Melissa Otto’s voice lets you know that everything’s going to be OK. Gentle, lyrical and uplifting but avoiding syrupy sentimentality thanks to the undisguised rawness of her Aussie vowels, melodic lines that twist in unexpected directions and some genuinely innovative musical arrangements. This balance of light and depth has earned Otto awards and a dedicated cadre of listeners around the world, particularly in Brazil where she has toured more than once.
Otto and her talented assemblage of musical siblings—Jonno, Billy and Sarah (the latter two being founding members of electro-pop outfit, Janey)—anticipated the hipster indie folk revival by a number of years. Her first EP, Patio, was completed in about 2006. It’s everything that’s good in the descriptor “kitchen table recording”: unselfconscious, quirky, with background laughter in some places and a musical palette that’s perfectly balanced. Guitars, brushes and a couple of bottles tapped with what sounds like a pencil. The instrumentation and production values of more recent albums, Opened (2008), Blue Sky (2011) and The Journey Home (2014), are much lusher but there’s still a disarming lack of pretension. Yes, it’s unabashedly spiritual music, but Otto’s Christianity comes out original and vulnerable in her songwriting, avoiding the conventions of gospel or contemporary worship music that too often run dangerously close to cliché.
To listen to her music, or even to talk to her—constant smiles and laughter, a disarming openness balanced by a serene centredness—you’d be forgiven for thinking that Melissa Otto spends her days stringing together daisy chains, haloed by heavenly sunshine. But up to her knees in nappies is probably more like it.
“We’ve got a 10-month old and a 2-year old,” says Otto. “I’ve just been sort of trying to work out that juggle. Jase [her husband, Jason Hinze] is really supportive. We went on a trip to the States for six months just a couple of months back and he looked after the kids while I was singing. So that’s how we did that. I have this big idea to do a children’s album this year but I’m like, uergh, I don’t know where I’m going to fit that in!”
Otto’s positive vibe is no accident. Maintaining it requires discipline and an awareness of her vulnerabilities. “I went through a Björk phase,” she says, “I just love how different she is. But music definitely affects me a lot and I just had to stop listening to her ‘cos it actually just made me kind of down.”
“It’s an interesting thing: the journey you’ve come through with your songwriting, Melissa,” says Jonno in a badly formatted 2008 YouTube interview with his sister, reflecting on her teen angst period. “The things that you wrote previously had a lot of melancholy—things you were singing about, the way you would write the chords—they were very melancholy. And it seems like the different way you’ve seen God, has actually changed your music.”
Otto agrees. “Just awesome freeing revelations of God’s character. The truth really does set you free.”
Check out Melissa Otto’s music here.