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Oliver Sim: 'The best antidote to shame is voicing it'

In our “Artist Voices” series, artists reflect on their music, lives and time on YouTube.

Earlier this fall — September 9th to be exact — Oliver Sim debuted Hideous Bastard, his first solo album outside of his work with indie rockstars, The xx. Described as deeply confessional by Sim, who wrote these songs in the aftermath of the The xx’s I See You world tour in 2008, Hideous Bastard takes the listener on a journey of honest, self exploration. Sim spoke with our very own Corbyn Asbury diving deep into how the album came to life.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your debut album, Hideous Bastard, was released this year. You’ve been a part of the band The xx since you were a teenager. What did it feel like to create this project of your own?

Oliver Sim: I haven’t always had dreams of going out on my own, 'cause I’m very happy in the band! But when The xx made I See You, our last record, Jamie [xx] had finished a solo record and he came into recording with so many new ideas and ways of working. He had an identity. So I think Romy and I also wanted to learn new stuff and develop our own identities. I started writing songs with Jamie, and slowly realized that maybe I wanted them for myself but didn’t say anything. Eventually Jamie said, “I think you should make a record.” I was so glad, and from that point on, we were working towards that.

I definitely had an identity crisis. Like, If I’m not one third of The xx, who am I? If I don’t sound like the band, what do I sound like? It was terrifying.”

Oliver Sim

In the beginning, I definitely had an identity crisis. Like, If I’m not one third of The xx, who am I? If I don’t sound like the band, what do I sound like? How do I work? It was terrifying. But then I realized that anything was available to me, and I could try out anything. Some of the first songs I made will never see the light of day, but it was fun! And we learned together. Jamie produced the whole record and Romy has been very present. I’ve done everything in my life side by side with her: nursery school, primary and secondary school, college, then a career. Now we’re creating our solo records at the same time.

That must be nice, to have that kind of partner in life.

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Oliver Sim: It's great. I celebrate Romy, I’m so proud of her, and I'm so into what she's doing. Sometimes it’s like pure sibling rivalry, where she’ll play me something really good that becomes a source of energy and I realize I’ve got to get back to the studio. Her album and mine are going to very different parties, but I can’t wait for all the music to be out.

What kind of album is Hideous Bastard?

Oliver Sim: It’s a meaningful personal record. I wrote a lot about fear, shame, masculinity, queerness. But along the way, I realized that to enjoy art, I don’t necessarily need it to tell me it’s honest. Sometimes I just want a layer of fantasy and entertainment. So in spite of those themes of fear and shame, this music has humor, fun, and celebration. That’s why I called it Hideous Bastard. It’s a joyous record about self loathing.

With the project’s first single, “Hideous,” you shared that you’ve been living with HIV since you were 17. How did you create that song, and how did it feel to release it?

Oliver Sim: The best antidote to shame is voicing it. Shame is like mushrooms: it grows in the dark. Pride and celebration are amazing, invaluable tools, but they don’t necessarily work on their own. 'Cause I think sometimes when I’m presenting as the most proud, what I’m actually doing is pushing other feelings down. So I decided to put my HIV status in a song. I didn’t know what I was gonna do with it, but I played it for a few people. One of them was my mom, who encouraged me to start having conversations before just throwing this out into the world in a song like, There, I’m done with it.

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Shame is like mushrooms: it grows in the dark.”

Oliver Sim

Lots of people in my life knew about my status, but there were some people I’d told only once and then put an invisible barrier around again, like, Now let’s move forward. And other people didn't know. So my mom encouraged me to talk with those people, which was really, really, really uncomfortable. Nothing's more scary than eye contact. But with each conversation I've had, it has become far less heavy. By May, when I released the song, it didn't feel like this huge reveal.

If I’d have released “Hideous” without doing the work first, it would have been rough. You and I just met, and we’re sitting here talking about this. A few years ago that would’ve been impossible for me. My fear of shame is still there, but it’s far less than it was.

What’s helped your experience of that fear evolve?

Oliver Sim: I’ve experienced real relief in writing these songs, and exposing some of the stuff that makes me feel uncomfortable about myself. I don’t want to dwell, push myself into shame or create a pity party. The process of making this record has been joyous and celebratory. Fear and shame, for me, is about secrecy and hiding. This isn’t that.

When I reached out to Jimmy Somerville, an artist I admire, to be on “Hideous,” he was so gentle with me. I’d loved clips of him on television from the early 90s, where he’s talking about HIV and AIDS. In those he was young, scared, and quite angry — and rightfully so. So I thought he was gonna be decisive, like: “You should do this song. You need to be out there.” And instead, he was like, “Put this song out for yourself, if you feel ready and you want to. And anything else on top of that is a cherry on top.” I feel the same way towards other people. No one has to go public with their status. It’s your business. Everyone has different circumstances. This is just something that I wanted to do for myself, and I’ve slowly felt ready. Since releasing the song, there have been moments where I felt quite raw, like emotionally sore. But I’ve received so much support and love. The response has been amazing.

You’ve been in the music business for more than a decade. Looking back, what are some things you’ve learned?

Creativity on tap doesn't exist… Time is a luxury.”

Oliver Sim

Oliver Sim: Creativity on tap doesn't exist. With The xx, our labels Young, XL, and Beggars have given us so much time and freedom from day one, since we were 18 years old. When we made our first record, the label got us travel cards and a place to rehearse, and there was no other pressure. As a band we’ve taken long breaks between records, and we’ve been given support and time to do that. Time is a luxury. Artists need room and resources to figure things out naturally. At the outset of this project, I had all my gear ready to go write songs and I was so willing, but it just wasn’t happening. Luckily I didn’t spend too long trying to force it. It comes when it comes.