“According to my mum, I really just kept trying to reach for the keys,” says Oscar Scheller, who started playing piano at six and now, at 23 and going by his first name, is steadily proliferating the UK music internet with his rich baritone-on-fuzzy-electric-guitar twee pop that both Pitchfork and The Guardian took notice of last year, and whose new 146b EP we covered in May.
I first made his acquaintance a few months ago at my apartment, where a friend of a friend visiting from London stopped by for beer and snacks, bringing along Oscar, her travel companion. For most of his visit he sat loyally next to my roommate’s dog, his long gangly legs crossed, explaining that he missed his back at home. He didn’t say much of himself or his music. His friend made sure to leave his Soundcloud page open on my computer before they left to get bagels.
After seeing a bit of what he was about in person and then listening to his music, my brain immediately started reaching to put him into a tidy British context, expecting to find him associated with the gritty scenes of South East London’s Southwark (containing Peckham, home of King Krule), Lambeth, or Lewisham boroughs. The night before he was supposed to go back to the UK, I ran into him again at a bar, where he had just come from seeing The Coathangers play at Mercury Lounge, and after catching up with him for a few minutes, I found my blind associating effort quickly squelched. That evening, and in our email exchange that followed, I had the pleasure of learning more about this North London-born and raised, classically trained, bedroom-producing, Motown-loving young artist.
Speaking of “Mum,” he writes, “She would be playing keyboard while I sat on her lap dribbling, so I guess I just had an innate sense for music from being surrounded by it at an early age. My parents would always be playing music around the house–Nirvana, Blondie, Kraftwerk, and The Slits–but in the beginning it was just her teaching me Bach’s “Two Part Invention No. 4”. Also Blur. Lots of Blur.”
He studied piano in high school and experimented with classical composition around the same time his omnivorous music tastes were also developing, especially American hip hop and R&B. He explains, “I think I drew a lot of inspiration from ’90s East Coast hip hop production, when it comes to recording and sampling drums. Buckwild, Lord Finesse—Those are my favorite drum sounds.”
Listening to crooners like Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, and Al Bowlly let him explore his own crooning capabilities. Or, perhaps, he was born with the sweet lowness. He recounts his fair share of experimenting; being the only boy to join the gospel choir in secondary school, auditioning with a Destiny’s Child rendition of “Amazing Grace”. “At 15, I picked up a guitar, and tried to play it like a piano,” he says. “When that didn’t work, I carried on, just making up chords, and writing very primitive songs from that. I was never crazy about guitar music until my late teens.”
High school is as good a place as any to cultivate a defining sense of creative existential tension within oneself. In Oscar’s case, he had just moved to a new home Harlesden, which at the time was a relatively unsafe area of North West London. He became very depressed, having to leave friends and familiarity behind and start over. He describes it as a sort of incubation period for his creative dark side. It was then that he wrote and recorded his first pop song, “Silly Girl”, on a little cassette tape dictaphone, which he uses to this day. Then that “music as coping mechanism for generalized despondence” really started to resonate with him; and then that the “Oscar” of today started to take shape. He puts it in the following way:
“Music has really been therapy for me. For most of my life, I’ve used it either to understand or reflect on things, and at points to survive traumas. I have experienced a great deal of loss and sadness from a young age. I think that’s probably where the bittersweet nature of my writing comes from. Even if I try to write a happy song, it always come out melancholic in one way or another. I have definitely always felt like a bit of an outsider when it comes to community. I’m most definitely not part of any scene. I sometimes wish that wasn’t the case, but as I’m still living at home, I think it’s hard to plug into anything outside of that. There’s definitely that kind of DIY scene in parts of East and South London. I often feel as though I’m missing out, but then maybe that’s part of my creative process. Loneliness and a sense of loss.”
Among other things, listening to Swedish dream-pop band The Radio Dept., who do all their own production, nonstop for three years strongly influenced what could be called Oscar’s healthy relationship to his laptop. He says he tried different methods of recording, working in full studios with capable engineers and “all that malarky.” For a time, and in an effort to do things “properly,” he was taken with the ideal of the studio recording experience, thinking it would categorically result in a better sound. “Not the case at all,” he says. “In the end, I came straight back to the demos and put the faith back into myself and my production/process. I know I will at some point have to leave my bedroom comforts and learn how to cope with another setting to record music, but for now it seems appropriate.” It works if, like Oscar, you’re motivated by isolation and not stifled by it.
After listening to his voice and lyrics, it might come as a surprise that he does not count Morrissey among his heroes. When I asked for a list, he rattled off “Erik Satie, Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Nicholas Cochrane (my old art teacher), and my dog Jasper.” But, in speaking with him, I felt it would be remiss to gloss over the perhaps heavy-handed comparison, fully acknowledging that the mention could suck the life out of the conversation. Thankfully, he responded:
“Ha! Yeah, I don’t mind the comparison all that much. Morrissey is an incredible talent and cultural icon. I don’t condone all of his (most recent) behaviour, but y’know, I suppose he’s just a character and he’s doing him. At least not censoring himself, and he definitely hasn’t softened! I went through a big Smiths phase in my late teens, and I do think The Smiths/Morrissey informed my music in terms of what it evaluated – misery, mundanity, the cynicism and irony of Englishness.”
His debut track, “Never Told You”, flows out of this frustrated youth spirit that’s both haunted and invigorated him over the years. He cites it as the song that revealed to him how he wanted to write music. It came from feeling emotionally spun out over a failed romance. Because of what he’d been listening to at the time, he had a lot of classic soul drum breaks in mind and “thought it would be funny to write a downer song on top of a dance break. The song goes round and round repeating, and that’s really how I felt. Going around the same emotional cycle, elation and hope, then to nothingness.”
The 146b EP was a natural progression out of that, though while he was writing and recording the songs on it, he had no conception of them as a cohesive release. “The format,” he says, “was definitely an afterthought.” The four songs that made it onto the EP were ones that, in Oscar’s mind, suited each other best, rather than a fulfillment of Oscar’s own personal or brand agenda. “”Sometimes’” was the first track written off the EP, so that set the tone. “Open Up,” I wrote really quickly last summer and didn’t think any thing of it, until I played it to a friend and they convinced me it was one of the best songs I’d written. It’s funny, how it often takes someone else’s perspective to recognize something special.”
His latest release (streaming above) is a single called “Kitchen Song”, his most sunny and summery to date. Stereogum noted its “cheery riffs and good feels,” and we have no problem letting our own twee-flag fly along with the swell of positivity it’s stirring. His next EP, which he is currently working on, does not yet have a name but promises to be another, differently shaded initiation into Oscar’s world. He reports that he’s in touch with a few labels about a potential full-length, though he doesn’t seem to be in a huge rush to churn one out for its own sake. Oscar takes his time, and it gives his music meaning, respectfully passing on other people’s ideas about making music and marketing it.
The sweet simplicity that hangs over both his new EP and his personality is hard to miss on either front. Unsurprisingly, his take on what makes a good love song is “one that completely encapsulates that feeling of being in love the first time, being a teenager again. Feeling light and care-free. And one that makes you forget all the ugliness in the world.” As for an anti-love song, he says, “probably a punk song about STDs.”