OHMME IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2017. PHOTOS: DEAN PODMORE. STYLING: MIMI KIM. HAIR: YUSUKE MIURA USING R+CO. MAKEUP: REI TAJIMA USING MAC COSMETICS. PHOTO ASSISTANT: DANIIL ZAIKIN. DIGITAL TECH: ANTHONY MILLER. SPECIAL THANKS: PIER 59 STUDIOS.
OHMME began in 2014 as a sonic experiment, a coming together of two sought-after, Chicago-based musicians—Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart—to create semi-improvisational, genre-bending music. It was an opportunity for both artists, who were trained as vocalists and pianists, to pick up electric guitars and shed their preconceptions about rhythm. As Stewart explains, “Improvised music is an incredible way of exploring all of the sounds that your instrument can create.” They started off performing at a venue called Constellation, eventually arriving at a six-track, self-titled EP, which they released in 2015. Just over a week ago, they returned to Constellation in celebration; they have reissued their debut through their own label, Fox Hall Records, both digitally and on vinyl.
Cunningham and Stewart are still in the Windy City, taking their investigative tendencies to the extreme. Their song “Water,” for example—which they perform live but has yet to be released—centers around a “stagnant bass note” and their vocals, the two forming a dichotomy between “ugly” and beautiful.
THE BASICS: Sima Cunningham, 27; Macie Stewart, 24.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Sima Cunningham: I saw Macie in a play—I saw her in Little Shop of Horrors—and she’s about four years younger than me, she’s my brother’s age. I was actually back from college; we went to the same high school, but this was when I came back because [my brother] Liam [Cunningham] was playing in the pit, so I came to see the play. Macie sang, and I was like, “Wow, she’s got a really good voice.” It instantly grabbed me. I told my brother that, and I was like, “You should play music with Macie.” I thought she was really talented. An extended first impression is that how talented Macie is kind of exploded as time went by. I first knew her as a vocalist, and then Liam was like, “No, no no. She does way, way, way more than that.” I think for a lot of people in Chicago, Macie is the ever-expanding talent. Like, “Oh, she can do that too? Woah!”
Macie Stewart: [laughs] Thanks. For Sima, she was super cool, because she had a rock band in high school. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew her rock band, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever that she was the frontwoman of a band and people were going to see her. She’s constantly inspiring, because anything she wants to do or sets her mind out to do, she will do it. Those are my first impressions of Sima: She’s a force to be reckoned with.
REISSUING THE OHMME EP: Stewart: We’ve definitely grown in a lot of ways, but we still feel really attached to those songs. We play them all the time when we’re doing our live sets, and we’ve really changed around the arrangements a lot when we’re playing it live. All of the stuff on the record was just us two us figuring out what we wanted to sound like because we were not a band yet. We started off with the idea of making a project, and that was what it resulted in. It’s kind of what spurred the whole idea of being a band—that record. We’ve gone from playing with just the two of us to adding a drummer, [Matt Carroll,] so the songs feel very much like a cornerstone of our band and a jumping off point.
Cunningham: And we added these two songs to the vinyl release: one of them is a live performance of this cover that we’ve been doing—which is from the original Twin Peaks series—and we also did an improvised track. I think that what’s cool about the first record, and still feels [relevant], is that we tried to capture this genesis of the band, the idea, to have these influences of improvisation and ambience. It still really holds true and I’m still really excited about it.
BEGINNING THE BAND: Stewart: Constellation was eye-opening, I think, for the both of us. Sima worked there for a while, and I live [nearby], so I was there pretty much every day. It’s an incredible place because you can go there and see really wild things.
Cunningham: It’s also like a musician’s club. It’s the kind of place where after a gig, musicians will end up there, or a lot of musicians will go to each other’s shows there. It’s definitely a place where you’ll run into a lot of people and have conversations about music, be turned on to new things, and just hang out.
Stewart: When we first started playing at Constellation, we were just having fun, because it was electric guitar and it was new to us and we were making crazy noises. We thought it was exciting, we just weren’t sure if anyone else would think it was exciting. And then after shows, people would be like, “You guys sound really amazing. When’s your next show?” And we would look at each other, and laugh a little bit, like, “You guys liked this?” [laughs] It grew from there.
THE FAMILY BEHIND FOX HALL RECORDS: Cunningham: That label came about because we have a studio that we make all of our music in in Chicago, and it’s a collective or like a family, in a way. My brother is also a musician, and we have all these people we’ve collaborated with for a long time, and we’re always down in the studio called Fox Hall. Fox Hall has been a vehicle for us to be creating music and releasing music. There are a lot of great musicians in Chicago and a lot of great music is being created now, and we try and be a house for all of that to come to life. Especially since OHMME first started as more of a recording project or a performance project, and it really started in that studio, it was exciting to record there and release it from there, because it just made sense. That’s where…
Stewart: That’s where it all began! [laughs]
THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WIND: Stewart: The music community in Chicago is really open to anything. I don’t think it’s defined by any one genre of music; we have a little bit of everything. What’s really nice about it is that people like to collaborate—collaboration is huge here. Like we just sang on a Twin Peaks track, I did strings for Towkio’s project, we’ve sung for Chance [the Rapper], and Sima’s in [the band] Tweedy. Everybody shares their music talents with everyone else, and everyone’s really, really supportive as well. There’s not a competition thing going on, because everybody is pretty much in their own lane, so everyone just wants to support each other.
Cunningham: I think that people have very curious tastes here in Chicago. There are all these eras of really, really deep creative music that have happened here, and there’s kind of another wave of that right now, except that it’s happening in many, many different genres. Really hard-working, creative musicians who are only about the music have existed in Chicago for a long time, but there’s a cross-generational and cross-genre era happening; that’s why it’s so exciting, particularly at this moment. Obviously Chicago being a music center is long-standing, but there’s particular cross-pollination of many different kinds going on, and that’s why it’s so expansive and really rich. It feels thick with creative music.
STAYING LOOSE: Cunningham: In a way, adding a drummer, Matt, let us open up a little bit further, because even though we could really get into outer space when it was just the two of us—two guitars, no rhythm—Matt is a really sensitive player and also a very lyrical player. He’s a drummer that listens to vocalists and really loves vocals, so he’s able to be flexible in the way that the human voice is, versus just being a rhythm player. Honestly, in the past couple months, it’s been so fun to explore the trio. Sometimes we’ll have a show where we all kind of turn in a little bit more towards each other, really leaning into an improvised section. We have all these little looks or little ways of communicating on stage; it’s a quiet way of communicating, “Let’s go further. Let’s go further. Let’s go further,” and then, “Okay, let’s bring it back to where we started.” So the songs are still quite flexible in how they’re performed. Of course there are arrangements and there are parts that are really tight that we’ve rehearsed, but overall I would say that more than any project I’ve ever been in, there are no two shows that are alike. I think that we allow ourselves to get pretty lost in the performances, which can sometimes create chaos and sometimes create cool mistakes. But also, it creates a real element of it being a live performance and a live experience for us. Ultimately, this band—it’s of course about bringing it to people and performing for public audiences—but the idea of it is very intimately between us. The idea is that we’re creating something that we share in-between us, so it’s important to maintain that. People tell me all the time that the more and more Macie and I are turned towards each other, the more that they enjoy it. The more that we’re focused on making music towards each other, I’m told that it’s more interesting for the audience.