I became intrigued with the San Francisco indie-not-quite-pop band, Osage, after quirky frontwoman Chelsea Bryan ran on stage at the Balanced Breakfast residency in 2014 shamelessly introducing herself as the new girl in the city. She had just moved from Washington DC and was set to start a fresh iteration of this developing music project.
Since then, Osage’s addictive melodies that lock step with rhythm, combined with Chelsea’s distinct voice, has deepened my intrigue and are catching momentum in San Francisco.
Last week, I caught her in between her MFA studies and we sat down over chips and (the best) guacamole at La Oaxaqueña in the Mission. In her very bright way, Chelsea shared about her journey in becoming Osage.
If you’ve spent time in the Mission, then you’ve noticed Osage street, but make no mistake: that’s not what this band is named after. Both are named after Chelsea’s Native American tribe: Osage, pronounced “oh-sage.” Little did she know that in calling the project Osage, Chelsea would actually begin a journey of discovering her roots.
Chelsea shared about how this project is filled with the tensions of identity: being white and Native American, celebrating the traditions and heritage along with the millennial urban reality she lives in.
“The music has always been connected to the past and to stories and responding to my environment,” says Chelsea. “I wouldn’t have called myself a white Indian six months ago. My dad grew up on the reservation and I can very legitimately prove that I’m Native American. But growing up I didn’t feel that I was. I even joined the Native American Student Union in college because I wanted to share my diversity even though I was very dubious that it existed. I had been dancing since I was 13, but I felt like Osage was part of my past but not my present.”
Right before Chelsea moved to San Francisco, Osage released an EP, Have/Hold. Chelsea promoted the album intensely, getting attention from Hype Machine blogs and coverage from DC news outlets. The album developed a few strains of intense fans, but on the whole was a rushed DIY album. Osage in California was a different story.
In starting fresh, she would meet her musical half, Jason Morrell, the music director of a very Sufjan-esque worship team at City Church who happens to be part Cherokee. Serendipitously, she found herself practicing just around the corner from Osage Street.
Since their move from Washington DC in the summer of 2014, the band has shifted from falling under the American way of hard-driven success to what Chelsea and Jason call the “Indian way”– perfection, craft, excellence.
“There’s a phrase in Osage which means ‘try hard.’ When you’re young you’re supposed to try hard. It’s not just about going really hard and being hyperactive, like I tend to be if I don’t watch myself, but sometimes you have to realize that we live in a youth culture where we see, like, Selena Gomez and she’s 16 and look what she did. But no, that’s not important. It doesn’t matter. Just focus on what actually has meaning.”
A tension we all fall under. There will always be that pressure of being successful for fame’s sake and if you are an artist of any variety, you feel that.
“When I started working with Jason, he was like, ok, no, we’re not going to do the whole try to succeed and be whatever. We’re just going to do this to play music that feels amazing and that we work really hard on. We’re not going to assume that we’re good. We’re not going to assume that we should be famous. We just want to make music that we think is really beautiful and let’s always edit it and always be really careful about it and not assume that we’re awesome just automatically. I want to die at the end of my life knowing that I did good work and that I did my best. Not that I just BS’d my way through life to try and find success.”
You can see that: Chelsea’s voice can capture a tenuous emotion as it teeters between ultra soft and piercing to really emotional and heavy, lending itself to dual emotions like and hate and love. The music is thoughtful. It’s melodic. It’s haunting.
Chelsea reflected on the film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, “There’s a phrase in Japanese ‘shokunin’ and it means your life is a service.