Photo: Kate Warren
Photo: Kate Warren

The Times and Travels of Odetta Hartman

Odetta Hartman describes herself as a vessel for stories, songs and sounds.

“Sometimes it feels like lightning striking, and other times, I’ll be really intentional about the poetry of it,” she tells us of her writing and recording process. “Without getting too witchy about it, I think that music is a really spiritual thing for me. I’m a superstitious person, and a fully formed song will sometimes come out of me and I’m just like, ‘Where did that come from?’”

Whether it’s some sort of musical witchcraft or simply fate, music has been embedded into the fabric of Hartman’s life for as long as she can remember. She recalls her New York City upbringing surrounded by music on the streets and exposure to avant-garde performances at her parents’ encouragement.

Hartman trained as a classical violinist and honed her self-described “nerd focus” on traditional folk music, writing a college thesis on ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s travels with author Zora Neale Hurston. Now she crafts a masterful blend of American folk and country with modern sensibilities, weaving many of her music-related memories into her songs.

When given the opportunity to move to DC, she embraced the change of scenery as a way to envelop herself in another city’s musical framework.

“I fell in love with DC really intensely, and I wasn’t expecting that,” she says. “It was an immediate crash landing into this really vibrant community. I understand that’s not most people’s experience with uprooting yourself to a new city.”

Similarly, the community embraced Hartman. She found herself collaborating with countless DC artists – Babeo Baggins and The Rob Stokes Band among them – and used the tightknit aspects of the city’s creatives to add another facet to the many things in her life she has to draw inspiration from. Jack Inslee, founder of Full Service Radio in AdMo’s LINE Hotel, provided creative direction on and produced both of her albums.

“Everyone is super supportive and really reached out and welcomed me. I know as an outsider New Yorker, I could have been just whatever, but I felt so immediately absorbed into the team. There’s a fluidity and openness that I really appreciate. In a place like New York, it’s a little more difficult to have the freedom and the space to do that, so I found it really refreshing.”

Even though her move to DC and work with the community here has been intentional, part of Hartman’s success is owed to her ability to embrace the unknown and accidental in both her creative process and music.

“A lot of it is just mistakes in the studio,” she explains, specifically of a moment on her sophomore record Old Rockhounds Never Die. “My favorite part of the record is on a song called ‘Widows Peak’ when an orchestra of strings comes in. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Jack accidentally triggered all the tracks. You can have an idea, but you have to be open to weird things happening.”

This year has seen Hartman hard at work, on tour for Old Rockhounds Never Die with bands like Let’s Eat Grandma and The Ballroom Thieves. Although she’s been exceptionally busy on the road, there’s a sense of complete joy in her voice as she explains how even a grueling schedule can give way to inspiration each night.

“Going to different markets and meeting different people is interesting [to me]. You get such a beautiful depiction of this slice of life in each town, talking to people and learning about the personality of different places.”

She pauses for a moment and ends with this.

“I don’t know if you can hear me smiling.”

Hartman plays Rock & Roll Hotel with The Ballroom Thieves on Thursday, December 6. Tickets are $15. Doors open at 7 p.m. Visit www.odettahartman.com to learn more about the artist.

Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; 202-388-7625; www.rockandrollhotelldc.com

M.K. Koszycki

M.K.'s entire life revolves around music, whether it be scouring Twitter for the band of the moment or catching a live show at one of DC's many venues. When she's not at a gig, find her hanging out with her golden retriever, drinking beer with friends or re-watching Twin Peaks for the hundredth time.