(Editor’s Note: In his latest contribution to Vehlinggo, Andrew B. White interviews synthwave sensation Michael Oakley about his latest album, Odyssey. They tackle Oakley’s musical approach, wax rhapsodic about The Blue Nile, ponder the limits of synthwave, and tease a potential double-bill with Ollie Wride, among other things.)
The recent release of Ontario, Canada-based Michael Oakley’s latest album, Odyssey, has established him alongside NewRetroWave label mate Ollie Wride as one of synthwave’s leading male artists.
Oakley and the English artist Wride inhabit the sonic space of musicians like Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, ABC’s Martin Fry, Seal, and Phil Collins, but the Wride connection goes far beyond that — Wride also co-writes and performs on Odyssey. Prior to this, Oakley co-produced Wride’s 2019 album, Thanks In Advance, so you can see where this is all heading. Oakley and Wride have formed a partnership, each being heavily involved with the other’s work. Vocally, these guys are collectively synthwave’s Brandon Flowers (The Killers) and it would be fair to say that if you’re a fan of either artist, you’re a fan of both.
Do all these connections mean Oakley and Wride are interchangeable? Both artists have a shared sound, production ethic, and aesthetic that is tightly executed. A Michael Oakley album is effectively an album you eagerly anticipate in between waiting for the next Ollie Wride, and vice versa. Effectively, you’re getting a double-whammy from synthwave’s most professional tag-team: catchy songs, top production, and flawless vocal performances. In fact, the duo’s production and songwriting skills could be put to good use for many of the legacy artists who often flounder in today’s musical landscape, for lack of good material.
It’s worth noting that although Oakley is primarily known as a “synthwave” artist, Odyssey is one of a number of recent albums that break with traditional synthwave tropes, swapping chugging arpeggiators and big synths in favor of emotive percussion and keys.
This is most evident on tracks like “Real Life” and “Babylon” that have a later 1980s and early 1990s feel. A comparison could be with artists like Nik Kershaw and Howard Jones, who later in their careers moved away from youthful, angular beats and synths to a more polished adult sound. That is not to say there are no upbeat numbers here. “Is There Anybody Out There” and “Queen of Hearts” generously hit those spots while still retaining the album’s sense of finesse. The heavyweight inclusion of Brothertiger’s John Jagos on many of the album’s tracks helps to further break away from uniform synthwave. Jagos’ is known for his textural, wide-open synthpop and the influences are clearly felt and welcomed here.
Mecha Maiko’s Hayley Stewart adds subtle but effective backing vocals on “Queen of Hearts” and on several other tracks, as does the ever-present and much-loved Toronto synthwave artist Dana Jean Phoenix. The counterpoint vocals of both singers add the perfect touch to the proceedings.
Phoenix features on the album’s highlight track, “Glasgow Song.” Here, Oakley puts in a performance that makes his ode to his hometown totally believable — making it easy to envisage the same Glasgow that fellow Scots The Blue Nile channel into their own songs. Additionally, and a probable first for synthwave, a bagpipe solo reminiscent of John Farnham’s “You’re The Voice” makes an appearance. Of note, Jagos releasing a Brothertiger tribute album to Tears For Fears in 2017 may or may not have something to do with what sounds like parts of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and “Shout” appearing in “Glasgow Song.”
Closing track, “When Stars Collide,” could easily be a hit for Robbie Williams, and that goes for all of Odyssey. These are “songs” first and foremost — not simply stylistic retro statements. The only song that seems a little out of place is the instrumental title track that opens the album. I understand the concept behind it, but I would have favored starting off with the immediate energy of “Wake Up.” featuring Wride, and just keep that train rolling on.
Odyssey may not be a hardcore synthwave fan’s cup-of-tea (and it’s likely many gentlemanly cups of tea were consumed making this album), but those looking for modern ’80/90s-inspired pop will love it.
Michael Oakley’s Odyssey: An Interview
To dive deeper into the record, I sent Oakley on another odyssey of answering some questions for Vehlinggo. (This email interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, length, and house style.)
Vehlinggo: You are one of many artists recently bringing back the ‘70s and ‘80s “ideal” album length of eight or nine songs. (Odyssey has eight.) For one, fewer songs make for better-sounding vinyl, but are you also reacting against the trend of just throwing as many tracks on a release as possible for no real reason?
Michael Oakley: I honestly feel like the experience of how people listen to music now is the complete antithesis to how I grew up listening to [it], which is why I try to bring back some of that in the way I create an album of songs.
Buying an album to me was an event which you saved up enough money to buy and you were excited to walk into a record store, hand over your money, and take it home. Then you would put that record on and let it take you on the journey the artist intended you to go on start to finish. You would check out the album cover, artwork, and [liner] notes telling you who all the personnel and additional musicians were. It was a very personal and magical experience.
Nowadays more and more people just check out playlists they find on Spotify and drag the tracks they like by different artists over to their own playlists. That’s not to say they don’t check out the artists they really like and dive into their back catalog. For sure, I think that still happens and music is way more accessible than ever before, but I don’t think that way of consuming music gives a full experience and introduction to artists that captures everything they are about.
I also think more and more artists are creating and releasing strategically to lift their metric numbers and that is sadly at the cost of adulterating the sacred process of writing authentically. Authenticity gets compromised in favor of getting more plays, more likes and more follows.
The new album strikes me as a slice of early ‘90s, slickly produced adult contemporary pop, which would have happily sat between Wilson Phillips and Seal on the radio. You’ve also worked in’ 80s overtones that are more familiar to synthwave audiences. Is this a conscious decision to expand the definition of synthwave, or do you simply consider yourself a pop act with roots in synthwave?
Absolutely! I think of Odyssey as a late ‘80s/early ‘90s AOR synth-pop record that echoes different moods, styles, and lyrical themes across the album; as people like Phil Collins, Sting, George Michael, and Peter Gabriel have done. Before I start writing for an album, I like to have in mind some placeholder ideas for direction which then serve as an overarching theme(s). I wanted the ethereal sound of George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice album, but with shades of the previously mentioned artists done in my own style.
I think deep down I am trying to expand the definition of synthwave, because there’s so many layers to ‘80s and early ‘90s music and different sounds to pull inspiration from. For me personally, as a listener, I want to hear more variety in synthwave.
I’d also say you hit the nail on the head when describing what I do as being more of a synth-pop act with roots in synthwave. The lines between those two genres are so similar, but the moment you label something you restrict it to the confines of that; so I try to stay focused on what I’m doing and let other people label me. That way people are surprised when I come out with something which challenges their expectations of me.
John Jagos (better known as Brothertiger) is all over Odyssey. Ironically, considering the music he makes, many synthwave followers are not that familiar with Brothertiger’s work. What’s the connection there and is working with Brothertiger a way for you to broaden your audience?
John is a good friend of mine now and we first connected when he remixed “Devotion” from my debut album, California, in 2018. Then a couple of years later I asked him to add some touches to a track I was working on — “Glasgow Song” — and that ended up leading to him adding guitar, sounds from his analog synth collection, and even ethereal vocals across five of the songs from Odyssey.
I’m a huge fan of Brothertiger and I felt very strongly that working with him more extensively would help keep me on a path of avoiding old ground, and doing something more tropical and exotic sounding. I like working with people who challenge me creatively and think differently in their compositional approach. It keeps me on my toes and pushes me away from comfort zones.
My best work has always been when I didn’t know what I was doing. My weakest work, as in the demos that are unfinished in a folder somewhere on an external, HD were usually created when I did know what I was doing. Comfort zones can easily lead to writer’s block, and people confuse writer’s block as being when you are bereft of ideas. Most of the time I find that true writer’s block is when you’re too comfortable using the same sound palette, same tempos, or same approach — in other words the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, so you don’t get that element of surprise that only comes through experimentation.
Being Scottish, the bagpipes by Lorne MacDougall on “Glasgow Song” are clearly a cultural homage for you. I do have to ask if John Farnham’s “You’re The Voice” was an inspiration to add them in? Farnham’s “bagpipes” were actually from a Fairlight sampling keyboard, but there’s no doubt bagpipes can be effective in pop music. (The effected faux bagpipe guitars of Big Country being another example).
That’s a great song! You know it’s funny because when I had the idea of putting bagpipes in that part of the song, I knew it could have gone either way. It was either going to work really well or sound terrible. So I just went with it and asked Lorne MacDougall to layer it up with 14 takes on different bagpipes, so that when I mixed it in there would be a stadium-feeling of a pipe band rather than a lone piper feel. Complemented with the military snare drum part and electric guitar bar chords, it created the right balance, so that it’s introduction was effective and emotionally impactful.
Your main co-writer, Ollie Wride, along with Dana Jean Phoenix and Hayley Stewart (Mecha Maiko) are all well-known in the synthwave scene. Aside from Jagos and MacDougall, tell us more about these other contributors on Odyssey.
Ollie and myself work so well together and after the success of Introspect and his Thanks In Advance album, I was already eager for us to continue working together on Odyssey. I think he’s always surprised with what I send him, because I like to push for different sounds and moods. The concepts for the lyrical ideas [also] help to give him a better picture to work with. As far as I’m concerned Ollie is the best songwriter the synthwave scene has seen so far. So working with the best and trying to elevate my ideas is a priority for me to give the listeners of my music the best possible experience. That’s why I asked Brothertiger to help.
Prior to writing Odyssey I had an idea that all the vocal background harmonies would be female-centric, which is why I asked Dana and Hayley. Their two voices are so different yet compliment one another perfectly. That’s why Dana is more prominent on “Glasgow Song” and Hayley is more prominent on “Queen Of Hearts.” I always utilize the strengths of the people I work with. I asked Jesse Molloy (Panic! At The Disco, The Midnight) to play saxophone on a couple of tracks, because I felt his playing style really works well with the sound I was going for.
In terms of final mixing I always work with John Kunkel (New Division), because he has a great ear and always picks up on things I’ve missed. By the time I’ve heard my tracks 700-plus times my ears are saturated and in need of a fresh perspective. But John also offers melodic and compositional suggestions — even if it’s replacing sounds with a more suitable alternative. I recommend that all producers have someone to cross check their mixes and production with, because that extra input can lift the whole track to places you can no longer see through being so close to the mix.
Back to the Scottish connection. There is plenty of great music that has been made by Scots (synthwave included with Col Bennett’s FM-84). Two of my many favorite albums by Scottish artists are Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream and The Blue Nile’s A Walk Across The Rooftops. If you had to choose one of these albums for your desert island music stash, which one would you choose and why?
My favorite Scottish band is without question The Blue Nile. So for me I’d take Hats. It’s the greatest record produced by a Scottish artist. My favourite Blue Nile song is “Tinseltown In The Rain,” but as an album Hats is perfect. If you listen to the verses on “Glasgow Song,” I have tipped my hat to them and that album with a little sprinkle of “Downtown Lights.” Everyone should own Hats in their collection.
Trainspotters might have noticed in “Glasgow Song” the recreation of the percussion line from Tears For Fears’ “Shout.” In another interview I believe you acknowledged this was intentional, so you can’t be accused of subconscious plagiarism! Was this to show off your love of TFF and have a little fun? Will we see Michael Oakley fans making mash-ups with “Shout” and “Glasgow Song”?
Well it’s funny how that came about, because I could hear that part from “Shout” in my head when listening to “Glasgow Song.” So I tracked down the same Fairlight and Drumulator samples they used and mocked up a similar sounding recreation just for fun and added a cassette plug-in by Waves Factory to make it more lofi sounding. In the end I kept it in the mix because, when I muted it, I felt like something was missing without it. I adore Tears For Fears, and that album Songs From The Big Chair is a huge inspiration of mine. So much so it was part inspiration for when I was writing “Real Life” and why I used the Yamaha CP-70B piano and Jesse Molloy on saxophone to get a similar vibe.
Finally, as live shows start to come back on line again, will performing live be a priority for you? And will you do so with a full band? Of course, the obvious question is will that be a double bill with Ollie Wride?
Upcoming in July I’m recording a special one-off live show, which will be a ticketed livestream event that NewRetroWave are showcasing at some point in August. I’m in rehearsals right now to prepare for it and have been working on getting the set design and choreography just right, so this looks and feels right. Later in the year I know Ollie is doing shows in London and Glasgow, so maybe for the Glasgow show I’ll make a cameo appearance on stage. But if not, I’ll definitely be in the audience supporting my friend. You never know…
Odyssey is available now on all streaming platforms, with pre-orders for limited LP, cassette, and MiniDisc editions through NewRetroWave’s Bandcamp.
(Feature Photo by John Simo, as extracted from the cover art for Odyssey.)