Olivia Jean: The Night Owl Will Fly Into Houston

Olivia Jean will return to Houston to play Dan Electro's Wednesday February 12.
Olivia Jean will return to Houston to play Dan Electro's Wednesday February 12. Photo By Becca Heup
Detroit’s musical history is one of the richest and most genre spanning stories in the world. From Motown to Madonna, something about the motor city has helped to produce some of the most influential and important sounds in music.

Detroit native Olivia Jean is no exception, her sound is as powerful, unique and raw as some of the biggest names to come out of her hometown. Jean combines her love of garage rock, surf rock and '60s girl groups to create her authentic and mesmerizing sound.

The Third Man Records artist will be making a long awaited return to Houston’s Dan Electro’s, February 12. The small, historic guitar bar in the heart of the Heights will be a fitting stage for Jean and her band to play. Her previous Houston gig was four years ago at the now sadly defunct Fitzgerald’s.

Jean released Night Owl last year and has been on the road finally setting her new songs free, even joining The Raconteurs as the opener for a run of dates.  This next leg of her tour will see Jean and her band playing smaller venues that will be new to them.

“I feel really good about it. I love playing the songs live and it's refreshing to have new material to play. It makes going on stage a lot more exciting because I hadn't put out a record in a really long time,” says Jean.

She has every right to feel good about her latest release; one she admits was many years in the making. It may be only her second solo release but Jean is no newcomer, she has contributed to countless Third Man releases playing various instruments. She was a member of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson's backing band and the lead singer and guitarist for The Black Belles.

In her previous album, Bathtub Love Killings, Jean wrote and played all of the instruments on the album, an impressive approach to making an album. With Night Owl, Jean once again composed all of the parts in her songs, but this time had other musicians join her in the studio. She also took on an ambitious new role, stepping behind the board to serve as producer for the first time. 

“When it comes to art or being creative, I get really into it, kind of obsessed with it,” she admits. “It was overwhelming but in the end I knew that I wouldn't regret all of the extra thought that goes into doing everything on your own.” Being so DIY and hands proved to be a great way to convey and protect her artistic vision, one she's been honing for almost her entire life.

During the process, Jean saw the pros and cons to doing it all on her own and learned to let go of the desire for perfection and the need for “outsider ears." “This is garage rock and its supposed to be raw, it’s not supposed to be polished and that’s something that I had to remind myself. It was very educational in a lot of different ways.”

The title track to the album is a fun admission to enjoying being on your own and avoiding cheap talk. The song was recorded in one room giving it that live show energy, which can be difficult to capture in the studio. “I like that song the most when it comes to how it was mixed because it had all the natural sounds that I go for.”

Jean made a surprising but fitting choice to cover the Indian rock and roll and Bollywood song, “Jaan Pehechaan Ho”. “I’ve been listening to it for years I learned how to speak those lyrics on my own without intending to cover it.”

Listening to Night Owl, it’s easy to imagine her mind being constantly consumed by layers upon layers of sounds, but this is nothing new to Jean as she has been making music from the young age of seven. She described skipping school to record songs on the family computer and playing loud surf rock with her brother in the family basement.

“When I was like a preteen, I started going down to Detroit and I would listen to all those garage rock bands and was really influenced by that and that's still what I listen to to this day. That's the genre that’s always stuck with me.”

She recorded demos of her surf rock instrumental songs and handed them out at a Dead Weather show, which eventually led her to be welcomed into the prestigious Third Man family, the only label the artist has ever been on.

Jean has since relocated to Nashville, a second home for the label. “It's a little Detroit bubble that floated to Nashville. I feel great here having Third Man and they have brought this Detroit style of music to the masses and it’s great.”

When discussing how she has seen the label grow Jean says, “I would say it's like a small, major label because they bring on bands that they really believe in. I really do think that Third Man has had a huge part in bringing vinyl into the mainstream.”

Third Man is an advocate for quality music and a protector of rock and roll. They not only champion new artists but are also constantly re-releasing older material, exposing newer generations to artists from decades past that they might never have heard before.

“I think the impact that they have now around the world it's huge and I’m really happy for them because they work so hard. The people that work at Third Man are so dedicated, every single detail they care about it and they don't think good enough is good enough.”

"The people that work at Third Man are so dedicated, every single detail they care about it and they don't think good enough is good enough.”

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Another sometimes overlooked achievement of Third Man is their inclusion of a large number of original female artists.  Rock and roll can easily be considered a boys club on the surface, but women have made major contributions since the early days.  There would be no "Hound Dog" without Big Mama Thornton.

Though Jean is lucky to be in good company, no one is safe from the sexist perceptions of women on and off the stage.  When asked how she handles situations where it would seem her knowledge is being doubted because she is a woman, Jean keeps it even keel and kills them with her talent.

"If you're a female and you get angry, there are words that immediately pop up in other peoples minds to call you, it's so simple for people to insult a female musician. Unfortunately for women, you really do need to have  thick skin. You need to learn about human nature and how to maneuver your way through it without getting upset, which isn't fair, but it is the way to go or you just make enemies and I'd rather just play music."

Olivia Jean will perform with Cactus Flowers and Bug Bites Wednesday, February 12 at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, 1031 E. 24th St. Doors open at 7 p.m. $10.
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.
Contact: Gladys Fuentes