No matter how hard we try to live “in the moment,” we’re often always contemplating our yesterdays. Christian band Ohly appreciates this reality and uses lyrics of plainspoken poetry to painting finely detailed portraits of the recent past. Sometimes even the very recent past — because everything is all happening so fast for all of us.
That’s partly why any Ohly song on Landlines is so universally relatable. The singer/songwriter with the first name of Christian uses his last name, Ohly, as a musical moniker. He started writing his own tunes about five years ago when he released his self-titled debut EP in 2017.
Ohly’s Latest Album, Landlines
Last weekend, Ohly released their debut full-length album, Landlines. Each song features Christian’s captivating voice, a rich, lilting baritone that subtly glides atop expressive guitar lines and echoing pianos, with words that capture snapshots of everyday life, mining profundity from the mundane. It’s one thing to create something that fits into the “coming of age” narrative that documents the day-to-day. But Ohly is holding close to the specific whirlwind that is the departure from our teen years and the entrance into our 20s, processing all the changes that occur during those rollercoaster 4 years of college. In a way, it keeps one from ever forgetting themselves.
When you listen to an Ohly song, it seems as though the singer/narrator/memoirist is thinking out loud in real-time. It feels he’s shaping those thoughts to an appealing melody that fits each arrangement. And those arrangements, with a solid cast of contributors, blurs the line between orchestral indie pop, neo-Americana, and contemporary folk.
“Up until about a year ago, I was definitely still feeling some anxiety from thinking about the ‘good ol’ days being gone forever,’” said Ohly. “I moved home from school and started working full time and realized I hadn’t seen my best friends in such a long time; I’d ask ‘What’s next? Do things really just get worse?’ But I came to terms with it — those days might be gone, but those people are going to still be there for you. So while those days might be gone, you gotta be thankful for the memories. And hopefully, they will impact the present day for the better.”
Almost the entirety of Landlines was completed before the world shut down for COVID. Ohly worked with Alden Arakai, Tom Mihalis, and John Katona to engineer these songs. The latter produced three acoustic bonus tracks that you can find on Bandcamp. Arakis and Mihalis split up the 7 primary songs (that you’ll see on Spotify and elsewhere). Both of them also contributed instrumental parts like drums and bass. Ohly even released a lyric video on March 27 of last year, “University,” intended to be the lead single, as the initial release date for the album was June of 2020.
“It was definitely discouraging… when everything shut down,” Ohly said. He had only been performing live at bars/venues and coffee shops for a little more than a year at that point. Unfortunately, just like a lot of musicians, he inevitably had to make a lot of cancellations. “On the bright side, though, I was able to write nine new songs that I’m hoping to record this summer. I told myself I wasn’t going to write about the whole youth-nostalgia thing anymore, that I would move on to more philosophical topics. But then I started writing and those snapshots just came back and I was able to jot them on paper very naturally. So, I said, ‘Hey, maybe this is just what I write about — this is who I am in music.’ But one thing I’m making sure to do is that every lyric has a purpose.”
Ohly first started writing songs when he was 18-years-old, so relatively speaking, not that long ago. But he’d grown up in a very musical family, where at least everyone in the household could play some kind of instrument. His parents were even part of a traveling choir group before he was born. Ohly, himself, sang in choirs and played the piano at a young age. But just as he was entering high school, he switched over to guitar and then eventually picked up the banjo. From a young age, he’d been quite taken with the collection of contemporary folk-pop and Americana-fusion artists of the early 2010s. From Avett Brothers to the Head and the Heart, he would play covers of both of these bands, and more artists from that subgenre, as he learned his way on the guitar through high school.
“I just started with a few chords and thought up some melodies,” he said, referring to his freshman year of college when he dove into songwriting. “I had seven songs by the end of that year, and then started recording them for the EP. Those songs definitely gave me a better understanding of writing and what other instruments you can add. I recorded that EP with John Katona and he was all for real instruments and organic sounds. I loved parts where there were just orchestral strings or booming piano chords. So I asked if we could try a song with strings and he said, ‘Alright, let’s find a violinist!’ It was cool not to have those limitations—and he knew how to make it sound good.”
All the Instruments
Landlines features accompaniments from a cello, piano, violin, electric guitar, clarinet, drums, bass, and acoustic guitar — and it all usually starts just with that acoustic guitar (from Ohly), or maybe a piano — dreaming up with the basic structure and then carefully figuring out what to layer on top to make it more impactful and dynamic.
But it always comes back to the words. “I was listening to a lot of Frontier Ruckus during this new album,” said Ohly. “And (FR lead singer/lyricist) Matthew Milia does something similar where there’s so much detail loaded into one sentence and it’s all very visual. When I was recording the first EP, John, the producer, said ‘Why don’t you try to SHOW how you feel instead of SAYING how you feel…’” Thus, when you are listening to an Ohly song, he truly paints a picture and zeros in on the most minute of details. Then, he renders the subtle life lessons or emotional takeaways from whatever seemingly small occurrences he’s capturing in song-form.
“If I can show people part of the memory that made me feel a certain way, it might stand out and hit them a certain way.” Rather than over elaborating on a particular emotion, Ohly prefers to just reflect on a snapshot — setting you, the listener, in the scene, in the environment, and providing key details that are visceral on their own, but still letting you color in the rest of the picture for yourself.