“We’re kinda like chameleons sometimes,” Sima Cunningham told American Songwriter. “It can be really fun to try on different costumes.”
While Cunningham’s words may seem like they were stolen from the mouth of Elton John’s wardrobe designer, she’s actually alluding to a musical embrace of variation and adaptation, as opposed to an aesthetic one. See, Cunningham and her partner-in-crime, Macie Stewart, make up the two halves of the Chicago-based indie band Ohmme — on Friday the band is set to drop their second full-length studio album, Fantasize Your Ghost via Joyful Noise Recordings. Produced by Chris Cohen, the record is a melodic, energetic and eclectic voyage that offers you a look into the creative relationship between Stewart, Cunningham and their artistic appetites.
“Both of us are in love with so many different kinds of music,” Stewart said, explaining that Ohmme’s nontraditional approach to genre was much less of a conscious decision and more of a subconscious result of the band’s tastes. “We intake that in various ways, we go to shows and listen to a lot on our own,” she added, “we internalize it and whatever our minds process is what comes out.”
This philosophy is reflected in the sonics of Fantasize Your Ghost, which features a colorful ensemble of sounds and textures. From the glossy harmonies of tracks like “Selling Candy” to the intricately playful guitar lines of tracks like “The Limit,” the innate musicianship of Stewart and Cunningham becomes evident.
“Ohmme definitely started as a project to combine the elements of harmony and chaos that we were so intrigued by,” Cunningham said, “but it’s never been defined by genre. Sometimes that can really feel like a challenge because we don’t necessarily know where to fit ourselves in… but why limit yourself to a genre? When it comes to being a band, we’re musicians and by nature we’re expansive. I think that a lot of my favorite artists are in the same boat.”
Cunningham is right to point out that many of Ohmme’s peers in the Chicago scene are at a similar junction. From the mosh-inducing indie rock of Twin Peaks, the feel-good beats of Chance the Rapper and everything in between, Chicago’s current scene is an excellent torchbearer for the iconic musical heritage of the city. Coming up in that environment left a deep creative impression on Ohmme.
“There’s a loudly beating heart in the indie scene around the world and it feels like it’s centered in Chicago,” Cunningham said. “It is home to one of the premier improvised music scenes in the world, which played a big role in our starting out. We’re not a very easy band to peg into a genre and a lot of the Chicago bands that we collaborate with are similar. There are artists who morph their persona through different projects, which is something that appeals to use because at our core we are musicians, we just really enjoy studying the craft of music. There’s this intense camaraderie in Chicago and we feel really lucky to be part of that.”
That sense of camaraderie can make a world of difference in any creative process. While it gives artists a drive and a sense of inspiration, it also gives them security and a sense of belonging. This dynamic not only exists between bands but within them as well. First meeting while in high school, Stewart and Cunningham cite their friendship as a key element of Ohmme’s success.
“In order to write and share your songs with someone, you have to be able to trust them,” Stewart said. “That’s something we’re still working on. It’s really scary to start a song — this thing that comes from the core of yourself — and share it with another person. You gotta trust that the other person is going to do what they think is best for the song and for you.”
This especially makes sense when considering the reflective nature of Fantasize Your Ghost. See, the depth of the album’s wide array of sound and texture is met only by the depth of its thematic content. As aforementioned, the band takes great pride in being Chicago locals, but it was leaving Chicago for extended tours that made them begin to dissect that relationship. Introspective and explorative, Stewart and Cunningham take a deep dive into their own lives attempting to find out what exactly ‘home’ is.
“We release our first full-length record in August 2018 and since then we’ve been on tour almost every month,” Stewart said. “While I don’t think this is a record about ‘touring’ necessarily, a lot of the themes on the record are about finding what your own concept of home is. What changes? How do you respond to change? How can change affect you? What choices can you make? When you’re on the road — or in any sort of limited space that’s not grounded — those questions come up. It can be traveling a lot or changing jobs or changing relationships or anything, but it’s all about basic change. It’s about deciding which version of yourself you’re going to move forward with.”
The stress of maintaining a sense of structure (not to mention a sense of self) while living on the road not influenced the writing of the record, but the production of it as well. Often for Ohmme, breaks in between dates on tour were the only times when the band could work on Fantasize Your Ghost.
“It’s really hard to write on the road, but we ended up starting the demo process on the road because that was the only time that we had together,” Stewart said. “In one way it added to the thematic nature of the record because it kinda kept us from thinking about it too much. It kept us from finding ways to answer those questions. I think that’s why the record has such a questioning atmosphere, we were on our toes the entire time, working on the go. It kept the momentum up for the record, but it’s also interesting when thinking about the questions we were asking ourselves. We ended up being gone more working on that record.”
Yet, while the process of writing and recording the demo was defined by the pressures of touring, the recording process of the record was defined by an embrace of nature. After enlisting Cohen to produce, Ohmme relocated to a barn in upstate New York to lay the tracks proper.
“We like to collaborate with at least one new person on each record, so we reached out to Chris [Cohen] because we love his records,” Cunningham said. “We sent him the demos and he was excited by them, so we decided on a collection of the songs and he came out to record in our barn. Every day we’d record for 10 or 12 hours and at night we’d have a bonfire. It was great to collaborate with Chris, he’s a really fun person to be around and has a great ear. He has great subtle ideas about stuff like guitar tone or little parts. He helped us maximize the drum sounds we could get from that big barn. He even helped us figure out how much bug sound we wanted to use — at the end of the process we ended up amping a lot of stuff back through the barn so we could capture the full scope of the bugs and birds we were hanging out with every day.”
This atmosphere is palpable on the record. One song — “Sturgeon Moon” — is even a direct snapshot of that serene recording experience. “That song was from one night when we asked Chris to set us up to do an improvised session,” Cunningham said. “We improved for an hour and a half and that’s a little excerpt from it.” So, just as the road left its mark on Fantasize Your Ghost, so did the tranquil wilderness of upstate New York.
“That big open barn is a really special place for us,” Cunningham added. “It’s nice being able to walk out the big barn doors straight into the prairie to take a break. We had a pretty compact amount of time to get a lot done, so being able to have that off-balance was nice. We recorded in August, so it was definitely hot, but there were a lot of happy birds and happy bugs. They really announced their presence all over this record. I think that’s really special — I love records that have creatures singing harmony in the background.”
The end result is something that is inseparably entwined with Stewart, Cunningham and their shared experience. Fantasize Your Ghost is a beautiful embrace of tension — tension between stability and adventure, between city and nature, between reality and perception, between the self and the whole. It’s melodies and harmonies fantastically bounce around the valleys and hills of Ohmme’s tonal palette, its lyrics beckon you to look at yourself and ask: which version of myself am I going to move forward with?
Ohmme’s Fantasize Your Ghost drops this Friday via Joyful Noise Recordings — listen to the single “Ghost” below: