There’s an inherent honesty to blues artist Olga; her outlook as straightforward as a daily special at a north Mississippi lunch counter.
“Blues is the truth,” she likes to say. “Speak the truth and you’ll know the blues.”
Listen to a track on her newly-released CD, “Now Is The Time,” and you’ll know that you are listening to a blueswoman—and the heartfelt truth. The new release follows two earlier works: “Kiss Your Blues Away” and “Blues Babe,” which established her on the blues scene.
You might also catch her at her new stomping grounds: Tobacco Road in New York; the Young Ave. Deli and the Hi Tone in Memphis; and Dos Jefe's Cigar Bar and House of Blues in New Orleans.
At home in both Memphis and New Orleans, Olga writes, performs, and produces local and national radio shows. She participated in Martin Scorcese's documentary on the blues with Jessie Mae Hemphill, North Mississippi Allstars, T Model Ford, Otha Turner, Corey Harris and John Spencer Blues Explosion. She has shared the stage in recent years with Coco Robicheaux, Robert Randolph, DJ Logic, Papa Mali, North MS Allstars, James Mathus Knockdown Society, Los Lobos, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Jim Dickinson, Johnny Neel (Allman Brothers), and Matt Abts (Gov't Mule).
Olga’s San Francisco roots and Austrian origins seem worlds removed from north Mississippi, the nexus of her musical artistry. The simple one-chord blues that she compares to the music of Senegal and Mali--“rather hypnotic, one chord and repetitive”—helps her keep her lyrics simple and powerful.
Classically trained in voice, piano, and violin at a young age, a friend’s guitar and Jimi Hendrix: Blues soon kidnapped her mind and soul. At first she was hesitant. She’d “somehow become convinced that a white girl couldn’t sing the blues.” People still register disbelief when she tells them she’s a blues maker. “Then they hear me and they really can’t believe it!”
She counts Maria Muldaur and Los Lobos among her early mentors; they showed her how to survive over the long term in the business, and she has been inspired by Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Junior Kimbrough, Memphis Minnie, and Peggy Lee.
Living legend Jessie Mae Hemphill has also played a major role in Olga’s career. She sought out this Mississippi blues legend arfter hearing her recordings. "I'd always liked her records and wondered if she was still around," Olga explains. "We began speaking by phone and not long thereafter I went to see her in Senatobia, Mississippi.” The two musicians swap advice and have become friends, even starting a tradition of sharing their mutual birthday and "frying a lot of chicken legs!"
When Olga sits down to write, her lyrics often come from within. “I find that the most powerful songs are the ones that come from first person narrative and experience,” she says. “Blues music is a personal experience and emotional, whether happy or sad. It is like having a therapy session.
In “Gotta Keep Moving,” Olga recounts a low point in her life:
I'm running on nickels and I can't stand still
If thunder don't get me, than lightning will
I got to keep moving
“I wrote it in an hour and at a time where I felt very alone and desperate. I did
not have a place to call home, no money, no car, and I was exhausted,” she says.
”That song is about just trying to keep on going forward even when it feels like nothing is going your way or is going to change. I think everyone has been there one time or another.”
It’s a universal truth, and perhaps the reason that Olga’s music is growing in popularity here and outside of the United States. Despite being defined as a music form with uniquely American origins, she explains why the blues are widely popular. “It’s because of the emotional connection. People connect with honesty and feeling,” she says. “Blues is very soulful, like Gospel music. They come from the same root. It moves your spirit in ways you may not have ever known about. It’s all about emotional release.”