by Mia Hughes
photo: Alex Joseph
“I’m still trying my best
You know it keeps getting harder and harder every day
When you see the news on the TV, on the radio
But I’ll keep trying to keep the skies blue anyway’“
So closes ‘A Crack In The World’ from the debut Oceanator album Things I Never Said. The solo project of Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Elise Okusami, Oceanator has been quietly building a presence since 2016, dropping a smattering of singles and EPs and playing gigs across the New York DIY scene. Recorded in 2018, and with some songs floating around from as early as 2016, this debut is a long time in the works.
Things I Never Said takes its cues in equal parts from grunge, glam rock, power pop and punk rock, melting into a cocktail that’s frequently surprising yet always dynamic. Above it, Okusami’s lyricism is stark and straightforward. Across the record, she makes it clear: the world is dark, and life is hard. But as she says in ‘A Crack In The World’, she tries to keep the skies blue; she looks for the things worth staying afloat for.
“I’m very anxious; I always think something bad’s gonna happen, and I always think it’s gonna be the worst thing that ever happened. And then when something bad does happen, I have a hard time seeing outside of it,” says Okusami. “[Being positive] is something I’ve been working on for a very long time.
“When I was putting the record together, I was like oh man, this is gonna be a downer. And then when I listened to it…it’s not. It’s much more hopeful, and I think that’s because I was trying really hard in life in general to be hopeful and see the small things. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how this is the one life we get, we gotta make the most of it.”
Okusami – brought up in Rockville, Maryland – first played music at the age of five, when she began taking piano lessons. She and her younger brother Mike, who now works with her on every Oceanator release, were raised by two music lovers, with music always in the house; Mike himself learned piano by ear at the age of three. At eight or nine, Okusami started playing guitar, a development which coincided with her hearing Green Day’s Dookie for the first time. Like so many before her to hear that formative album, she was enamoured: “I was like, oh okay, this is the thing I wanna do.”
At the age of ten, she started her first band with Mike and some friends, learning covers together once a week at the Okusami house. As she got older and went to high school in Washington DC, Okusami began to get involved in the DC punk scene, playing in a thrash punk band and befriending peers such as The Max Levine Ensemble (vocalist David Combs, now a member of Bad Moves, is still a friend). “We used to play a bunch of shows around, and everything about that, obviously, was fairly DIY,” she says of her time in that band. “We’re high schoolers, and we’re playing houses and church basements. Everyone was just on this whole, make the show happen, we are all doing it ourselves, and I don’t think anyone was really on any labels or anything at that point. That’s just always the world that I’ve known.”
After college, around 2009, Okusami moved from Maryland to Brooklyn, looking for something new and to be a part of the city’s vibrant music scene (“I planned to only stay a few years, but now here I am still”). In the ensuing years, she joined several bands as a drummer, including psych pop band Water and a stint drumming for Vagabon; she recounts that at one point she played in six bands at once. Eventually, longing for a project of her own, she began demoing the songs that would become Oceanator.
“When I first started it was more of a side project, because I was playing in so many other things that were taking up a lot of my time. Then, as it’s been going it’s been taking up more and more of my focus, and it’s making me really happy to get to spend a lot of time on my own creative stuff.” Has the project changed over the years? “Now it’s on a very slightly bigger scale, I guess; but I think the main aim of it for me is still the same, which is just that I love playing and writing and recording, and I like sharing with people, and it’s cool to get to do that.”
The recording of Things I Never Said took place largely at Wonderpark Studios in Brooklyn – Eva Lawitts, who co-runs the studio, played bass on most tracks, with Oceanator’s touring drummer Andrew Whitehurst on drums. “I had demos for everything, they were in varying states. And I sent those to Eva and Andrew. We had one rehearsal after that where we rehearsed them and fine-tuned parts.” Most tracks were recorded live as a band and captured within one or two takes, with Okusami adding additional instrumentation after. Later, she recorded additional tracks with her brother Mike in his Maryland studio.
The process yielded what Okusami believes to be her best work yet, a judgement with which it’s difficult to disagree. But it didn’t come without some doubt in her own abilities. “Lyrics are the hardest part for me, for sure,” she says. “I tried for a while to write less honestly – well, still honestly, but more vague, I guess. And I just couldn’t do it. It’s just how they come out. I used to think that was a bad thing, that they were so straightforward. And then listening to a lot of Jeff Rosenstock, and people whose lyrics are very straightforward and descriptive – I was like, oh yeah, this is fine. This is how I write, and it’s cool, and hopefully people will relate to them, and it’ll mean something to them.
“I’ve realised, looking back on stuff, a lot of my lyrics are me processing feelings and thoughts without really realising that’s what I’m doing until it’s done. And then I go back and I’m like, oh, okay, that’s what this is about. And I usually feel a little better after it. Better after writing it, and then even better when I can sit down and think about it, and work through those thoughts. ‘Cause I’m not great at talking about my feelings with people.”
With Oceanator’s former label, Tiny Engines, in a state of limbo after bands on its roster brought to light cases of financial mishandling, Okusami found herself pushing back the completed record’s release date as she shopped it around to other labels. Unfortunately, the timing was less than favourable; it was early 2020, and labels were busy making arrangements for South by South West, only for circumstances to become complicated further by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “I didn’t wanna sit on it forever,” she says. “I really wanted to share it with people and I was really proud of it.” What did work out nicely was that the timing coincided with Okusami’s launching her own label, Plastic Miracles, which she had envisioned as a means to put out records by other artists, and through which she eventually decided to self-release Things I Never Said.
Okusami plans to grow Plastic Miracles and use it to continue working with other artists in the community, an embodiment of the DIY ethic that she deeply values. “It’s a really great world and a great community, and I think even if this band were to continue to grow, the people that I work with now are still the people I’m gonna associate with and take my cues from. No matter the size of the band, I think it should still be about community.”
Ultimately, it’s community and connection that Okusami hopes to foster with her music as Oceanator. It’s clear that this desire is driven by her own love of music, and clearer still is that Things I Never Said has the potential to bring that to life. “I really like a song or an album that makes you stop what you’re doing, and get really into it. Just yesterday, I was listening to a Toots and the Maytals live record, and the organist guy did a little solo and I just yelled out loud in my apartment,” she laughs. “I try to write music that will do that. I wanna get that excited about my songs, and so I hope that that also translates to people and they get excited about stuff.
“And also that hopefully they can find some sort of comfort in it. A lot of it deals with some heavy stuff, and I hope that they can relate to it in a way that helps them, if they are going through similar things. It would be cool if my songs comforted or made someone hopeful. That’s what music has always done for me.”