“I was always a rebel” // In Conversation with OLA SZMIDT

“I was always a rebel” // In Conversation with OLA SZMIDT

Photo credit: Murry Deaves

On first listening, the music of Ola Szmidt does not exactly sound electronic. It sounds orchestral, minimalist, even choral. But, as I found out, there’s a knowing manipulation of technology under the surface which produces this sound. Using an RC-505 looper to weave vocal harmonies and flute melodies, Szmidt’s mastery of both hardware and software is clear to see, or rather hear.

Szmidt was born in Poland and lived there for the first two decades of her life. After moving to the UK, she studied music technology and innovation at De Montfort University and lived in Leicester, where she began performing at open-mic nights. She now lives and works in York, a city which has become very close to her heart. We met up for a chat at the Everyman, where coffees were on the house – it’s a regular haunt for Szmidt.

Szmidt has a wide range of influences, from jazz pianist Mike Sole, with whom she worked before moving to York, to more recent work with the great Kieran Hebden (Four Tet). He became her mentor after winning the Steve Reid Innovation Award in 2016.

Since then her music has gone from strength to strength, releasing EP1 in December 2017 and the contrasting, but equally beautiful, EP2 in January 2019. In this latest release, the blend of English and Polish lyrics present in her first EP are largely relinquished, replaced by a focus on more experimental flute sounds. Szmidt spoke candidly about this, saying: “I was not able to write lyrics at that point, because I was relearning how to speak and how to be myself”, following a period of physical and emotional pain for the artist. “I was just trying to heal myself, and also thinking, maybe this music will help someone else”.

Her writing process is natural and spontaneous. “The most magical time in our house for me to compose I call the ‘black hole’ – the time whilst my daughters getting ready for bed.”

“You have to be assertive, you have to focus, and you have to do things which make you happy, with compromise…”

I find Szmidt’s music highly emotional, testament to the feeling which goes into it. She’s constantly influenced by the changing environment around her, whether it’s the faces she sees from behind the counter whilst working part-time in retail, or the birds singing outside her studio window. Szmidt had to overcome some serious health problems when she was very young – bad eyesight and severe burns – and says that this led to a certain heightening and intermingling of other senses, a condition known as synaesthesia. “When I hug someone, or when I greet somebody, I see things – colours, even flowers”. At this point in our conversation, the tulip in a vase on the table shed a single petal…

This remarkable and unique experience is transferred into her music. “The entire EP2 is synaesthetic”, she says, “and it was the only thing which helped me cope with the pain… [my music is] the only place I feel myself completely, and I trust myself completely” Each track evokes certain specific images in her mind, often landscapes or objects in nature. The organic sound of the EP resonates with this experience, and is in turn shared with the listener.

This issue of Circulation is a celebration of an exciting and productive era for female electronic artists. When asked about the importance of this to her, her response was somewhat surprising: “Where I’m from is a bigger problem for me than being female in the music industry. I’m supported by men, and I find that often they are the ones who have to squash their emotions.” As a consequence of current political turbulence, Szmidt has had struggles with the authorities over citizenship and settlement rights. She’s had to show tremendous resilience to get to where she is today, making great music and working alongside some of the biggest names within the genre.

Szmidt’s advice for aspiring musicians? “You have to be assertive, you have to focus, and you have to do things which make you happy, with compromise…”

Szmidt is currently working on a masters at the University of York whilst working on a number of musical projects alongside. “The next year is all about finishing uni and getting the band on the road”, as well as working on her debut full-length album.

It was an absolute pleasure speaking with Ola, and I can definitely recommend her music for anyone interested in mellow but emotional sounds. The song ‘Satellites’ from her first EP is a personal favourite, do check it out!

George Cooper