Lowertown is the duo of 19-year-olds Olivia Osby and Avsha Weinberg, who first met in math class at their art high school in Sandy Springs, a suburb outside of Atlanta. Their friendship solidified when, in their junior year, they took a trip to Ottawa, Canada, where they started sharing their own demos and came up with a band name after an excursion to the the city’s Lowertown neighbourhood. They shared their first single, ‘George’, in 2018, and quickly followed it up with their debut LP, the endearingly lo-fi Friends. 2020 saw the pair virtually graduating from high school and signing to Dirty Hit, home to the likes of the 1975, beabadoobee, and Rina Sawayama, which released their Honeycomb, Bedbug EP at the end of the year – a promising showcase of the duo’s homegrown indie aesthetic, intricate melodies, and wry sense of humour.
Today, they’re back with a new one, a 7-track collection called The Gaping Mouth that’s their most compelling and evocative effort yet. Recorded in London with producer Catherine Marks (Foals, St. Vincent, Wolf Alice), the EP finds them grappling with the uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic while still making sense of the things that have inspired their music in the past – coming-of-age, fraught friendships, feeling sad. Osby’s vocals are haunting in their melancholy, her delivery as intimate as it is precise – whether reminiscing on the past (“What came of a summer throwing our time around/ Like we had too many days and not enough to worry about”) or channeling intense physical sensations (“I feel the frostbite creeping in/ In my toes and into my chin/ It’s hard as stone/ I guess this is what it’s like being alone”). Weinberg, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, ensures the enveloping soundscapes sink in around the same overwhelming emotions – the vocal sampling on ‘Burn on My Own’, the beautiful fingerpicking on the title track. Together, staring into the gaping void, they discover something both strangely familiar and all the more enticing.
We caught up with Lowertown for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the story of the band, the making of their new EP The Gaping Mouth, and more.
Do you mind sharing the first impressions you had of each other when you first met?
Avsha Weinberg: We didn’t hit it off necessarily at the beginning. Olivia had moved schools, and she had friends in high school that had been friends with her for a long time, so she was kind of in that crowd. And I was sort of in the crowd, but I was a little separated from it. And yeah, it wasn’t like we hit it off instantly; Olivia was pretty quiet, and I was pretty annoying, so I don’t blame either of us. But then we started sitting together in class and we got to know each other, and we were kind of forced to spend time together at school. And we ended up finding out that we have like a lot more in common than we thought. After a couple of months, we definitely became very very close friends, and then we took a trip over the summer together, and then after that we were like inseparable, basically, for a couple of years.
Olivia Osby: What was your first impression of me? [laughs]
Avsha Weinberg: My first impression of you? I didn’t have like a – I’m a pretty judgmental person, but usually with quiet or shyer people, I don’t really have any sort of intense emotion to. I was just like, “Okay, Olivia’s kind of shy.” Because she was new to the school, and I was assuming that that was kind of like a new experience, and she was quiet. I know that’s kind of not a great answer, but I didn’t have that strong of an impression of you. I’m sure you had an impression of me, I was annoying.
OO: Yeah, my friends didn’t like him that much, said a bunch of shit about him all the time. So I was like, “Okay, I gotta be careful around this one.” But honestly, they were wrong, ‘cause we ended up being good friends and then my friends ended up being the shitty ones. But honestly, at first I sort of thought he was not a cool person. I thought he was really annoying and cocky…
OO: And arrogant.
OO: But you know, now we’re best friends. [laugher]
AW: I don’t even think at the time I was like cocky or arrogant, but I think that I tended to get on people’s nerves pretty easy.
What did you realize that you had in common?
AW: Music taste definitely at first. I would kind of look over at her computer and see what she was listening to, and it was in the emo vein that I kind of listened to.
OO: Yeah, I guess music, and then also we hung out around each other a bunch because we’re sort of in the same friend group. And we ended up just being very similar, like in the ways we talk about things and see things, and we ended up gravitating towards each other just because of how similar we are in terms of our demeanors. We realized we’re very similar and sort of more to ourselves and like, inward people. We’re both big introverts.
Can you give me an example of the kind of music you gravitated to?
AW: I think the first project that Olivia showed me that I was like, wow, was like her favourite album, which is the Microphones’ The Glow, pt. 2. I had heard of the Microphones here and there and I had listened to his new project, Mount Eerie, like I had a bunch of his songs as Mount Eerie on my playlist. And I was like, if this is the type of recommendations I’m about to get, then I’m gonna keep asking because it was really good. Also, I think the one that we both kind of got very into together was Alex G, projects like RACE and TRICK.
OO: And then he showed me In Rainbows by Radiohead and I was like, “Wow, I’ve never heard this before, this is like the craziest thing ever.” So he got me into Radiohead, and I’m forever grateful to him for that because that was like life-changing.
So you were into the Microphones before Radiohead?
AW: Yeah, I found this album by happenstance, I think it was in a radio station for a playlist I made. And I listened to one of the songs and I was like, this is really good, so I just found the album and I listened to it religiously. And then I got really into him and listened to his whole discography and all his demos like a million times. I was really, like, creepily obsessed with this man. [laughs] And then I guess it started blowing up as like an indie meme type of thing, so now I feel less original in my obsession with him.
OO: Well, I mean, it’s better than me being credited as showing you Radiohead. [laughter] If there’s a niche artist that’s kind of annoying to bring up, it’s gonna be that one.
It’s funny that you mentioned The Glow pt. 2, because that album just marked its 20th anniversary, and I can definitely see the influence of that kind of lo-fi indie folk in your music. What does that sound and era of indie mean to you?
AW: I can pick up any artist from that era and guarantee I like at least one or two songs. Because I think the early 2000s, the garage rock revival and that kind of popularisation of lo-fi – because I guess Sebodah was doing it in like the late ‘80s and ‘90s, but then it flourished a little bit in the early 2000s. At least that’s what I think, I’m not super well-versed in my music history. But I can definitely say that still to this day, I could pick any artist from from the early 2000s and like at least one of their songs. The Strokes are like my childhood band, and with that came Interpol and Arctic Monkeys. And I still have a pretty strong relationship with it – I obviously don’t listen to it as much as I did, but I think their songwriting styles and their focus on aesthetic is something that I think about a lot.
OO: A lot of the lo-fi stuff in the same vein of the Microphones dominated everything I listened to for like at least a year or two when I first started making music. So it was definitely one of my biggest influences starting out and inspired me to make a lot of my solo music, and also just to put stuff out there that I wasn’t entirely sure about, because I’m very self-conscious and I’m a perfectionist with anything that I make in terms of art. A lot of that stuff didn’t seem like it needed to be perfect to reach a lot of people and have a message behind it, and that definitely inspired me to release a lot of my solo music even though I couldn’t make it the exact way I wanted because of my lack of abilities or equipment. And now, even though it’s been a few years since I’ve discovered all that stuff, it still means just as much to me. The first tattoo I got was the elephant from The Glow, pt. 2 cover because it’s just so important to me.
Olivia, as someone who was obsessed with Phil Elverum’s music, I don’t know how much you follow his work now, but I was wondering how your relationship to it has evolved because it’s still just as intensely personal.
OO: Yes, it is interesting because when I was younger I sort of saw him as like this figure, and a lot of these musicians as figures in my life and people that I greatly looked up to almost on an idolostic level. But now, as I’ve gotten older and been in the music sphere a bit, they’re more human to me. Which is really weird because I don’t want my heroes to feel more human, because I like having people I look up to and they have no flaws or whatever. But I the older I get, and the more I’m making music, I’ve realized every single musician I’ve ever looked up to is just another person. And they’re just existing and doing the same things I’m doing and they’re not any more special, even though they made amazing art that will surpass my lifetime and reach people after I’m dead, hopefully. It’s a little heartbreaking to realize your heroes are just people, but also really inspiring because you’re like, “I could maybe make art that beautiful one day.”
You mentioned the trip that you took your junior year, which I know is also where the project takes its name from. Could you talk about how you each remember that trip?
AW: I feel like the way I’m going to describe it is going to be through rose-coloured glasses but I honestly do not remember anything bad about that trip. I was very introverted and I didn’t really have any close friends, and Olivia had friends, but I think we just discovered a lot about each other, and we were basically given free rein in this different country. Granted, the different country is Canada, but it’s a different country. [laughter] We had a car, so we were basically able to go wherever and do whatever we wanted, and we kind of in a way were forced to talk to each other because we were together so much, so we ended learning a lot of stuff about each other.
OO: I mean, him and this other person were like my closest friends before we left, but we’d only known each other for like a whole school year, basically. But he’s acting like we were strangers – we were pretty close, but we were not besties yet, I guess. But we ended up going to Canada and staying with my grandmother when we were 16, and we ended up just going around to all these places by ourselves and driving around and listening to music. It was just really amazing. It was like the least amount of responsibility I have had ever in my life, we just sort of went around and went to the beach and did all these things. We ended up, yeah, becoming way closer, and I was sort of opening up to him about my insecurities about the fact that I’ve made music for a long time but nobody at our school wanted to work with me, even though everyone was in a band. I was like, “Why does no one ever want to do any music with me?” And he was like, “I wanna do music with you.” And I was like, “Okay, thanks!” [Avsha laughs] Because I was the only girl and all the guys would do music and I was like, “No one was wants to work with me ‘cause I’m a girl and it’s really messed up.” And he was like, “I’ve always wanted to do music with you.” So we went through all these demos and were like, “These are really good, let’s build off of these.” The second we got home got home we ended up making ‘George’, our first song together, and we haven’t stopped since.
Avsha, did Olivia opening up also make you more comfortable sharing stuff, whether personal or related to music?
AW: I think I’m a little more closed off than Olivia in terms of personal stuff, so I think Olivia talking to me about things she was thinking about definitely made it easier for me to share stuff. I’m not very open with the music that I do unless I’m really comfortable with it, and the stuff I showed her were demos that I was not comfortable with, so I definitely had a level of connection with her that I didn’t before the trip. There’s a lot of stuff I had that I thought even before the trip would sound cool with her voice, so I was glad that I was given the opportunity to show her that stuff.
How much did find yourseves revisiting those memories and reflecting on that time while working on this new EP? Because there are obviously references to it, especially on the song ‘Grass Stains’. You mentioned having no responsibilities, and that comes up as well.
OO: I think ‘Grass Stains’ was written right when I turned 19, and I was just sort of overwhelmed because the older you get, I guess at a certain point in your teenage years, the more real things start to become. And I think we’re at a point in our lives where we’re sort of adults, and there’s a lot of shit that you have to think about that I didn’t have to think about even just a few years ago in high school. I think I was just really stressed out because when we wrote that, that was when we were living on our own for the first time, and I was really overwhelmed by my future and what I’m going to do. And so, I think I was definitely in that song going back to that time where I just really didn’t have anything to worry about and was not stressed at all and I was like, “I cannot even imagine a point in my life where I’ll feel that way again, but at least right now I’m going to reflect and appreciate that moment and hope I can find some sort of calm. But right now I’m just overwhelmed with everything and being an adult is really hard.”
Avsha, do you remember your reaction to that song when Olivia first brought it to you?
AW: I think we had written a lot of that song in the studio, if I remember right. So we came in with most of the songs basically ready at the studio, but there were a couple that we wrote almost all of or some of in the studio. I sometimes feel hesitant about questioning Olivia about some of her lyrics sometimes because I want to get my own understanding of them. But at the time, we were really deep into recording and I didn’t ask Olivia questions about it. And then listening to it afterwards, it felt like there were a lot of callbacks to us circa the beginning of our friendship. Even with the lyrics she used, I could feel that there were subtle nods even to just things that were said in the first project, and even subtle nods to things that are on demos that only she and I know about.
That’s interesting, because you talked about not necessarily wanting to know the meaning behind the song, but sometimes with a song that’s based on a shared experience or where there are callbacks to previous material, it’s kind of inevitable that you know internally what it’s about.
AW: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing, like the “having drinks with some distant friends” [from ‘Grass Stains’], I was like, I’m gonna connect that placement in the lyrics to my own thing, but that one thing is probably the same thing that Olivia was thinking about, if I’m involved, I don’t know. [Olivia laughs] That is an interesting part, when I’m making my own connections and then that connection is probably the same one as Olivia’s, but I like not having it confirmed because maybe it isn’t.
But do you have conversations about the connections you make?
AW: No, actually. At least for the lyrics, not so much. I don’t like pressing so hard about lyrics, I think just personally I’m very sensitive about my lyrics, so I’m hesitant on making –
OO: I’ll tell you about it!
AW: I know, Olivia’s more comfortable with it, but just in case, I don’t want to put her in a situation where she has to explain her lyrics if there’s some sort of meaning, because there’s a lot of stuff when I’m writing that I just don’t want to talk about.
OO: Well, I tell you a lot of the time.
AW: She does tell me a lot of the time, yeah. But in terms of me asking, I don’t really ask. I try not to, at least, even though I am curious.
You kind of alluded to this, but you wrote and recorded the EP while you were in London. Do you mind talking about what your headspace was like at the time and how being there influenced the songs?
OO: It was intense.
OO: Honestly, I love London, and we’re supposed to be going back soon so I’m really excited for that, but it was just really intense. We’d just graduated high school, half of our senior year was online, and then we were just sort of thrown into this whole COVID-isolation thing so we’d only seen each other for a few months. And then we went over to London to record, and it was the winter time, and we were super vigilant about COVID, especially because I was recording, so we were really, really isolated. But it ended up inspiring honestly some of my favourite songs on the record – maybe my favourite song on the record, especially, was written as a direct result of all of these things happening around me that turned into this very isolating experience.
What song do you have in mind?
OO: ‘Burn on My Own’ was definitely all a result of that. I was so in my feels that day, I was sitting in my like room and I was really bummed out, and I think it was because our WiFi was down and we didn’t have cell service either because our cell plans didn’t work in a different country, so I literally had no contact with anyone in the outside world. And I just really, really wanted to call my friend who’s also our bassist, and I also wanted to call my mom, and I couldn’t call them. And I was just so sad that I just couldn’t talk to anybody and I felt so alone. And so I ended up listening to this song that Avsha sent me like a ton of times, just over and over and over again. And I’ve always had a really hard time writing on top of synth music, I’ve usually stuck to guitars, but I think that was the first time where I was like, “I’m feeling this really hard right now. I feel really connected to how sparse and sad this instrumentation is.” And so, I ended up getting out my journal and just writing down a bunch of things I was feeling and singing over it like a million times and, like, crying. [laughs] And then I got the song and I showed it to Avsha and he’s like, “This is really good, we should put this on the record.” So that was like the first song I’ve written like in London, because everything else we’d already written in Atlanta.
How did you feel when you heard the final product?
OO: It definitely felt exactly how I was feeling when I was writing the lyrics. It took like a million times to get the vocals just perfect for that one, like that was the first time I’ve actually had a hard time recording vocals. Because Catherine really liked the way I originally sang them, so she was like, “We’re re-recording it until it sounds really beautiful and you have it like you originally recorded it.” So it took a long time and I was really tired at the end of it, but I think that’s how we got the emotion in it. I felt broken, I felt like a broken man after recording it. [laughs] But I was so happy with the outcome, like everything we did during the process of recording that song felt very sad and focused and ended up just bringing the best of how we were feeling at the time.
AW: Catherine is like a genius, so she knew exactly what we need to do to get that same emotion as the original demo.
Can you each give me an example of a moment on the EP that you’re proud of that the other person contributed?
OO: Oh, I’ve got one. We were doing ‘Gaping Mouth’, the single – the guitars for that song are very specific, like the timing and everything about them. We ended up using my original vocal take for that song because Catherine and all of us agreed this is really good and we don’t want to try to recapture this energy because it’s already there. So Avsha had to had to re-record the guitars to fit the exact timing of my vocals, and it was really, really hard. It took him like the entire day. I came back – I was like eating lunch, or dinner even, and I came back in the studio and they played back what he played on top of my vocals, and I looked at him and I was like, “Hey, this isn’t right.” And he almost just like, broke down. Because he’s like, “I’ve been doing this for eight hours and you just come and tell me this isn’t right?” Like, “Fuck you!” [Avsha laughs] He was like, “Okay, whatever, this really really broke me, but at the same time, I want this to be perfect.” So he ended up getting back in there and trying it like a million more times and finally got the perfect take. But he definitely – I would have not had the mental fortitude to do that. I would have been out of there. [laughs]
AW: That was a very, very memorable experience. That’s definitely a moment that I’m going to think about a lot because I was sitting on the couch like, “Okay, I did it.” I took a deep breath, and Olivia sat down, didn’t say a single word except for, “That doesn’t sound right.” And I was like [widens eyes], “It doesn’t sound right?” And I was about to start crying, I was like, “Okay, what can I do? What am I doing wrong?”
But yeah, I thought of one for Olivia. Olivia’s always been a very personal singer, so just that whole studio experience in general, but honestly, for ‘Burn on My Own’, getting that vocal take down at home, even then I was like, “Okay, this was clearly not easy to do.” She was able to channel her emotions in this insane and unique way that matched the instrumental. So getting into the studio finally, she kept on trying and working and working and working on it. And all the while, Catherine’s listening to it right in her ear, everybody’s sitting on the couches…
OO: There were like a million people there that day as well.
AW: Yeah, everybody listening to her do these vocals, these like really, really personal vocals, and she kept on doing it over and over again, and Catherine kept on saying, “I just don’t think that’s it.” And her kind of ignoring everything around her, I think that was the first point where I was like, “Okay, we can record in a studio.” Because before that, I felt a little awkward and I could tell Olivia felt a little awkward and I was like, “People are going to be in the studio, you’re going to have to get comfortable with this.” And that was the first point where I was like, “Okay, Olivia’s really locked in right now, she doesn’t give a shit what’s happening around her, she’s just singing the part and she’s listening to the producer and she’s working on what she’s doing.” And I was like, “Okay, this is… She’s legit. Olivia’s legit.” [Olivia laughs] And it was just a huge accomplishment because I was the first person basically she sang in front of years ago, like, ever. It evolved from just me in my studio, me being like “You have to sing!” and she’s like “I don’t want to sing!” to her singing in a studio setting in front of a bunch of people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.