Mail call! I just got a copy of Olivia Jean’s latest release, “Raving Ghost.” Her third solo album released by Third Man Records, it is another round of her unique surf/rockbilly/goth/punk/garage infused rock n’ roll. But what I really love on this album is her inspired cover of Enya’s 1988 hit “Oronco Flow.” Immediatly recognizable, it is also completly different and possibly my favorite recording by any artist released thus far in 2023.
So any of you guys out there Olviia Jean fans? I’ve been following her career for years long before she was a solo artist. I came to adore Olivia Jean when she was with a incredible interesting, but short lived outfit from Nashville that called themselves The Black Belles.
With only one studio album, no hit singles and only existing as a band for four years, The Black Belles are one of my favorite groups of the last fifteen years. Formed in 2009 around singer/songwriter/guitarist Olivia Jean, The Black Belles were a product of Third Man Records’ founder Jack White and were an electrifying mixture of garage and goth rock, with an unexplainable element that was undeniably Nashville.
I didn’t discover The Black Belles through their music, but became aware of them from a photo I saw of them in Exclaim! Magazine in 2011. The Toronto based entertainment tabloid was listing all the “must see” bands that were appearing at the North by Northwest music festival and I couldn’t not notice The Black Belles. With a strong visible presence, the Belles, decked out in black shrouds and giant brimmed hats to protect their chalk white skin from the light of the moon had that goth look that drove me wild in the 1990’s (who am I kidding – it still drives me wild today). They were what it’d look like if Vampira, Morticia Addams, Theda Bara and Nancy Downs from “The Craft” got together and formed a band. They were playing one night only at one of my favorite concert venues – the Toronto Opera House, but unfortunately, I was unable to travel to Toronto that weekend to see them. But I made sure I jotted the name of the group down on a napkin so I could check their music out later and, man, I wasn’t disappointed. During a time when good rock music wasn’t making it to the mainstream, The Black Belles were just different enough to get me excited. Harnessing the sound of classic garage groups like The Music Machine or The Seeds, Olivia Jean’s aggressive but still feminine vocals split through chunky guitar riffs and swirling organ solos in a sound that was dark and foreboding, yet playful, and extremely delicious.
Detroit based singer/songwriter Olivia Jean first caught the attention of fellow Detroiter, and front man for “The White Stripes,” Jack White in 2009 when he got a copy of a demo tape she recorded, and he invited her to Nashville to record at his upstart recording studio. However, it was quickly established that Jean wasn’t ready for a solo debut, and she was introduced to drummer Shelby Lynne O’Neal and bassist Ruby Rogers, and the three of them quickly put together an act that had both grit and a theatrical element to it. Adopting a modern antebellum style with a gothi twist, the girls called themselves The Black Belles, alluding to them as being dark southern beauties. The sound, the style and the schtick worked, and the group proved to be a popular entity at Third Man Records.
For their debut release in 2011, a fourth member called Lil’ Boo was added on keyboards, who would create the much-needed pulsating cathedral organ which added to the gothic nature of their sound. The Black Belles self-titled album was released in October 2011, just in time for Halloween.
Quickly The Black Belles became a popular touring band, moving across North America and gaining press and a growing fan base, especially from the devotes of Jack White and Third Man Records. They also teamed up with Stephen Colbert as the back up band for his comedy single “Charlene (I’m Right Behind You)” and with Elvira for a rerecording of Jean’s “What Can I Do?” which became the theme for her syndicated TV show.
Although all the songs on the album are strong, my favorite has always been “Honky Tonk Horror.” Opening with a clanging cowbell and a musical acapella wail, Lil’ Boo’s swirling organ swells like something out of a Dr. Phibes movie and pauses for the crash of the guitars and drums as Olivia Jean shouts “I’ve been a bad girl, and I want to be good again.” If Kitty Welles and The Sisters of Mercy had produced a love child, it’d sound like “Honky Tonk Horror.”
I was completely fascinated with The Black Belles, not only for their aesthetic but also because they were a completely kick ass group and I reached out to Third Man Records to see if I could get an interview with anyone from the group. I wanted to do a feature article and help promote what, at the time, was a band just on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream. Someone, but I can’t remember who, did get back to me and said they’d arrange a phone interview with Olivia Jean and I, but I obviously had contacted them at a bad time. As weeks went by without a follow up, eventually I received a message that The Black Belles were “on hiatus” and Olivia was working on another project. It was a disappointment, but the email was personal and sincere, and apologetic in nature. As a freelance entertainment journalist, this happens a lot, and you get used to accepting it.
Well, I’m not sure what Third Man Records meant by “hiatus” but by 2012 The Black Belles were done. Mainstream success never happened, and The Black Belles faded away like a coven of vampires at dusk.
A few years later I nearly had a literal run in with Olivia Jean. In 2014 Jean released her first solo album, “Bathtub Love Killings” and hit the road to promote it. A pretty solid release, “Bathtub Love Killings” builds on the music of The Black Belles, but without the dramatic gothic flare. The promotional tour brought her back to the Toronto Opera House, and I quickly bought a ticket, making sure I didn’t miss her this time.
I arrived at the Opera House extremely early and was one of the first people in the doors, hours before the show. I’m not sure why I was there so early. My only guess is that I didn’t have any where else to go when I arrived in Toronto. But I love the Opera House and always like taking in the eerie vibe that it pulsates. For those who have never been there, The Opera House is one of Canada’s most historical theaters, which has been hollowed out to be a music venue. First opened in 1909 for vaudville, the theatre has maintained its Edwardian architecture, and still contains two massive frescos of elegant ladies painted facing one another from the walls on either end of the venue. It’s a spooky old place, but a place I’ve seen some of my favorite concerts. Going there is always a treat.
Well, as people who know me will attest, sometimes I don’t quite look where I’m going, or what I’m doing leading into me bumping onto things and people. It’s embarrassing, but true. Anyhow, while wandering through the Opera House looking at the decocted ceiling, I nearly crashed into a beautiful woman, who had to sidestep around me before she got crushed by my large frame. I caught her at the last moment from the corner of my eye, and as she was walking away, I thought “Wait. Was that Olivia Jean?”
“Nah. She was too short” I decided and went on with my study of the theatre. Well, hours later when she took the stage, I did realize that the woman I nearly trampled over was, in fact, Olivia Jean. She’s not as tall as I initially believed.
That night I brought a pocketful of money and hit the merch table, buying everything they could sell me – the t-shirt, the buttons, the 7” single and, best of all, The Black Belles album on vinyl! Rumor had it Olivia Jean was going to come out and sign items at the merch table after her set, and before the headliner played (in all honesty, I don’t remember who she was supporting, but whoever he was he was a big deal because the audience doubled for him and were enthusiastic). A group of us patiently waited with our arms full of merch, but eventually we found out Olivia Jean had slipped out the back door, jumped into an Uber and was long gone. I was disappointed, and I didn’t stick around for the headliner (whoever he was). I collected all my Olivia Jean and Black Belles swag together, left the Opera House and headed out of Toronto for home.
I’ve been followign Olivia Jean as a solo artist ever since. I still own and wear the t-shirt I bought at the show, which has maintained its shape, and really dug her 2019 release “Night Owl,” but unfortunatly missed out on owning a copy of “Allons-y,” a one off single she did with April March (another favorite of mine) which made me learn the important lesson of immediatly pre-ordering vinyl from independent artists the moment you learn qbout them. Olivia Jean is out on the road again this summer, but unfortunatly my personal plans gets in the way of me being able to get into Toronto to see her. But if you have the chance, I encourage you to hit up an Olivia Jean show in a city near you.
While I’ll always be an Olivia Jean fan, I will always have a sweeter spot for the band that started her off, The Black Belles. But there is an Epilogue to this story when Black Belles turned into Wedding Bells, Olivia Jean made music headlines again in April 2022, while in concert in their hometown of Detroit, Jack White proposed on stage to Oliva Jean and, upon her accepting, was immediately married in front of a packed audience making them the newest power couple in alternative music.