One of rock's freshest faces put an eerie title on her solo debut album that was released two weeks before Halloween. But after hearing her speak softly during a recent chat, Olivia Jean sounds nothing like the mistress of the macabre who's behind Bathtub Love Killings.
Maybe a dose of black magic humor is the dark secret to her original tunes such as "Merry Widow" and "Deadly Hex," two of the 11 the singing multi-instrumentalist wrote and cranked out for one of the most funtastic albums of the year.
The truth is this determined daughter of a middle-class Detroit family is as down home and demure as a little girl waiting patiently in line to tell Santa Claus what she wants for Christmas.
Born on February 23, 1990, Olivia Jean Markel has been checking items off her personal wish list since basically making Nashville her home away from home five years ago, when she was first invited to join her new family at Third Man Records.
Her association with multitalented artist and entrepreneur Jack White, who was producer and one of the principal players on Bathtub Love Killings, has to top that list. But this driven young woman -- whose punkabilly style goes well with the retro tunes in her hip pocket and a cool wardrobe in her closet -- is pushing herself to deliver the goods, maybe even harder than Rudolph guides his fellow reindeer on Christmas Eve.
The Gretsch electric guitar is her weapon of choice throughout most of Bathtub Love Killings, but if she has an ax to grind, it's with the skeptics who doubt her abilities.
"I care a lot about what people, how people perceive my music," Olivia Jean said near the end of this phone interview a few days after Thanksgiving. "And I've been doing this for so long that I want people to understand that it just didn't happen in Nashville. I've been doing this my entire life, since I've been in elementary school. So making music is all I want to do."
Olivia Jean had more for her naysayers, but that'll have to wait. There are ghosts of Christmas past to visit first.
When the subject of that holly-jolly-est of holidays came up, Olivia Jean laughed and confessed, "I've never been a Christmas person. I'm either super-sick on Christmas or super-stressed out. And being from Detroit, it's so cold. It's a very stressful day."
Yet, she was merrier than Tiny Tim while fondly looking back at her childhood, when her parents let the kids watch the Charlie Brown special and A Christmas Story marathon and "mom would decorate a gigantic Christmas tree for us."
It was as a toddler when, Olivia Jean said, the children received "the most extravagant gift I ever remember" -- a battery-powered Barbie jeep.
The gifts became less lavish as the Markels welcomed a son and another daughter into the family to join Olivia Jean and her older sister. But for a budding musician, the most valuable presents came around the age of 7.
For her birthday, Olivia Jean received "a no-name electric guitar" from "a little music store right down my street" called Full Score Music. Then the power of words stoked her creative fire at Christmastime.
Her aunt gave her "a neon yellow journal with green aliens all over it," she said. "And it was my first journal I ever had, and I was so excited, I asked her, 'Should I make it a journal or should I write lyrics in it?' (laughs)
"And I didn't even have any intentions of writing songs. I just loved music. ... And I remember I made it into a lyric book" that, Olivia Jean sadly noted, must have eventually "got lost in the sands of time."
A year or two later, she received the Christmas favorite of her childhood to complete the musical trifecta.
"It was like a purple neon karaoke machine and I just kept singing (Deee-lite's) 'Groove is in the Heart,' " she said.
So began the musical education of Olivia Jean Markel, who founded her first band, Broken Glass, at Elmwood Elementary in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, shortly after getting that first guitar. She graduated to middle school and, along with a girlfriend who played bass and Brent, her little drummer boy of a brother who was still attending grade school, formed the Yakuza Drag Queens.
Asked how she came up with the band name, Olivia Jean said with a laugh, "I have no idea."
Playing original songs such as "Dog in a Cage" and covers like Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead," they won a school talent show and became intrigued by Detroit's art punk scene ("We were the youngest ones there"), with performers including Whirlwind Heat and Jamie Easter. Befriended by Evan Johnson, the Yakuza Drag Queens opened their first show at the Magic Stick for his band, Genders.
Olivia Jean was in the seventh grade when she saw her first big concert -- the White Stripes at the Masonic Temple -- thanks to a ride from perhaps the coolest mom since A Christmas Story's understanding matriarch.
After seeing Jack and Meg White perform, it was a sure thing that this brother-and-sister act would continue jamming in their parents' basement.
"My mom loved it," Olivia Jean said. "She would let us practice all the time. And so did my dad. When I started taking music a little bit more seriously, I don't think they knew my intentions were to try to make a career out of it. So when I became more obsessed with the music, they would get kind of frustrated with me playing all the time. But they were always supportive."
As a young high schooler, Olivia Jean's obsession turned to surf music. She heard about Dick Dale but "couldn't stop listening" to her dad's copy of the self-titled debut album by the B-52's, and was especially enamored with singer Cindy Wilson.
"I love Cindy's voice; If I could sing like her, I'd be set," said Olivia Jean, whose vocals possess the quirky charm of the late Patty Donahue, lead singer of new wave-era band the Waitresses.
An enterprising sort who knew her strengths, Olivia Jean decided to stick to the instruments, playing all of them on a demo that she recorded, then handed out "just for fun" at a Dead Weather show. Right place, right time, right stuff ...
"Jack got a hold of one of them," she said of White, who grew up in southwest Detroit and became a Nashville resident in 2005. "And about a week later after that show, I got a call asking if I wanted to fly down to Nashville. ... It felt like someone was cranking me, so I had to make a few phone calls to make sure no one was joking. I didn't believe it at first."
Throwback to the future
Waiting a couple of years before making the full-time move to Nashville, "Once I realized I was going to have a career with Third Man," Olivia Jean was 19 when she first visited the Music City.
"At first, it was very intimidating," she admitted. "But as time went on, I realized that they're there solely to make music. And they just love anyone who's got a unique perspective on music. They were just very encouraging to me.
"So once I realized that they just wanted me to be myself and just do my own thing under their wing, it was really exciting. I kind of adopted them as my other family. And to this day I'm friends with ... the Third Man family is like all my best friends," she said of an accomplished group led by White that also includes Ben Swank, Ben Blackwell, Bonnie Fertita, Dean Fertita, Josh Smith (an engineer she has worked with since her first session in Nashville) and Vance Powell, a Grammy Award-winning producer, mixer and engineer.
A familial bond formed out of that alliance as Olivia Jean backed up White (playing on eight tracks of his solo debut Blunderbuss; two more on Lazaretto) and other artists he produced such as Karen Elson and Wanda Jackson.
"They took me on as, you know, as a project so they would help me, to help kind of shape me into what I've become, in a really good way," she said. "Because they're ... not only are they really nice, incredible people, they're very talented people. I got really lucky to have them as mentors, every single one of them."
Other than getting a few lessons from Elson guitarist Jackson Smith, the son of Patti Smith and the late Fred "Sonic" Smith, Olivia Jean said she's self-taught musically. On Bathtub Love Killings, this throwback to the future plays electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piano, organ, Moog, drums and other percussion instruments, but still believes there's always room for improvement.
"I always enjoy fooling around on piano," she said. "And I taught myself how to play piano by ear. So I'd love to actually be able to know what I'm doing." (laughs)
White, whose nifty signature touches are evident on Bathtub Love Killings, has been responsible for making many of his female apprentice's musical dreams come true, starting with the Black Belles, an all-girl group.
"At first, of course, you're like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening,' " she said with a shy laugh. "But it doesn't take long for you to feel comfortable around these people."
Not only are Whirlwind Heat's David Swanson and Brad Holland directing her musical videos but when Olivia Jean and Ruby Rogers were in the Black Belles, White brought them to see the B-52's at a show in Nashville. "We were pretty pumped and star-struck when we met them," Olivia Jean said.
Fronting the Black Belles also was a learning experience. Though the experiment didn't last beyond one full-length album, several singles, a national TV appearance on The Colbert Report and some touring time together, Olivia Jean explained her slight giggle when saying she's still friends with other group members.
"Because the road can do some crazy things to a girl band," she added. "That was the first band a lot of us actually full-on toured with. So we were just getting used to things. So new to everything that we were all kind of tense and didn't know what was going on. ... So we were very vulnerable and, you know, nervous. So we would take our nerves out on each other."
Now her road indoctrination continues with an "awesome" backing band that includes drummer Jacob Edwards, (formerly with the Avett Brothers), Brett Mielke (Best Coast, Twilight Sleep), Nashville session player Micah Hulscher (Los Colognes) and bassist Taylor Zachry. "It's all guys, so it's nice," Olivia Jean pointed out with a laugh. But that's not the only difference.
"This time around, my act doesn't have a specific color or uniform to wear like the Black Belles had," she said. "There's nothing to hide behind. It's just me playing my music, which is really nice. So this time around, I feel like I have a little bit more creative control to go whatever direction I want. I find it a lot more exciting to write music now. I don't have any kind of walls to stay within."
A series of free, in-store performances that began with stops at record stores in Los Angeles continues this week at clubs in Boston and Brooklyn, New York.
While Olivia Jean welcomes this chance to connect with fans as a solo artist, she also hopes to win over those unconvinced critics, many of whom likely screech "Bah, humbug" this time of year.
To complete the thought that began near the top of this article, she said, "So I just want people to know that the projects I've been a part of weren't forced upon me. They weren't like ... people always say the Black Belles were put together like a '90s boy group. That's not the case.
"I take my music very seriously and I really want people to enjoy listening to it and, you know, it's just hard these days when people have the Internet and everything and they start up a nasty rumor and then it just blows up into this crazy thing where people think that I'm not a real musician. Things like that. But I've been doing this my entire life. I just want people to know that."
So, yes, Virginia (and the 49 other states), there is an Olivia Jean. And if you truly believe, expect to see those dreams of a Jack White Christmas fulfilled rather than a lump of coal in your stocking.
Publicity photos courtesy of the artist.