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Your Own Personal Brenda: A Q&A with Brenda's Friend
Posted October 28, 2015 by Seth Johnson
WRITTEN BY
Seth Johnson
ON
October 28, 2015

Photo by Chaz Mottinger

 

Apart, Amy Oelsner and Erin Tobey are both Bloomington musicians, hard at work on separate solo projects. Together, the harmonizing pair plays irresistible lo-fi pop as Brenda’s Friend.

With only one cassette release under their belt, the duo will open up for Alex G this Wednesday at The Bishop. Prior to this big-time gig, I caught up with Oelsner and Tobey for an in-depth phone interview.

 

 


Seth Johnson: First of all, can you just tell me a little bit about how you two know each other? 

 

Amy Oelsner: Erin went on tour with my brother’s band, Kickball, when she was in Mt. Gigantic. And somewhere in there, I met her through that. Then, I moved to Bloomington two years ago, and that cemented our friendship.

Erin Tobey: We just liked each other and wanted to hang out, and the only way we know how to hang out is to play music [laughs by both]. That’s not true, but you know.


SJ: Tell me how that led to Brenda’s Friend.

 

AO: I was in Kroger doing some late night grocery shopping. I got a phone call from Erin, and she asked if I wanted to start a band together [laughs].

ET: We both are still kind of pretty enmeshed in our own solo projects, but we just wanted something that was kind of completely different but that we were both also writing songs for. Numbers-wise, Amy writes the majority of the songs, but we collaborate quite a bit on finishing stuff and arranging everything. 

AO: Yeah. Often, I feel like one of us will bring maybe two-thirds of a song to the table, and then kind of finish it together. And, the other person generally writes their own parts. 

 

SJ: Is there any significance behind your band name? Do either of you actually have a friend named Brenda?

 

ET: The name isn't particularly significant — it's just alliterative, which is a quality I personally like in any title. I do work with a lady named Brenda who is very nice, and I'm sure we've both had many other pleasant Brendas in our lives. But, the name isn't referring to any one Brenda. Project your own personal Brenda onto the name, and that's what it is.

 

SJ: Can you both tell me a little bit about your solo projects?

 

ET: My solo project is eponymous. We’re both coincidentally working on new albums that are actually going to end up being released around the same time in early 2016. I play with my brother Matt Tobey and my husband Jeff Grant. That’s my band.

 

AO: And, my solo project is called Amy O, and I play with a backing band featuring Justin Vollmar (of Vollmar) on drums, Madeline Ava on bass and vocals, and Chris Clements on guitar. The album I’m releasing will be my first studio album. Everything I’ve done previous to this point has been lo-fi, home-recorded stuff. 

 

Photo by Jeff Grant


SJ: With those projects in mind, how has Brenda’s Friend been a refreshing change of pace for you two?

 

ET: Musically, I think it’s kind of a departure in some ways. We sing together almost 90% of the time, and that has been one of the most revelatory things about it—just the stuff that we can do with our voices. I’ve started playing drums. That’s new to me. 

AO: It’s not as personal of a style as our solo work, so we kind of just have fun with the lyrics and don’t always try to make them make sense or be really autobiographical. 

ET: Or super profound [laughs by both].

AO: We just approach it in a pretty light way, which is really refreshing for me.

 

SJ: Is there a song from your debut Under the Shrub cassette that particularly serves as an example of this lighter lyrical content?

 

AO: I think “King of the Doctors” is a really good example of that. [Some lyrics are] “I’ve got the bread and butter / Can’t catch me.”

ET:  I think that was one of the first songs we started working on, and I haven’t really written a song like that since. 


 

SJ: What all went into the making of Under the Shrub?

 

ET: We recorded it with our friend Patrick Jennings here in Bloomington in his basement studio called Unseasonable Sound. He’s an awesome musician. He was in Purple 7 and this band called Hot New Mexicans (Athens, Ga./Cleveland, Miss.). It was pretty organic in that we didn’t necessarily have many ideas for what kinds of techniques we wanted to use [in the studio]. It was pretty spontaneous, like, “Let’s take this tiny amp that is three inches wide and mic it this way, and let’s also mic this other amp that it’s sitting on at the same time.” We also recorded our vocals simultaneously, which is something I haven’t done too much of in the past. It was a really creative experience. We’re recording another six or seven songs with Patrick again in early December, so that will kind of be the second half of Under the Shrub.

 

SJ: What do you like about how Under the Shrub turned out?

 

AO: I like how there’s a consistency, but each song has a different tone to it, which is something we tried to make happen by just playing around with different amps and different settings. So I feel like there are a lot of dynamics within it, but then a consistent overall sound that comes through. 

ET: They’re all kind of different countries, but they’re all on the same world. I already said this, but I like the spontaneity. We were banging on the radiator. Singing in a bathroom is a pretty classic and funny recording trope, and we didn’t do that. But, I did play guitar in the bathroom, sitting on the john. I wasn’t going to the bathroom. I just happened to be sitting on the toilet (laughs by both). 

 

SJ: Erin mentioned earlier that she had never played drums before Brenda’s Friend. Are there any other things that you two had never tried musically before this project?

 

AO: I have really improved as a guitarist since we first started. Erin’s a great guitarist, so by observing and learning from her I feel like I’ve grown a lot in general. I had always played guitar in more of a background way, and now I’m getting a lot more comfortable with soloing and experimenting with pedals. 

ET: Playing without a bassist requires some creative solutions. We kind of have a rotating amp setup that we haven’t totally figured out yet, but trying to get the tones right to make it sound complete has been a fun challenge. We kind of fill up the low end with kick drum, but also our voices are somehow doing that at times. 

 

Photo by Adam Juresko

 

SJ: It seems like you guys are pretty open to playing with bands of all varieties. Why would you say this is the case?

 

ET: I would say we’re open. My personal background is in DIY punk stuff, so we played a lot of house shows. But yeah, the show with Alex G is a good example of someone that sounds pretty different from us.

AO: I think we both have a pretty broad taste in what we like to listen to. Anyone that we like we’re excited to play with.


 

SJ: What’s next for Brenda’s Friend?

 

ET: We’ll do those recordings. We’re hoping to do some more out-of-town stuff in the spring. We both kind of have a busy winter, so we’re already looking ahead to spring touring. 

AO: It’s possible that we’ll release a combination of our first tape and our second tape. We’re not really sure. But, something will be released in late winter or early spring, and then we’ll tour with it. 

ET: Beyond that, we’d love to come back and play in Indy again. This is just a shoutout to all you show promoters up there [laughs].

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