Calming, ambient rainfall cascades through my headphones- a refreshing use of real-world effects to flesh out a soothing soundscape that effortlessly creates an intimate, naturalistic mood- a perfect beginning to an outstanding piece of musical artwork.
Alli O’Donnell’s “Trout” is a romantic adventure that beckons listeners through a hopeful courtship with atmospheric indie-folk instrumentals and dreamy vocals. According to her Bandcamp page, “Trout” was recorded in two days: “one sunny and one rainy”, and it shows. Not only because of the distant, muted backdrop of rain throughout the piece but because thematically, the music and lyrics align with the tenderness and cozy intimacy of both climes, creating a welcoming and nuanced romantic story for the listener.
One of the most distinct aspects of “Trout” that I enjoyed was the voice of O’Donnell herself. In the world of indie singer-songwriters, one of the most prominent elements of the genre is the term “singer”. What can make or break the discography of a singer-songwriter are the unique tonal qualities that each recording artist brings to the table, and Alli O’Donell definitely fits the bill. The legato-lilt vocals on the track felt reminiscent of The Cranberries’ late Dolores O’Riordan- just a little softer around the edges- and the wistful drifting of 90’s Mazzy Star.
Very elegant and genuine, O’Donnell’s voice is perfectly suited to the story “Trout” is trying to tell.
The song’s journey begins with:
I went fishing in the river beside the lake.
Caught a trout with a hook in its mouth,
and he spat it out.
I use the term “hopeful courtship” because of the potentiality of this piece. Repetitions of what-ifs and narrowly missed windows for attaining one’s desire are present throughout the entire song. The tried-and-true analogy of “the one that got away” is the first verse in the song, presenting you with an accessible, yet poetic door into more imagery as the song develops.
I went climbing in the tree beside the house.
Caught my hair in the branches,
and I ripped it out.
As the rhythmic guitar plucking plods in the background, O’Donnell sings about the adventurous determination and carefree sacrifices made in this journey towards love. I enjoy how the extended metaphor and imagery of the natural, forest-like scenes progress in this piece. There’s a feeling of progression here, as if each verse is another event on a journey towards some indeterminate, emotional destination. The chorus makes its first appearance here, proposing the prevailing what-if of the song:
But if you sing to me sweetly, I think I could fall in love.
But only if you sing sweetly.
The duality of the sunny-raining weather dynamic makes its appearance here, taking on more depth as the piece’s perspective is projected onto someone other than the speaker. O’Donnell begins to sing about the other side of the journey, first presenting the steps the speaker is taking, then beginning to describe what it would take for love to grow between these two hypothetical characters.
You went fishing in the river beside the lake.
Caught me with a look and a smile
to fight it out.
You thought by climbing a tree
you could scout me out.
Slam your heart next to mine,
but I ripped it out.
This last verse feels like a list of grievances, with the speaker recalling previous attempts at love, and why, each time, they fell short. But what I love about this piece is the hope that perseveres throughout it, that love is never impossible, that if effort is made to change, the sweet conclusion that this song yearns for will be reached. That…
If you sing to me sweetly, I think I could fall in love
But only if you sing sweetly
But if you sing to me sweetly, I think I could fall in love
But only if you sing sweetly
This piece captures that feeling of longing beautifully, and is an excellent listen for those looking for a more contemplative, poetic story.
Below is a Q&A I had the opportunity to participate in with Alli O’Donnell, where we discussed some of the ins and outs of her work:
Is this your first musical project?
Yes. I wasn’t actually pursuing music a year ago. I graduated from school and wanted to write novels. I self-published a novella right out of college and wrote several more manuscripts. I have been singing and writing ever since I can remember, but I only picked up the guitar my sophomore year of college. No one in my immediate family is musical. I never seriously considered singing my own material in front of audiences. A friend told me that Mason Jar Music was hosting a songwriting competition and encouraged me to enter. I’ve always respected their work, and I had a couple of songs I had written to help me learn some picking patterns on my guitar. Though I was horribly sick at the time, I recorded “Trout” on a podcast mic and entered it into the competition. The rest of the story is the three songs me and Mason Jar Music recorded together.
What caused you to start writing music in the first place?
This is the hardest question to answer. The shortest answer is I couldn’t not write music. I so enjoy music, almost to the point of needing music, and I have such a compulsion to create, that the inevitable result is writing—whether that be books, poetry, or music. In copious amounts.
What is your favorite part about songwriting?
My favorite part of songwriting is when you find a sound that aligns with the feeling you’re trying to convey as well as the meaning of your words. When all three of those elements are there, that’s the sweet spot. And if the feeling is true and good, you just want to keep singing that song.
What is your least favorite?
My least favorite part of songwriting is definitely playing my guitar while singing. Playing guitar is not natural to me yet, and I have to think really hard about it. It can throw off the singing part of songwriting for me.
Who would you say are your biggest influences?
I didn’t listen to folk music growing up. We always had music playing in the background at home, and my parents played artists like Alison Krauss, Bonnie Raitt, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Norah Jones, and the Subdudes. James Taylor was the closest we got to folk. When I was in high school, I got a computer and started looking for my own music. In his Watch, Listen, Tell YouTube days, I found Ben Howard singing poetry and bending his guitar and words to accommodate each other. I was enamored with his acoustic performances. When I moved to New York for school, my sister got me a record player, and I discovered artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez. That was when my education in folk really began. I fell in love with the genre and felt that I naturally fit in.
What drove you to create “Trout”?
I was feeling really annoyed with the dating scene—not just for me but for my friends as well. There was one relationship in particular that I felt misunderstood in. The guy seemed to think if he performed in a certain way that he could trap me. And once he’d trapped me that I couldn’t get out. In several conversations with friends, I found that they shared similar feelings. I started thinking about the language we sometimes use when talking about dating. We sometimes throw out clichés like “there are other fish in the sea,” or “caught him—hook, line, and sinker,” or “he’s a good catch.” I thought to myself, “woah, woah, woah, love is not like fishing.”
When writing this song, what inspired you to use such vivid imagery of nature?
The imagery drove the conversation for me. I had recently been ice fishing for trout with my grandpa and uncles in Maine. They are very respectful toward the fish, but the whole process is brutal, especially played out on the ice. When I got back to New York, I re-watched one of my favorite movies, Australia directed by Baz Lurhmann. The opening scene is played to a voiceover by the aboriginal boy, Nullah. He is catching fish with his grandfather using the “magic song.” During the movie, he repeats this idea of “singing things to him.” You learn about the way that he sees nature. You get the idea that he believes in an order to nature and that the fish will gladly serve its purpose if asked, even if it means sacrificing itself. “Trout” flowed out of these images.
What’s your favorite aspect of “Trout” as a work?
I’ve been able to sing this song live several times now, and I love the conversations it spurs with the audience and the new layers of meaning that are revealed by this searching back and forth. Here is an example of one.
I wrote this song out of a feeling of frustration about the way some boys were treating me and my friends. I was talking with a woman after a show, and she said something like, “And some girls do their best to make themselves up, dress in a particular way, and act in a pleasing way to lure men to them. We make ourselves into hooks.” It blew my mind and humbled me to turn the table and reflect on how I could possibly be treating relationships with other people like this.
My favorite aspect of this song is that I learn more about “Trout” every time I sing it live.
What was the hardest part of creating this piece?
The phrasing is very difficult in this song. When I got into the studio, I was singing it differently every time. I would add a measure here or take one away. We finally settled on an arrangement, but I still sing it differently every time live.
I really liked the use of rain in the song. Is there any specific reason you chose to add it in?
Hahaha, actually, this song was recorded on two different days. The second day I came in, I was supposed to be tracking background vocals for the other tracks, but I told Jeremy, one of my producers, that I was unhappy with the vocals we got for “Trout.” He let me try again. It was raining hard and thundering that day, and the first couple of takes, you could hear the thunder in the background. Jeremy did some quick thinking and set up a mic outside to catch any rain and thunder sounds. It fit perfectly with the story of the song, so we kept it in the final mix.
Is this song written for any certain audience or person in particular?
This song was written as more of a release for feelings and thoughts I was having at the time. I hope it continues to find people who have felt similarly. I think telling honest stories should be at the top of every songwriter’s list of intentions.
What message, if any, would you say you want your audience to come away from the song with?
Falling in love is not like fishing.
Can we look forward to more work from you in the future?
Absolutely! I have two more songs coming out with Mason Jar Music soon: “Down” and “Cavalry Horse.” I’m also working on a four-song EP with another friend that I’ll be releasing hopefully later this year.