Somewhere in the vast depths of the internet (after seapunk and vaporwave made their mark on the hyperreal, post-internet landscape), Oklou was brought into the world with a keyboard, found sounds from her world wide web womb, a microphone, and music production software. A couple of decades before, Marylou Mayniel was born in the countryside of western France. It was an ideal recipe for the kind of pop star that makes sense in 2020 and beyond — a young girl from a small town, who is classically trained in piano and cello and who sings in choirs and has dreams of being a backup dancer for the French pop star Lorie, discovers the depths of cyberspace and all the sounds it has to offer.
Mayniel, aka Oklou, self-released her first EP Avril in 2014, directly inspired by post-internet art and the maximalist electronic music subgenres that had similar life spans to fashion trends. It features “Chrysalis,” an early example of her knack for pop songwriting, with its autotune lilts, bouncy bass line, glossy, layered synths, and a guitar riff drifting over the main vocal melody. A couple parts of the track stutter slightly, as if a video you’re streaming is buffering. Listening to it now, it is reminiscent of the best parts of the internet in the 2010s — inventive, utopian, and exciting… with an under-layer of melancholy.
“From 2013, I entered an internet dimension that I didn’t expect existed,” Oklou recounts. “I dived in… and I made that first EP being overwhelmed by all this information and these new forms of art and communication and post-internet stuff, Tumblr… All these different movements in arts as well as music, remember seapunk or witch house? Back in the day, it was so nice to witness these things flourish and disappear two years after.”
Oklou channeled this overwhelm into making playlists almost constantly, alongside editing videos, creating collages, and composing music on the computer. After Avril came a four-track, limited edition tape at the end of 2015, with the notable “Defeat” on the B-side. The first time I heard it was in the middle of an Avalon Emerson DJ set. It was presented as a palette cleanser, in a sense, beatless but not diluted in any way. Its spine-tingling synths seemed to instantly increase the production of dopamine in my brain. Preceding melodies that cascade to infinity, there’s a drawn-out, guttural proclamation of: “I knew it, he always does this.” Later comes a woman screaming about not being “white trash” but a “really good person,” with layers of subtle vocals that sound like they are sung by a Disney princess. Finally, the muffled blares of airhorns and barking dogs; a beautiful post-internet symphony.
While Oklou’s music would sound very different if Marylou had not spent all those hours on MSN Messenger, Tumblr, and YouTube, and while it possesses a screen glare-like sheen, there’s an enduring sense of romance that lingers underneath. “I’ve always been super romantic,” she says. ”If I had a crush on a boy, I would send him anonymous letters and draw him. Oh, that was so nice. I loved those moments.” To this day, she favors romantic films for the most part, but has a special affinity for Disney’s Bambi. She has always admired the grace of deers, and that the tragic yet beautiful tale also shows their fragility.
With her technical musical skills evident at a young age, grace was never an issue for Marylou. Fragility, vulnerability, and emotionality bubbled up to the surface later on, carrying more weight than her technical skill. “I know I can do a lot of stuff, but the ingredients that are harder to find are the ones that make me able to go deep inside myself. It’s not about being good at the keyboard, or having 15 years of classic technique behind you,” she explains.
These ingredients became easier to find with new ways of feeling. Her first love and subsequent heartbreak, which she characterizes as “hard but interesting,” offered a wide scope, from passion and admiration to self-doubt and confusion. Taking inspiration from the heartfelt R&B of Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” and the UB-40 songs she’d listen to growing up, Oklou’s lyrics often reference these sentiments of love, loss, and everything that fills the gaps in between. The chorus of “entertnmnt” comes to mind — a collaboration with Mura Masa, the result of one of many recent studio sessions with other artists: “And I, I don’t know what part of me you see / But whatever it is, it makes me feel /Like I could survive through anything /And you, are my answer when I have no clue / You are my dancer when I make no move / The only way I know I’m beautiful.”
The original is incredible, but her recent stripped-back home performance of the track for COLORS is on another level, painted with a touch of Twin Peaks-esque haunting beauty, bringing the edges of the lyrics into sharp relief. With English not being Oklou’s native language, her use of words has a certain sublime playfulness to it, such as the way she deploys “baffling” as a verb on “Friendless”: “I know that you’ve been baffling so hard.” A beguiling interplay between music and lyrics has always been evident in Oklou’s music, blending synths and strings and autotuned vocals with precision, but more significantly, with feeling.
“It’s such a pleasure for me to lay vocals down on synth or an instrumental, and I love to work on how both things are responding to each other,” she explains, going on to elaborate on how she’s improved. “Even though I’m far from the best lyricist, I’m now able to feel so much when I write that I instantly cry. I’m like, ‘Okay, so that must be what you’re supposed to feel when you write stuff.’”
As of late, tears seem to be a litmus test for whether or not Oklou’s on the right track with her music, but all that emotion pouring out can be a lot to bear alone, especially when creating a full-length. “The project I’ve been working on this year and last year has been so much more than just working on my computer. There was such an important emotional history and things that were going on in my life, I insisted (and I knew it was the right thing to do) to be surrounded by a friend of mine who connected to this story I was going through, and who listened to my stuff and really involved himself in the whole project. It happened very naturally,” she reveals. “We cried together listening to the demos and it was just the way it was supposed to happen.”
The project in question is Galore, a 10-track mixtape coming very soon. If it were a dish you could eat, Oklou says it would be “earthy and foresty, with mushrooms, potatoes, and green stuff, chestnuts, boar meat.” While we can’t stick a fork into it just yet, the way Oklou talks about it makes it clear it’s bound to be her best work yet. “For my own project and for the things I want to create, I hope that I will always be driven by these really strong emotions and inspirations and energies, just because it makes so much sense to me. There are so many things out there to listen to already. I want it to exist for amazing reasons.”
Look out for Oklou’s ‘Galore’ mixtape out September 24. Pre-order it here, and see the video for single “unearth me” below.
Jorge A. Duarte