Meet Amy O, the indie rocker and educator who founded Bloomington, Indiana’s first Girls Rock Camp

Amy Oelsner tells us about her new album Shell, building confidence as a musician, the guitar as an accessible instrument and more.

Amy O Shell
Image: Winspear

Nearly two years ago, Amy Oelsner was set adrift when she lost a longtime job which had defined much of her life in Bloomington, Indiana. The position at a youth center, which she’d held for five years, was effectively the reason she’d upped and left New York in the first place. “I was at a crossroads,” Oelsner explains over the phone, “and searching for something to do.”

That’s how the singer-songwriter, who had at that point released two albums under the moniker Amy O, started not one but two new projects. Both shared the DIY ethos of her previous job – she’d taught zine-making, among other responsibilities – channelling that can-do spirit into generative musical directions. Last autumn, Oeslner taught a six-week songwriting course at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, holding group classes with students, some of whom were in their 20s and others in their 60s.

And this past summer, Oelsner started the Girls Rock Bloomington camp for girls, trans and non-binary youth. Over six days, 20 children and teens took lessons on guitar, bass, drums, vocals and keyboard, watched performances by local musicians and wrote songs together. The Bloomington camp that Oelsner ran with volunteers joined a long-standing global network of Girls Rock Camps that, though independently organised, all aim to empower through music.

Amidst all this excitement, Oelsner still managed to make time for herself and her own self-expression. Later this month, she will release Shell, her third studio album and a buoyant, clear-eyed collection of hooky indie pop anchored in personal stories and experiences. Its newest single Crushed has just gotten a charming video, which you can watch below.

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Ahead of the 25 October release of Shell, Oelsner talks to Guitar.com about the making of the album, her experiences teaching songwriting and running Girls Rock Bloomington, and aiming to “take over the room” with her music.

Amy O Shell
Image: Anna Powell Teeter

Since Shell is your third record, did you approach the writing and recording process with any particular goals in mind? Was there anything you wanted to do that you didn’t accomplish on your previous albums?

Yeah. I loved Elastic and I was really proud of it. I guess first I’ll just say I always want to develop with each work I do, and just feel like I’m refining my skills as a songwriter and musician.

Listening to Elastic, I felt that it was very compressed, and there was just a lot going on. So with Shell I really wanted it to breathe more and allow for more moments of space. I was kind of looking at that in a way of how as you get older, you get more comfortable with the simplicity of being yourself. So I was just trying to take that philosophy and put it into music.

You said around the time you released Elastic that you “always had an aversion to being a girl on stage with a guitar singing quiet songs. There is nothing wrong with that at all. But I always knew that I wanted to do something a bit more volume, a bit more anger.”

It’s funny, because I didn’t feel like Elastic was particularly angry. So I feel like in a way that quote is just a touch misguided, but I think I know what I was trying to say. I think the aspect that I was focused on is wanting to take over the room. That’s what’s really important to me, because that’s what’s so powerful with music.

I feel like I’m someone, being socialised as a woman, that has very easily faded into the background and just tried to not affect my surroundings so much. It just feels really powerful to be making a lot of noise in a room, and to be speaking and singing these words that are like my inner world, and to be putting that out there for people – but in a way that feels really safe and fun, because it’s through the medium of music.

You’re also an educator, and you teach songwriting. When you tell your students you’re a recording musician with a couple of albums under your belt, how do they respond?

I remember on the first day of one of my songwriting classes, one of the older women was like, “Oh, you’re the teacher?” Like, kind of surprised, ’cause I present fairly young-looking. So I think it can be a little bit of a surprise, and I enjoy the dynamic particularly with older men who are in the class, because it’s really turning the stereotype on its head. (laughs)

But I feel like it’s exciting for people that I’m actually not only teaching, but am actively engaged in that world [of the recording music industry]. I really love supporting people in that way and trying to demystify the process of making an album. One of the things that I did that was important for me to do in the songwriting class was record with a student. I made sure that they all recorded an original song, because I feel recording is probably the best way to improve your craft.

Was there a marked difference in the way you saw them react to recording versus songwriting alone? Did recording increase the stakes for them?

Absolutely. The whole class, we were preparing to record – they knew they were going to be doing that. I think that was really important. It’s really important to have a goal that you’re working towards. It was just very sweet, because they were so exhilarated by the recording process. And I think it meant a lot to them to have something that they could share with the people in their lives.

Has teaching given you any new revelations or lessons about your own songwriting and musicianship?

Yeah. First of all, I think it’s really touching. I think a lot of what I’m doing with teaching them is just trying to boost their self-esteem, because a lot of people have really deep insecurities around creativity, especially if they’re older. So a lot of it is just creating a very supportive environment, and I can relate to that a lot.

It took me a really long time to develop my skills as a guitarist and to take myself seriously as a songwriter. So seeing people who are older than me, and seeing how deep that feeling of self-doubt around creativity can go, and also how much like [those feelings are] not true at all – I think it just helps me to continue to be validated and [keep] supporting myself.

You said that you took some time to build confidence as a guitarist. Could you speak a little bit on that?

I had a really long and winding road (laughs) as a guitarist. ’Cause I started when I was 16, and I’m basically self-taught. Both my parents play guitar, so I did have them showing me little things here and there, but basically I was just looking up songs online and learning them. I don’t know, it just took me a really long time. I think that I wasn’t approaching it in a super serious way, and I had other things that I was focusing on.

I think my main motivation for playing guitar was because I got really into songwriting. And if I hadn’t really wanted to write songs, I probably just wouldn’t have pushed through with guitar. It just took me about 10 years, I’d say, before I was really comfortable playing live in front of people.

What helped you build your confidence?

I feel like the most transformative experience was [when] I volunteered to work at a Girls Rock Camp in Brooklyn. It was the summer of 2012, and it was very powerful for me to be around so many women, trans, and non-binary people who were amazing musicians and guitarists. There were a lot of teenagers who had been at the camp for years, and they were really amazing. I mean, it’s kinda cheesy, but representation really does make a big difference.

Was that part of your own motivation to run the Girls Rock Camp in Bloomington?

Yeah, absolutely. That was a really powerful experience for me, volunteering at the one in New York. I ended up getting hired to run their after-school programming year round. So I learned a lot about the organisation that year. And then a few years ago, I lost my job, and so me starting Girls Rock Bloomington was part of this new space that I had in my life. I had dreamed of starting a camp here since I moved here six years ago, so it was like, “Okay! Now’s the time, I have an opening.”

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In my happy place 😊

A post shared by Amy O (@a__m__y__o__) on

How did it go, then? The first one was this past summer, right?

Yeah, it was this past July and it went very well. It exceeded my expectations. I partnered up with a community college that hosts camps, so that helped a lot because they were able to take care of the registration and space, obviously, and they helped promote it. We ended up getting a full roster, which was 20 kids. And it’s pretty much all volunteer-run, so we had about 20 volunteers as well.

Do you think you might do it again next year?

Yeah, definitely. I really would like it to become an institution around town. And I’d like eventually to spread out and to plan some programming for adults as well.

Amy O Shell
Image: Anna Powell Teeter

As an educator, what are your thoughts on guitar as an accessible instrument?

I think that it’s very accessible. I think it can be one of the more physically uncomfortable instruments to start with, as far as when the calluses are forming. It just hurts your fingers. So I feel like that can be a little discouraging for people at first, but I think as long as they understand that you really have to have something more that you’re working towards.

For me, I really had this goal of writing songs and I needed some sort of vehicle to do that. For some people it might just be that they really want to play other people’s songs. I think as long as they have a reason and a goal, then that initial discomfort will totally be worth it. And also, I think it goes away really quickly. (Laughs) It’s just a small little bump in the road, and otherwise, it’s a really accessible instrument.

You said that you first picked up guitar because you really wanted to write songs. Has your motivation stayed the same throughout, or has your relationship with the guitar changed over the years?

It’s the same, and I think it’s also grown. I think being a woman, it’s easy to not feel valued for what you do, and so I get a lot of confidence and almost inner peace [from playing guitar]. It feels so good to me to get up on stage and just be like, “I’m really good at doing this thing, at playing guitar.” And I think a lot of times people assume with women, “Oh, she’s just a vocalist. She just plays a little guitar.” But it feels really good to me just to keep working on my skills with guitar and just have that feeling.

Is there anything you do specifically to keep improving your own guitar skills?

I try to put more riff-writing into my songs and leave more moments for little solo-y parts, ’cause that’s something that I think I felt intimidated by for a long time. Now that’s a way that I like to challenge myself.

On Planet Blue, I included some really nice riffs within the songwriting. I really like how they work with the singing as well. There’s a bridge part where they work really nicely together.

What gear did you use on Shell, and were there any particular instruments that were important to making it sound the way that it does?

I’m kind of basic when it comes to gear. I’ve been using a Squier Jazzmaster. It’s the only guitar I’ve ever had: I bought it in 2009 and I just love it. (Laughs) I feel like it has a really warm tone. So I always use that, and then I have a Fender Deluxe tube amp. I like to turn up the reverb and the gain, and get sort of a dirty sound. I didn’t use pedals on the album, so that was my setup.

And then we definitely got a little more creative with some of the other tracking. We recorded it at Russian Recording in Bloomington, IN, and they just have a lot of random old amps, and so we just tried out different things that they had around the studio till we got the right sounds. For me, I really like to stick to my basic sound, and that’s what I do live as well.

Are there any other special gear or studio moments from the recording of Shell that come to mind?

Let’s see. We used a pretty cool old tape loop machine on this one song, to create this part where basically the song was disintegrating. We did a little bit of experimentation with that: just moments in a few songs where it feels like things are falling apart, and just a little bit more abstract noise. That was really exciting to experiment with.

Shell is out 25 October on Winspear. Amy O embarks on a short North American tour of the Midwest and East Coast next month. Find tour dates and tickets here.

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