Elise Okusami channels sci-fi’s greatest thinkers on the debut album for her solo project.
Elise Okusami—a Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist who performs solo under the moniker Oceanator—mentions halfway through our interview about her debut album Things I Never Said that she had just finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Okusami is an avid science fiction reader, well acquainted with authors like N.K. Jemisin and Ron Currie Jr.—the latter of whom gets alluded to in Okusami’s work often, with the name of her own label Plastic Miracles mirroring the title of his book Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles.
Okusami’s debut is a sensitive and introspective blend of grunge and power-pop, and reflects her own fascination with speculative fiction. Things I Never Said is like all good science fiction: it starts with a grand premise (the end of the world) and uses the spectacular as a way to interrogate the human condition, before ultimately providing us with new ways of imagining the future. Even though the world is crashing down around her, Okusami’s vision for the future is an optimistic one, where things do eventually get better.
“I’ve been trying to focus on myself and remind myself: We have this one time, and even if things are bad sometimes or even a lot of the time, sometimes they’re good,” Okusami told AdHoc. “This is all we have so might as well make the very most of it.”
It’s a neat narrative trick to start the album off with the end like Okusami does on “Goodbye, Goodnight.” By making the setting of Things I Never Said apocalyptic, Okusami is able to build upon questions like “what do we do when the world is in chaos?” The album touches upon issues like dependency (“Hide Away”), and depression (“January 21st”), ultimately becoming about not just finding solace from the world, but finding the strength to wait until things get better. The album’s first single, “A Crack In The World,” functions as a thesis statement for the album, with Okusami singing over chugging guitars: “who knows if we’ll be here tomorrow / but everything, everything / everything matters you know.”
While “Heartbeat,” the album’s jubilant mid-point replete with rosy harmonizing, and “Walk With You,” a bittersweet and devotional ballad, testify to the importance of having someone you can rely on, the driving narrative in Things I Never Said is one of self-sufficiency. Although Okusami is singing about needing someone else and not being “the lead in my own play” on “The Sky Is Falling,” the brooding track itself is performed entirely by Okusami, a nod to the fact that Okusami has always been enough, even when it didn’t feel like it.
Although the world may feel like it’s coming apart at the seams, Things I Never Said asks us to hold out faith that there is something better on the horizon. It feels important to quote Butler here, who wrote in Parable of the Sower that “The only lasting truth / Is Change.” Although Things I Never Said was written long before the current pandemic and civil rights movement, it enables us to think of our own situation as transient rather than fixed, not the end but the beginning of a whole new world of possibilities—but it’s up to us to take that first step, to be as determined to want that better future as Okusami is on the album’s hopeful closer “Sunshine.”
Read the rest of our interview with Okusami below, where she talks about running her own label, her foray into soundtrack writing, and the Green Day cover album she hopes to release.
AdHoc: What does it feel like to finally have these songs out in the world?
Elise Okusami: It feels pretty wild, especially because this process took so long. A lot of the time when I’m releasing something there’s not this long of a gap in between so it’s kind of weird to have sat with the lyrics and been able to process them on my own for so long. When I write the lyrics, I don’t fully process it mentally until I’ve played it a few times and really sat with what my subconscious was trying to say. It’s different to have it be coming out when I’ve already done that. Now I really know what I was talking about, and it’s kind of nerve-wracking but very exciting.
I was wondering who the “you” in “January 21st” is meant to be?
That’s just me talking about me. Sometimes if I’m writing about something that’s pretty personal, it’s easier to put a little bit of distance by not saying “I” as much. I have a hard time talking about feelings in general, I’m much better about writing songs about them. Sometimes when I’m writing the song it’s even too scary to go full-on “I” even if it’s a song that I don’t think anyone is actually going to hear. So that’s why it’s “you” in the verse, and then the “I think I think too much” part was not as scary to say, because that’s true and I’ve said that out loud to people before.
Do you think you challenged yourself to be vulnerable on this album?
Usually, when I’m going to put it out, I try not to think too much about how vulnerable it might be once I’ve settled on things, otherwise, I’ll probably second-guess myself and not put it out. Once the gears are in motion I start thinking “Oh, that’s a lot.” That’s what I know to write about. It’s a coping mechanism, kind of a self-therapy sort of thing.
What was the last song you wrote for this album?
The last song I think was “January 21st” actually, it was either that or “Sunshine,” but “January 21st” was the last one recorded for sure. I did that one at a different studio and all by myself. There’s no significance behind the date, that’s the date I wrote it. The reason I named it that was because I was too stressed out about naming that more about the specific things that it was actually about. That’s what I was thinking about on January 21, 2018.
“Walk With You” emphasizes how important it is to feel like you can speak with someone else about your mental health. Does it ever get easier to talk about that openly, or is it a constant struggle?
One of the main things—without going too into detail—I was thinking about when I was writing [“January 21st”] is actually something that I just very recently started being able to talk about. And it’s kind of terrible right now, because I’m reliving a lot of the stuff, but it’s also definitely liberating in a way. I think in the long run it’s going to be great, I definitely think I’m starting to feel a little lighter.
You said in a previous interview that you often have a whole world imagined for each song. Do all the songs take place in the same world?
I say they’re separate vignettes. Like some of them are in the same world. For me, “I Will Find You” is in the same world as “Coming Home,” which was on the last EP [Lows]. Some of them could be overlapping, like “The Sky Is Falling” is a similar kind of world as “I Would Find You” but it’s another dimension of the same world. Everything’s pretty similar but slightly different. I guess I’d call it mostly vignettes but overlapping vignettes.
What has releasing this album on your own label taught you?
I’ve learned a lot of very specific detail back end things, but also just that it’s doable. I guess another thing I’ve learned is just to be more confident in myself. I’ve got awesome managers and a press person who is great and super helpful, but I’m doing a lot of stuff myself too and I’ve learned that I can make decisions. That’s a thing that’s been hard for me is making decisions and I’m getting more confident in that sort of thing.
I’ve noticed that you post about the books you’re reading a lot. Is there anything you are reading right now?
I just started reading N.K. Jemisin, a science fiction writer. I read the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy called The Fifth Season and it was so good, I loved it. I got it out of the library as an ebook, and then I bought the whole trilogy. I also just finally finished The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I highly recommend that, I just got the sequel to it. But I like a lot of short stories, and one of my favorite books is this book called Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr. That I’ve read a bunch of times and lent out to a bunch of friends and now it’s all taped together.
There’s a line on your album where you sing “everything matters.”
Yeah, it’s in “A Crack In The World.” That book is right up my alley of talking about the end of the world, which is why I liked it and that’s why the N.K. Jemisin book caught my eye too. I read the first line—“let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”—and I was like, alright this is gonna be my new favorite book. But Everything Matters is about this character that knows the world is ending on a specific date, and does anything we do matter? Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. It was something I’d been thinking about when I first picked the book up, so reading the book helped me solidify my thoughts around it, and that’s probably why it stuck with me for so long.
I feel like by the end of the album you sort of come to the same conclusion, that what we do does matter.
I have depression and all that, so it’s been hard for me to see that a lot of the time. I’ve been trying to focus on myself and remind myself: We have this one time, and even if things are bad sometimes or even a lot of the time, sometimes they’re good. This is all we have so might as well make the very most of it.
In addition to everything else you do, you also recently launched your Patreon. What’s your goal with that?
I want it to feel like a little community place where I can share some stuff that I probably wouldn’t ever put on an album or maybe some demos of new stuff that will end up on an album. I have a bunch of stuff that I’ve been working on that just doesn’t really fit with Oceanator as it’s become to be. I put up this song that I had written for a documentary, just an instrumental thing, that I really like. I just want it to be a place where we can hang out and still have a bit of a community even though we’re all very separate.
I saw that you’re an big Green Day fan, and that Dookie changed your life. What about it, in particular, has remained so resonant for you to this day?
Insomniac is my favorite, but Dookie was the first one I heard and the first thing like it that I heard. Before that, I’d been listening to Ace of Base and TLC, who I still really like, but for some reason when my neighbor brought Dookie over and we put it on, I was like “this is the best thing I’ve ever heard.” I think what that sticks with me about it is the fact that if I put it on it just feels very familiar, like a little home.
Have you ever thought about releasing a cover or doing a covers album?
I’ll just spill the beans. What I want to do for October 10, which is my birthday and also the 25th anniversary of Insomniac, is just release a full cover record. I just don’t know if I’ll have time to record all of that, so we’ll see. I really like doing covers so I just keep doing the live streams and I put a few of those up on the Patreon. I put some Elliot Smith, Dan Reeder, and I want to do like a couple of Carry Nation covers.
Part of your album merch is a temporary tattoo sheet; can you tell me about the inspiration behind that?
I wanted to do a 90s bundle, and I was like “what else was fun in the 90s? Oh yeah, temporary tattoos!” Then I remembered Haley from Absinthe Father did tattoo flash sheets, so I messaged them. I didn’t know they were going to do one for every song like this. It’s so cool and they absolutely killed it. I’m considering getting one of them as a real tattoo when touring happens again. I’ve only done it once, but I like the idea of getting a tattoo on tour. I really like the one that’s for “Sunshine,” with the two palm trees that are kind of a heart. But without the words, because it would be weird to get my own lyrics.
You said earlier that you did the soundtrack for a documentary, and I noticed that your Tumblr says “everything needs a soundtrack.” If this album were a soundtrack, what would be the film?
I think the film would be very much like, there’s a character or two and they’re really sad, and also the world is falling apart and ending. I think overall it’s a friendship, platonic love kind of relationship/album in the face of impending doom.
Who would direct it?
I think that it could be Bong Joon Ho. I saw The Host, paused it a lot because I was scared, and loved Parasite. If we’re gonna make it silly I really like Taika Waititi, that would be sick. I actually rewatched Jojo Rabbit the other night and it’s really funny but I was also crying for a lot of it. I think that’s perfect. Let’s all laugh and cry. Since we’re talking about this, The Living End have this record called Roll On that I wrote an entire musical to that’s kind of similar in plot to Jesus Christ Superstar. I like the idea of an album being a soundtrack to a whole story, even if it didn’t necessarily start out that way.
Was it intentional to make “Sunshine” start off with just you?
That song I thought about making it be more instruments and a full-band thing, but I decided against it because I think it works better thematically if it’s just the guitar and the vocals. That’s the whole point of it, is being on my own. I wanted that one to be a little sparser, and I put it at the end of the record because it feels like a good closer. We came through all these things: the world’s ending, being scared to be by yourself, and being depressed. So at the end it’s like, “It’s okay, I’m okay. You, the listener, are okay. Sometimes things will be bad, but it’ll get good again hopefully.”
I was just about to ask if the order of the songs was intentional.
I felt like the record starting with “Goodbye, Goodnight” made sense, and then I thought it could get bigger and bigger. So tracks 1-5 are all kind of rocky big songs, and then you flip the record and we start with “I Will Find You” and go on a little meandering little journey through slightly less rock, and then we come back to rock and end with just me and the guitar. So it was pretty deliberate, the order of everything. I see it as this uphill mountain, and then coming down slowly on the other side and leveling out.