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A Quiet Approach to an Explosive Landscape

Pop Beat * Does today's music scene, alternately in-your-face or teen-based, have room for many artists like P.J. Olsson?

June 03, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On first impression, P.J. Olsson seems like the kind of guy the music business chews up and spits out daily.

With his blond, shaggy locks giving him the look of a high school surfer, he emits a sense of innocence and idealism as he sits down in a Hollywood coffeehouse.

"I'm just really lucky to be involved with music," he says. "It's such an incredible existence that the rest doesn't matter. I'd love to make my living and pay my bills, but I'm really lucky."

And he sees no reason that his music--which has drawn comparisons to Beck and Beth Orton for its blend of folk-rock with electronic beats and samples--couldn't fit on radio stations currently dominated by hard-rock monsters and shiny teeny-boppers.

"I'm open to all radio," he says. "As long as it's an honest direction for me."

With his debut album, "Words for Living," coming to stores June 13 via Sony Music's C2 label, it's easy to think that Olsson will be disabused of his idealism any minute now.

The album comes with great expectations: Co-producers on it mix the hip (on one song Carl Stephenson, who co-wrote and produced Beck's "Loser," on another the Dust brothers' John King) with veteran Keith Forsey (best known for producing Billy Idol's biggest records). And Sony's buzz-making machinery has been in gear for months. The anticipation has been heightened by a six-month delay from the originally scheduled release date in order to avoid the Christmas rush.

First impressions about Olsson, though, are not always correct. Rather than a footloose California teen, he's a 30-year-old native of northern Michigan and the father of two young kids. And rather than a folkie who discovered electronics--like Beck and Orton--his roots are in experimental keyboard and techno music. He only took up acoustic guitar and "conventional" songwriting several years ago.

His sensibilities, he says, come from his father, a college music professor and 12-tone composer. During a late-'80s year in Germany when his dad was on a sabbatical, he got hooked on the world of electronic dance music, with its samplers and sequencers. He moved to Chicago in the early '90s, performing in clubs with a distinct enough approach to gain support from Forsey and others, who suggested he move to L.A. to give the big time a shot.

"At that time I focused on who I wanted to be as a songwriter," he says. "And at the same time I got hooked up with an acoustic guitar. I played solo at Al's Bar and Coconut Teaszer and LunaPark, and then I was ready to have a band."

While he had trouble stirring much interest from record companies here, he did get a deal with a small German techno label, Eye Q, and two years ago released an EP. Around the same time he started attracting real interest from several major labels, and in late '98 signed with Columbia, which last year shifted him to the new C2 label, which specializes in breaking new artists.

Olsson says the company largely left him on his own to make the debut album, and the result is music that, like the artist, reveals more with familiarity. Distinct twists emerge from its catchy mating of samples and loops with structured songwriting, and such lines as "I want the opposite of Adolf Hitler" in the jumpy opening song "Good Dream" and "God speaks your name to me through rock songs" in "Through Rock Songs" bespeak an individualistic orientation.

In contrast, "Ready for a Fall" works as straight, wistful balladry, making the most of Olsson's reedy voice. Throughout, the album suggests both Beck (minus most of his irony) and a more grounded version of Stephenson's surreal, quirky Forest for the Trees projects.

But if many things about Olsson and his music go beyond first impressions, his naivete about the business pressures is apparently for real. Even the executive who signed him wonders if Olsson really knows what he's gotten himself into.

"He's very innocent about all that," says Tim Devine, senior vice president of Sony's Columbia Records Group.

But Devine doesn't think Olsson is due to be crushed under the industry's wheels. The launch campaign for the album is designed as a slow, steady effort, continuing from the low-key U.S. release of the German EP at the start of 1999.

"We've been working this project on a grass-roots level for a year and a half," Devine says. "That was to quietly develop a fan base without having to push the big button right away. To that end, he's been doing shows [opening for] Rufus Wainwright and Beth Orton and has developed a nice little fan base in various parts of the country."

Along the way he also picked up key endorsements and airplay from radio programmers, notably Nic Harcourt of KCRW-FM (89.9) and Jed the Fish on KROQ-FM (106.7).

"It doesn't fit in with the current climate of boy bands and aggro-rock, but perhaps that's what makes it a breath of fresh air," Devine says. "I had this when I signed Mazzy Star [at Capitol Records]. People thought that would never get on the radio, but because it sounded so different it stuck out on the air and eventually became a million-selling album."

Olsson, though, insists he'll be fine if the album doesn't have that kind of life.

"I would love to have the success of Moby," he says. "And I'd love to do that right off the bat, prove that that kind of success can happen on a major label. But it's about my music, and if I had to change anything about that [to have a hit]--I can't imagine doing that."

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