When Isabel Olive landed on the name of her first album, it was sort of a joke. Gruñona, her debut as Half Gringa, translates loosely to “grumpy” in Spanish, a play on an early nickname her mother gave to their family dog. Originally planning to make the album cover a photo of their dog, she ended up using a self-portrait instead. But the two images shared a certain sensibility.
“I was sort of a weird, angsty, moody, art-making teenager,” Olive explained over the phone, when we spoke over the phone recently for an interview. “I was doing a lot of self-portraiture at that time. The cover ended up being a self-portrait that I did, and the image of me and the photo of my dog were very similar — we both looked super grouchy. But the record also felt like I was loosening a release valve for the first time.”
Self-releasing that debut in 2017, Olive went straight into working on the follow-up, and her sophomore album, Force To Reckon, will come out in late August. Both albums reflect a balance of orchestral folk, midwestern grunge-rock, and Latinx pop, anchored by the incisive, introspective lyrics she writes, unsurprising from a poetry major. Growing up studying music at a young age in the small town of Carbondale, Illinois, Olive moved to the city to attend University of Chicago. Majorly burnt out from playing piano since the age of six, later adding saxophone, and performing as a drum major in pep band during high school, she chose to study Theater and English, instead of music.
“I was kind of tired of music and I didn’t really feel that much of a connection to it,” she remembered. “Theater was a little bit newer and exciting. But then I realized I kept turning to music as a stress release from the other art that I was doing. So I started playing again in college and experimenting with recording — I studied sound design for part of my degree and got used to using Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) through that.”
And in her English major, where her concentration was on poetry, even her thesis advisor had to point out the obvious: “You know this sounds more like a song than a poem, right?” After college she began writing songs for herself, then graduated to hosting loose gatherings of friends to play music at her apartment, performing at those house shows. It wasn’t until she finally recorded some demos that Olive realized she did want to start a band.
Initially toying with performing under her own name, she landed on the artist name Half Gringa as a way to challenge her relationship to her biracial identity. “My mom is from Caracas, Venezuela, and all of our family on her side is too,” Olive explained. “She’s the only one of her brothers and sisters that immigrated to another country, and specifically to the United States. She really tried her best to raise me to be a Latina or Latinx person in the midwest, which, in the ‘90s? It was super difficult.”
Growing up with her first language as Spanish, then relocating to an environment where there were no resources to support her speaking her native language, Olive had to cope with the early pressure to let go of that part of herself, especially as someone who is white-passing. “I spent a lot of my youth psychologically not really understanding the duality of where I came from,” she said. “Because I’m white passing — reading as white — people want you to wholesale adopt whiteness as your thing. But that’s not the truth about my identity. Not having the tools to engage with that, I came into adulthood and realized the Latinx part of me was so alienated, and I don’t want it to be.”
Through writing music, Olive began to engage with a lot of difficult, sad or complicated things that she hadn’t begun to process, and the duality of her heritage was one of them. She sees her artist name as more of a possibility than an assertion. “It’s more of a working question or goal,” Olive said. “It sometimes makes me sad to think about, sometimes it makes me uncomfortable to think about. But it’s a reminder, this is really who I am. If I want it to be part of my life and my legacy I have to actively work to make it present.”
And on her forthcoming record Force To Reckon, she does just that, like within the nostalgia and wry storytelling of early standout “1990” — which shows incredible growth and cohesiveness of her backing band since the debut — or the careening emotionalism of today’s latest track, “Afraid Of Horses.” Singing of the separations and fears that both define and divide us, she brings it all home on the pinnacle lyric: “I don’t know your feelings by their first name.”
For Olive, that lyric cuts both ways — not only as a reflection on the complexity of relationships and sometimes-impossible task of knowing another person, but also doubling as an observation of the relationship with the self. Paired with the slow-building instrumentation, the phrase unfolds as a moment of simultaneous clarity and frustration.
“‘Afraid Of Horses’ was the second to last song I wrote for this record,” she said. “That was definitely a very specific apology song I wrote. Then I realized I kept writing these songs that are ‘about’ people, but really they’re about me. That line about feelings is like, yes, you’ll never truly know another person, but I was also saying that about myself. Realizing that I don’t really know where my motivations come from sometimes, and I haven’t really taken the time to ask myself those questions and really get into my own emotional landscape.”
Although she originally had a short tour planned behind the release of the record, those shows obviously had to be scrapped due to the concerns of the pandemic. But after working on this record over the course of several years, and sitting on the material for a bit, Olive felt that pushing the release wasn’t the right move and decided to keep her original release date. She will be self-releasing Force To Reckon on August 28, and the album is currently available for pre-order on Bandcamp.