Olivia Barton is a bighearted songwriter who wears her emotions on her sleeves and in her songs. 2023 was a big year for Barton: she featured on a song with her partner Corinne Savage, whose artist name is Corook, on the song “If I Were A Fish,” which has now been watched and listened to over 20 million times and has been made into a children’s book. In December Barton released her Big Sad EP, which is our Record of the Week. Below are some insights from the artist on the songs that make up Big Sad.
Justin Barney: Let’s talk about “Sonic.” I love the idea of taking a trip to Sonic. There are so many Sonics in Nashville.
Olivia Barton: Oh, there really are. And you know what? I have some bad news. We were actually going to Steak ‘n Shake, but Steak ‘n Shake sounded really dumb, so I had to change it to Sonic.
JB: That is very funny. That’s a funny insight.
OB: I mean, hey, we love Sonic. We really do.
JB: What was the occasion that you were going to Sonic or Steak ‘n Shake?
OB: There was no occasion. We had waited too long to make food and we were hungry. And so we thought, “It’s a fast food night.” So I just brought my pillow and my blanket into the car to go to Steak ‘n Shake. I just thought that was such a funny picture. And it really felt strangely romantic. Like, like the act of doing that felt like, oh, my gosh, even something as mundane as going to get Steak ‘n Shake with Corinne feels like such an event. Like something we can make a good time out of. Yeah. That’s how that was born.
JB: That that is such like a recognition of a small moment of love and something small in relationship. You have you have that line, “What if we do the right thing?” What is the “right thing” in that scenario?
OB: To be together. To just be together…forever? Mhm. Yeah. It’s just like a lifelong commitment is really what it feels like. What if we just really leaned in and did that instead of running away from the right thing to do out of fear? For me it’s to lean into our love and and not be afraid and just be together.
JB: That’s really beautiful because that is really hard to do.
OB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is. I have got some serious commitment issues over here, so we’re actively working against.
JB: Let’s talk about “Twirl.” I would like to talk about like why is the standard for being cool wearing black and being mysterious.
OB: Oh God. It’s the bane of my existence. I don’t know why that feels like such a good summary of it to me, but it does. For being like in the indie world, I don’t feel indie at all. Like, I don’t even know what I mean by that. I don’t feel cool in that way.
OB: Why? Oh, my gosh, I posted this thing on Instagram once that said, like, you can still be mysterious after oversharing because everyone’s walking away thinking, why did they say that? And if that is not the epitome of my existence in a social setting I don’t know what is.
I think that everybody, probably everybody has a different definition of cool. And whatever their definition is is just like whatever they are not. Because nobody feels cool, you know? And so for me, because I’m kind of an oversharer and I’m sort of a loud, bright person, like to me, what would be cool would be to not be that.
JB: There is a Corinne (Corook) shout out by name in the song.
OB: There is. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever said their name in a song. It just felt natural.
JB: Did you write it before or after “If I Were a Fish”?
OB: Before, much before. Like three years ago.
JB: How do you feel about people like knowing that the person that you’re writing a song to?
OB: I think that anybody who doesn’t really know much about my life, it wouldn’t make a difference to them. Like they don’t know who that is or it doesn’t matter. And anybody who does know about my life knows that I’m writing about her in any way. So I’m kind of like, it feels irrelevant. You know what I mean?
JB: Yeah. I grew up with the twin and there have been times where we are like competitive with each other and you’re two musicians. There’s like a gauge of success there that I would imagine could be stressful.
JB: What is that dynamic?
OB: I have struggled with that. I don’t think us being in the same line of work is as complicated as people might think that it is. I think more than anything, it’s really, really helpful for us to understand what the other person is going through and like what their work consists of. So I think that’s really actually been a way for us to feel even more connected and supported and loved each other is to know like, “OK, you’re on tour. You don’t feel like talking because you’re totally drained. I know exactly what that is like. So I’m going to leave you alone,” you know?
When it comes to the success stuff, I mean, I’m human. I definitely struggle with comparing myself to certain milestones, you know? And Corinne’s career just looks so different than mine. I mean, we’re both busy, you know, but it’s just we have different paths. And so it’s been a lot of personal internal work for me to accept that our paths are going to look different. And then that doesn’t mean anything mean that anything is wrong about my path, you know?
OB: Yeah. It’s been hard. But it’s also made me grow. I attribute a lot of my career growth to being with Corrine. Not because they’ve opened doors for me, but because their success has really lit like a fire for me.
JB: And it’s to come back to “Twirl.” That song has this great has the great time of place of your tenth birthday party. And I think it’s so sweet the like internal monologue of a ten-year-old thanking their friends for showing up. Could you describe that party?
OB: Well, honestly, it’s multiple memories were put together, so there wasn’t, like, a particular party, to be honest. It was like just the general feeling I had around that age of, like, feeling kind of invisible in my family. I think that that put a lot of stress on the kids in the class to like me. I needed someone to like me. God, it’s so sad.
Initially that verse had other lyrics in it that I revised it. It was initially actually about how I had booked myself a show, my own show in Nashville. And right before it, I was panicking like, “No one’s going to show up, this is so stupid. Why did I buy these decorations? I’m such an idiot.” I wanted to just backpedal and cancel. And I realized it felt like being a kid and having a birthday party and being afraid that your classmates aren’t going to show up. That’s how playing shows in Nashville felt to me at that time.
JB: I bet many people in Nashville feel that.
OB: Oh, yeah.
JB: Let’s go to “Big Sad.” I’m such a word person but let’s talk about the sound on the EP. It’s largely acoustic guitar. There’s other subtle production on it. Why keep it to acoustic?
OB: My second album definitely has more production elements going on. But for this, I wanted to explore this other sort of side of me which really doesn’t care much about the bells and whistles and just sort of wants it to just be the song. And to be honest, I’m going even further in that direction with the the stuff I’m recording now.
I really want to see how little you can do and still have the recording feel compelling. Because, ultimately, what I care about the most is the writing. I want to see how far I can push it in that acoustic direction and see if people will still pay attention.
JB: “Big Sad” explores the power of slamming a door in someone’s face.
OB: Yeah. Not my best moment.
JB: Why do you think that felt good in the moment?
OB: When I feel really defensive the only way for me to be able to justify the amount of defensiveness I feel is to actually really blame the other person and really believe that they are doing something wrong when I know deep down that it’s me. And so there’s something about that physical representation of slamming the door in your face. Like I’m being immature and mean because I want to pretend that this is your fault.
JB: You are so real for admitting that. I would never.
OB: That’s so funny. Yeah. It took me a little bit that day to do the stew and then admit it, but yeah.
“I Love You Just For Trying”
JB: In “I Love You Just For Trying” there is a Colbie Caillat reference up front. Let the people know.
OB: Yeah, right out of the gate.
JB: I’ve got to know what the song was.
OB: It was “One Fine Wire” it’s a B-side on the album Coco.
JB: Going for the Colbie Caillat b-side?
OB: Listen, I was such a snob even then.
JB: So I am just imagining little 11-year-old Olivia Barton being like, “I’m not going to learn the single. People are going to think I’m a sellout.”
OB: No literally. That’s exactly how I felt. I was like, “They don’t even know. This song is the best one on the album.”
JB: Real ones will recognize.
JB: I love that. What was the thing in the moment that inspired that song?
OB: I wrote it on my birthday two years ago. Corinne and I took this spontaneous trip to some cabin up in the mountains, and I was reflecting on the year that I’d had, which was bad. Just so, so hard. I felt like a failure. I felt like I haven’t done anything I said I was going to do. I was feeling so ashamed of my lack of growth in my career and how much space my personal healing was taking up in my brain and I just sat outside this cabin and just was just writing it for me.
Sometimes I’m so hard on myself. I’m such a perfectionist on every level. And I’m always trying. Just the amount of effort I am putting into everything is at level ten. And it’s so hard for me to feel like what I’m doing is enough. So I love you just for trying was like, look, just trying is worth you being celebrated for. And we obviously know that you try really hard. I wanted to believe that I was doing enough.