Oli McCracken wants you to feel something.
The singer/songwriter grew up all around the world before settling down in Denver and has been flying quietly under the radar for a while. Citing influences such as Van Morrison, John Mayer, Amos Lee and BB King, his soulful sound and evocative lyrics keep his listeners hooked and ready for the next story he’ll tell with his music. He’s signed with local record label Third & James, which is also home to another local star, Kayla Ruby. With his first full album release coming up in late August, he’s ready to cement his place in Denver’s music scene.
303 Magazine got a chance to sit down with McCracken to talk about traveling around the world, what it’s like to be a part of Third & James and the possibility of releasing someone’s new favorite album.
303 Magazine: So it seems like you’ve grown up all over the place.
Oli McCracken: Sort of, yeah. [laughs]
303: Has growing up and living in so many different places – the UK, Australia, Chicago, Houston, and now Denver – influenced your music?
OM: Yeah, I would say so, I think I’m just open to everything. I hate the idea of getting stuck in a place and listening to the same music over and over. I don’t know if that maybe goes back to the migrant, growing up sort of thing and moving around. But I just always love exploring music, researching it, digging through old records that I’ve never heard of, seeing what’s out there. It’s definitely made me feel open to wanting to hear music from all over the place and wanting to experience that. There’s so much out there to see and so much out there to listen to as well.
303: Have you experimented with different types of music because of your background?
OM: Yeah, definitely. I think you have to go all over the place to really find unique and different stuff that you can maybe add to your bag. Or maybe there’s a melody you hear in some weird music, something like that. I’m always looking for like how can I subtly steal something from this person and add it to what I do to give it a more interesting sound.
303: Do you have a favorite place you’ve lived in?
OM: Honestly Denver’s probably my favorite place I’ve ever lived. As far as visiting, I’ve always loved going to England, I have a lot of family there. London’s one of my favorite cities. The people-watching and cab rides in London are fascinating, just looking out the window. I love Barcelona. If I could go somewhere and spend a long time there, Barcelona probably takes the cake on that. I love Austin, Texas. Chicago is super special for me. Picking a favorite place is hard.
303: What initially drew you to make your home base in Denver and its music scene?
OM: I was applying to colleges and the University of Denver was the best school I got into by far. I came out here and checked out the city and just loved it. The first night I was here, I went to Appaloosa Grill down on 16th and they had some live tunes going on there. But I just like the city. There’s just something about it where it’s not quite a big city, not a small town. To me, it’s the “Goldilocks” perfect median. So, I came out here for school, made some friends, got to know the city and there’s nowhere like it. I feel at home here.
303: What Denver artists are you listening to right now?
OM: Claire Heywood is one of the most incredible songwriters I’ve ever heard. I love John Adams Smith a lot. He’s a fantastic guitar player, an amazing storyteller. The Soltones are doing some cool stuff. They just showed up out of nowhere on my Instagram feed and they seem to be playing every day. Covenhoven is probably my favorite. I think he’s really moving. I’m always struck by music that makes me think about stuff or takes me to a different place. The lyrics are what really gets me. I don’t know if you’ve checked out that album, but I went to the release show and it was super incredible. He’s got a super sweet story. He’s making really good, authentic music. Schema Things is a crazy disco-rock type thing that’s going on. They’re awesome. Nathaniel Rateliff is one of my songwriting heroes. The early releases that he put out before The Night Sweats are some of the most moving music. There’s so much great music in Denver and there’s always more coming.
303: So true. Are you planning on checking out the UMS coming up?
OM: Oh yeah. It’s gonna be fun.
303: The Third & James family seems to be super close, collaborating and taking road trips together. What has it been like to have that support system from your record label?
OM: It’s the best. It’s just like being a part of a family. Having these people around to bounce ideas off of or if you’re going a little nuts, it’s good to have people around that are of a like mind and believe in the same goal and believe in the team goal. We’re all trying to help each other out. They’re kind, passionate people. In music, if you can find kind, passionate people, you gotta hold on to them. And it’s just fun. We have a good time while we’re here. Just coming down, hanging out, listening to music, it’s the best. I think as musicians, that’s kind of what we want to do all the time is just be surrounded by friends that listen to music, play music, are happy to talk about it for hours. If you have other friends and you talk music to them it’s like “Alright dude, alright.” It’s always good to have these people come talk music.
303: For those who haven’t yet heard your music, how would you describe your sound?
OM: I hope that it’s music that strikes people as thought-provoking in a sense and kind of makes you slow down and appreciate things or take another look at things. For me, music has always been like meditation and reflection. It’s philosophy and storytelling. It’s everything. It’s that whole spectrum and I hope that with my music, you might hear a little bit of something you love and maybe a little bit of something new too. That’s such an absurd way of answering that question but I’m trying to put in a little bit of all the music I’ve heard throughout my life and made me feel something. I’ve been working with Brionne Wright singing background vocals and for me, female backing vocals have always been the most powerful, moving aspect. Bringing that into this latest album, it’s my first time doing that. It’s really been amazing. I guess I still haven’t answered your question. Just check it out, I guess!
303: Your first full album is coming out later this month. What was the process like for making this album?
OM: It’s been awesome. A lot of it has been like, “Well, these songs are never going to sound like they do in my head.” Getting comfortable with that and also getting to a place where you’re excited about it. I had a couple songs written and they were all on a guitar or on a piano. I got together with some musicians and we just hashed it out and jammed on them for a while. For me, that’s been my favorite way of creating music is to just stumble upon something, to have that feeling of “Wow, we’re just doing this. Let’s go into the studio and see what we can come up with and what’s going to stick.” That was just a thrilling experience. There’s a couple songs on here that while writing, it was moving for me to just write this stuff. That’s been something else too where it’s like, now I gotta come up with another song where I can make myself feel something that strong again. That’s always a challenge. But that’s also the whole excitement of everything. I’m really happy with what we have right now. I’m proud of myself in that I think I’m continuing to grow as a writer and I pray that others feel the same. It’s just been rewarding and a lot of learning and a lot of fun.
303: Do you feel like there are any overarching themes to the album?
OM: Yeah, definitely. The working title right now is A Few More Hours. There are themes of being good with where you’re at and appreciating your surroundings. There’s a couple of things on there about regret and loss. There’s a lot of stories in there, songs about memories I have. You have to sit and grow with these songs and let them grow a little bit. There’s a song in there that I wrote about our trip down to Muscle Shoals and that one’s kind of about the world losing its mind a little bit. I’m trying to write about stuff that makes me feel something, whatever it is. I really hope that the songs don’t feel hollow to anyone. I’ve been trying to pour everything I have into songs and sort of give myself fully that way like I would when I’m singing a performance.
303: A lot of your songs have a narrative feel to them. What’s your songwriting process like and do you mainly draw from your own real-life experiences to write your music? Do you draw on the experiences of others? Do you make up stories in your head?
OM: Kind of all three. A lot of them are experiences that I found myself going through. A lot of them are stories or characters that I’ll read in books that strike me as incredible. Even just ideas or time periods. I have this song I put out, “Letter from a Boxcar“. I wrote that after reading Bound for Glory. You read about these guys that are going out and looking for work and just hopping on a train. People are like, “Work’s this way, I guess.” I kind of wrote the song in that space where you put yourself into someone else’s shoes. I think you gotta be careful because you have no idea what their shoes are like, but it’s definitely a fun experiment. What if I was a guy who was leaving his loved ones at home and setting off on a train, hoping to find some money to make things better for people? This guy kind of finds himself stuck too far from home and he doesn’t have any money and he’s writing a letter home. That struck me. I’m fascinated by the “old days” kind of thing. I’m a very nostalgic person. If I’m not writing about my experiences, typically it’s about some dude a long time ago or something that I think has an interesting story and I can tell it.
303: What kind of setting would you think is ideal for listening to this album?
OM: Maybe a road trip. At least once by yourself, somewhere that you like, but then other times, get together with some friends and sing it. I think there’s a couple of songs on there that you could imagine in different settings. I think it’s cool that you have an album like the Night Sweats’ latest album with songs like “A Little Honey” or “You Worry Me” where they’re anthems and people want to sing along. And then you have songs like “Still Out There Running” where you listen to it and it kind of hits you like a sack of bricks and you want to break down. Those are the most special albums in that you can feel this wide spectrum of emotions. So, I hope there’s maybe a song that you can take to a cabin in the woods. Then, maybe a song where you can put in your headphones while you’re skiing and have a good time. Then, another where you can maybe sit on a plane and look out the window and think about sad stuff. I think there’s a lot of places. That’s a cool question to think about.
303: It definitely sounds very portable.
OM: [laughs] Yeah, I hope so.
303: What are you most excited about with the release of this album?
OM: I’m excited about the possibility that someone will hear this and it’ll just hit them. That’s really the only thing I can hope for is that someone can sit down and turn these songs on and decide they want to keep listening to it. And not only that, but that things that I say and the stuff that they hear makes them really feel something. Whatever that is, I hope it’s a strong emotion and they want to come back to it. That’s what I’m excited about, that possibility that maybe I’m putting out someone’s favorite album. How cool is that? That’s really exciting. And also just to share the songs and stories with people, the chance to share your passion. There’s not a lot of lines of work where you actually get to share, in detail, your passion, you know? In a way, that’s what I’m doing. I believe in this and I’m passionate about it. This is what I am. Here’s who I am. I’m just excited by that possibility that someone just really loves it and they don’t shut up about it. That would be really cool for me, to hit someone in that way.