“It started off just as my voice and a simple backing track, almost a cappella,” explains Olive singer Ruth-Ann Boyle, the voice behind the Northern UK trio which includes band co-founders Tim Kellett and Robin Taylor-Firth. She’s talking about the band’s #1 UK single, the ethereal, liquid pop-soul souffle “You’re Not Alone,” which has sold 500,000 in Britain alone and is just a small taste of the treats in store on their debut album Extra Virgin. “We all really loved it just like that. Everybody who heard it said it would be massive. And then different elements came into it. But it’s basically a nice melody and a very catchy chorus.”
The song was one of three recorded in ex-Simply Red keyboardist Kellett’s cellar studio on an eight-track–this demo version appears as a hidden cut on the band’s album–but it was enough to set off a veritable bidding frenzy among the English record industry, which was eventually won by RCA UK. The group was founded by Kellett and Taylor-Firth, with the latter previously playing with Sheffield beatmeisters Nightmares On Wax. Kellett had discovered Ruth-Ann when he’d trigger tape loops of her vocals while playing keyboards for Manchester’s Durutti Column before asking her to join his fledgling version of Olive.
The group’s rubbery brand of techno-edged trip-pop R&B is a quicksilver melting pot of sounds, Massive Attack meets Motown, Astrud Gilberto crossed with Miles Davis through a neo-psychedelic fun-house mirror darkly and soulfully.
“We were keen to get some really strong backing tracks together…drum & bass, dub reggae and jungle,” nods Kellett. “But what’s most important to us is to stick a good pop song on top. We try to marry good melodies and good lyrics. And that’s what sets us apart from some of the other bands we get lumped in with.”
The cornucopia of sound encompasses the sensuous Ruth-Ann vocals inside the ghostly audioscapes of “Miracle,” the dub bass and Scottish drone of “Curious,” the aptly named instrumental “Muted” and the samba-like rhythms of “I Don’t Think So.” The band tackles a wide range of subjects as well, from Ruth-Ann’s memories of her father’s death when she was three (“Safer Hands”) and a meditation on the irresistible lure of adultery (“Curious”) to a simply cautionary environmental tale (“Killing”) and a somber look at domestic violence (“Blood Red Tears”).
“I tend to write from a feminine perspective,” says the band’s lyricist Kellett, who often uses doubled images to express conflicted emotions. “Maybe it’s because I grew up with three sisters as the only boy in the family. And I have two little girls of my own. I’ve always found it more interesting to write for a girl than a boy. And once we joined up with Ruth-Ann, I began to write about some of the things that were important in her life.”
For her part, Ruth-Ann has no problems singing Kellett’s words. “Everything I sang on the album, I could relate to completely.”
“The subject matter is something anyone can relate to,” adds Kellett. “And unlike many bands who we’ve been compared to, we don’t shy away from writing songs with a beginning, middle and an end. Every song on our album tells a story… it’s not just an abstract smattering of lyrics that don’t mean anything.”
Indeed, Olive’s Extra Virgin creates a constantly shifting, translucent atmosphere that might well be described as “rubber soul.”
Everyone knows the last band who called their music “rubber soul.” Olive’s Kellett is coolly confident of his group’s chances of spreading their gospel across the Atlantic.
“From what I discovered through my experience with Simply Red, people in the States like good songs and a strong message. And I think we have both.”
The seven-piece live outfit–“much rawer and harder, with lots of guitars,” says Kellett–is anxious to come to the U.S. and prove they can duplicate the album’s sophistication while adding a strong live punch.
“For me, succeeding in the States is very important because I spent so much time with a band that never was quite able to break through all the way here,” concludes Kellett. “I would love for the American public to get behind this record. It would be a brilliant feeling for me to touch a huge community of people who are so into their music. But we’re not going to change our sound to do that.”
In a way, it’s all a matter of time. With the release of their debut album, Extra Virgin, Olive are about to find out they’re not alone, either.