Interview with Olya from Scarlet Sails
From making up words to English-language pop songs as a child in Russia to ,years spent learning classical piano in a conservatory, Scarlet Sails’ Olya Viglione has been around music her entire life. It was when she turned 21, moved to New York City to learn English, and met her future husband, Brian Viglione (The Dresden Dolls / Violent Femmes) that she joined the rock n roll world that she currently inhabits. Together, they started Scarlet Sails, a band that fuses rock, piano pop, jazz, and a handful of other genres to create something entirely their own.
They’re headlining our first ever PLAG NYC show on Friday, February 23rd alongside Sharkmuffin and Ex-Girlfriends, so we had a chat with Olya to get to know her a little better before then. Read our interview below and then snag your tickets to the show here.
Despite training in a conservatory, you wrote your first song, “Butterfly,” after you moved to NYC. What inspired you to begin songwriting? Tell us about your writing process, and how it has evolved (if it has).
I went to a classical music school to study piano in a post-soviet Russia. I was 8 when I wrote my first musical piece and was excited to show it to my teacher. She listened to it with a smile on her face and as soon as I was done, she went: “Very nice. Now, let’s get back to work”. It didn’t stop me from writing, of course, but also it didn’t encourage me to take myself seriously, most of the time I wrote something on the piano, I thought of it as “doodling”. When I was 18 I really asked myself the most important question we can ask ourselves, I think. I closed my eyes and I imagined that one thing I would want to do the most in life, and I saw myself singing on stage. I signed up for some singing classes. When I was about to turn 21, I tattooed a clef on my neck and went on a trip to New York to learn English so I could write songs in English. I got here and I felt it-I felt I could break the pattern. It was the end of me living by inertia. I was utterly inspired and encouraged. That’s how I started writing, or, actually, that’s how I started taking myself seriously. Although I started writing with a piano, in the past year I’ve done a lot of writing with a guitar and ukulele. To me, it has less of an emotional attachment from the past, and gives me more freedom in expression. I’m excited to continue on exploring writing with different instruments and that’s where I am now, in a continuing challenge with own myself.
Tell us about your gear set up. What are you using for writing, recording, and on stage?
I have a beautiful 1930s Decker & Sons baby grand piano that I love to improvise on to get myself in the writing mood. If I stumble across some cool chord changes while I am at it - fantastic, many ideas can come out from there. I also have a gold sparkle Les Paul, a Fender Alkaline Trio Malibu acoustic, and a six string Kala ukulele, and I’ve been eyeballing the Gretsch 5422 TG semi-hollow body guitars and I’m slowly getting into pedal world. The ones I like the best so far are the Strymon El Capistan and Flint.
I have a full set up with a small PA at this old New York townhouse where we live: various mics, piano, the guitars, uke, drums and Brian Viglione, haha. He is my main music partner and my first mate when it comes to working on the arrangements and tracking some ideas. Our recording set up is a MacBook with Logic Pro X, Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 pre-amps, Avalon 737sp mic pre, and Adam A7X studio monitors. We run 16 channels analog so we record our band rehearsals live, multi-tracked so we can work on demos in greater detail than off a phone recording. Magic happens here all the time. Whether it’s Scarlet Sails songs or a friend visiting our house, you never know when Bri is going to throw up a couple of mics and we’re gonna start jamming.
On stage I’m using Nord Stage 2 for my keys, and I’m gonna play guitar for the first time on Feb 23rd for PLAG showcase to debut some new songs we’ve been working on, so yay! Haven’t decided if it’s gonna be a Gretsch or the acoustic yet.
The band’s live show, music, and aesthetic are all very theatrical. Do you think that impacts how people hear and interact with the music?
I think our music is constantly evolving. We love all kinds of interactions, we don’t single ourselves out to a single aesthetic or a genre, per say, theatricality included. Nonetheless we love the element of theatricality in the performance, it takes you on a journey, it makes you relive the song. That’s why our fav performers of all time are Mercury and Bowie. I think our fans enjoy this aspect about Scarlet Sails. Recently we asked our fans on our FB Page what kind of environment they’d like to listen to SS in and we got all kinds of answers, included parties, soundtracks to movies, bars, cars, pirate ships and country roads, weddings, etc and of course, live. I like that everyone interacts with our music in their own way. I’d like to think that music is long past categories. If you jump on board with Scarlet Sails you can expect quite a few surprises in riding those waves with us.
You’re in a rare position of having worked at a music venue and been the artist playing on stage. What advice do you have for artists from the venue side of things?
Haha, that’s true. I came on board from the other side. I wanted to be in the center of music happenings in New York and getting a bartending gig at a rock venue was my way of diving in before I knew anyone, or before I even ever played in a rock band. Like everywhere else, you should treat everyone as an equal. We are humans everywhere, and it’s important not to forget that, even when you are in a position of power. Working in entertainment and nightlife business can be exhausting and quite frustrating - long hours, drunk people and loud environment can run you down, so if you get a bit of attitude from a bartender, give them a tip and a smile. Kindness is always a way to go.
You’ve gone through some dark times to get to where you are now. What would you say to someone who is about to throw in the towel on their dreams? Especially in a world as hard as the music industry.
Never give up. You have one shot at life. You might as well work your ass off and show ‘em how it’s done. There’s no easy ride when it comes to making your own dreams come true. You create your own path, it takes courage and persistence. But you can do it, and no one can take it away from you. I’ve certainly been in some dark places. It feels like you’re on the bottom of the ocean. But once you make that effort to power through and make it to the top where there’s fish and sunshine, you’re not gonna wanna go back in the dark.
What does the phrase “play like a girl” mean to you?
It means play like a badass. It means, "fuck yeah! OWN IT, as you are". I am so immensely inspired and proud to see all these amazing female musicians, artists, athletes, scientists and so on doing their thing, succeeding and proving to the world just how amazing we all are. I think we are lucky to live today and experience such a huge shift in the way we perceive gender and its roles, seeing stereotypes break and goodness coming out of it. It’s a long way to go, but hell, I bow to all who are fighting this good fight, and creating a world of equality and kindness. I think part of our mission is to bring the light to what was not paid attention to in the society ruled by men for such a long time. Some very important things that are a part of our nature, like compassion, kindness and love being the key elements in viewing one another, and every living thing. Discovering our true potential instead of trying to prove ‘em wrong is the way to go. And being a kicking-ass ball of fire while you’re at it.
What’s next for Scarlet Sails?
Oh man, Scarlet Sails got it going this year, that’s for sure. Dropping 2 new singles this spring and summer, Hideaway and Upside Down, with new videos that I am most stoked about. We’ve got an amazing team: our engineer, producer and soul brother, Ben Rice, and a wonderful female director extraordinaire, Karina Kandel. Then, our first European tour in 8 or 9 different countries in July. I’ve never been to Europe so I’m super pumped for this run.
Finally, tell us a story that you’ve never told anyone before. At least in an interview.
When I was little I used to sing along with the radio with all of these American pop songs and make up the words as I go (had no idea what they actually were), and everyone thought I was this amazing child who could just hear foreign words and remember them by heart instantly, haha. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted it to anyone. Funny thing, now when I hear a pop song from the nineties I have this muscle memory and decipher words by singing along with the track.