Two for the Show
If it wasn’t for Hitzig’s Uncle Rupert, though, this case of kismet may never have happened.
Music was just one of many artistic endeavors for Olney, who is not related to the late singer-songwriter David Olney “in any way that I’m aware of,” although her father (who works in education) also has the same name. She first discovered the musician by watching an interview he gave during Be Here to Love Me, the outstanding 2004 documentary film of Townes Van Zandt’s way-too-short life. “I thought that our [Olney] name connection was the coolest thing and looked up his music and really enjoyed it,” she proclaims. “I wish I had had the opportunity to meet him and explore our family trees to see if there was any connection there.”
Acting was what occupied Olney’s life after enrolling at a local community college and before she met Hitzig. As a writer and star in Yogurt, her first short film had its world premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. She also has appeared in TV series such as Murder in the First, Tosh.0, and Grown-ish, and co-starred, co-wrote, and co-directed all 15 episodes of Carpool with Alexa Najera, one of her best friends.
That web series, about two aspiring actresses who are Uber drivers stuck in a car between auditions and relationships, contains snappy (and salty) dialogue with little slices of observational humor found in ordinary, Seinfeld-like situations. Life painfully imitating pop art? Just imagine the mayhem that would ensue inside a diner, operating room, movie theater, or parking garage.
Regarding where her professional priorities lie, Olney states, “Acting is tied for No. 1 next to singing and songwriting. Depends on the time of year, and my mood, but the two take turns at the top.”
There must have been some cosmic forces at work while Olney and producer-director Rupert Hitzig were participating in the same two-year acting program, which was nearing its completion when casting began in the Los Angeles area for a country musical called Sneaky Ole TIme. “They were having a really hard time finding someone to play one of the lead roles, Jack, a traveling musician who breaks down on his motorcycle and ends up in a musical honky-tonk on his way to Nashville,” recalls Olney, who earned a part in the 2015 play that featured music by two-time Grammy Award winner Paul Overstreet.
Having hosted Brownchicken Browncow Stringband on a number of occasions when they passed through L.A., Uncle Rupert was aware of Xander’s community theater experience in Lewisburg, West Virginia. So he “piped up, claiming that his nephew was made for the part,” according to Olney, then phoned Xander with the audition details. “The director of the show Mikey Meyers (not Austin Powers, different dude) is a good friend of mine, and he showed me the audition video that Xander sent in; he was playing his guitar and singing one of the songs that would be in the show,” Olney shares. “That was the first time I ever saw and heard him. We met at the first rehearsal [in May 2015] and it was very polite,” she continues. “I had no idea at the time how much this person would ultimately mean to me.”
Following a week of previews, Sneaky Ole Time opened on August 1, 2015, at the Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica, California, and ran through December. “Some magical combination of the country musical, and this guy who could shred fiddle from West Virginia, and the endless fountain of whiskey that was being drunk by all of us made me really want to learn to play guitar and sing songs,” Olney divulges. “And Xander gave me my first guitar lesson. By the time August hit, we were in a relationship. By the time it was Valentine’s Day the next year, we were sleeping in his GMC van in Venice [California, not Italy] trying to figure out where to live.”
Getting Their Act Together
After two years of grasping guitar basics while Hitzig was touring the country as a member of other bands, Olney began “writing a bunch of songs” in 2018 as part of her musical apprenticeship. “And I would get so excited about them and would play them for Xander, and he would get inspired and pick up an instrument and create a part for it,” she declares. “And then we would figure out some cool harmony and it was all just for fun.”
Olney learned fast, utilizing her expressive voice and writing skills to develop thoughts, feelings and words into emotional songs such as the EP’s title cut, along with “Look at Those Birds” and “Mary”.
During his solo set at a Rebelle Road showcase as SXSW 2019 was wrapping up in Austin, Texas, Hitzig invited Olney to sing a few tunes they had previously worked on together. That March 16 performance apparently impressed mutual friend and showcase co-creator KP Hawthorn of husband-and-wife Americana duo the HawtThorns, who were an act on the same acoustic brunch bill at Hideaway Kitchen and Bar.
Presenting them the opportunity to record once they returned to L.A., Hawthorn officially introduced Hitzig and Olney to Steve Berns at a Rosie Flores house concert in Mar Vista. Desert Hollow had found their co-producers.
“He was very kind and, like most sound engineers, started talking excitedly about the equipment in his [Fitting Room Studio in Canoga Park, California],” Olney says of Berns. “I hadn’t heard anything he had produced, but we got a good vibe from him, and he is a longtime friend of KP, who we had trusted musically very much. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
Besides guitar, Olney plays banjolele and kazoo on the EP. Guest musicians include Matt Lucich (drums and percussion), James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass), Johnny Hawthorn (KP’s husband on steel guitar), and Nocona’s Adrienne Isom (bass).
KP Hawthorn and Berns “provided a relaxed and creative and supportive environment to lay these tracks down,” Olney asserts about the duo’s already completed songs. “They helped us make some decisions on where to shave some things off and clean them up. Most importantly, they brought an understanding of how to make a song really pop. We had these songs, but their tweaks and mixes and adjustments really brought them to life in a new way.”
Journey Through Nomadland
Asked to name past or present duos they admire or want to emulate, Olney has an illustrious and eclectic list: “Johnny and June. Sonny and Cher. Emmylou and Gram. Simon and Garfunkel. The Everly Brothers,” before adding, “We want to create something that is completely our own, of course. But if the inspiration of any of these folks shines through we would be honored and thoroughly stoked.”
Hitzig has his own descriptive take on their duo dynamic, saying, “Most of what we play is original, and our songs have that feel when you listen to them like they’ve just been created and they’re fresh. But at the same time, the songs have a timeless quality to them, like they could live on forever. Long after we’re gone. And there’s nothing left on this earth but the cockroaches. And the crickets.”
While the road beckoned many a duo and other group configurations on rugged tour schedules before the pandemic, how many could survive a travel itinerary as rigorous as this in 2020? During what Olney calls “a challenge-laden and great year,” here’s a glimpse at the dedicated Desert Hollow’s journey through their very own Nomadland:
Quarantine begins for them in Los Angeles, living with their friend Rachel Pollack and her family; then purchasing the Toyota Dolphin RV named Dolly in April; driving to West Virginia in May and spending three months with Hitzig’s family; taking “our sweet time” to make another cross-country drive in August, while still hosting Desert Hollow shows on Facebook Live that had begun “earrrrly on,” and a few socially distanced outdoor concerts; putting Dolly in storage and taking a flight in September to Maui, where Hitzig’s brother Orion and “a great community of friends and musicians” lived.
“Ultimately, the quarantine gave us more time than ever to play music together,” Olney reports about their year of making something out of almost nothing. “… We struck out and started building a new version of our life together. It was really profound. …
“Of course it was traumatic, it was terrifying and strange and sad. We missed our lives that had disappeared in an instant … everything that we had been lucky enough to be able to take for granted. But ultimately, it feels like the beauty that came out of it outweighed the difficult. It was a metamorphosis and looking back at it all, I have only gratitude.”
As far as the future goes, “Thirsty is the tip of the iceberg for Desert Hollow,” claims Olney. At the end of May, they’ll reunite with Dolly in California, preparing for more cross-country trips while planning to “tentatively” play shows in California, Texas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Colorado, and Oregon.
Their stay in a studio rental on Maui’s northeast coast, which Olney expects will continue at least through 2021, is hardly all play and no work. Another Desert Hollow album was recently recorded at their friend David Whitney’s Root Cellar Studio in Kula, the largest district in Maui. “We’ve got 17 tracks down and are currently working on the post-production,” Olney concludes. “After this release is finished, we’ll get to working on that release.”
For a band whose music seemingly never stops, the adventurous and ambitious couple are acting out their hopes and dreams. Expect Olney and Hitzig to share a leading role in making Desert Hollow plow full speed ahead.