Genre-bending Atlanta artist OFTEN (who uses she/they pronouns) describes their project as “the queer love child of Donna Summer and Fiona Apple.” Such a description articulates the many intersections where the artists finds themselves: between their queerness and an intense Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, or being a Black student at predominantly white schools growing up. All these identities meet on their debut LP Dirty Saint, out October 8. Today, she premieres the video for “Deep Sleep” via Audiofemme.
OFTEN picked up their soul and jazz influences from their parents, but became obsessed with Fiona Apple once surrounded by mostly white classmates. “I was obsessed,” they explain. “I just really loved the way she wrote music. Her lyricism was really beautiful to me, and I was just like a really sad, angsty kid, so I just felt really connected to her.” Likewise, OFTEN’s lyrics are at turns poetic and melancholy, which might seem at odds with her love for Donna Summer, who she says “deserves so many more flowers than she gets.” They love Donna Summer for the way she showed the fullness of herself, slowing down her take on disco that was different for the time, and taking on sexualized subject matter without any fear.
Summer’s influence appears mostly in the tempo of the album, which creeps along languidly like a breeze on a humid August afternoon, dense and heady. OFTEN layers vocals for a harmonizing effect, all placed over stark, slow synth beats. “I [call] myself a sad disco queen,” OFTEN says, “because I’m a really sad little person but I want to make sad bops for my people.”
And sad bops they are. While OFTEN spent the early pandemic reworking an EP they planned to release last year, life forced them to slow down. After losing the house she shared with her girlfriend, music “was just the only thing I had around for myself to keep me here, and stable, while so much of our life was unstable.” They wrote scores of new material in friends’ living rooms or spare bedrooms while they figured out their next move, reworking tracks from the EP like “By Summer,” “Deep Sleep,” and “Wake” to fit into a more cohesive whole.
OFTEN plays with the instability and uncertainty of this time in the new “Deep Sleep” video, which features a montage of footage from their pandemic year. She takes us from bedroom to living room to bedroom, interspersed with the natural settings in between, towering mountain ranges and smooth seas. You see OFTEN in several different beds, all with different bed linens and each time sporting a different make-up look. This articulates the passing of time, the journey from one place to another, the anxiety of a nomadic lifestyle but also the necessity of finding joy in the worst of times: her partner kisses her on the cheek as they stand outside a mobile home; she floats in the ocean on an inner tube.
The idea of sleeping is a theme that repeats itself on the record, or rather, examining the “places where you felt like you slept on yourself.” And by that, OFTEN means “feeling like I couldn’t, feeling like I wasn’t good enough, or just a lack of self confidence.” Dirty Saint is a re-worked iteration of an unreleased EP that dealt heavily with the fallout from a strict Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, one that doesn’t accommodate queer identities. They were working through what they had been taught, trying to deconstruct and rethink the concept of God on a personal level, but realized “I had a lot I needed to sift through for myself as just a person, and my childhood and upbringing,” before they could take on their complicated relationship with God.
“So Dirty Saint is more of me facing myself, and having a dialogue with my younger self, and realizing that she needed a lot of care and love from me she didn’t get,” OFTEN explains. “It’s kind of looking in the mirror and having a conversation with your earlier self. The things you did right, things you did wrong, places you felt you weren’t cared for.”
A previously-released video for “Palm Trees” articulates that struggle visually. We see two versions of OFTEN: one is more feminine, dressed in a flowing red sundress. The other reads more masculine, wearing pants and a crewneck sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. They argue with each other, before walking together towards the ocean at sunset. These internal contradictions are ultimately able to coexist with each other, in the realization that we are allowed to contain multitudes, that we are allowed to be many versions of ourselves at once.
OFTEN says this album is an introduction to herself, from herself, a person and artist that is constantly evolving and learning how to self-define freely, and their hope is that it will allow others to “feel seen” as well. A fan of astrology, they point out these internal contradictions at play even in their chart, where a Sagittarius sun meets a Pisces rising, a fire sign muted by the emotionality of a water sign. And for now, that self-awareness is enough, in many ways.
“Chani Nicholas has been telling me all year that the fruits of my labor are going to become something else,” they say. “So I’m really excited for what’s going to happen in the next few months, but all I can do right now is just keep making music. I don’t really know what’s going to come my way.” And really, none of us do. All we can do is keep making music, whatever that means for each of us.
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