If you haven’t heard the name Olympia, you soon will. The local multi-instrumentalist and singer songwriter is currently on tour launching her new album Self Talk. Over the weekend she played not one, but two sold out hometown shows at Northcote Social Club, so I decided to head along to Saturday’s performance.

Sarah Belkner takes the stage shortly after I arrived in the bandroom, and while her opener was mostly just a solo piano ballad she quickly changes it up. Even commenting herself that we might have been lulled into thinking there was nothing more. How wrong we are. She is solo, but multitasking makes it interesting as she triggers samples, and live loops vocal harmonies brilliantly. She misses a sample in Cellophane but decides we need to hear what she’s dubbed the unicorn and plays it afterwards. A technical issue with the sampler doesn’t affect her casual attitude – “fuck that, let’s do another song,” and what might have initially fooled people into hitting the bar hard, is actually an incredible set from a brilliant singer and producer.

There’s not long to wait before Olympia takes the stage. Starting the set in trio format, I was instantly impressed with the sound they were producing. I’d already enjoyed Self Talk as a record, but the live incarnation is a totally different beast. Bartley masterfully wields her guitar, commanding it to speak in an alien tongue. What she plays is pop music, but perhaps finally we’re moving away from that being a bad thing – there is definitely a high level of artistry being delivered here.

Besides the strength of the music, there’s no shortage of honesty in the lyrics – and in the presentation. Between the songs, Bartley tells tales of the various people and places who inspire her and her music, from tales of a “very bogan” hometown, to a favourite Australian writer and the inspirational, but ultimately depressing, account of “Lawnchair Larry” Walters. During the songs though, there’s nothing but earnestness which almost becomes vulnerability during her performance of Biscuits when she excuses the band, swaps her guitar for the keyboard and is joined by the incomparable Ladychoir, who add luscious choral backing vocals. When the band return, the Ladychoir stays and we’re treated to an amazing display of female talent, with Bartley, keyboardist Sarah Belkner and the 5 piece choir harmonising spectacularly in Blue Light Disco and set closer (and triple j favourite) Smoke Signals.

Bartley makes her way back to the stage alone. “I hate encores. I really hate them. I haven’t done one for any other city.” The entire bandroom stands in awe, as she treats the audience to an emotion-laden cover of Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide. The Bowie song is a great choice for the silver-clad woman that’s been on stage for the past hour or so: to me she appears so much like the great man himself. As the full Olympia/Ladychoir ensemble play one last song together, there’s absolutely no denying that we’re witnessing an incredibly special performance from a truly exceptional artist.

Wes Fahey

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