Most teenagers don’t get to kickstart a music career by singing in front of 20,000 people opening for rock band Chicago at the last minute. But 19-year-old indie-pop artist Annie O’Malley isn’t trying to be like most teenagers.
During O’Malley’s senior year at Hinsdale Central High School, she sent a demo to the band’s manager, who then invited her to the show at Northerly Island. When the intended opener fell through, the manager enlisted O’Malley to perform at the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati with just three days notice.
“It’s better when there’s a lot of people because someone will like you,” the Chicago native said in an interview with The Phoenix. “If it’s 50 people maybe one or two will like you but if you have 20,000, there’s got to be a good amount.”
With just herself, her instruments and some backing tracks, she joined the band Chicago for 16 dates on that tour. O’Malley said she didn’t think her setup compared to Chicago’s eight-piece band, but she was grateful for the opportunity. Prior to that performance, the largest crowd she’d performed in front of was 800 people during her 5th grade choir concert solo.
She wrote the Christmas song she performed at the choir concert, but her songwriting has evolved since then. With influences ranging from Taylor Swift to alt-J, from U2 to Flume, O’Malley draws on a variety of sounds to create her indie-pop tracks.
Both upbeat electronic pop and singer-songwriter acoustics serve as the backdrop for her self-proclaimed “raw” lyrics. O’Malley said she strives to be open and honest with her experiences, something her parents have encouraged throughout her life.
“My parents were always really adamant about talking about our feelings,” O’Malley said. “[We] dealt with a lot of suicide so they’ve always been very like, ‘If you’re upset, talk about it. If you have something wrong, if you’re stressed, talk about it.’ … So I think in my lyrics I can be very transparent. I don’t feel like there’s topics I can’t talk about.”
There’s always room for that honesty and openness, according to O’Malley. She said she wants to make music for the people in her generation going through similar changes and growth as her. She said she’s still figuring it all out and making music documents this transitional time in her life.
The deceptively upbeat track “Island” draws on a lonely time for O’Malley when she said she felt all her friends turned against her. By writing and reflecting on the situation, O’Malley said she came to terms with the fact that she can’t control everything.
“There was nothing I could do about it,” O’Malley said. “I had to move on. I had to see what else there was.”
That’s when she wrote “Planet Golden.” In the empowering pop track, O’Malley decides to lift herself up instead of dwelling on the past.
That theme of “golden” has been a recurring one for O’Malley — her most recent single released Jan. 24 is titled “Golden Doves.” The mellow track meshes a consistent acoustic riff with ethereal synths and a grounding bass guitar. The slow tempo gives O’Malley’s voice space to shine with falsetto runs.
She drew inspiration for the track from the warmth of summer — namely her family’s trips to Florida to escape Chicago winter. There, O’Malley said she had room to think, which is why the song takes on a calm tone rather than that of the next summer anthem.
That time outside is important for O’Malley. Whether it’s relaxing on the beach, walking barefoot in the grass or going to a garden with a friend, O’Malley said that’s where she feels most creative.
“Growing up in Chicago where it’s literally freezing eight months of the year, I think I just really learned to appreciate the sun and warmth,” O’Malley said.
She said she brings bits of the outdoors into her room to keep her from being too bogged down during those months. From flowers to rocks, those small reminders of warmth simply make her happy, O’Malley said.
“It’s just something that’s therapeutic for me,” O’Malley said. “It reminds me of being there without actually being in the sun or being at the beach.”
Annie O’Malley is available to stream on all platforms.