For Oliver Tree, having a hand in every aspect of his career is vital. He enjoys wearing the many hats required to maintain a successful career as a recording artist and budding filmmaker. When we connect by phone, he’s a week away from releasing his debut album, “Ugly is Beautiful,” a body of work that is introspective, reflective and intelligently fun. Behind the work is a creator who is not only extremely self-aware of his comedic persona and role as an entertainer, but a man who has built his career on entertaining himself first.
Before we dive in, I’d read that you made the music video for “Bury Me Alive” for six bucks. Is that true?
Oliver Tree: Truth is, I wasn’t even planning on shooting a video. I was actually shooting some promotional pieces for the album and had built prosthetics out of this play doh material. We’d spent a lot of time making them and thought they looked pretty crazy. We had the camera, the story cam gear, and were at a location that had incredible train tracks outside. I was like, “Fuck it, let’s just drop a camera on me and shoot a one-shot-take video,” and I just choreographed things as I went. It was purely spur of the moment and I just kept doing it until it became what you see in the final video.
The sirens at the end of the video – were those added or were they real?
Oliver Tree: There was no production, just me and my two friends filming illegally. It’s three in the morning and I’m just screaming the lyrics, trying to get what we needed as quickly as possible. Someone from the complex was yelling at me from inside the building and I’m pretty sure they called the cops because we ended up getting a pretty fat ticket. I guess the cost [of production] was a little more [than six dollars] if you consider the ticket, but that’s not really part of the budget because there was no budget.
Ultimately, you used what you had around you and crafted something pretty awesome.
Oliver Tree: That’s what quarantine teaches us to do. You have to get creative with what you have. [The experience] proved to me that with a good enough idea, you can execute a strong video. This video that cost me six dollars ended up being more successful than videos I’d spent one-hundred-grand on. And that’s the funny part. You can have all the money in the world, but that’s not going to make a better product sometimes.
I’m ultimately using [music videos] as opportunities as a director to make a scene from an action movie. I’m not really thinking about it like, “How do I make the best promotional piece for my album?” It’s more, “How do I make a crazy fucking scene from a movie that no one’s ever seen before?”
And it just so happens there’s a music album behind the video.
Oliver Tree: Exactly. Truth is, I only signed a major label record deal so I could get the money to subsidize my vision as a filmmaker. I was signed to an indie label before and it didn’t end up working out. I wasn’t able to afford any of my visions. It was the kind of thing where signing with a major label was a necessity based on what I want to do as a visual artist. The beautiful thing is, I found a cheat code which allows me to use the key from one castle to open the door to another castle. Taking a piece of the music industry and using it to open doors in the film industry.
Is it accurate to say film has been your grand vision?
Oliver Tree: Neither [music nor film] are the main thing, but this is my last album. As Oliver Tree, I’m completely done. This project is over. It’s a fucking incredible album, I spent five years making it, and I don’t need to do anything else. It’s already the best it can be and I’m going to leave it at that. I’m planning to segue over to film now. I’ve been working on screenplays during this COVID period and I’ve been working on building out my own production company. I’m trying to do as much as I can to move myself out of the music industry and into film.
But how did you initially focus on music?
Oliver Tree: Let me first start by saying that my parents met in music class. They were both flute players, but the class got cancelled, so they would go up in the trees at school and play flute. That was the setup to me growing up in an incredibly musical household.
Every type of instrument covered our walls. There was a piano to bang on. There were guitars. Everything. My parents forced me to play piano at the age of three and I fucking hated it. At the age of six, I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and stopped. They were like, “Okay, we’re glad you tried it, if you don’t like it, we respect that.” The next year, I’m seven and I go to this guitar shop – Starving Musician – in Santa Cruz where I grew up. I’m playing some of the guitars there and I find this mini Pignose guitar, which has a built-in amplifier that creates distortion within itself. It basically allowed me to play something that sounded like rock, which was my fucking dream. For some reason, distortion always spoke to me, and looking back now, I can see that’s the origin of me as a real rocker. I ended up saving every penny in my piggy bank and bought that fucking guitar, which was a pivotal turning point where I realized this was something I wanted. I wanted to play music for me.
Have you always been conscious to craft narratives within your work?
Oliver Tree: I’ve been filming stupid videos with my friends since I was a kid and I’ve been making music and songs the same way. The sole purpose was to entertain myself. Instead of playing video games, I was making videos and songs. It was just something I naturally gravitated toward, so I just continued to build my skill sets.
At a certain point, you start to have people reach out and offer job opportunities and things like that. In a lot of ways, you start to find that these paths choose you. I didn’t pick to be a musician. A record label reached out to me to sign me. Even though it didn’t go well, I couldn’t stop making music. Even if I wasn’t getting paid, I couldn’t stop making music. And that’s when you know that’s your role. You can’t help it. Eventually, I found the right support system to help me share my art and give positive messages to people to help them get through this fucked up world that we live in.
I am a storyteller first and foremost. I have stories to tell. Whatever means through which I tell those stories, whether it’s through music, film, performance art, through the way I present myself and conduct myself, through interviews and things like that – they’re all ways for me to tell my stories and ultimately set up a mirror in front of society to look at how ridiculous we are and how ridiculous things have become.
To that end, how did you end up crafting your look and persona?
Oliver Tree: It came out of necessity after failure. I’d spent ten-plus years making music and nobody gave a fuck. My first record career had failed and when I ran out of money, I started trimming weed to make a living. I was back to being a normal Joe, you know? Making as much art and crazy shit as I am now, just without any of the support or financing. My image was created to pull people to my music.
I started working with some of my other artist friends and ended up having this opportunity to shoot my first music video that would end up on MTV. It was my first chance of being seen by millions of people. I was like, “Okay. How am I going to separate myself on MTV? Am I going to try and look “hot” like everybody else and sell sex, or am I going to try and stick out like a sore thumb?” I basically pulled together all these parts of my life that were ridiculous, unique elements I thought were cool as a child and built an outfit around them. I went with the bowl cut, the jacket I took from my mom’s closet that my aunt gave her in the eighties, the pants that I always wanted, and sunglasses I would wear as a kid. It made me feel cool. All these things were authentic to myself and my life, but I turned it up a few notches.
Anyway, I showed up to the shoot as the feature on the song and everyone literally looked right through me. It was crazy. My friend from highschool couldn’t even recognize me. When he finally realized it was me he was like, “Bro, we gotta film some Vines.” This was my friend Getter, who was part of the “suh dude” movement with his roommate, Nick Colletti. He filmed these Vines of me in the outfit and they started getting millions of plays, so I started testing out all these different characters. Some of them were even more obnoxious and some were borderline offensive, so I had to learn what was appropriate and constantly reevaluate. I found that my current look specifically was the one that continuously would get millions of plays, even on my rinky-dink Vine account that only had twenty-thousand followers. I had found a look that had cut through the Internet. I had created a thumbnail that was clickbait. Even if he’s obnoxious and annoying, he’s still the most lovable of all these characters I’d made. The [current one] was the one that resonated the most on a cultural level.
So I said, “Fuck it. No one is listening to my music. This image can be a vehicle to pull people over to it and finally give them a chance to hear it.” It goes way beyond making art. Making art is the action of what you do as an artist, but promotion of art is probably eighty-percent of what you do. I just found a way to promote [my music] in a way that could make the promotion itself art. I was able to justify spending eighty-percent of my time promoting because the promotion was just as much art as the music itself. [The promotion] might not have had the same impact a song might have had, but it was a way to pull people to a song.
You discovered one hand could sort of feed the other in a way.
Oliver Tree: Ultimately, what I think I’m doing here is devising a blueprint that allows artists to do every single thing under the sun creatively as one project. The beauty of it is, I can wear one outfit, which allows me to be able be in a fucking random skit on a comedy video and be the same project and the same character in this world where I’m making super serious music that’s lightyears away from [the look]. Creatively speaking, I can do anything I want, and still have it fit under the banner of Oliver Tree.
What went into crafting your specific voice and style?
Oliver Tree: It’s taken almost twenty years to develop my vocal style. For people who think my voice sounds annoying right now, you should have heard it when I was recording at age seven. It’s one of the most awful sounds you can imagine. But that only proves that anyone can be a singer. Anyone with working vocal cords has the potential to be a voice for their generation. For the first five years I was making music, I couldn’t listen to myself. Five years. Can you imagine? I knew there was something unique and special about my voice, but [at the time] it sounded like shit. I kept refining it and refining it and learned how to find all of these different ranges. I was also able to discover these different characters that existed within myself, and I studied groups like Gorillaz – one of my biggest influences – who had all these different genres and voices. They’ve done a great job marrying different sounds together through genre fusion. Their early albums lay a blueprint for how you can mix all of these different styles and I just took that blueprint, expanded on it with modern techniques and applied it to my own stories.
If you look through my songs, sometimes it sounds like three different voices on there. When I was learning how to explore my voice and find other characters within myself, me and my piano player – Casey Mattson – would do these psychedelic sessions where we wouldn’t sleep for a week and would just stay up and make music nonstop. During this time, we’d drink pu erh tea and smoke an endless amount of joints. We’d put on different outfits and set up the lighting for different moods so that each time I went up on the mic, it would be a different experience. Sometimes I’d be channeling a forty-year-old emo man, or another time I’d be channeling a twelve-year-old girl. That was the way I learned to pull some of these voices out of myself and into the music. It’s about channeling. I don’t try to mimic based on things I hear, I channel a character and let them do the singing for me.
Ninety-percent of the music I write is improvised. It’s not actually written. I just go into the booth, improvise, and let the music write itself. I’m at a place now where I’ve found sixteen voices and characters within me. It’s a jazz approach that allows you to capture a moment instead of trying to create a moment. Every lyric, every single melody you hear from my voice is entirely by me. I don’t let anyone else get involved in that because I want it to be the one thing that’s pure about Oliver Tree. Otherwise, you start having all these other people’s stories being told. There’s only one feature on “Ugly is Beautiful,” and that’s Little Ricky ZR3. This guy is the fucking future and is my favorite artist. For some reason, his music really connects with me and I think he’s going to be the biggest artist on the planet in a few years.
Ultimately you have to tell a story that’s authentic and true. It helps to pull from your own experience, and after I’ve established enough of an idea that’s worth singing on, I go into the booth and just let it rip.
Does weed play a role in your creative process?
Oliver Tree: Weed is a huge part of my existence. It’s like my coffee. I don’t drink coffee but I smoke weed from when I start my day until when I go to sleep. I’m not advocating that lifestyle, but for me, because of my body chemistry, weed has the effect of a stimulant. It doesn’t make me sleepy, it actually makes it harder for my brain to shut off. But that’s a really nice advantage when you’re making art all day and need to have something to help you persevere. In some ways, weed has helped me reach my potential creatively. If I have these moments when I’m feeling low energy, smoking boosts me back up to keep creating. So for me, smoking weed is every step of the process. I’m smoking weed while I’m writing the music. I’m smoking weed while I’m recording the music. I smoke weed while I’m mixing the music and I smoke weed during the entire mastering process.
Weed helps me chill during chaos. When you’re traveling the world, never having stability, constantly staying up and functioning on only three hours of sleep, weed is something that can help you have those moments of down time during your day to breathe and just chill the fuck out so you can go back into the chaos with a level-headed mindset.
By the way, did you say earlier you used to trim weed?
Oliver Tree: Yeah, that was how I was able to stay alive financially. My good homie and bass player at the time let me trim for him. I ended up doing that to keep afloat while my recording career failed. But I’ve had huge connections to cannabis my entire life.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, I’d steal weed from my parents, and all through high school I was a really good weed dealer. My mom knew I sold, but I explained it to her this way: I said, “Mom, don’t think of me as a weed dealer, think of me as an entrepreneur.”
At a certain point, I was the only weed dealer at school. It was crazy. I would sell weed in the bathrooms, handing nugs beneath one stall to the other stall. One time, I slid the weed under a stall and the kid was just sitting on the toilet and didn’t take it. I was like, “Does it not look good to you? Is it not enough? What’s up?” Whoever it was, didn’t respond. I heard them leave the stall and then another person came in and they grabbed the weed. I realized I’d slid weed over to some random kid taking a shit.
[Dealing] was a big part of me learning how to run a business. Having a business background became extremely beneficial later on when it came to building companies, starting touring entities, starting recording and publishing companies, production companies – all which utilized skills I learned from my early days as a weed dealer in Santa Cruz.
It sounds like all of your experiences – both in art and business – happened very organically.
Oliver Tree: It’s cool to be able to understand that the number one pitfall in both music and art is commerce. But the bigger pitfall is that artists are never really taught about business in art. I went to CalArts School for two years and they didn’t teach me a single business class. There wasn’t even one available. That’s fucking insane. People are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to a school that doesn’t even teach them the idea of business, when it’s business that allows you to survive as an artist. To not teach artists about commerce-in-art is extremely detrimental, not only to an artist’s survival, but to the execution of their creative endeavors. Making art on a commercial scale costs a lot of money, so earning how to find – and work with – investors and patrons plays a massive part in that process.
And it succeeds for you – in large part I imagine – because of the dichotomy between your more comical persona and the more serious subject matter of your content.
Oliver Tree: I never try to make the music funny. Paired with my character, it shows you the duality of people. It shows you to never judge a book by its cover. What you see on the outside isn’t usually the vulnerable person within. On a surface level, my album “Ugly is Beautiful” is about teaching people not to judge a book by its cover and to learn how to love themselves and the imperfections within themselves. By me presenting myself the way I do, I can show that message through my actions instead of by preaching to people. I can show people that you can be loved by being who you are and looking the way you look. But the album also goes much deeper, teaching how to accept who you are as a person and accepting where you’re at in life.
There’s so much hatred in this world because people hate themselves and hate their lives. They can’t look at themselves in the mirror, need to have something going on at all times, or constantly need other people around them. People are so sick with hatred that it manifests externally, which is why we’re living in such a fucked up society.
I’ve learned to love myself and how to accept who I am. I’ve learned my flaws are what made the DNA of the character of who I am today. “Ugly is Beautiful” is about coming to a place within yourself where you have finally arrived.
Follow @Olivertree and check out his debut album “Ugly is Beautiful” available everywhere