Sarah Nowicki and Matthew Robinson of Opal Onyx are not letting distance get in the way of their creativity. In early December the duo released Vessel, their long-awaited follow up to their debut album, Delta Sands. Despite it being six years between these entries, both Nowicki and Robinson are ready to get back to work.
Pushing themselves into new territory, Vessel is full of songs that build up intricate trip-hop orchestrations that reach apocalyptic crescendos while maintaining a pristine dream-like quality. Nowicki’s voice remains a true treasure. Its power and restraint can feel like a sturdy presence amongst the chaos slowly erupting around it.
The lyrical content on Vessel pulls no punches either. Songs such as “Annex” and “Micro” take aim at flimsy authority figures and structures of belief. All together, the suite of songs create an unsettling, yet necessary narrative of how America’s cult of personality is something we may not be able to turn back from.
Nowicki and Robinson both seem as though this release has awoken their drive to encourage one another artistically.
It had been a while since your last release. This year has really been a testament to the artistic process where people who needed the “release” aspect of making art were putting music out into the world, while the industry chose to shelve or delay certain albums. Was there ever any question of delaying Vessel?
Matthew: It’s a good question. I don’t think there was much of a hesitation, to be honest. We just kind of wanted to put it out because so many people are in dire need of new things to listen to. We are already onto the next thing, as is common. We’re already moving in a new direction and a new body of work. I think it’s kind of important to release things as they’re fresh in your mind so it’s a “one book closes as the other opens” kind of thing.
Sarah: We were just chompin’ at the bit really. We were just so ready. Both of us can attest to that. It took way too long. It’s been done and we really wanted to release it sooner. The times are really hard right now, to, because everyone has to hustle. I can’t work at my studio. We have to have our jobs to make money and pay bills. I’m a hairstylist and I can’t go to the salon. So I have to figure out my home situation and build out a home studio. In between all of the chaos, we’re still creating. But it’s a challenging time for everybody right now.
There was a lot of talk about how if the circumstances around the pandemic got really bad, that it would influence a lot of artists to create more. The whole “Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during a plague” argument. But it has been very easy to be distracted by things like binge watching Netflix while we’re forced to stay indoors. How do you both stay productive?
Sarah: Yes. And with social media, they have that formula down to trap you. You click on one thing and then suddenly five hours go by and you didn’t do anything. In a blink of an eye! They just steal your time and your life. That’s the main thing, I know how to navigate. It’s like “I know what this is, it’s like a drug”. It’s learning discipline and how to manage your time.
Matthew: It’s like a pressure release valve. It is the creativity. It is the next thing. So In between, it is that kind of warm blanket that kind of helps with all of this busyness and all of the death and destruction and everything else in the world. It’s the warm blanket that you wrap around all of your anxiety that helps with everything like that.
A lot of artistic people stress the need or importance of creating for themselves, but with music there is a lot of imagination of how a crowd will react to songs or how it is performed live before you actually take the stage. Without the live outlet, has your imagination been swirling around these tunes?
Matthew: Yeah, very much so. Not to elaborate on it too much, because the whole idea and the project is still in formation. But in the coming weeks, potentially, we’ve got kind of an audio visual … it is a livestream, but it’s something a bit more. I don’t want to go into too much detail about it because it really hasn’t come into too much fruition, but that’s kind of the next thing in the live element that will push us through until we can be in person playing live again. I think that’s really going to help form the live show for when we can do it in front of real human peoples (laugh).
How has it been working with Tin Angel Records?
Matthew: I’ve been working with Tin Angel for many, many years. We released Delta Sands on Tin Angel as well. Prior to that, our introduction to Tin Angel was with Baby Dee. I used to work with Baby Dee way back in the day and that’s how I got introduced to them. Doing a record with her and doing a lot of touring with her that was all wrapped up in that label. They’re wonderful!
Sarah: Yeah, They’re beautiful. We’re really lucky. They really care about us. They’re amazing.
Matthew: They’re like family.
Can you tell me how the collaborative process has been between both of you?
Sarah: It started out when we first met. The first album, I had started out as a songwriter with very simple songwriting, and he was a nerdy synth and gear [guy]. He was like “did you know you could put your vocals through pedals?”.
So he taught me a lot and mentored me. Now, I’m a huge collector of all of this gear. We went through this creative whirlwind. I have two MPCs and a bunch of synths now. We’ve grown a lot as people. I was going through a difficult time and he would dropbox me some beautiful synth landscapes and be like “Just sing something over this for me”. It was this beautiful comforting relationship where we would encourage each other. It’s like a beautiful dance in a way.
Matthew: That’s very much how it is. I guess the fundamental difference between the two records is that Sarah came to me with stuff for Delta Sands and this time around I came to her with stuff and respectively took it in the direction forward.
Sarah: We were experimenting. We’re just getting a lot more bold with this album. We were just going to have fun and get weird, really (laughs).
A lot of this album’s lyrical content deals with the frustration with authority figures. Did you go into this record thinking you would be making a political album? The line that jumped out to me was: “We were taught how to believe in it, but not to question it”
Sarah: It’s one of those things where, lyrically, I don’t even think before I speak in a way. When I’m writing a song, it just comes out and I don’t even know what I’m saying until afterwards. Whatever it is I feel that I need to channel, it just comes out of me. That was one of the things that was always on my mind. I grew up in a religious family … it should be okay to question our society and structure that’s around us. If you can’t, there’s a problem there. You should be able to question yourself, to. That’s okay. We should be able to grow together.