The beautifully dark country-Americana and vivid lyricism on Curve of Earth is a fitting introduction to songwriter Sam Swinson's autobiographical journey through indoctrination and addiction; an endlessly inviting confession from his past battles with substance abuse, and the religious demons lingering from his upbringing in a fundamentalist evangelical cult. For an in-depth look into the story of Ohtis’ journey, read on…
Ohtis originally formed when Swinson and co-founder Adam Pressley were sophomores at high school in Normal, Illinois. They self-released their first material on small run CD-Rs while still teenagers, primarily to a local audience. Their partnership has defined Ohtis, accompanied by a revolving cast of local musicians joining the live act over the years, including re-joining mainstay member and multi-instrumentalist Nate Hahn.
By around 2009, Swinson's addiction had become life-threatening. Weighing the odds of maintaining a creative partnership in those conditions, Pressley and Hahn decided to distance themselves and the band dissolved. They kept in touch whilst living in different parts of the country, swapping ideas and songs online, never planning to release them, in equal parts because of their traumatic falling-out, and Sam’s ongoing addiction to heroin.
Redemption eventually came in the form of sobriety for Swinson. After making 9th step amends to both of his re-joining bandmates, they brought Ohtis back to life; unfazed by the 2000 miles that now separate them geographically, with Pressley and Hahn in Detroit and Chicago and Swinson in Los Angeles. Sam would record voice demos on a hand-held recorder given to him by a friend who tragically passed away following an overdose. Songwriting happened with his bandmates in lengthy stretches, spurred by phone calls, emails, and revisions.
At times unbearably sparse, at others lush, Curve of Earth is a brutal yet alluring creative achievement. “The songs happen spontaneously,” he explains. “I like to do it that way. The songs have been around for so long, and they weren’t intended to be on a record, but they kind of seemed to follow my life as it was happening. All those songs felt like they would fit with each other on an album.”
Having been through two separate spells in rehab, Sam Swinson’s life has changed utterly, and it’s also prompted an evolution within Ohtis, and the way they approach music. “It’s similar,” he muses. “My life isn’t as crazy, but it’s still pretty crazy. I’m still dealing with a lot of the same issues, with a similar feel.”
This vein of humanity, this empathetic streak means that even at its darkest Curve of Earth remains a striking, inspiring experience. Lead single ‘Runnin’ emerged from a post-rehab wilderness, and it aims to forge links with others on the fringes of society.
“Sam's beautiful encapsulation of recovery principles among the descriptions of his own struggle and redemption with sobriety in ‘Runnin’ was a major factor drawing me back to the band when they reformed,” Nate explains. Sam went to a self-made hell, and when he came out the other side he found a support group waiting for him, which had always been there, in Ohtis.
The links that run through Ohtis’ songwriting reflect the bonds in the project itself; driven apart by addiction, they were pulled together by music, made stronger by their experiences. “Adam is like a brother to me,” insists the singer. “We’ve been through a lot together. And Nate too. He’s been through equally as much, he’s been playing with us for a really long time, and he was right in the thick of the worst of it. We’ve all been through a lot together.”
This weight of experience is what gives Curve of Earth its incredible power. Beguiling, entrancing, yet unrelentingly honest, it maintains a powerful hold on the listener long after the final note fades. “I would hope it’s helpful for people,” Sam states. “The conversation about addiction, it’s like any other mental illness society tends to sweep under the rug. Talking openly about it allows people who haven’t been exposed to recovery at all, who are still afraid and in denial and worried about the stigma, to transcend the shame keeping us sick.”
Curve of Earth is a beautiful, shocking, deeply emotional experience, informed by Sam’s issues but finding hope in the bleakest moments. “It feels like a long time coming,” he says. “We’re ready.”
Curve of Earth is out now on CD, LP and digital: