It is astonishing which references all come to mind when you listen to the debut album of Oliver Earnest for the first time. Omaha is still quite vivid, and above all, Bright Eyes or Cursive. You think of the Mountain Goats, and while you’re at it, of John Darnielle, and with him, one of the best songwriters of all time. You tip your hat to Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse in your mind’s eye. And when it gets quieter, more ethereal, you’re not all too far from the ballads of the Fleet Foxes or even from sitting down at a candlelit table with Iron & Wine. When Oliver does let the pathos of his voice sound, one is quickly at The Divine Comedy, and when you immerse yourself in the lyrics, several wonderful scenes from everyday life emerge, which could just as well be straight out of a Jim Jarmusch film. Well, this is where it’s suddenly obvious: There are no German bands or artists at all on this list? And, they’re all big names? So you ask yourself: How is this even possible? For a young guy from Stuttgart who was known by insiders previously perhaps at some time as a member of the post punk band Kaufmann Frust?
With the references mentioned above you’re not entirely wrong after all – particularly with Bright Eyes: “As a matter of fact, his album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is at the very beginning of my path of wanting to become a songwriter,” Oliver admits. “There was especially this one verse from ‘Road To Joy’ that I listened to over and over where Conner sings: ‘Well I could have been a famous singer / If I had someone else’s voice / But failure’s always sounded better / Let’s fuck it up boys, make some noise!’” This mix of defiance and understatement apparently led him to make music himself and start singing, “even though my voice was hardly worth mentioning back then.” It is meanwhile definitely well worth mentioning – particularly combined with lyrics that never cease to surprise, that sway between melancholy, dry humor, and extremely precise observation. That a German could be so eloquent in the use of the English language only comes as a surprise to those who are not familiar with Oliver’s biography. “When I was three, my father moved to Colorado with the whole family for a job. We lived in the States for three years, and I went to kindergarten there. During that time, our family was very absorbed in American culture and the English language. We spoke English at home for the most part; read books and watched films in the original English version. Which is why I have internalized the language to the extent that certain thought processes of mine still only work in English.”
To describe the music on The Water Goes The Other Way, you could very well use a line from one of Oliver’s songs. Even though it means something different in the song, it could also be a sticker, stuck onto the cover as a recommendation: “Filling your ears with sound / More than the usual amount.” The lyrics, which often venture into dark terrain, are juxtaposed by Oliver together with his producer (and fellow Kaufmann Frust band member) Florian Stepper with music that gives the beautiful melodies room while, at the same time, vibrating with ideas in just the right parts – more than one would usually expect on songwriter albums; not unless they are by the likes of Sufjan Stevens during his opulent phase. Oliver tells us about their very intensive cooperation: “Florian lives in Berlin in the meantime. He’s the tour guitarist, for example, for Lea Porcelain and works as a producer in a studio at Funkhaus. The way it usually worked, was that I would write the songs and go ahead and record the first raw demos. Then, I would travel to Berlin every couple of weeks, and we would continue to work on the songs together.” Oliver Earnest lives up to his pseudonym here once again and says that Flo’s influence can’t be appreciated nearly highly enough. “Flo put a lot of time, creativity and work into my album. Because it was the first big production of his own in the length of an LP, but also because we are very good friends and, totally besides that, he thought my songs were great.”
Appearing now with “Gathering Speed” is the opening song of the album and a good taste of what’s to come from this skilled artist. Not only because the track is perfect to kick-start a solo career, but because it clearly shows the rich detail of the production, the depth of the lyrics, and Oliver’s signature timbre. “You say your life doesn’t feel like an adventure / More like a maze you keep escaping from / Only to realize your back at the center / After each day is done / There’s another day.” Huh, who couldn’t feel it now?