Her voice is haunting, a high, sweet wisp of sound, sometimes no more than a whisper. Oaklander Odessa Chen’s instrument lingers in the mind long after her original songs have told their tales of love, regret, longing, and death.
After three years of singing and playing solo, the 29-year-old Baltimore transplant is about to release her first CD, One Room Palace. The extended selections on the eight-song disc were intentionally recorded on analogue tape to retain the warm, organic intimacy that is her hallmark. “People always ask me about the MP3 thing,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time and money making the record sound really beautiful and mellow rather than harsh and bright. When you make an MP3, you’re compressing the music down to hell. You can’t hear a lot of nuances, and the sound quality isn’t as good. Dynamics are a huge part of my music, and I want people to be able to enjoy them.”
The intimate nature of Chen’s art stems in part from her background. A self-described “mutt,” the daughter of a Chinese physicist, choir director, and organist father and a mother who is a Southerner of English-Irish extraction as well as a painter and art teacher, Chen was surrounded with classical music until late elementary school. Her background encouraged her to focus inward, and to write understated music that encourages listeners to reflect rather than emote.
Readers who attend Chen’s CD release parties at the Oakland Metro on Saturday, July 12 (with Yellow 6 and Charles Atlas) or at SF’s Make-Out Room on July 31 (with Atlas, Scott Amendola, and Devin Hoff), or who check out future gigs listed at OdessaChen.com, will discover that she prefers to perform in strictly music-oriented spaces: “I like playing in venues where people really listen, and are more music-oriented than drinking/socializing. In the bars I play in, people are really amazing because they’re so quiet and attentive.”
Chen considers herself basically self-taught, save for some classical voice lessons, and plays mostly from intuition. “I want to get songs out there,” she explains, “so I learn the technique that I need as I go along in order to give voice to my ideas.” Besides “really personal” experiences with love and death, Chen’s music transcends surface glitz to address major issues of life path and ultimate meaning. “Have you ever had times in your life where your life diverges in two paths, and you take one, but you can imagine what your life might have been if you had made a different decision?” she asks. “I kind of travel down those roads, living parallel lives. One life is the reality, the other is the remembrance of how it could be … remembering certain moments where I felt particularly awake or alive, memories that stay with me and haunt me. I come to music as a way to express the spiritual aspects of myself and the world around me. For me it’s almost a meditative endeavor versus a performance. I feel like music-making can be considered as a very selfish undertaking, or you can come to it in a really humble way in which you’re the filter through which creativity and energy and hopefully the best qualities of who you are can come through.”