otta’s music is like a mirror: she reflects those around her; she reflects her surroundings. Since the beginning, the British-Finnish newcomer had dared to push. At 16-years-old, the singer-songwriter uprooted herself from her sleepy Buckinghamshire hometown and moored herself in the musical mecca of London. There, she would join BRIT School, notorious for producing artists who would go on to define a generation: Amy Winehouse, FKA Twigs and Adele. It was in the city’s storied streets that she would make her first foray into jazz, and ultimately lay the foundations for her debut EP, ‘after it all blew over’, released back in January.
‘after it all blew over’, captured the sound of the city. Its soul was coursing through her rhythms and the smoky cadence of her voice. It was a genre-spanning canvas: bold strokes of jazz, washes of R&B, and flecked with electronic subtleties. Even though it was years in the making, it was an incredible feat for the then 19-year-old to pull off something so panoramic from her ‘studio’ – or, as she puts it, “a cupboard under the stairs-meets-shed.” But being comfortable never suited otta and that’s why her latest EP, ‘Songbook’ demonstrates even more breadth to her sound.
When chatting to otta, it’s apparent that she’s not too used to explaining herself. “I don’t know!”, she often apologises, trying to chase after her train of thought like an unspooling ball of yarn. For the most part, her music speaks for itself. When she commits her feelings to sound, honesty is her loudest component. ‘Near Enough A Woman’, her defining song from her debut EP, sends a familiar chill as she chases after a mirage of her childhood where everything was simpler, clawing back from the brink of womanhood, but knowing, deep down, that she’s already there. “I look on my younger self with jealousy / My naivety / ‘Cause now things aren’t so easy / They’re not so easy” she sings, repeating her mother’s advice: “Why don’t you be kind to yourself?” like an incantation – yet not quite having an answer for it.
“I feel like I’m a different person now,” she says, looking back on that first release. She pauses, before adding, “Actually no!” Another pause. She changes her mind: “No, I am, I am. I’m a different person.” Her evolution from her 19 year-old self, to the incarnation of otta on the other end of the line, with a second EP under her belt, new strings to her bow and a few crucial years of experience at hand, is what she describes as “continuous – whatever that means, lol.” She tries to find the words. “What am I looking for?” – what she means, I think, is that she has grown up.
Her debut EP, ‘after it all blew over’, defined a series of first times for otta. “I experienced new things,” she explains. “I think I was quite young and naïve, and only just experiencing big things, like heartbreak.” ‘Songbook’, her latest release, however, is something she describes as “off to the side a bit”, where her feelings are as confessional as ever, and yet not quite so “obvious”. She likes the word “coded” to capture her newfound style: to keep one or two cards up her sleeve.
“I think it has feelings that lots of people – young people especially – would be feeling,” she says, of ‘Songbook’. “I was thinking slightly further out than myself.” On ‘Hope Extension’, over piano keys that begin fluid and then unravel into jarring jabs, with a voice once rich and clear which then starts to sound untethered and distorted over a crackling telephone line, she sings, “I don’t connect with anyone anymore / Spiralling / Feel like I’m spiralling / Spinning out my head”. It was a patchwork-quilt of a song, made from batches of lyrics after otta started “clocking that everyone was actually kind of sad.” She explains, “It’s about how everyone is trying to express themselves through this platform online, yet it can’t ever capture your whole essence. Halfway through writing it, I’d put it with some lyrics I’d written about myself feeling disconnected and not feeling good. It sat well in that.”
Like most young artists, holed up in their bedrooms – or, in otta’s case, her shed-cum-studio – writing music is a means of catharsis. “I’m happy to just talk about my mental health”, she says, “but if I felt any type of way, I would just work through it with my music.” This all too relatable feeling of her mental health falling apart is detailed on ‘Sick Inside’. “I think I was just dealing with issues that were really hard at that time when I was writing it,” she explains. “By working through the track, I was working through the feeling. By the time I’d finished it, I found I didn’t feel that anymore. But yeah, sombre tunes…”
It feels like reading a diary: honest, and somehow fiercely private. She says, “Listening to ‘Songbook’ is like revisiting that time of my life. It’s intensely accurate, for me. Each song… I just remember how I was feeling.” While her debut EP was more forthright in its lyrics, following the traditional formula of blue-eyed soul, on reflection, she feels like she was holding something back. ‘Songbook’ is a creative U-turn.
While the nuances of jazz dominated ‘after it all blew over’, where the vocals were at the forefront, every song written on a piano – just to prove to herself that she could do it – her heart was elsewhere. “I’ve been making electronic and, I guess, experimental things for a while,” she explains. “Before my first project came out, I was making more beats. I didn’t really share them because my focus was on making songs. This EP is about my sound and production.” Her attention has pivoted to the experimental. She is undaunted by including abrasive interludes like ‘Suihku’ between tracks that favour distortion and incoherence over the slick, clean production that was central to her first EP.
While jazz doesn’t stand at the forefront of her new sound, the genre changed her life. She remembers discovering Hiatus Kaiyote and D’Angelo for the first time, which blew her mind. Her musical horizons broadened, and the world opened up for her. Before joining the ranks of BRIT School, all of these influences that would shape otta were unknown to her. There is always a debate about whether or not you can teach talent, with BRIT School drop-out, Octavian, who would later go on to win BBC Music Sound of 2019, saying in an interview with the BBC that creativity isn’t something you can learn. However, what he and otta could agree on is that it’s less about the school itself, and more about the people you meet, that make it an experience worth fighting for.
“I hadn’t really come into contact with other musicians who were that good, ever. [The BRIT School] put you in situations where you can play live music and you can work together – everyone’s really passionate, and you just vibe off that,” she says. “In the least cringey way possible, you meet people who you want to make stuff with, so you just make stuff.”
It was through this hive of like-minded musicians that otta began to find the joy in playing. On the down low, almost like a double life from the tone she set with her first project, she was making Julie London garage remixes and rapid electronic rhythms in the vein of footwork. “To another producer listening to this EP, they would be like, ‘It’s not… it’s not mad production’, but for me, I was like, ‘This is nuts!’”
The creative process for otta is usually something solitary. Yes, she likes to jam with her friends, collaborating and sharing spaces, but really, when it comes down to it, her best work has been made alone in her makeshift studio, alone. The exception to the rule, however, is Kwes. The British-Ghanian producer and singer-songwriter has been otta’s mentor since her first project. His ear for creating each song like a destination with its own climate and atmosphere has served her well. “I trust him. I really trust him,” she says. “He brings out things that get lost in the noise.”
To reach a place of comfort with her work has been hard-earned. Success has never been an abstract idea for otta. The goal posts have always been firmly in place. “I’d love to be able to connect with people through my music – that’s obviously what I want,” she says. True, some tours and a few albums wouldn’t go amiss, but for otta, her achievements are just as personal as the music she creates. “I would love to do all those things, but I also want to be able to reach people and experience everything I dreamed of when I was younger.” But really, there are really only two things she aspires to be: “engaged and excited.” From our assessment, she’s pretty much there, already.