If you don’t already know Olga, just listen to her music—and you will.
As this lithe, willowy woman settles into her guitar, the throaty voice that pours out of her takes you by surprise, transporting you to the easy rhythm of a sultry New Orleans afternoon. Gritty and honest, soulful and stirring, Olga sings about love and loss, relationships and the road ahead.
Fans all over the world will tell you that Olga’s songs have an undeniable authenticity to them, stemming from inspiration drawn from her own life—a journey steeped in music, and the blues. Olga spent years honing her sound in the hill country of northern Mississippi, with friends and mentors like Los Lobos (her “favorite band, and people!”) and blues legend Jessie Mae Hemphill helping shape her musical trajectory.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Olga was classically trained in music as a child. Her parents, who moved stateside from Innsbruck, Austria, encouraged her as she began writing songs on the piano at the age of five. In high school, Jimi Hendrix provided her first taste of the blues.
“I began music very early, and started writing songs very young,” she recalls. “I got into the ‘business’ side of things through a chance meeting with a record archivist at a Grateful Dead show in my late teens. He introduced me to Los Lobos and Maria Muldaur, and I apprenticed with Maria soon thereafter. Los Lobos ‘adopted’ me, and let me hang out and observe how they did things. I often sat on the stage during their shows.”
The guitar she received for Christmas in her early twenties sealed her fate. By that time she was living in Colorado and working as a radio disk-jockey. It was during this period that she discovered Jessie Mae Hemphill’s records.
“At that point, I knew I had to move south, as my real journey was only beginning,” Olga remembers.
New Orleans and, later, Mississippi, offered the rich musical climate she craved. Olga looked up Jessie Mae Hemphill in Mississippi, and paid her a visit. The two artists soon discovered, among other things, that they shared the same birthday.
“Jessie Mae and I immediately felt a kinship for one another when we met,” she says. “She told me that first day that she thought Jesus sent me to her.”
While Olga’s been likened to greats such as Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, and Sheryl Crow, the truth is she’s carved out a sound that’s entirely her own. Her current album, It Comes and It Goes, has an upbeat pop flavor, with bluesy undertones.
“The songs on this album are rooted in the truth as I know it in my life, rooted in the blues,” Olga explains, “but we changed the sound, so a broader audience can experience them—hopefully in a positive way.”
The drums were a key component in shaping the sound of Whatever You Want—a record about leaving the past behind and starting over. Olga asked her friend Cody Dickinson, drummer for the Grammy-nominated North Mississippi Allstars, to lay down the drums for her. Dickinson, also an accomplished guitar and bass player, songwriter, and producer, agreed—and soon took over the lion’s share of the instrumentation, which he paired with Olga’s melodies and lyrics. Emmy award winning producer and Engineer Winn McElroy “took everything and made it sound good!” Olga laughs. Whatever You Want was recorded at Black Wings
Studio in Water Valley, Mississippi.
“This record has been a process of finding my soul again, and reminding myself of what I need to do with my life,” she says. “It really took on a life of its own, quite naturally and unexpectedly, and I’m thrilled with where it has led me.”
Olga has three previous albums under her belt: Now Is The Time, Kiss Your Blues Away, and Blues Babe. All three albums elicited overwhelmingly positive reviews. Olga has shared the stage with talent such as Chris Isaak, Keb Mo’, DJ Logic, Johnny Neel of the Allman Brothers, Coco Robicheaux, Robert Randolph, Los Lobos, North Mississippi Allstars, Papa Mali, JJ Grey & Mofro, Hobex, Maria Muldaur, The Lee Boys, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Jim Dickinson, and Matt Abts of Gov’t Mule. Olga has also performed with the Papa Leg Acoustic Duo in Italy for the past three years.
When she’s not performing, Olga juggles a host of other endeavors. She participated in a Martin Scorsese documentary on the blues, co-produced Jessie Mae Hemphill’s album Dare You To Do It Again, along with a film about Jessie Mae, who passed away in 2006. Additionally, Olga co-engineered Elvis Costello’s Grammy nominated song, “Monkey to Man,” in 2005. She founded the Jessie Mae Hemphill Foundation in 2003, whose mission is to honor Jessie Mae’s memory by archiving music indigenous to the northern Mississippi region, as a means of preserving it for future generations. Any free time Olga can nail down is devoted to making repairs to her family’s New Orleans home, which was damaged in Hurricane Katrina.
Olga’s music continues to evolve and push her to new creative heights, but always with a Southern twist, a veritable tip-of-the-hat to her blues roots.
“Music has been a journey for me, one that I continue to learn from,” she says. “I have been blessed to experience many things throughout my life, often with intensity. You have to take the good with the bad, and then learn to just let it all go.”
And as she begins to sing, you just can’t help but groove to her beat.