Interview: AJ Odneal
Written by Kiersten Gerard
Picture this: you’re sitting in the middle of the woods on a warm spring day. Everything is blooming and there is a feeling of serenity in the air. There are deer trotting around and birds chirping above. Sounds lovely right? Well you too can experience this feeling by listening to any of AJ Odneal’s tracks. Her gentle folk style is, in a word, magical. We had the opportunity to chat with her about her writing process, post-pandemic plans, and bugs.
When and how did your journey with music begin?
I don’t think I have an “origin story” in the sense that music has always been a part of my life. My mom says I sang before I talked. I don’t remember a point in my life when I wasn’t singing. As far as music in the way that I do it now, I started playing guitar in middle school and I got my first paid gig freshman year of high school. I opened for Obadiah Parker, and his wife was expecting at the time. She talked about all of the things they were doing to prepare for the baby and that was the first time I had seen someone living a regular life, plus music. I always knew that was what I wanted but that was the first time I saw it as a possibility. Possible for me to live a normal life and make money doing music. I’m very lucky, I wasn’t ever a person who struggled to figure out what I wanted to do in life, it was something that I always knew.
What artists do you take inspiration from?
It’s all over the board I guess. I listen to all these different genres and styles and there are all these little elements from them that I'll pull into something I’m writing, either consciously or subconsciously. When I was younger, the person I aspired to have some kind of career similar to was Norah Jones. She gets to make music in all different genres, and she’s another person who gets to just live her life but also make music. I think seeing somebody in a genre where they are not expected to exist was really inspiring and pushed me to do what I love.
Do you have a set writing process?
Writing songs for me is kind of like the way people write in their journals. Not all of my songs people are gonna hear because so many of them are me processing my thoughts or processing what's happened. Some of them are just me closing a chapter and moving on. Usually if I get some lyrics they're accompanied by a melody. Most often it feels like a rush of something going into my body and needing to be released into the world in order for me to feel okay. That sounds so strange and I don't really have a better way of phrasing it, but it usually all comes at once. In that case I definitely start with lyrics and melody and then add instrumentation. I may change things later but it's kind of like a pressure that needs to be released.
Last month you put out your first single, “Where The Jasmine Bloom,” after years of not releasing anything. Why this single? Why now?
Part of that is the producer, Jon Rezin. He’s one of my favorite people to work with. I recorded this with Jon before the pandemic and this was the time he was able to really put things together. I was pressuring him for a timeline because I wanted to plan something for the release even though we can’t have a big party. I wanted to figure something out. The song is called “Where The Jasmine Bloom,” so I thought it would be cool to release it around the time that jasmine bloom. So he offered mid April and I said “works for me.” That was that process, it wasn’t as thought out as you might think but it made me happy. The song I actually wrote while I was at his house and we recorded it right away. It wasn’t something we’d expected, I had actually gone to record a different song which I will hopefully also release soonish.
Any other releases planned?
I always have plans but it kind of depends on what I can put together. My patrons have been an incredible source of not only joy and purpose during the pandemic, but I'm hoping as we transition into a space where I can actually gig work again in a safe way, then I can take all that money from Patreon and put it towards recording. Right now it's really been going towards me living through this pandemic, so if I can put that towards recording then I can be regularly working on more and more content and releasing more songs. I keep writing songs and now I just have this huge list of songs I've written, especially during the pandemic, that I want to release to the world. So yes and no. Yes I always have plans, no I don't have anything definitive.
Do you find that there's a specific topic you return to and write about often? Are there any themes that carry through your work?
I am always drawn to the sky. A lot of my songs will reference the sky. Recently a lot of my songs reference the face. There are definitely themes but it's almost like chapters because it's all like a journal. So it'll be like “Well at this time in her life she was going through these things, so they are very repetitive. They go through all the songs.” On a slightly different theme I'll write songs that to me feel like different elements of nature. I’ve got a series of songs, two of them are out now, a third one hopefully a third one will come out soon, that have similar feelings. “February” and “Storm” both feel like water to me. I have another song called “Hold” that Jon has also recorded, that feels like water to me. And they feel like different kinds of water. There's no other way to explain it. Storm feels like when you dive down under a wave, “February” feels more like a river that you follow, and “Hold” feels like rain. For the first time ever I wrote a song that feels like a forest, specifically an Aspen forest. It’s called “Wanderlust” and it hasn’t even been recorded yet. I think all this might just be something that exists in my head and my heart and other people may not feel it, but that’s alright.
What is one song that can always make you smile?
I have a playlist of songs that are just about bugs. The playlist is called “I like bugs” and its like 2 hours long. The song that’ll always make me smile and feel ridiculous is called “Born a worm” by Dan Reader. It sounds like it's something you would teach a child if not for the fact that the second half of it is just curse words. It goes “Born a worm, spins a cocoon, goes to sleep, wakes up a butterfly, oh what the fuck is that about? What the fuck is that about?” and that complete phrase just repeats over and over again for the whole song. It somehow feels very comforting, like a nursery rhyme would, but then it's so ridiculous in the context of how it makes you feel that it always makes me laugh.
AJ’s bug playlist:
How has Tik Tok impacted your music career?
Tik tok has helped me a lot, actually. I’ve been playing music for a little over 10 years now on a level where I’m getting paid and like actually in the music world um but Tik Tok was the first time I built a following quickly. It has been one of the most positive communities that I've been a part of. It was one of the first times where people were finding me because they wanted to listen to me and not because they had already heard me. They've like held me accountable and checked up on me during the pandemic. They gave me purpose that I wasn't really feeling at the beginning of the pandemic. I live alone so I was feeling isolated, I was feeling really lonely and tired and that hopelessness started to set in.
When I first started on Tik Tok I didn’t really have a lot of followers and then the Blackout happened. As we keep finding out, Tik Tok keeps shadowbanning or preventing faces they don’t want to be the front of Tik Tok from being seen so fat creators, Black creators, anyone who's an activist, disabled creators, they're just like “We don't want your face to be the face of Tik Tok so we’re not going to let as many people see your content.” I kind of felt like Tik Tok was going nowhere for me so I was just going to have fun on it, but then the Blackout happened and I posted a video. I was like “Well of all the days to post, this is probably the day to do it,” and the kindness that just flooded onto my feed that day, it was just so encouraging.
I kept posting and more people kept finding me and caring about me. I know that it sounds strange because it's just random people on the internet but they were so thoughtful and sweet. When people comment more than once I remember, and I know that person. That’s a person I have to make sure I respond to. I try my best to make sure everyone feels acknowledged which is getting harder but worth it. From Tik Tok I transitioned onto my Instagram and that growth on Tik Tok and Instagram built my Patreon and gave me this way of existing with an element of security that allowed me to feel safe. Especially in a time that’s really uncertain. So that’s a very long winded way of saying the way that Tik Tok has entered my life, the way that the community has found me and cared for me through Tik Tok, has really brought me joy and security and community. They really found a way to make me feel like home at a time where home felt like it didn’t exist anymore. I’m very grateful for the community that has found me over this past year and the community that has been with me since before that, it's been very nice.
If you had a theme song what would it be?
I don’t know who else grew up Christian and is semi-scarred by VeggieTales, but the “Lost Puppies” song. As someone who fosters, works at shelters and used to do cover videos with dogs before the pandemic, Dogs are my life. It's an incredible song. She screams at the king “puppies are cuddly.” That’s my theme song
What are you most excited to do once the pandemic has ended?
There are the obvious answers- I'm excited to gig again, eat with my friends, have people at my house to watch zombie movies. I'm excited to be able to go places and not feel horrible. I went with my mom to the Desert Botanical Garden for her birthday and there were more people than I expected and I was so anxious. I’m excited to not feel that way anymore.
Last month my friend told me that she and her fiancé are going to hike down the Grand Canyon, get married, and hike back as wife and wife in one day. The hike they’re doing in particular would be 17 miles in a day. My friend knows that I have pretty poor lungs, I was a really sick kid, and so my friend said they would’ve asked me to sing if not for that. I thought about it for a few days and I decided I don’t want to live a life where I can’t do those things that I really want to do because I don’t believe in myself enough to do them. I’ve always wanted to hike the Grand Canyon but never thought that I could. Once it's safe I am going to start training. I've already gotten a group of friends that are going to do this with me for accountability. A group of us are going to hike the Grand Canyon in spring of 2023. That’s something I'm most excited about because I really miss spending time with people and so the whole process I've set up is me being able to do all of this but with friends which is really nice.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
The best advice I’ve received is from the Brandy version of Cinderella. I first saw it when I was 4 and I watched it almost everyday for the next like 12 years. “Impossible things are happening everyday” is something that has always stuck with me. That idea of every single thing that’s been thought impossible is something someone has dreamt of and that made possible. Not quite advice but it’s the best lesson I've learned and carried with me from somebody, even if that person is Rodgers and Hammerstein. Everything is impossible until you do it.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
The advice I would give to other people is to know your worth. As a woman, and as a Black woman, navigating gig work is something I have learned the very very hard way. To know your worth and to stick with it. To be decisive and determined and understanding that people are going to try to take advantage of you, but to stick with your worth. And that translates to so many other people that are moving through this world in whatever they're doing, whether that be their personal life or business. Just know your worth and stand by your worth. That has been a lesson that has taken me years to learn and I still struggle with it.
Anything to plug?
My new song “Where The Jasmine Bloom!” Please go listen. And then also my two favorite Arizona animal shelters, Arizona Animal Welfare League and The Big Mutt Network.
Keep up with AJ on Twitter and Instagram @ajodneal and Facebook @AJOdnealMusic!