Winnipeg’s first animated band takes off Pop act Olivia Sea comes to life in hand-drawn music videos

Not many Winnipeg musicians have filmed a music video in outer space — but Olivia Sea has.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/10/2019 (1264 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Not many Winnipeg musicians have filmed a music video in outer space — but Olivia Sea has.

The red-haired, green-eyed songstress is the creation of Nicholas Friesen, and her illustrated adventures are a local twist on a long tradition of animated bands like the Archies, Jem and the Holograms and the Gorillaz.

Olivia Sea and her fictional band, American Youth, released their first EP earlier this year with vocals and instrumentals performed by real-life Winnipeg musicians. Her newest animated music video for the song Timid/Cyclist is set on a space station, complete with alien visitors and subtle Star Wars references.

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“I think the songs stand up on their own and it doesn’t need a gimmick behind it, but the gimmick is the way we’re delivering the songs,” says Friesen, a local musician, writer and filmmaker.

The project has been a long time coming for Friesen, who first came up with the character of Olivia Sea in 2012 when he was writing a screenplay inspired by the breakup of a band he was involved in.

“It was like the end of some good friendships, too,” he says. “And so this screenplay came out of this wanting to start fresh.”

As the story goes, 20-something Olivia Sea decides to leave Winnipeg after breaking up with her girlfriend outside the Royal Albert Arms Hotel. She heads to Portland, Ore., with her robot friend, 4-trak, to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a musician. Aside from a few cameos in songs and music videos for Friesen’s new (but now defunct) band, futurekids, that was the extent of Olivia Sea’s story for years.

Inspiration struck after some casual jam sessions with his friend Andy Cole, formerly of the band Eagle Lake Owls, where they recorded a handful of dreamy, indie-pop tunes.

“We just sort of messed around and tried things in different styles. Both times we came away with two or three songs,” Cole says. “It was so fun and they sounded so good. For like a year and a half we were like, ‘We have to do something with them.’”

Olivia Sea’s purpose finally came into focus for Friesen.

“I pitched Andy on the idea of this being Olivia Sea’s band,” he says. “It’s just a recording project and that way there’s no pressure.”

Today, the Olivia Sea recording project includes the Purposeful Movements EP, released in March, and three music videos illustrated by Friesen.

Aside from taking an animation workshop through the National Film Board when he was a kid, Friesen is a self-taught illustrator. Each Olivia Sea video is hand-drawn and takes about 200 hours to complete, depending on the number of pop-culture references and Winnipeg Easter eggs Friesen decides to include in the scenes (hint: it’s usually a lot).

Visually, the videos are similar to ’60s-era Hanna-Barbera cartoons, which fits well with the band’s uncomplicated pop sound that relies heavily on a Moog synthesizer and draws inspiration from artists such as Alvvays, Phoebe Bridgers and Snail Mail.

Olivia Sea is voiced by Winnipeg actress and singer Olivia Ulrich — the shared names are a happy coincidence — and Friesen says her involvement has helped bring the character to life.

“She just got it… and she fit the character so well,” he says. “I also wanted her to have ownership of it, because it’s a weird project to get involved in.”

The project is weird on a few levels: it’s the first animated band to come out of Winnipeg; two of the bandmates, Ulrich and Cole, have never met in person; and almost all of the songs and vocals were recorded in one take.

“We went, pretty much every time, with the first take and I can hear the stuff where I flubbed it, but it’s not a flub that ruined the take,” Cole says. “That was something that was there from the very beginning — not overthinking the music.”

It’s also different from other animated bands in that the musicians behind the illustrations aren’t trying to hide their identities. Visit and you can read the bios of everyone involved. Still, some listeners take her story at face value.

“I’ve heard it on campus radio across the country, people think she’s Olivia Sea from Portland, Ore.,” Friesen says, laughing. “It feels like we’ve succeeded, we’re not trying to pull a joke on anybody.”

The project lives entirely online and the band is mulling the logistics of playing a live show in Winnipeg. Future plans include a multi-season webseries and a full-length album.

“It’s a different way to get people to listen to your music by giving them something very different to look at,” Cole says.

For Friesen, Olivia Sea has allowed him to continue making music while having a band experience on his own terms.

“It’s my comment on how I’d rather spend 200 hours making a music video than playing another show at a dive bar and waiting to get paid at 2 a.m. while someone else uses my drum kit,” he says. “What I like about making music is hanging out with my friends, writing lyrics, having other people sing them, and I like recording and mixing and making music videos.”

Twitter: @evawasney

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Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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