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Q&A: Oshwa Frontwoman Alicia Walter on Punk Shows, Scriabin, and the Polar Vortex

The gifted young avant-garde pop quartet, which plays The Hideout on Saturday, gets inspiration from a “totally bat” color-organ composer and the terrible winter.

Courtesy of the artist

The avant-garde pop quartet Oshwa released one of the best local albums of 2013, and continue to push boundaries with material that references everything from 19th century impressionistic composers to the textural vocals of Merrill Garbus (aka Tune-Yards)—at once heady and infectiously accessible. It’s quite a feat considering its players are recent college grads who don’t surpass the 25-year-old mark.

Chicago chatted with vivacious singer and multi-instrumentalist frontwoman Alicia Walter ahead of the band’s show at The Hideout this Saturday, where they will perform songs from that 2013 triumph, Chamomile Crush, as well as new compositions that feature Walter on keyboards and piano, the instrument she grew up with and subsequently rebelled against.

On studying classical piano:

I started at Illinois Wesleyan as a piano performance major and I was pretty intent on doing that, but you get pretty burnt out being in a practice room alone, wondering why you’re playing the same piece of music that a million other people have probably played better than you.

On sneaking into the city from the ‘burbs for punk shows:

There was a big house show scene where I grew up, but I also came in to Chicago all the time when I was seventeen or something like that. The first time it was crazy! I remember thinking “I’m glad my mom has no ideas where I am.” The DIY scene here was huge.

On the point where classical and pop music meet:

It’s a natural progression, what you’re exposed to as a kid, and a matter of what you grow up with. It gets to the point where it’s in your DNA. We never have said out loud that we need to fuse these two things. We just happen to have ears that are looking for the same sounds.

On the piano composer Alexander Scriabin:

He started off kind of like Chopin and was very diligent in the late 18th century. But by the 19th century he was totally bat. He had synesthesia so he would see colors with the sounds he was playing. He created a color wheel for one of his pieces that was supposed to be built into this color organ where each color would convey a different emotion and each chord would be a different color and stuff like that. We were totally nuts for that in college.

On battling her vocal style:

I definitely over-exerted myself in our early years. So much so that I developed TMJ and had major jaw issues. I’ve watched videos of us playing a long time ago and the physicality of my emotions were huge and I couldn’t believe how much sound was coming out of me. It was horrible because nobody around me had it, and it’s hard to understand, so I just put on Tiger Balm all the time and luckily it did get better.

On how the Polar Vortex influenced the band’s new songs:

When you don’t see sunshine, it can be a really heavy thing and the music that came out of that and out of me during that time is different. I wasn’t feeling like myself and I sang quieter and more calmly.

Oshwa plays The Hideout Saturday at 9pm. Tickets are available at the venue’s website.

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