07.05.2014

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There are performers who scale the heights of imagination and feeling, who walk the high wire of entertainment with such aplomb it leaves audience members giddy.
When Ariana sings a€?Oh The World,a€? about an act of love so precious, it seems too good to be true.
In one of her many YouTube videos, we watch as she and her father, David, play a€?Oh The Worlda€? as a duet. When Ariana was 15 or16, she attended an Ontario Council of Folk Festivals (OCFF) Conference. When she was 16, she released a self-titled demo which had only 300 copies printed a€” primarily used for her appearance at her first conference. At her fathera€™s urging, Ariana attended more folk conferences which continued to raise her profile.
Ariana didna€™t really become serious about music until a three-month bout with double pneumonia brought her close to death. Arianaa€™s first album, To Make It Make Sense, was released in 2009, when she was 18 years old.
I asked Ariana about the source for the allegorical song, a€?John and the Monster.a€? She couldna€™t pinpoint anything in particular.
In the video, her father, ever the supporter and mentor, sits across from her and when she finishes, he murmurs, a€?Not bad.a€? In response, Ariana laughs. When we first encountered Ariana at the 2011 NERFA last November, we were shocked to discover that the youthful-looking sideman on guitar, Dobro and mandolin was Arianaa€™s father, David. Ariana and David will be making a number of appearances in the United States this fall, and specifically the Living Room in NYC each month. We discussed the underlying truth of the fantastical story in the song a€” that something of beauty can be destroyed by a society who would imprison it and destroy its magic. If you like your musical heroes to rock out like the jackhammer of a rockabilly saint but also deliver song sonnets from a contemplative place, then David Olney is your man. Nine years late, here we are, getting ready to welcome him again to New York City (On March 13, another show at Kathryna€™s Space a€” a Nashville-Austin pipeline). When he was 13, he got a guitar for Christmas, and after some lessons, could play a a€?really rousing version of a€?Row, Row, Row Your Boat.a€™a€? Davida€™s older brother, Peter, had a record collection with a lot of blues and bluegrass music, and it made a big impact. After graduating high school, David attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For a man who today has more than 30 albums to his credit, containing many songs considered masterpieces, things took a while to jell.
David displays an acute awareness of modern songwritinga€™s place on the historical spectrum.
David posts a weekly video (every Tuesday since August 2008) on YouTube, Facebook and his website that he calls a€?You Never Know.a€? Ita€™s a great way to get a taste of his off-the-cuff humor. It happened at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) Conference last year when we first saw Ariana Gillis, and it happens over and over, every time we see her.
Ariana took piano lessons when she was young and didna€™t become interested in guitar until she got one when she was 12. When I mentioned that I found her to be a lot like Josh Ritter in her imaginative storytelling, she verified that observation, saying a€?I like it that he [Josh] tries to intertwine another story with a love songa€¦ it makes it more interesting. When Ariana was around 13, her father would take her with him when he was playing certain gigs, especially ones that hea€™d booked himself. David started calling around asking bookers for venues to let Ariana open for artists theya€™d already booked. These soul-defining experiences are the catalyst that affects the skewed stories she is compelled to tell. She got a publicist who helped her introduce her CD, getting radio airplay even before it was officially released, and who helped her get bookings a€” and they were exclusively her gigs.


Wea€™re used to it now, but it hasna€™t lost that sense of a treasured combination of father-daughter bonding in such an exalted endeavor a€” the making of music. He describes his childhood as a€?idyllic.a€? In that small, tranquil town, in 1950s America, his school gave dance classes. Later, David learned how to play a€?Whata€™d I Saya€? from a Ray Charles record in Petera€™s collection while he was away at college.
A fellow UNC dropout, newly married musician friend, Bland Simpson, asked if David could get him a job there. Hea€™d been writing sporadically and had been advised to test his craft in a milieu that would allow him to gauge his prowess. His second, Deeper Well, in 1988, from which Emmylou Harris covered the title track on her Grammy Award-winning album Wrecking Ball (1995) and essentially ushered David into the front ranks of Nashville songwriters. Furthermore, videos from Hippie Jacka€™s Music Festival show David in the company of monster guitarist Sergio Webb. Sometimes, the patter can be a lead-in to the main lyric, as in the aforementioned a€?Sweet Poison,a€? where an imagined exchange takes place between Socrates and the jailer who serves the hemlock: a€?Would you mind getting me three lumps of sugar? He opens each installment with some wry commentary on whata€™s happening with him and follows it up by playing a song (usually new) with the story behind it. If you think you can handle it, sit and bask in the company of the man about whom the late legendary Townes Van Zant said, a€?Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnina€™ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and Dave Olney a€¦ Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters Ia€™ve ever heard a€” and thata€™s true. We find ourselves wondering, a€?Just how good can she get?a€? Her powerful voice, soaring through the high registers, suggests the pinnacle is not yet in sight.
During that time she thought shea€™d overcome it, but had to retreat to bed as it hadna€™t really gone away.
She played recordings of her original work for the interviewer and, highly impressed, he advised her not to attend school, but to stick with her own work. Sometime soon after that six-month period, Ariana was in the studio doing the vocals for her first full CD. We learn from her bio that: a€?David Marsh played the track, a€?John and the Monstera€™ to his radio audience a€” one response was a phone call from an enthusiastic listener who wanted to know more about the unusual song, and the singer. John, dying of a brain tumor rows out to the middle of the lake and coaxes the monster out of hiding. We have all these dreamsa€¦ but it slowly starts to disintegrate in front of us and we wonder, what happened to my shiny dream?a€? Ita€™s difficult to express here, its sound and the way it packs such an emotional wallop. He plied his paper route and could cut through the woods on a daily basis to get to his best frienda€™s house when he was only 8. David came to view the South through the lens of family, rather than the prevailing a€™60s view of Southerners in sheets, eager to lynch the errant person of color.
A friend from Chapel Hill, Ben Jones, was acting in the Atlanta Childrena€™s Theater and got David a part in a play, which parlayed into a steady gig, enabling him to stay in Atlanta with his girlfriend. Emmylou also later recorded Davida€™s a€?Jerusalem Tomorrowa€? and a€?1917,a€? about a French prostitute who provides solace to a young World War I soldier.
The beauty of the melody and the elegance of the lyrics are a mixture of ecstasy and sorrow, capturing the rages of fate and nature and the brave transfiguring resiliency of their survivors.
I like my poison sweet.a€? While most of Davida€™s stage banter leans toward conversational whimsy, it can shift in a heartbeat to something theatrical, infusing his performances with an undercurrent of drama a€” laced with wicked humor. Likewise, her song-stories, fed by a keen mind open to both reality and parables of fantasy, spark a wonder in us.
Catherine until Ariana was a year old, then moved further west to Vineland a€” about an hour south of Toronto. She also took music lessons in high school, studying oboe and upright bass and drums a€” and still wants to learn trumpet. More often than not, it would be Ariana and a girlfriend whoa€™d do a cover song, something that the student body could relate to and that reflected the sermon that day.


David would also perform at an annual Christmas show and would have Ariana perform as well. She slept in an upright position to keep breathing, waking up every hour, each night, coughing from the fluid in her lungs. The mystery caller was Elton Johna€™s lyricist and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin.a€? Thata€™s quite a connection a€” and one hell of a quote that came out of it. An enterprising woman, Marcia Wilson, moved to Chapel Hill from Maryland and opened a cafe, The Cata€™s Cradle. The affair ended and, after a year-and-a-half in childrena€™s theater, David left for Nashville.
Its lyrics capture the horror of war a€” death in the trenches and too many corpses to bury. While therea€™s a perfectly lovely studio version on YouTube, I prefer the completely acoustic performance on his website a€?Newsa€? page, done for the The Nature Conservancya€™s If Trees Could Sing project.
His songa€™ a€?Sweet Poison,a€? with its spoken introduction, blossoms like the love child of Jack Kerouac and ZZ Top. At the songa€™s end, the captured monster is dying, so John, sacrificing himself, sets him free, becomes sick again and perishes.
Both his brothera€™s record collection and visiting his Southern relatives infused in him the love of folk music. This was a revelation to David, who didna€™t know anything beyond playing small gigs locally. Its desperate refrain, tonight the war is over, brings home the futility of pawns in the clutches of a conflict between world powers. He would constantly stop to play his guitar sitting nearby and finally gave up the piano and just stuck with the guitar. He wanted me to get better.a€? She said that shea€™d often co-opt Patty Griffin material and turn it into something of her own. His entry into life as a performer came when he quit the basketball team to take part in a school play. It became the center of my life.a€? Performing there, David began sliding his own songs into the middle of a set of Carter Family songs and the like, figuring if no one noticed, hea€™d written a good song. In a€?Jerusalem Tomorrow,a€? a charlatan, peddling fake miracles, is told about the exploits of Jesus and tracks him down. David created his own arrangements of songs and eventually competed in the annual United States championship contest in Winfield, Kan. His love of theatricality sprang from the first moment he stepped on a stage with a room full of adults waiting to hear what he had to say.
Deciding to join him, we hear: Dona€™t see how too much can go wrong a€¦ Wea€™re headed for Jerusalem tomorrow. Even though her illness left her debilitated, she still managed to graduate from high school and made the honor roll.
He was part of the release of one album, the eponymous Simpson (1971), and he learned a lot about the music business during that brief time.
They had no name a€” just a€?David Olney and his band.a€? The fiddle player quit right away and David recruited an electric guitarist. He had a small career going when he was younger but gave it up and decided to help Ariana when he saw how talented she was. There are videos of the group from the Austin City Limits TV show on YouTube, showing a youthful David Olney, as a rocker, leading the band through a wide range of material.



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