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The Open Voice: An Interview with Outcalls, Baltimore’s Electronic Opera Queens

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In musicology terminology, “feminine endings” refers to a phrase or movement that ends in an unstressed note or weak cadence. In the book Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality, author Susan McClary begins to break the myth of femininity in musicology. She uses the standpoint of feminism and cultural studies to pioneer new considerations of sex, gender, and sexuality in music, known as the birth of “new musicology,” where musical semiotics, cadence, tonality, musical theme, and cyclical structure are used as analytical tools to criticize classical musicology. McClary points out that classical music extols the expression of “masculinity” and depreciates the expression of “femininity,” thus strengthening the construction of social gender and affecting the structure of the entire history of Western music.

For me, the Baltimore’s neo-opera duo, Outcalls, clearly evokes McClary’s gender dialectic and ideas about classical music. After the release of the new single, “Holiday Ex-Lover,” and listening to their latest album, “Greatest Hits, Vol. 1,” I took the opportunity to interview Outcalls, the electronic opera queens from Baltimore, now comprised of Melissa Wimbish and Britt Olsen-Ecker.

The two members of Outcalls are classically trained, but they use their singing and musical skills with the creativity of pop rhythms to gently choke the patriarchy with their beautiful voices. Their songs embed their experiences of being dwarfed because of gender in both classical and modern music industries.

Some recent history: Outcalls was initially formed by Evan Kornblum and Jeff Bucklew; newer members Melissa Wimbish and Britt Olsen-Ecker performed singing telegrams around the city such as the Valentonez and pop covers under the stage name of PBJamz before joining Outcalls. The band later regrouped, and Melissa and Britt decided to keep the band name Outcalls, growing new forms for their music ever since. Their 2017 EP “No King,” which gave full play to their own musical heritage as contemporary classical meets electronic and pop music, features both their voices creating a beautiful flow that is invigorating and unbinding.

Although Melissa and Britt have only been together for five years as Outcalls, their latest album, released in February 2022, is titled “Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.” The album also features a collaboration, in which they created a new song with Baltimore-based queer musician Kotic Couture.

The danceable baroque-pop melody of the album and the unrestrained soprano that appears from time to time is so refreshing to listen to—not to mention their humorous lyrics that are infused with praise for womanhood and point out the ubiquitous phenomenon of misogyny. As Melissa said in this interview, “we have a shitload of great hits, and it’s important right now, especially for women in this industry, to put themselves out there and be confident to say our shit is good, period.”

 

Outcalls Melissa Wimbish and Britt Olsen-Ecker, press photo by Danny Siebenhaar

For a layman like me, I always think singing and emotional expression would differ when interpreting opera and pop or non-classical music. Do you believe there is a difference between singing opera and other genres of music?

Melissa: Definitely. You can hear the difference, but I think that many of the fundamentals of singing remain the same even when you’re trying to teach different techniques; whether you’re teaching belting or more traditional and classical techniques—even extended techniques—I feel like the same fundamental rules apply in singing.

Some rules allow you to not hurt yourself and let expression really be your guide. Maybe you’re using a technique that requires a different technical approach.

And maybe the individual visualizes different things in order to get the result that they want and the sound that they want. But I think at its core, we have so much more in common with one another as singers.

Britt: All of the stuff that we learned, such as studying classical singing at school, has really added to what makes Outcalls what it is. We certainly sing in the operatic style in some of the sessions that we do, but we’ve also learned how to navigate ourselves into other feelings and styles. Then we find new things to do with our voice. The technical training is totally there.

We’ve talked about other artists who do a lot of touring and they will lose their voice and get tired. That’s something which is so important to us: to sustain vocal health throughout a really rigorous performing schedule so that we don’t get too tired to sing a gig the next day.

Melissa: It’s influenced our writing too. When we write songs, we imagine being on tour for a month and think, “can we sing this night after night?” I think that’s a really responsible thing to do for your own voice to avoid having to cancel a show because you can’t sing. Sometimes you get sick, or lose your voice —things like that happen— but if it’s a result of being tired all the time, then that can be a problem.

Outcalls Melissa Wimbish and Britt Olsen-Ecker, press photo by Steve Parke

That reminds me of a question I have for both of you. Many classical operas were written by men throughout history. As one of my favorite authors Susan McClary wrote in her book, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality, “…for in Western culture, music itself is always in danger of being regarded as the feminine Other that circumvents reason and arouses desire.” Do you feel free when you interpret classical opera music written by men? And do you think that it makes you want to write your own music and sing in your own way?

Melissa: Absolutely. You have to dig really deep sometimes to relate to these classical pieces. I think obviously some of the stuff now that’s being written by women and people of color is paving the way for us to participate more so that’s great. But as far as the genres of music that we grew up learning, we’re forced to adopt them, and so much of that indoctrinates our brains.

There’s certainly potential for these emotions and characters to be relatable to us, but sometimes you have to dig really, really deep in order to get there. Whereas when you see yourself very clearly as a composer or it’s your own work, it doesn’t take as much effort to relate to.

The singing of classical opera focuses on musical performance, such as the lines and colors of the voice and the flexibility of breathing techniques. Would you like to share some significant thoughts about when you trained for these vocal techniques?

Britt: When I studied classical singing, I studied under this philosophy where you have to pick one lane and stick with it. So if you’re studying classical music, then that’s what it’s going to be. You don’t really delve into other musical styles because it’ll screw up your training. I always loved other types of music and performing them, so it was such a turnoff for me. I knew that it wasn’t the path I wanted to take.

With a philosophy like that I was like, “I’ve got to learn how to sing better and apply my technique to all different types of singing.” That really helped me apply that technical training in all different types of music and also get myself out of this headspace of if I don’t make it, I’ll perish and won’t be successful.

But in terms of technical stuff, all of what I learned has really helped me perform all types of music. We’re both sopranos, so we’re using our head voice that comes from up here instead of the chest. The stuff that I learned singing classically was so important to getting a really good belt and good chest voice singing.

I think that sort of classical philosophy is the apex of singing technique, and it can’t be applied to anything else. However, I do think that the classical mindset of teaching is on its way out because we have to be 21st century musicians. We’re not going to be choosy about where we need to go and where we need to audition and what scale of music to perform.

Melissa: As far as the physical sensations are concerned, Britt is absolutely right. I’m still thankful for the training because anytime I feel like maybe there’s a better way to do something, or we write something that might be out of my reach for whatever reason, I can always come back to my technique to figure out how to do it or something similar so that I can get the same effect. Belting isn’t my strong suit, but there are parts of my voice that are not terrible when I belt, and some parts that are a little on the edge. However, through my training and working with Britt, who is much more inclined to that singing as a theater talent, I’ve been able to access parts of my voice that I didn’t realize I could. That’s helpful and empowering.

Generally for the operatic style, we use head voice or a mixture of head voices as sopranos, and we rarely sing in our chest voice. It’s a choice that we make, because sometimes you want to make an ugly sound or use a different color or whatever, but it’s really sort of shunned, at least it was for me. You can hear my speaking voice, I speak very low. So it’s always been really hard for me to sort of accept that. Now that I’ve been writing my own music and accessing more of my chest voice, I have led and said bullshit to that rule. Even when I sing opera, I’m more inclined to use my chest voice in places now.

Britt: That’s such a good point. I used to try singing low in my head voice which is so hard and it’s obviously not happening. I can easily get down there in my chest voice and make it sound operatic. If you practice it enough in certain ways, you can make it sound operatic.

Outcalls, Still from Holiday Ex-Lover video

How do you combine opera singing with pop music? What inspired you to make music like you do now?

Melissa: I think we both always liked pop music and we were always open to other types of music, even when we were studying. So naturally, when we began to write our own music, it wasn’t something we felt was a whole separate entity. It’s certainly always incorporated in everything. I think most people who write would probably say the same. The influences are from everywhere and some of ours happen to be heavily influenced by the fact that we went to music school and learned to sing in this way.

Britt: I feel like in some sort of composing, whether it’s an assignment from class or an extracurricular thing, it’s kind of built into our music, and it was a natural journey for us. As I had mentioned, Melissa is still performing classical works? all over the country, and I’ve chosen not to take that path, which is totally fine. I don’t need to seek performing opportunities elsewhere; I did theater and I did other types of performing, but I don’t feel the need to go out and audition for a play anymore. Outcalls fulfills that need for me. So, in that sense, it was not totally separate. These things are connected and it makes sense for us to collaborate and explore this area together.
Some of Outcalls’ songs are about relationships and intimate emotions, which seem to relate to your life very much. How do you usually get inspired and form an idea for a song?

Melissa: They’re all very different, which is fun and it’s not the same process every time. There are definitely times where if we are stuck, we might go back to some of the same exercises in order to get us out of a rut.

Maybe we’ll say, “why don’t we try improvising over this or switch this off, and I’ll sing along?” And we’ll see which one sticks. The idea might be me coming up with a hook and sending Britt a voice memo, and then her writing a piano part in response or adding a thought to it; or it might be Britt coming up with the whole progression of the song and sending that to me.

We’re just in a place through years of working together where we trust each other. There’s never been a time where you were not a little bit shy about sharing something you wrote. We’re aware of the pain of something not being that good, which is why it’s so great we work together this way. We’re also aware of the joy of when something’s fucking awesome, and we can read that in one another without having to say “that sucks.” It involves a lot of experimenting and trying things and not being afraid of hacking away until we love it.

 

Outcalls: Greatest Hits (album cover)
I think because we write our own music, there's an understanding deep down that people are literally out there doing something that speaks to people.
Britt Olsen-Ecker

I think the new album “Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.” collects the songs you wrote from 2019, and it has a surging musicality, full of modern funk grooves and a gorgeous baroque vibe at the same time. Could you share with us the general process of composition for the songs in this album?

Britt: I think we write songs very individually, so we’re not making an album with one-sounding kind of song and look like we want to explore some certain styles, working with producers, or trying to frame feels. It’s about centering back on what or who makes us basically. Every song was approached at different times, from when we first started working together years ago to now, that have materialized into music that was written early this year.

Melissa: Let’s clarify what we mean by “greatest hits.” It is sort of posturing to be confident, but we also do have some really great hits that have not been on an album. So it’s nice to have this for our fans to have this real collection of our work that spans a long time; also a representation of the songwriting and how it’s evolved over the years, as well as how our relationship has evolved in terms of our partnership in this band.

I think it’s a beautiful representation of our openness and journey, and how we have dealt with some of our personal traumas and joys, etc.. It indeed kind of started off as this little, “Ha-ha, oh, what a joke: Greatest Hits…” but it really is a greatest-hits album.

The falsetto vocals on the new album and the intimate vibe from your interpretations for the songs remind me of Prince’s songs in his early period, so I can’t help but wonder what kind of music both of you listen to in your daily life?

Britt: I love Prince. We love Lucius, which is also a duo of women, and I think this applies to us as well. Their music changes and evolves throughout their path of making music, but it still preserves their own style. With a group like Lucius, if you listen to some of their earlier stuff compared to their new releases, it’s very different from the soundscape to style. That’s encouraging for artists like us, where we started off as a kind of a rock band, and now we’ve really taken on this new life in how we’re performing and writing.

I’m not picky about any genres, and I wouldn’t say, “I would never listen to this type of music.” I think because we write our own music, there’s an understanding deep down that people are literally out there doing something that speaks to people.

Melissa: I definitely got into my rut where I only listened to the same 15 songs for five months, ‘cause I just get broody and that’s what I’m into. But I think because of all these platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, etc., and friends sending you playlists, you hear so many different artists and sounds all the time. However, my go-tos are women who are making music. So many women have been overlooked. I like Stevie Nicks, Lucius, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Abba, Heart, and pop divas of the nineties. I just love paying tribute to those women. But then, of course, I love Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and bands like Muse and Radiohead, and I love hearing how people write songs.

It occurred to me that I watched Sinéad O’Connor’s documentary, Nothing Compares. And in the film, she signed up to a record label which was run by men, and she tried to release her first album with the songs she wrote. They read her lyrics and said, “this is like a little girl’s diary, I can’t release this.”

Outcalls, Still from "Love to Fight" music video

I’ve always wondered how you might receive some feedback that judges you by your gender and sees your work as insignificant when you write something very soft, intimate, and personal. Do you have this kind of fear when you want to share something very intimate to the public, especially something coming from yourself?

Melissa: That’s such a great point. It’s so hard to ignore some of those stigmas. I definitely find when I’m writing lyrics that I don’t have the same confidence as a man would sharing things. I always want to be direct about some things, but I also feel I’ve got to go back and really hem and haw about what I want to say because it’s coming from a woman, and I don’t want anybody to think I’m crying about something. Maybe that will change as I evolve.

One of the first times Britt and I performed together, it was still a pretty male-dominated band, and we weren’t really the leadership at that point. After the show, the band leader at the time came up to both of us and said something to the effect of, “What’s up with the fucking tea party up there?” – which was in reference to us singing and vibing together.

Britt: It was so demoralizing and demeaning. As Melissa said, there was a lot of analysis that goes into lyric writing, which is why I hate doing it, and Melissa writes most of the lyrics for Outcalls. There are things in terms of feedback and putting yourself out there that are always going to be difficult. It just takes practice, and you just learn not to care as much as time goes by.

Melissa: It is so interesting to hear Sinead O’Connor’s experience, because when you read lyrics without any of the music, things can look really bad on paper. But then you hear it, and depending on the way somebody decides to phrase it and bring up the words, sometimes it can take the cheesiest line and actually make it cool. Music is an interesting tool. Anybody who knows anything should have the fucking sense when reading something to know they should listen to how she set it first before they read it like it’s a diary entry.

Can you share with us the process of collaborating with Baltimore musician Kotic Couture on the song “Vitamin D”?

Britt: I think Kotic (she/they) went into the studio with our engineer and for some reason, the only things I remember asking for the recording were little interjections, and I don’t even think we ended up mixing them into the song, which is fine. I love everything they do. Melissa and I love them and loved the energy that they bring to the stage, and knew that it was such an obvious choice to have them on this song, especially because of the nature of love, the theme, and the fanatic nature of the song.

Melissa: We are huge fans. I think the first time we saw them perform was at DDM’s Christmas show, and later they came to a performance of ours at the Remington Fair. I was just so surprised that they liked our music, too. But the thing about Baltimore is that there’s still a lot of segregation in our industry as far as certain venues, and I wonder why I hadn’t ever seen them perform at that venue. It’s probably because the people who run it think there shouldn’t be hip-hop shows in their venue or whatever the reason might be.

Meeting Kotic was a real turning point for us in how we thought about how we create our bills. We always wanted to make sure that our bills were representative of women and, like, different kinds of genres or whatever. Then we realized again how sometimes venues have these expectations, and we’re going to push back against that as much as we can. Having Kotic join us for the album— obviously they crushed it— had an incredible reception from the audience. We think it’s so important for venues to see that and stop separating us out so much.

 

For their music info:

Press Photos by Danny Siebenhaar

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