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Olivia Kaplan Is Your Next Favourite Indie Singer-Songwriter

After the pandemic hit, Los Angeles artist gave up her day jobs and went all-in on music

Jessica Lehrman for Rolling Stone

Before the pandemic hit last year, Olivia Kaplan was balancing a few hustles — working part-time at a hip Los Angeles restaurant, teaching music lessons, and helping out at the local farmers market — on top of music. After long shifts waiting tables, she’d head straight to the studio to work on her debut album. She didn’t mind and, in fact, found that the arrangement boosted her creativity. “I’m exhausted, but I needed that structure,” says Kaplan, 28. “I don’t think I’m the kind of person that can really be a musician full-time if I’m not touring. I need to have interaction with strangers and have those moments where my brain is turned off.” The fancy wine she got through the restaurant didn’t hurt either: “I can get wine at wholesale and bring it to our recordings,” she says with a laugh. “Natural wine, obviously. Nothing but the best.”

The hustles came to a halt last spring, when Kaplan lost her main income sources and moved back in with her parents. “The irony is once I started getting unemployment, I could afford to mix and master my record,” she says. “Which says a lot about how expensive it is to be a musician.”

Her unexpected change in course is good news for fans of homespun pop that cuts deep. Kaplan’s album, Tonight Turns to Nothing (due out in late spring), is full of deftly crafted songs about challenging subjects — relationship letdowns, a friend’s addiction — with instrumentation from top indie players like Alex Fischel (Spoon) and Buck Meek (Big Thief). She recorded the album over eight months in her producer Adam Gunther’s home studio in L.A.’s Larchmont Village.

olivia kaplan ayntk 10 second bio

There isn’t a direct theme for the album, but Kaplan sees a personal through line in the music. “I have a problem with confrontation, so songwriting is definitely a helpful outlet,” Kaplan says. “In the period that I was writing a lot of these songs, I was trying to step out of a place of ennui. I’m trying to hone my arguments and the things that I’m trying to say.”

Kaplan kicked off the year with the lead single “Wrong,” where she sings about aimless 20-something life across a hazy groove. She initially wanted to release it last year during the height of the pandemic. “I was like, ‘Fuck music, I have to be a teacher!’” she says. “I always dedicate that song to my friends when I play it live, because we’re all just fucking up and judging each other and ourselves, and it’s really tough.” For the slow-burning rocker “Ghosts,” she cites greats like Big Star and Wilco as inspirations. “I didn’t feel like the words had to be as linear,” she says. “They could be images of a relationship that I was in.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Kaplan was surrounded by music. Her father, who represents composers in the film and music industry, taught her how to sing. (She recently digitized family tapes that show her at two years old singing songs from The Sound of Music and Grease). That side of her family is especially musical: “My grandmother was in the Yiddish theater and had a beautiful voice,” she says. “My grandfather was a beatnik. I learned from an early age to revere music and know its power and watch my grandfather, like, weep to Coltrane solos.”

In 2011, Kaplan began studying music at Montreal’s McGill University, right around the time that students there went on strike against proposed tuition hikes. “My friends were making music and creating spaces directly around that, so it was a really exciting time,” she says. Those friends include the post-punk band Ought, whose lineup Kaplan temporary joined in 2017 as a fifth member. “That’s the cool thing about Montreal,” she says. “You can just try a bunch of weird shit, and I ended up not wanting to study music formally and just focus on songwriting.”

Kaplan decided to take a year off school, in which she released the 2014 EP Goddamn, I Miss You. She returned to college in her hometown, transferring to UCLA and obtaining a degree in ethnomusicology. “I was flirting with the idea of trying the thing where you put your music on the Internet,” she says. “But I’m not good at the Internet, so I don’t think I had the capability of doing what a lot of people do now. I was interested in finishing school, and I’m glad I did.”

Kaplan plans to tour behind Tonight Turns to Nothing as soon as she’s able to, but for now she’s spending her days at home, working on new music and tutoring a second-grader. “This is the thing about living in your house with your family,” she says. “You sit and have an interview with Rolling Stone five feet away from where you first picked up the guitar.”

From Rolling Stone US