Skip to content

Josh Olmstead: “People Can Change, and Great Divides Can be Bridged.”

December 15, 2017


The Josh Olmstead Band will play the Peacock Room at Philadelphia Brewing Company on Sunday, celebrating the decade since they released their debut album, Charms.

We hung out with the guys the other day at their rehearsal space at The Sound Gallery Studios. And we spoke to Josh about the project and what he’s been doing since it dropped in 2007.

Ten years? Man. Where you been the last decade?

Believe it or not, by the time Charms came out, I had already been making music in Philly in fits and starts for ten whole years!

Thanks to the help of the musicians, friends, and family around me at the time, I finally found my sea legs as a songwriter and collaborator with Charms, and it gave me a nice second wind going into my second decade of Philly music making.

Since then, I’ve continued putting out records and performing as a songwriter pretty consistently. And I’ve also had the privilege of playing guitar on the records and tours of so many great, fellow Philly songwriters whose work I adore.


How did the project originally begin?

I originally came to Philly to make music with my band Aleksandra in 1997. When that band went its separate ways around the time of Y2K, I went on a pretty long hiatus from playing out in rock bands, even though I remained active in eclectic ensembles like South Philly’s Munier Mandolin Orchestra, and occasionally jammed with friends in West Philly basements.

I think that led to my songwriting turning more inward and craft oriented. I was no longer writing for a group, but purely to express myself, and maybe for the challenge of it all. If I occasionally played out, it would be solo, so the songs had to work with just guitar and voice.

My listening habits also changed as I delved into all the classic singer-songwriters more than ever before. Then, all the right people at just the right time encouraged me to get back in the game, so I branched out, met an amazing new circle of musician friends, and got to work on making my first “solo” record with a new band.

Life was so different back then, wasn’t it?

So different! Back then I fancied myself more of a dog person, and lived across the street from Clark Park, literally a stone’s throw from the Charles Dickens’ statue, with six awesome roommates from PAFA and Tyler School of Art.

Now, I live in Fishtown across from a skate park and basketball court with my awesome partner Katie and our mystical cat Lulu, who has more nicknames than Babe Ruth.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love dogs. It’s just that now I see both sides. People can change, and great divides can be bridged.

The music seems personal – almost nostalgic, yet hopeful. Are you still there?

They are personal, but hopefully not so personal that they come across as too literal. It’s nice to keep things universal, and open to interpretation. Nostalgia crept into the songs I think because we’re always dealing with our own mortality, and after ten years of Philly living, I must have been in a reflective mood.

Revisiting these songs in rehearsal these past two weeks has been pretty emotional. I’ve been inspired to sing in a way that I haven’t been for a long time because I’m realizing in the moment that the words have taken on a new meaning as I’ve grown. They’ve aged with me, and I hope with everyone else.

I think there’s hope in that. So it’s not that I’m “still there,” but I think I’ve made peace with where I was as a songwriter back then, and I can embrace it in a new way, if that makes sense.

The tracks still hold up. There is definitely that mid-00s influence but that sound is pretty popular today.

Yeah, for me, the sound of a record definitely evolves over time depending on our points of reference.

I’ve dug deep into so many records since we recorded Charms. So, you start to notice the little things, the little tricks of the trade, which shed light on your own records in ways you couldn’t have imagined ten years ago. You realize you definitely weren’t the only chef in the kitchen. The other musicians, engineers, and producers all brought their own history, taste, and style to the proceedings. Even the gear you use and the room you’re in contributes its own personality.

You learn to be humble because it’s always a collaborative process. There’s a gentle spirit running through everything, and you start to recognize those subtle influences, and enjoy finding them if you remain an active and curious listener over time. A good pair of headphones and the right mindset are key.

Do you still pine for 40th and Baltimore?

I don’t know if I pine, but I definitely remember the desperation of wanting to catch the very next trolley downtown or the last trolley back home to West Philly.

If I got tired of waiting on the corner for the next trolley in the freezing cold, I’d often started walking away from my house toward the 40th Street stop just to create some body heat and keep warm. At least I had a home or usually a place to be going. Whereas I knew a lot of my fellow Philadelphians didn’t and still don’t have that same luxury.

We aren’t alone in our struggle to find warmth. It’s just that some of us have an even greater struggle than others, and we should always remember that. I thought it’d be cool to put that in a song. Now, when I drive by that intersection, it is nostalgic because that song ‘40th & Baltimore’ was the first song of mine to ever be played on the radio. Helen Leicht, bless her, was the first DJ to play my song, and that was the one.

So it’s special. Maybe I do pine.

What’s up with the show at PBC? What should we expect?

Half the fun is I’m not all that sure what to expect.

But I do know the original Josh Olmstead Band lineup of Josh Machiz, Joseph Primavera, and Matt Scarano plan to be there. These are the cats that played on the record and shows surrounding the release of Charms, and have made life so beautiful for a songwriter like me.

I’ve played separately with everyone in other projects, but the four of us haven’t played together as a unit in like seven or eight years. We all put so much of our time and effort into the project traveling to Burlington and Boston and New York and Baltimore on a shoestring budget to make sure the music was played and heard way back then that I thought it was important we pause to pay tribute on the 10th anniversary of the record. And that’s what we plan to do at PBC.

When the four of us get in a room together to play music there’s a real time travel to the past, present and future that happens all at once, and the magical unspoken communication that happens between musicians runs even deeper now.

Plus the amazing singer-songwriters Laura Baird and Natalie Butts are going to play sets for everyone – they alone are worth stopping by PBC for a few Sunday afternoon rounds.

There will be plenty beer, crepes and no cover to get in! In the words of the late, great Leon Russell, “It’s a hippie commune bonafide.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: