Olivia Chamoun is a young artist striving to keep the jazz alive in Melbourne. A 23-year-old Maronite Catholic, Olivia often plays in jazz clubs around Melbourne with her band, the Olivia Chamoun Quintet. On Sunday 20 November, she will release her debut album, Still, just in time for the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of music.

One of four girls, Olivia is also a music leader in her local parish, St Francis of Assisi in Mill Park. Her own awakening to faith came about through Life Teen youth ministry, which has been running in her parish for more than thirty years.

Olivia speaks with us about her journey of faith, her music and what it’s like to be a young artist at the beginning of her music career.

Olivia Chamoun Album Cover
Cover of Olivia Chamoun’s debut jazz album, ‘Still’. Image supplied.

Taking jazz to church

Despite being a ‘late bloomer’ when it comes to jazz, Olivia’s study of the Gospel roots of jazz has led to a newfound appreciation of the harmony between her faith and her music. Although we don’t always associate jazz with ‘sacred’ music, its religious influences are a rich and an explicit part of the genre’s history, and the work of jazz legend Mary Lou Williams played no small part in Olivia’s awakening to this.

Williams initially retired from public performance in the mid-1950s after a career spanning forty years, but she returned four years later having unexpectedly converted to Catholicism. The first record she made after her come-back was a Mass setting. And when St Martin de Porres—the patron saint of those seeking racial harmony—was canonised in 1962, she released an album called Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes as a tribute to the gifted healer.

Before performing her ‘Black Christ of the Andes’ sets, Williams would distribute a handout, all in caps, inviting the audience to ‘ATTENTIVE PARTICIPATION’:

‘YOUR ATTENTIVE PARTICIPATION, THRU LISTENING WITH YOUR EARS AND YOUR HEART, WILL ALLOW YOU TO ENJOY FULLY THIS EXCHANGE OF IDEAS, TO SENSE THESE VARIOUS MOODS, AND TO REAP THE FULL THERAPEUTIC REWARDS THAT GOOD MUSIC ALWAYS BRINGS TO A TIRED, DISTURBED SOUL AND ALL WHO “DIG THE SOUNDS”.’

There has always been something profoundly healing about music, and Williams, apparently, embraced this aspect of her art more explicitly following her conversion to Catholicism.

Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music and Ella Fitzgerald’s Spirituals have also been formative influences for Olivia. While studying jazz and improvisation at university, Olivia realised that many jazz legends learnt a lot of what they knew from growing up playing music in church.

‘For me that was a turning point, because it didn’t feel so nerve-wracking or absurd to bring my faith into my music anymore,’ she says. ‘I came to understand that this is really a thing in jazz, and it’s an aspect of jazz history that I really connect to, and can bring into it.’

Originally, Olivia’s attraction to jazz stemmed from the freedom found in improvisation. From an early age, she was well acquainted with classical music, having studied classical piano and flute, and having witnessed the inspiring work of her uncle Dany Chamoun, a concert pianist. And while she loves classical music, there came a point in her training when she wanted something else:

I was really looking for freedom in music. I’d really grown up with the strict parameters of classical music. I really love classical music, but the feeling was that I just wanted to break free. And I guess that word ‘freedom’ really speaks to what I felt about jazz at that time. Because when I listened to it, and especially the beautiful and expansive improvisation … it was so exciting to me.

The sense of freedom in jazz music is no coincidence, either, since its roots go all the way back to the African-American quest for freedom from slavery in early-modern American history.

Discovering that so many jazz artists also performed covers of spiritual or sacred songs allowed Olivia to experiment freely, even within her university recitals.

‘I would start to throw in hymns to my uni recitals and arrange some pieces that really brought my faith and my spirituality into my music, and I was really blessed that my band were on board with that,’ she says.

One early example of success for her was a piece of music with no composer attributed to it. The lyrics are simply, ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. And there’s one thing I know that he loves me so.’ For one recital, Olivia used the original melody and extended it into a lengthy improvisation with her band, something she describes as a ‘leap of faith’.

‘I remember being so terrified to simply use the name of Jesus in my university auditorium. But I am so glad I did it. It was actually really, really beautiful,’ she says.

Her debut album is made up of 10 original songs, written over the course of two or three years, and while none of them are overt hymns, she says, ‘the underlying meaning or the underlying experiences that led to some of the songs are prayerful moments or experiences of God’s love in my life.’

For my listeners, I like to leave meaning a bit open-ended, to leave people to interpret, maybe even wonder, maybe even ask, What was that about? So I like that aspect of song-writing too. While I ultimately bring who I am to my original music, I want to connect with people from all walks of life, and I hope that everyone who listens can relate to my songs in some way.

The healing power of music

Olivia is currently undertaking a Master’s Degree at the University of Melbourne in Music Therapy, an allied health profession that involves the use of music to promote well-being and quality of life across a range of different health areas. This study has given her fascinating insight into the power of music for people living with various kinds of health conditions.

‘Music really has a way of binding people, and that even comes to light biologically,’ she explains. She shares a Swedish study that found when a group of people sang hymns together, their heart rates began to synchronise, beating in time with each other.

Music also has the ability to work its way into our memory in a way nothing else can. Some patients with dementia, for instance, will forget most of the basic things about their life, but music lingers on. ‘Life doesn’t make sense to them anymore, but you start singing “You are my sunshine” and they’ll sing along too,’ she says.

‘There’s so much power in music that is, to be honest—despite all the research into music therapy, music psychology and everything—so much of it is still unexplained. And I think that also points to a deeper meaning … I believe that mysteries such as this that exist in our world point to an ultimate mystery, a higher power: God.’

People often speak of being moved or healed by music, including by the music that Olivia and her band play during their sets.

Those very deep feelings and experiences that music can afford people, that’s such a good and beautiful thing, and surely that has to be the work of God. Often I don’t realise at the time how much people appreciate and are moved by the music we share. It is such an honour.
Olivia Chamoun Still Photoshoot 013
Olivia Chamoun. Image supplied.

From performance to prayer

Although she learnt other instruments outside of a church setting, it was in the context of Mass that Olivia learnt to sing—something that has affected her approach to music in an important way.

‘Singing into the microphone at church as a kid, not as a performance but as a form of prayer, that’s a very different way of learning music,’ she says. ‘I have the mindset that whatever I do with my music in the secular or sacred space, I’m offering it back to him and trying to bring something good into the world that will hopefully bring others joy and bring meaning into people’s lives, perhaps even spark some deeper thought.’

Being at the beginning of a music career is both exciting and scary, she explains. Being able to do what she loves for a living, with a fiancé, family and friends who are so supportive, is an incredible gift. But the sense of the unknown is also very real.

To young Catholic artists, Olivia says that while the music scene is a competitive one, they shouldn’t be held back.

‘I am a firm believer that there is room for everyone in the music scene,’ she says. ‘I think if you feel you have something important to say, or beautiful music to share, there is room for you and you should do it.’

While musicians need to practise self-belief and not allow themselves to be crippled by their own internal critic, humility is key. There’s a lot of ego in the music world, she says, and it’s important we recognise music for what it is: ‘Music isn’t for me. It’s for God.’

To all the Catholic aspiring musicians out there, bring who you are, bring your faith into it, let it be your motivation, let it be your inspiration in terms of music material, and don’t be afraid to share it with the world … If you feel like you have something to say, then say it. As Christ said, don’t be afraid.

You can purchase Olivia Chamoun’s debut album at bandcamp.