. O’Dowd found herself in a situation not dissimilar from those many 20-somethings face: too many old lovers, past mistakes, and ghosts in the city she’s always loved deeply and called home. Since moving, she’s built a new life for herself as a songwriter whose music is still rooted in Oklahoma, and she’s releasing her first album, Old Town, through Horton Records with a performance at Soul City Gastropub & Music House on April 13.

“Tulsa actually means ‘old town’ in the Muscogee Creek language,” O’Dowd said. “So that’s where the title comes from. It’s funny, because I decided on [it] years ago, before the album was ever made.”

Some of these songs date back to 2013, a time when she started playing shows in earnest, but she was hindered by a pretty serious roadblock.

“The place that I was living [in] had black mold. I played the first [Rock N’ Folk N’ Chili Cook-Off] at Cain’s that Brian Horton did, and then the next day I had my first ER visit. I couldn’t eat very much. I ended up in the hospital for a few days about a month later. … I weighed about eighty pounds. 2014 was pretty much a year [when] nothing much happened, because I was just so weak.”

This sickness changed O’Dowd’s life, but she thinks she learned a lot from the time. Her father’s influence also gave her the strength to keep pursuing music.

“I think I can credit him for a lot of my musical instincts, because he would make up songs about everything around the house and I would join him. Even before then I’d take my stuffed animals and my little Fisher-Price xylophone piano thing and I’d make up songs.”

All these years later O’Dowd calls her sound “Cosmic Americana”—a reference to Gram Parsons, Sturgill Simpson, and folk artists like Devendra Banhart. Their exploration of both ironic and emotional spaces not usually found in folk and Americana is a model she’s tried to recreate on this record.

These songs aren’t psychedelic, but they definitely have heady rock elements. The musicality of Old Town is firmly rooted in a collaboration between talented Oklahoma players. Jake Lynn’s heavy snare drives many of these songs, and the layers of lap steel and vocal harmonies are distinctly Tulsa. The line-up of contributors includes Chloe Johns (vocals), Jacob Flint (vocals), Stephen Lee (guitar), and country notables Jacob Tovar and John Fullbright, to name a few. Travis Linville’s deft recording has captured the poignant sweetness of O’Dowd’s voice and polished the work of these diverse players and singers into a cohesive sound.

Old Town sounds like a conversation. There is an ever-present “you” in most of these songs. Sometimes this second-person character seems like someone deceased. At times it’s a lover who lingers, ghostlike, in O’Dowd’s mind—or who she’s finally gotten over enough to tell off in words.

“There’s a lot of themes of on-and-off-again relationships,” she said. “Really just one relationship, if I’m honest. There’s definitely a theme of reconciling that and self-empowerment, like the emotional effects of complete self-destruction and learning how to repair yourself and becoming a better person after that.”

These two moods inform the album’s emotional tone. On one of its most uptempo numbers, “One Trick Pony,” O’Dowd has clearly had it with this eponymous “you.” She sings: “I thought I’d call you up on the phone, but I guess I left all my quarters at home. Well, the stories you tell and the lies you believe. Oldest trick in the book. You’re just a broke-back sleaze. You’re just a one trick pony … Who wants to beat a dead horse, anyhow?” Here she’s an empowered woman prepared not to look back at the “you” who seems to be vanishing with each passing verse.

A song later, she’s reflective again. The album’s first single, “Robin’s Egg Blue,” represents the other side of these emotions. It’s brimming with sadness about the loss of a love, a loss that finally feels permanent but also cathartic: “And I lost you again and again. Goodbye, to a gone-again. You’re a long lost mystic. Someone I never knew—and all I see is blue now when I look at you.”

O’Dowd said she feels like her life started over again last year. Her music kept her alive through sickness and a difficult season. On one of the record’s strongest tracks, “Songwriter’s Breakfast,” she admits, “I’m just a loner; I don’t want to be kept … If your love isn’t real then why does it come around? Don’t put the kettle down. You better go and make a sound louder than the machine, darling.”

Old Town Release Show with openers Desi & Cody and Chloe Johns
Friday, April 13 | 8 p.m.
Soul City Gastropub & Music House
1621 E. 11th St. | $10

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