- Ash Dye
- Sima Cunningham (in black) and Macie Stewart formed Ohmme as a duo in 2014, then added drummer Matt Carroll in 2016.
Imagine you've spent months at a time on the road with your band for more than two years running, bouncing between opening slots, festival appearances, and headlining sets in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Europe. You've been enthralling audiences with the frenetic yet tightly controlled energy of your immersive live show, supporting a bold and proudly unconventional debut album.
Now imagine that mere months from the release of your second full-length, all but guaranteed to explosively broaden your audience, you're sidelined—not by the standard-issue music-industry evils (a soured major-label contract, a monopolistic booker) but by a force much more powerful and even more impersonal.
That's the reality faced by many buzzed-about acts as COVID-19 continues to spread—Chicago art-rock band Ohmme among them.
Ohmme founders Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart and their drummer, Matt Carroll, were supposed to hit the road in April opening for Waxahatchee, ahead of the June 5 release of Fantasize Your Ghost (Joyful Noise). Then they would've kicked off the west-coast leg of a headlining tour with their friend V.V. Lightbody.
Continued efforts to flatten the curve of the pandemic mean they're now self-isolating separately and confined to livestreaming their performances. And like so many of us, they've been trying their hand at making focaccia and turning to astrology to try to make sense of the wrenching changes in the world.
"I made my first successful focaccia the other night," Cunningham says. "My first one did not rise. Now, I've got it down pat."
When Fantasize Your Ghost came out last week, its release coincided with the latest Bandcamp revenue-sharing day, when the platform waives its cut of sales to help artists and labels struggling during the pandemic. Rather than celebrate their album, the band chose to stand in solidarity with another struggle—the ongoing fight for Black lives that erupted again into the streets after the police killing of George Floyd. Ohmme donated their Bandcamp proceeds to Chicago nonprofit Assata's Daughters, a Black liberatory activist group formed by women, femmes, and gender-nonconforming people.
"We are asking for you to transform your support for us into support for our Chicago community and the Black Lives Matter movement," Ohmme explained on Instagram. "Our record is about confronting the inevitability of change and the chaos, discomfort, beauty and growth that can produce in a soul. Let's all keep learning, keep going, and keep listening to Black voices."
In the months since COVID-19 shut down the live-music ecosystem, Ohmme have played several online sets, sometimes sharing a room and sometimes remotely, including as part of Goose Island's 312unes series and the Dr. Martens Presents: Stay In series (the latter included Carroll live from Denmark). When Carroll can't participate, Cunningham and Stewart use his drum tracks or do without, as they did on May 10, when they played acoustically via Mayor Lightfoot's Instagram to benefit the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund. They're also scheduled to headline the first night of the Do Division Street Fest's inaugural virtual edition on Friday, June 26.
Do Division Virtual Street Fest night one featuring Ohmme, Fran, We Were Promised Jetpacks (solo), and Wyatt Waddell
Tonight's bill is booked by the Empty Bottle. Fri 6/26, 5:15 PM, West Town Chamber of Commerce, westtownchamber.org, $10 suggested donation, all ages
The ten muscular tracks on Fantasize Your Ghost showcase the band's intrepid spirit and clever control over their instruments, while their lyrics explore what it means and how it feels when you've become a stranger to the life you once knew. Meaningful relationships run their course and empty out; places and things you've built an identity around stop feeling significant. The album's 40 minutes succinctly evoke the anger, clarity, pain, and joy that can come if you accept what comes next.
Cunningham, 30, and Stewart, 27, are nimble multi-instrumentalists and arresting singers, and they've collaborated widely throughout Chicago's sprawling music communities, playing with artists working in rock, hip-hop, classical, folk, country, jazz, noise, and more. Between them they've worked with the likes of Chance the Rapper, Tortoise, Jeff Tweedy, and Twin Peaks.
Ohmme's sound reflects their varied backgrounds and their classical training. The band might adopt the cadences and syncopation of hip-hop, take deep breaths of folk-rock simplicity, or erupt with the all-in ferocity of a freely improvised electric-guitar freak-out—and they can balance it all gracefully. Stewart and Cunningham don't know exactly why their partnership works so much better than all their other musical relationships, but they're grateful for it.
The band had planned for their debut full-length, 2018's Parts, to "waterfall into" Fantasize Your Ghost, as Cunningham puts it—they'd hoped to weave its material into their sets on that canceled April tour with Waxahatchee. They see the albums as two facets of the same journey, but where the former looks outward at social norms—particularly those navigated by women, which were placed under a microscope before and after the 2016 presidential election—the latter turns its focus inward.
Fantasize Your Ghost also seems prescient in light of how state-mandated shelter-in-place orders and new efforts to phase in pre-COVID activity have affected our relationships to daily existence. It can seem futile to try to control our lives and what's happening around us, or even to wrestle with our desire to do so—and it's especially difficult to put off uncomfortable questions.
"A lot of this record deals with contending with different versions of yourself," says Cunningham. "The version you are right now was the version that, at some point in the past, you chose—and you kind of followed that for a while. You can start to feel a little hollow or feel you really need to bring yourself back to life in a different way to move forward. It's about making those decisions."
"Change is the only constant, as cheesy as it sounds," Stewart adds. "It's up to you to figure out how you approach and welcome it into your life—whether you're up for it or fighting against it. Either one is worthwhile, but it's about figuring out how you want to respond while you can."
Ohmme first surprised audiences with an ambitious self-titled EP in 2015 (which was reissued two years later). Their aesthetic took shape early: haunting melodies, lyrics that read like riddles, and confident disruptions of pop-songwriting and instrumental techniques. They incorporate odd meters and unusual chord combinations so fluidly that their sophisticated musical intelligence erases its own fingerprints, but at the same time they embrace "mistakes" and work to unlearn technically correct ways of doing things. It's a way of finding the freedom to explore that they absorbed from the world of free improvisation.
Right from its first track, "Flood Your Gut," Fantasize Your Ghost is daunting. Not because it's ugly or confrontational, but because the distortion of pop convention creates uncertainty and suspense. The song captures a brooding tone, with an anxious guitar riff and rumbling bass, and Stewart and Cunningham deliver its angry lyrics in a deceptively sweet style: "Have you found your stomach or your spine? / When I leave, they'll eat you alive," they coo. "One, two, three, you're not your mother's daughter," they repeat, their honeyed vocals dissipating into murky strings. "Your whole vision's not enough."
As the album unfolds, its layers of overdubbed vocals and processed guitars evoke the turmoil that boils and bubbles inside a person as they outgrow their surroundings or who they thought they needed to be. Each track has its own urgent push and pull, and Stewart often punctuates the arrangements with intricate flurries of strings that can sound clean and sweeping or knotty and tortured.
Fantasize Your Ghost is as much of a call to action to reclaim one's life ("3 2 4 3") as it is a taunt, a challenge to, and an admonishment of those who lose themselves to the expectations of others. It describes opportunities for redefining your behavioral and emotional patterns ("The Limit," "Spell It Out") as well as for sabotaging yourself by kissing strangers or falling for flattery from flawed heroes ("Twitch").
While Ohmme's lyrics generally offer more questions than answers, the album's closing track, "After All," comes closer than most to a resolution; it also has the most familiar, traditional melody, tinged with 60s vocal-group pop. Unambiguously about having compassion for yourself, it's a reminder for women to stand firm and create their own spaces in a society that demands they shrink themselves. "Lonely girl, it's OK / Take a breath, get away / Seek your cocoon," they sing, with Stewart's sweet, high voice floating above Cunningham's warm, cozily worn-in one. "Lonely girl, you're enough / Take a breath, loosen up."
Stewart thinks she and Cunningham were picking up on a low-grade crisis in their corner of Chicago's music scene. "In our community, everyone was working like crazy," she explains. "Maybe not taking the time for themselves that they needed to take in order to be fully present in any given moment. I think, whether or not we realized it, we were tuned into that. We're definitely tuned into that on a personal level, and it makes sense our songs would come out that way."
Stewart and Cunningham founded Ohmme in 2014 with the intention of pushing the boundaries of guitar music, which soon evolved into their "unlearning" approach. "Guitar music encompasses such a vast variety of music from so many different cultures that the idea of boundaries begin to dissipate, and you realize that it really can be anything," Stewart says. "I think that's the biggest takeaway for us. There's no one correct way to do anything, no end-all, be-all technique for achieving something. The most important thing is to have an idea and try to use the tools you have in front of you to execute it. At the moment, that happens to be the guitar."
They both play guitar, with Stewart sometimes switching to bass or violin. Both sing, usually together, and treat their voices as equally important instruments with their own distinct roles. Even without a drummer, they "fill a lot of space," as Stewart puts it. "Because we're both able to play multiple instruments and multitask, we can do the work of a much larger band."
Because Ohmme have never tried to tour with more than three musicians, they've been able to do so more frequently. But Stewart's arrangements on Fantasize Your Ghost did raise the question of traveling with a string section.
"We're not gonna tour with a string section," says Cunningham, deadpan. "We'll make different arrangements. But that being said, there's a lot of strings on the record. We had some fun, special shows planned in Chicago and a couple other cities, and Macie's such a great string arranger—she was going to reach out to different local string sections. That's something we'll bring back at some point, but just not in the near future."
Stewart and Cunningham work together as a unit so seamlessly it seems instinctual. They describe their relationship as equal parts intense artistic partnership, deep friendship, and sisterhood; they share their own verbal and nonverbal language, onstage, offstage, and in the studio.
Carroll, 30, joined Ohmme in 2016, and because he's the only other person who's ever been a member of the group, he's part of the family. Cunningham says he sometimes gives his bandmates shit for bickering in rehearsal.
"When me and Macie get up in our heads too much, he shakes us out of it," she says. "Matt is really just a source of joy. When we brought Matt into the band, musically, it created this kind of centrifuge for us. He's at the center, at the middle—able to bend out with us but also really hold it together back there. He's always egging us on from behind the drum set."
The two women were acquainted before starting Ohmme: Cunningham often guested in Marrow, an indie-rock band Stewart cofounded in 2013. By then they'd known each other for years—Stewart was an original member of Kids These Days, a genre-bending hip-hop/funk/soul/pop group cofounded in 2009 by Vic Mensa and Cunningham's brother, Liam Kazar. After Kids These Days split up in 2013, Stewart and Kazar formed Marrow with Carroll, their former bandmate Lane Beckstrom, and Dorian Gehring, who'd become Ohmme's longtime engineer.
Stewart, a keenly melodic improviser, joined the explorative, high-energy jazz quintet Marker, led by veteran reedist Kevin Vandermark and including three other young Chicago musicians, in 2016. Cunningham spent 12 years in the Chicago Children's Choir and released her debut solo album, Time Is Never Your Friend, in 2010. She's been involved in several bands, and for more than a decade she's done event production and promotion work around the city.
After debuting in July 2014 at the Postock Festival, an annual DIY music celebration in rural Wisconsin that Cunningham has presented since 2008, Ohmme played their first Chicago show that September at Constellation. (They were initially called Homme—French for "man"—but made the change to avoid confusion with a South Korean duo of the same name.) Cunningham had started booking the long-running singer-songwriter series I Hear Voices at Constellation shortly after drummer and arts presenter Mike Reed (perhaps most famous as founding director of the Pitchfork Music Festival) opened the venue in 2013, and she and Stewart were enamored with the shows there. After a Marc Ribot concert at Constellation in May 2013, they got to talking shop, planting seeds for what would become their current approach to progressive music.
"A lot of the early part of this band was coming out of the improvised-jazz world. We were both going to Constellation a lot," Stewart says. "It was just really inspiring to see instruments played and music played with such intention. Being able to just improvise and go—letting sounds be what they are and exploring textures rather than feeling you have to fit them into the constraints of whatever arbitrary rules there are."
Stewart and Cunningham's friend Vivian McConnell, aka singer-songwriter V.V. Lightbody, opened for them at their debut show. "They really excite me," she says. "When I see them doing stuff with the guitar that I haven't seen anybody do or wouldn't have thought of—I'm just blown away."
The three of them met when McConnell's old band Grandkids shared a bill with Marrow at Schubas in March 2014. They've been going to each other's gigs ever since, and McConnell calls Ohmme her "band besties."
"I will never, ever forget—people were losing their shit when they played 'Woman,'" she says. "People were screaming. It was insane. It's crazy, because that energy—that happens to this day when they play that song at shows. Just them as musicians really struck me—it still does. And they're friends of the scene: they grew up in Chicago and have just been so supportive."
A 2017 Noisey piece called Ohmme "the band at the heart of Chicago's music community," and McConnell echoes that sentiment—not only as a fellow musician but also as another woman rejuvenating and recasting a male-dominated genre. Stewart played violin arrangements for three songs on the latest V.V. Lightbody album, Make a Shrine or Burn It, and Cunningham provided vocals on the single "Horse on Fire."
"Sonically, we're very different," McConnell says, "but I also think there are certain things we do that place us in our own little nook—they're still songs, but take on a different shape and complexity that's indicated by what we do with our instruments. They've helped me realize my own inconsistencies, but always in a positive way. Women, especially women musicians—singing and working with them lifts me up. They're very encouraging. They've inspired me to do more with my instrument and vice versa."
McConnell describes the X factor that sets Ohmme apart: "Trust—and having so much confidence and trust that whatever they do is going to be good," she says.
That dynamic is apparent even to people working with Ohmme for the first time. Indie-rock veteran Chris Cohen (formerly of Deerhoof, the Curtains, and Cryptacize) produced Fantasize Your Ghost over five days in August 2019, and he felt it right away: "They're special people," he says. "I always feel that way about the people I work with, but they have a really special touch."
Cohen joined Ohmme and Gehring at a makeshift studio they'd put together in a barn in Wisconsin, on the farm where Cunningham hosts Postock. "I just really encouraged them to play as loud as they could," Cohen says. Playing loud wasn't a problem, but the vocals needed to match that power.
Ohmme drew inspiration from Bulgarian women's choruses and Abba, particularly for the keening close harmonies of the loss-of-innocence song "Selling Candy." Their goal was to just open their mouths and "push out sound."
In spring 2019 the band had tracked a few early demos for Fantasize Your Ghost while on the road in upstate New York. Then they went in search of a producer. Stewart has been a fan of Cohen's old band Deerhoof for years, and more recently Cunningham heard some of his solo albums through Twin Peaks multi-instrumentalist Colin Croom. The pair also liked Cohen's production on Weyes Blood's 2016 album Front Row Seat to Earth.
Ohmme squeezed in those five days of tracking between their tours and Cohen's. Between August 2019 and the end of the year, they mixed the album in Chicago with Dave Vettraino at Public House Sound Recordings and mastered it with Shelly Steffens at Chicago Mastering Service. The relatively brief window the band had available to record pushed them to focus their explorations. Cohen encouraged them to venture into new approaches and techniques, modify their harmonies, and more. Nothing was off limits.
"It was very intense. We did a lot of work every day," he says. "I felt like I got where they were coming from. They're into improvised music, and I liked that they were adventurous. And obviously, they could sing really well together.
"My role was to help them get sounds," Cohen continues, "to be another opinion, make suggestions for overdubs. They had the material, and they had worked it out quite a bit on their own. I don't try to get in there and pull everything apart. My job is just kind of setting a tone in the room—making people feel comfortable to try things while keeping them on track."
The barn was weathered, with gaps in the walls that left it open to the elements—Cohen remembers birds living inside, and of course lots more outside. Their singing, the buzzing of insects, and other environmental sounds almost act as a thread through Fantasize Your Ghost. The juxtaposition of this pastoral ambience with Ohmme's pissed-off songs adds a layer of tension to the album.
"Recording in the barn, there were definitely a lot of room mikes placed around to capture the breadth and feeling of the room," Cunningham recalls. "There's actually a silo next to the barn, so we put a mike in there and re-amped the whole session through there so we could play around with that as this enormous reverb chamber."
Cohen remembers the band having fun with the setting they'd chosen for their sessions. "I think everyone was excited to treat it like it was a performance and just play into this big, open space," he says. "I usually like to record where there are less unknown factors, but it wasn't a problem at all. It was really cool. It turned out to be a good choice."
Cunningham feels the same way about choosing Cohen to produce. "Chris Cohen was definitely the right energy to bring onto this record, at a time where we were both feeling very chaotic, feeling the turmoil and wanting to translate that into the art and also find calm in it," she says. "But you kind of need tension to make music great sometimes, but you also really want to find a way to—"
"You've got to take care of yourself," Stewart finishes.
"It was kind of a marathon getting to the recording session, and it was going to be a marathon right after the recording session," Cunningham continues. "We knew we had this huge fall coming up. We were just trying really hard to create this special bubble of time, and Chris was a big part of that—and a big part of why I think the record carries this kind of shimmering beauty to it, in its foundation."
- Ash Dye
- Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham
That August week in Wisconsin fell under the Sturgeon Moon—an old name for the full moon that happens in August, because Indigenous people associated that time of year with a surge in numbers of sturgeon in the Great Lakes. The word "sturgeon" means "stirrer" in several European languages, and it describes the way the fish searches for sustenance—as well as Ohmme's approach to songcraft. They stir up the material that's settled to the bottom, the foundation, hoping to find something hidden, forgotten, or new.
Ohmme named the lone instrumental track on the new album "Sturgeon Moon," and it's the first and so far only track of its kind they've released—a nightmarish, free-form flood of beautiful noise. "It felt totally right to put an improvised track on this record, as a nod to our beginnings," Stewart says. "A lot of the early part of this band was coming out of the improvised-jazz world. It brings up so much raw joy and satisfaction that I think you can feel in the track too. It's kind of chaos, but it's directed chaos."
Ohmme have had much more time than they expected this spring to prepare for the release of Fantasize Your Ghost, and for the time being, they're considering the possibilities of what a show should feel and sound like when they play it. With Carroll now living in Denmark with his wife and newborn son (he comes back to tour), they've had to work on live arrangements of the new album's songs without him, isolating his drums tracks and working around those. By the time the pandemic suspended touring, they'd played only three of its singles onstage, opting to keep a lid on the new material for maximum freshness.
Stewart says they're hoping Ohmme's dates with Waxahatchee, now pushed from April into September and October, don't have to be rescheduled a second time. For now, they've put off a headlining tour to support Fantasize Your Ghost till their shows with V.V. Lightbody in January 2021, hoping the wait won't be even longer.
Whenever it happens, Ohmme are ready. Creating the new album has reinforced the strength of the bond between Stewart and Cunningham as well as the purpose of their band: as Cunningham puts it, "exploring doors of creativity that are only opened up through our partnership."
Stewart believes that partnership is still growing stronger. "We both understand each other—especially after making this record and touring so much over the last year—fundamentally better than we ever have before," she says. "I think whatever music we make going forward, or whatever the band is going forward, is coming from an even more trusting place.
"The both of us are very headstrong, very 'figure out a solution for it,' and we can both get down on ourselves if we can't do those things necessarily or we feel like we failed at something. Us having more compassion for ourselves and for each other will make it fruitful going forward. There's still so much more out there left to discover, even just between the two of us and how we create. That's an exciting prospect." v