A few months ago, I walked into Olya and Brian’s (of the Scarlet Sails) house in Morningside Heights, a beautiful 5 story building, the kind you picture as being representative of old New York: a sweeping staircase leading up flights of stairs, a kitchen located on the 2nd floor, and bathrooms featuring that quintessential black and white New York tile. The story of the building itself was rather unusual, owned by Columbia University, the building was actually leased in the 70s to one of the university clubs (I believe it was a language club), and the woman who originally leased it has held on to the building despite Columbia University’s attempts to retake it. Over the years, the building grew into the hub of an artist community, attracting artists, sculptors, musicians and other creatives. Although the house has had a rotating roster of artists, the apartment itself didn’t become what it was until Brian moved in over 10 years ago and started carving out the main living room as a creative space, filling it with instruments and music.
Olya Viglione, is the main songwriter of the band, Scarlet Sails, and her husband, Brian Viglione, is the drummer and co-songwriter. It was so interesting to learn about their creative collaboration and witness the different ways they go about approaching new musical ideas. Often, Olya brings the initial lyrical or song idea to Brian who then fleshes out the structure and dynamics of the song. Olya is a Russian-conservatory trained pianist, who, after years of studying the classics, found that she couldn’t stay within the confines of classical music, always gravitating to sounds that are very different, following unusual scales and chord patterns. When she talked about songwriting, she expressed thinking of the movements in terms of colors, finding a specific shade of color in the chords to convey the feeling.
Brian is the first drummer I shot in the Creative Spaces series, and I was curious to learn about what the process of songwriting is like for him. Given that drummers play so many instruments at the same time, for me it was impossible to understand where do they start? Brian explained that a lot of it is hearing the sound, visualizing the mood and accessing the dynamics that encapsulate where the song is going to go. Interesting enough, when it came to describing the music, he also spoke about visualizing the song through the framework of colors, each one representing a mood.
When Olya began to play a newly written song, Brian started breaking down the drum composition, allowing the tension in the song to form at first, then bringing in certain rhythmic elements to accent the darkness of the piece. But, he explained, as the lyrics move the song, you don’t want the drums to drown out the lyrics, so you find the sounds most complimentary to the vocals, the words, and the rest of the song.
It was interesting to hear about the complimentary nature of their respective creative processes, Brian was very detail oriented, while Olya was more intuitive and explorative. When she writes, it can start anywhere, with either lyrics or melodies or all at once. For Brian, when he hears the start of a song, he visualizes a library of sounds, finding reference points in his mind, and then creates something unique that flows with the song. Despite these divergent approaches, when they were jamming, the music flowed like a river, seamless and fluid.