A Sci-Fi Album for Climate Anxiety from Rising Musician Salami Rose Joe Louis

Salami Rose Joe Louis, a.k.a. Lindsay Olsen, almost quit music to pursue a career in environmental research. But her sci-fi album about the Earth's impending collapse caught the attention of the influential label Brainfeeder and set her on a new path. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Across the Carquinez Bridge from Vallejo, the post-industrial city that produced rap stars Mac Dre and E-40, sits the small waterfront hamlet of Crockett. Not an official town but a census designated place, it has a population of just over 3,000 and is barely larger than one square mile. During its dry, 90-degree summer days, a 100-year-old sugar refinery fills the air with the smell of molasses.

In was in a Crockett basement, far removed from the Bay Area's urban life, that Salami Rose Joe Louis recorded her enchanting new album, Zdenka 2080. Due out Aug. 30 on the celebrated L.A. label Brainfeeder, it's a collection of jazzy, experimental pop tracks that unfold like a sci-fi novel with a prescient message about the environment.

In the story of Zdenka 2080, Earth's elite flee the decaying planet to another, more livable one. The world's governments and corporations join forces to fly a megalopolis there, but the plan backfires, destroying the sun and slowly killing Earth's remaining inhabitants in the process. Our protagonist, Salami, uncovers a secret that changes the entire meaning of human beings' relationship to our environment.

The gripping, semi-allegorical tale about impending natural disaster unfolds over Zdenka 2080's sprightly 22 tracks, where Salami Rose, a.k.a. Lindsey Olsen, winds the listener through the album's many subplots with oddball synth melodies, nimble guitar work, reverb-heavy vocals, pitch-shifted spoken word sections (in character, of course) and jazz drums. Though Zdenka 2080 has an upbeat, pop sensibility, Olsen avoids catchy refrains, instead writing songs demanding close attention lest the listener miss a crucial twist.

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"The theme I was trying to get across is [that] energy affects our brains and affects our actions, and so maybe a way we could help save our planet is to have more positive energy," she says on a recent afternoon, sitting on her keyboard bench in her small downtown Oakland rehearsal space, located in the back of a painter's studio.

Approaching her songwriting like a fiction writer (she cites sci-fi greats Octavia Butler and Gene Wolfe as inspirations), Olsen storyboarded the plot before putting it to song, and is currently working on a comic book to go with the album. 

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This inventive approach shows why Olsen has emerged as one of the most exciting new voices in the Bay Area's music scene in the past year. She came up as part of the experimental beatmaker collective Smart Bomb, which hosts a popular monthly musical showcase at the Legionnaire Saloon in Oakland. After gaining some Bandcamp buzz from her first two solo projects, released on Oakland's Hot Records Societe, her work arrived on the national stage in early 2019 when Toro y Moi's Chaz Bear invited her to open for him on his last tour in support of his Outer Peace album. 

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Olsen, a low-key introvert who spends her spare time in her Crockett basement reading sci-fi novels and physics books, had played keyboards in other people's bands. But this new attention on an admittedly strange project she thought would never see the light of day thrilled and terrified her at the same time. "I guess I had been scared shitless before," she says. "But this was my first time performing my own music, which was so exciting in a whole new level of shitting my pants."

But the risk of baring her soul in front of a national audience paid off, and things only went up from there. The producer PBDY from Brainfeeder was one of Olsen's first followers on SoundCloud, and he introduced her music to label boss Flying Lotus, an experimental producer and one of Olsen's idols. "And somehow FlyLo decided he wanted me on his label," she says, her pitch rising with excitement. "I'm still freaking out about it, to be honest."

Salami Rose Joe Louis (Lindsay Olsen) with paintings by Muzae Sesay.
Salami Rose Joe Louis (Lindsay Olsen) with paintings by Muzae Sesay. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Days ahead of her national tour with Flying Lotus, which kicked off this week, Olsen says she's still starstruck, remembering a show in Los Angeles a year and a half ago where she met Flying Lotus for the first time. Just before going on stage, Olsen found out that he and the bassist Thundercat, two of Brainfeeder's most celebrated acts, were in the audience. Overcome with nervousness, she didn't know what to do, so she pulled out a dinosaur finger puppet on stage. "Sometimes when I'm scared, I go into bizarre mode," she says, laughing. "That was how I coped with meeting my heroes."

Now that she's signed to one of the country's most popular avant-garde labels, Olsen is still in disbelief; she humbly calls it blind luck. Four years ago, she thought she'd quit her music career for good when took a job as a researcher in a chemical oceanography lab. But music kept calling: "I started coming late to the lab because I was writing music, and I kept missing the first hour of my job," she says. "Slowly, I became a very bad lab employee."

Now, her solo work which she once considered a hobby has a giant audience, and has propelled her on a new path.

"I always thought it was too weird," she says, exhaling with relief. "I never thought I would show it to anybody besides friends."

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