FOCUS: Jonny Olley

The Mic’s long-form feature returns for the first time in 2020 with the continued aim of shining a spotlight on some of the city’s most talented artists. Ben Standring sits down with one of Nottingham’s most driven rising singer-songwriters to discuss the path to Nottingham, the decision to pursue music and what is to come in 2020. Words by Ben Standring. Images by Jay Sanderson. 

‘I’ve never really seen myself as a musician to be honest, I’ve just seen myself as a bedroom guitar player,’ shrugs the serious yet composed bearded musician in the dimly lit confines of local pub The Playwright 38. Nottingham based singer-songwriter and guitar driven troubadour Jonny Olley first rode into the city as a wide-eyed impressionable teenager, and now resides in Nottingham with a future sound promising a mixture of visceral youth and matured songwriting.

Despite honing his craft with the help of ‘scatty, genre-less’ records ranging from Jamie T’s Panic Prevention to the discography of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Olley waited until a conversation with a friend at university drove his decision to make music his livelihood. ‘An engineer friend of mine chose to do music instead of use his degree. I asked why and he explained how he didn’t want to get to the age of forty and have regrets. It was that moment which really resonated with me, I was just like “fuck it I’m going to give it a go”’. A wry grin contorts his face. ‘It might prove to be the most reckless decision of my life; it might prove to be the best decision of my life… I’m still trying to figure that out’.

The troubadour picked up his first guitar at the age of nine, inspired by a car journey with his parents in which a much younger Olley was struck by the Les Paul tone and solo within Lynard Skynard’s Free Bird. ‘It just resonated with me, even though I was so young,’ he explains. ‘It’s stuck with me ever since. I knew in my head from that point on I would have an ongoing romance with the guitar, and I have done ever since. I just fucking love it, it’s the best instrument in the world’. So great was the eagerness to perfect his instrument of choice that Olley also learnt violin before even starting to play guitar, allowing the finger work to broaden his technical dexterity.

From sixteen, an intrigue towards heavier bands started the fuse that eventually triggered his realistic desire to pursue music. Having spoken to ‘the only person in my school that was doing anything with music’, who subsequently flocked to London to a guitar collage, Olley’s horizons were expanding, yet the musical urges were suppressed and university beckoned him to Nottingham to pursue a life of his own.

‘I have had times where people think my songs are too eclectic or there isn’t enough uniformity for people to understand it. For me, it’s just about serving the song as much as possible...'

‘That was it really I thought, I drew a line under the music thing and tried to move on,’ he shrugs with hapless ease as if to suggest that that is just how life works. Yet despite studying Classics, which allowed Olley to explore writing, poetry and Russian literature, as well as engineering an intrigue for the city’s coruscating electronic scene, the creative impulse was being brought to the boil in his mind, forcing a choice to be made between a law conversion course or something else. ‘I chose the something else… that was music,’ he professes.

The poetic influences inherently rooted within classical language harnessed a passion for spoken word performance – contemporary influences including Kate Tempest and Loyle Carner shift a classic-based spark into a modern realm, and from there Olley as a solo artist was born and grew. It has been over five years since the singer-songwriter graduated from the University of Nottingham and he proclaims that finally there is material on the horizon that is ‘going to make an impact on the global scene, not just the local scene or the UK scene’. His debut single Slow, set for release in a couple of months, was crafted at a time the songwriter was cohabiting with some friends in Forest Fields, Nottingham. ‘I was working in a call centre at the time and was taking a lot of Xanax basically. Working at the call centre was soulless and lifeless and I was obviously for some reason taking a lot of opiates, but also doing a lot of cycling as well… I wanted to sum up how I was feeling at the time, which was this weird sense of numbness and elation, both of which you can get from exercise or popping a pill’.

Inspiration is evident within the singer-songwriter, whose sporadic mind launches into complex judgements of the creative process. ‘Albert Einstein said that creativity is intelligence having fun, and that makes sense to me,’ he offers. ‘Songwriting is an experiment, you see where they go and if something stands out, you hone in on it.’ Olley professes that indecisiveness has conjured a creative block in recent times, stating that ‘songwriting is just… a lot of choices that you make for yourself that you have to decide upon. It can cause a serious barrier to progression for some people if you think about your sound too much’.

'A lot of artists are trying not to be associated with politics at the moment… which I think is a horrible way of looking at things. I just think it makes people bland really, we’re all political animals and we just need to be ourselves.'

The fated subject of sound is met with blank honesty, this artistic openness a necessity to thrive in current musical climates. ‘I have had times where people think my songs are too eclectic or there isn’t enough uniformity for people to understand it. For me, it’s just about serving the song as much as possible and if people start retrospectively criticising that I don’t know where I stand then fine, I don’t care to be honest, I know people chat shit, it’s all good. Music is music to me’.

A moment of silence could allow a pin-drop to be heard, as past criticisms – mainly from himself – come to the forefront of conversation. ‘You go through all these doubts and concerns as a young artist, I’m always riddled with doubt and I used to think in the early days I needed a brand and a sound that was me… that’s a load of bollocks. I do this because I have the option to do whatever I want’. He addresses the dichotomy between pursuing a career in a band and as a solo artist, with frightening sense and ease. ‘Bands nowadays have to think about branding so much more, they have to carve out a niche sound and look to sell themselves, but singer-songwriters can get away with doing what they want… they’re seen as human rather than a corporate entity’.

'I have to accept that I am an artist and that is what I do and what I love to do.'

Examining where he fits within a modern industry dominated by a strict hierarchy, Olley suggests: ‘I want my record to be as eclectic as possible, to signify that modern culture is here for everyone. Everyone has access to it all so I don’t see why I should have one genre of music in my music. I don’t like labels either, things are a lot more complicated than that’. Despite expressing doubts about the current state of the industry, there is a ferocious ambition within Olley to produce a discography of depth. ‘I’d like to release a couple of albums that I can be proud of making, that I can turn around and give to people. I have ambitions and stuff but I’m quite nihilistic about it and as a realist, it’s such a fickle industry and I’ll try my hardest for it to work out commercially so I can do it for as long as possible’.

An insular figure and self-confessed control freak, Jonny Olley confesses that plans to release a body of work have been underway for some time now, offering inspirations in the writing process as well as what to potentially expect from him in the coming twelve months. ‘It will be more guitar-focused and guitar heavy… I was into the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, just Anthony Kiedis’ use of language and how he paints with language, like an abstract painter. The older I’ve got the more appreciation I’ve got for songwriting, so there will be songs that maybe also hark back to my angsty, angry youth in a more visceral and emotional way’.

Whilst working in a bar in Sherwood, Olley was inspired by a tale that a regular punter told him, the subject of which is seen in a currently unreleased track Skewed Views. ‘It’s very guitar driven, upbeat and raucous… it’s quite poignant really. It’s a little bit political as well and I don’t want to be labelled as a political artist, but it’s still important to make some kind of statement’. He continues, ever aware of the pitfalls of industry success. ‘A lot of artists are trying not to be associated with politics at the moment… which I think is a horrible way of looking at things. I just think it makes people bland really, we’re all political animals and we just need to be ourselves. Skewed Views is not a political single, it’s a story that is scathing of the elite to some degree I suppose, but it’s there for people to get to know me as a person and not just a stage performer’.

The jagged road to accepting the commitment to artistry has been a bumpy one for Olley. ‘Psychologically I come from a very unique position in that I’ve been lucky to have had the experiences that I’ve had, but it’s also quite strange because I’ve gone through the whole university thing and come out of the other side, whilst a lot of friends are off with high flying jobs… it’s only natural that I would compare myself to that’. The dichotomy between his chosen path and past life left has led Olley to do his share of soul-searching over the past few years, embracing the growing pains and accepting the artistic dream and the complexities that come with it. ‘I have to accept that I am an artist and that is what I do and what I love to do, and that I’m not part of that culture, which is different because all of my friends are part of that culture and have followed that particular path. I don’t judge them for that at all, everyone’s got to do what they’ve got to do. I’ve needed to do what I need to do… it’s been a strange and uncomfortable couple of years coming to terms with that’.

Adopting a brazen approach to contorting life’s dexterous challenges in a sullen, post-university environment, the roughened singer-songwriter is finally emerging with a drive and vision to kick off from. ‘I’ve started to accept that this is the path I’ve chosen, and this is who I am essentially,’ he proclaims. ‘It’s still a bit of a tussle internally but it’s quite liberating. Every step further you come towards acceptance has been liberating in a sense’. The pessimistic creator has faced his share of battles in recent times – the majority of which were against himself – but through the fog steps out a man finally accepting the potential he possesses and maybe even a man enjoying the liberation that comes with that.