When Anime Oscen was editing her first video in 2015, she came across a cartoon filter and decided to animate herself. Through “One Drum,” a track encouraging world peace, the Canadian artist (real name, Leslie Allin) also started forming her “anime” moniker that would follow her through a solo career and her project, Anime Oscen and Hive.
“It felt like my ’80s dreams had come true, and I just turned myself into a cartoon, and I thought it looked kind of neat,” says Oscen. “I needed a stage name, so ‘Anime’ came from my video being animated. Then I started looking up the word songbird in all kinds of languages, and the one that stood out to me as unique was the Latin version, ‘Oscen.’”
Today, the “animated songbird,” Oscen (pronounced OS-can), is continuing to expand her solo catalog. She has also released her third album, This Is aniMe—a follow up to 2018 debuts My First Time and Broken Chain—and made music with her band Anime Oscen and Hive with musicians Eric Papky and Michael Brown, all under Chuck D’s SpitSlam label.
Working with the Public Enemy founder was something Oscen, who grew up in the “Steel City” of Hamilton, Ontario, never imagined when she was hiding in her bedroom singing and asking anyone who happened to hear her belt out lyrics to keep it a secret.
Although her mother had dreams of Oscen becoming a ballerina, singing came more naturally to the songbird, but she was still too shy to share it with the world. “I remember calling my sister into my room when I was maybe 7 years old,” shares Oscen. “I told her to crouch down beside my bed, and I started singing ‘Amazing Grace’ to her with all these runs and stuff, and she said, ‘Oh my God, how did you do that?.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but don’t tell anyone.’”
After dipping into some vocal lessons in church and high school, Oscen continued singing, mostly keeping it to herself. “I don’t know why I kept it to myself for so long,” she says. “Then in high school, I was singing along to some Sinead O’Connor video, and my friend was sitting beside me and said, ‘You can sing really good,’ and I was like, ‘Shhh, don’t tell anyone.’”
After living in Kentucky for more than three years, Oscen started exploring performing. Still feeling intimidated, she was 19 or 20 when she entered her first singing competition at a local venue Coyote’s, where she had seen artists like Willie Nelson and Nazareth perform. In the end, she came in second. After a close encounter with an audition for the Canadian TV singing competition, “Popstars,” Oscen, who was also a new mom, used the next few years to strengthen her vocals and learn, picking up the guitar and ukulele, which would ultimately aid in her songwriting.
Oscen jokes that motherhood helped her evolve and maintain herself as an artist. “I think being a single mother and kind of taking myself out of the social scene for awhile preserved me,” laughs Oscen. “It’s been a long journey, but I’m addicted to learning, so this time has given me everything. I think it’s because I’ve stayed behind the scenes for so long that I’ve just been able to just pick up new things all the time.”
Admitting she can write several songs a day, Oscen is a writing machine. When writing, she says songs can come from anywhere.
“Sometimes I’ll hear something in my head, and I’ll start humming along, and sometimes I’ll get a melody and I’ll want to add words to it,” she says. “A lot of the times I’ll honestly start singing something and decide whether it’s going to be a chorus or a verse and just go from there. Often, it just comes all at once.”
At SpitSlam, Oscen and Chuck D tend to work from song titles. He’ll often send an idea for a song or a title, which she’ll write lyrics around. The Hive’s first four country songs in 2016 were crafted with D in this way. “Border, Waters, and Orders” was a title D gave to Oscen, along with the idea for a track called “Everyone’s Got Won,” which was initially an idea for a song addressing gun abuse.
“He gave me the title, and I just went from there,” says Oscen. “With ‘Everyone’s Got Won,’ he gave me the idea he wanted something to do with guns. Then, gave me the title, ‘Uberloser,’ and I went from there. He also gave me the title ’45 Degrees,’ which is a song on my new album.”
This Is aniMe showcases Oscen’s folk-pop fusions and genre-bending tendency, from the heartfelt opener “Drowning” through the jazzier “45 Degrees,” a song exploring cell phone addiction and the 45-degree angle of one’s head when constantly looking down at a phone. Led by Oscen’s delicate and whimsical vocals, This Is aniMe maneuvers into alt-rock, R & B and other genres, from the synth entangled “Titanic” and experimental dub-overtones on “Backwards Butterfly” and the moodier closing of “Fake News,” exposing Oscen’s many musical angles.
“The majority of my songs have just come from me, but I love it when he [Chuck D] gives me ideas, because they always turn out great,” says Oscen. “They’re always super political, hard hitting ideas, and that’s what I like. It’s not just a song. It’s more than that. I can write a thousand love songs a day, but we all know there are a million of those already.”
She adds, “I love the fact that I am now in a position where I can say I wrote that song—the melody, the lyrics, the arrangement—and I produced everything that you’re hearing.”
On This Is aniMe, seven of the tracks were produced, mixed and mastered by Oscen in 2019 with the recent tracks, “Backwards Butterfly” and “45 Degrees” written several months before the album’s release. Written 25 years earlier, a song called “The One That Got Away” almost made the album, but Oscen decided it wasn’t ready in its arrangement just yet. “I’m putting it on the next album,” shares Oscen. “I wrote it 25 years ago, but it sounds like another song I wrote a year ago.”
It’s been a long evolution for Oscen, but a good one. Until 2015, Oscen says everything she ever wrote was still trapped in a book. After making the video for her first single “One Drum” and circulating it on YouTube and other social platforms, she first caught the attention of Chuck D, who started following her on Twitter. Soon she was part of the SpitSlam family, and Anime Oscen and Hive found themselves performing after Public Enemy at the Many Rivers to Cross Festival in Atlanta. Following PE’s performance of “Fight the Power,” D introduced his new artist to festival attendees.
“He gave us a half an hour of Public Enemy’s stage time,” says Oscen. “I think we shocked the heck out of the audience. They weren’t expecting a white country band.”
Working with Hive allows Oscen to reveal her country persona. “People have always told me I have a good voice for country,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be Celine Dion or Bette Midler, so I didn’t listen, but it’s just funny, because now the stronger my vocals get, the more I realize that I pretty much make everything sound like a country song.”
Described by D as “Revolt Country,” Anime and Hive is a departure from her folksy, genre-fluid solo catalog. “He can describe my sound any way he likes, because I honestly would not know how to describe it myself,” jokes Oscen about the “revolt” tag given to her and Hive by D. “I love every genre of music, and I think that just seeps into everything I write. I know you’re supposed to pick a category and it’s frowned upon to say, ‘I do everything,’ but I do do everything. I write R & B, pop, rock, country, and industrial-sounding stuff, and you can hear it all on one album.”
Now, Oscen is using this time off the road to write and produce, including revising that 25-year-old track “The One That Got Away” and another song she wrote about her mother, who passed away seven years ago.
“It’s going to be a mix of things that I’ve been holding back that are really important to me,” says Oscen.
When pulling together This Is aniMe, she says everything just came together without a specific concept in mind. “I didn’t really think about it at first,” says Oscen. “I just started writing and once the songs started coming together, I realized that a lot of them weren’t really necessarily on a specific subject. It’s just me telling my story and who I am from some of the deepest places. That’s why I called it This is aniMe.”
Oscen adds, “This is the me. This is who I am. And you’re going to know a lot more about me after you listen to this album.”