Smile Politely

A symphony of skills: Urbana’s Emily Otnes making her mark in the music world

A person is captured in a moment of solitude, seated on the floor between the extended legs of a silver stepladder. They are dressed in a bright red long-sleeved top and dark bottoms, creating a stark contrast against the metallic sheen of the ladder. The scene is bathed in a soft, pinkish light, casting a warm glow and a shadow of the person and ladder on the wall behind them. The overall ambiance is calm and serene.
Emily Otnes

In the melodic crossroads of Champaign-Urbana, where artistry flourishes amidst the prairie winds, Emily Otnes, a local prodigy, is making waves. Known for her band Otnes and her unique sound, blending electronic pop with traditional instruments, Otnes’ journey is as multifaceted as her music. As she prepares for the launch of the Urbana Sandwich concert series at Gallery Art Bar, it’s clear that her influence stretches far beyond the notes and lyrics of her songs.

Raised in the vibrancy of C-U, Otnes credits the town’s rich artistic ambiance for shaping her musical odyssey. “Champaign-Urbana is such a special place to me,” she reflects. The constant influx of new talent, owing to its status as a college town, provided her with an eclectic sonic palette from an early age. Her high school years, filled with flute, piano, and voice lessons, laid a foundation that would later evolve into an adventurous musical exploration.

Her transition from conventional instruments to electronic production is akin to an artist swapping her canvas for a digital screen. “Having classical training was really helpful for me,” she shares. Learning from local figures like James Treichler and Ryan Groff, she mastered the art of melding melodious lines into her electronic pop canvas. This fusion is evident in her band’s sound, where live instruments breathe life into programmed beats, creating a harmonious blend that’s both nostalgic and novel.

A soft-focused photo of a young woman with short blonde hair holding what looks to be a pile of feathers with what looks like a lake at sunset in the background

Her creative writing degree, with a focus on poetry, has been a guiding star in her songwriting. “My degree helped me with using specific detail in [my] writing to create the present experience,” she muses, capturing the essence of her lyrical prowess. It’s this balance of specificity and universality that makes her music resonate with listeners, turning each song into a narrative journey.

Discussing her transition from “Emily Blue” to “Otnes,” she opens up about the need for personal evolution. The change, while challenging, was necessary to distance her music from memories she wished to leave behind. “It was tough because it was a step back first,” she admits, yet the decision was pivotal in her artistic rebirth.

The pandemic, a period of global introspection, was no different for her. Setting up her first home studio during quarantine, she immersed herself in the realm of production. The lockdown period was not just a pause but a propulsion into a new phase of her career, marked by a move to Nashville and an unrestrained dive into musical experimentation.

Balancing her roles as a performer, producer, agency owner and video director, Otnes views performing as a spiritual experience. It’s a chance to reconnect with her inner child, the playful spirit that first fell in love with music. On the other hand, her roles in planning and directing sharpened her adult acumen, marrying her artistic and entrepreneurial sides.

The inception of At a Glance agency, which she runs with her partner Peter, stemmed from the multifaceted demands of being an independent artist. Focusing on booking and routing, the agency aims to alleviate some of the burdens artists face, allowing them to concentrate on their craft. “We’ve kind of fallen in love with it,” she says, highlighting the joy of nurturing other artists’ careers.

At a Glance’s core values emphasize the quality and experience of art over industry metrics like streams and numbers. This philosophy guides their choice of artists, preferring those passionate about their craft regardless of their stage in their career. Otnes understands the challenges of running an agency, notably the financial and logistical hurdles of a burgeoning business. Yet, the reward lies in creating a supportive space for artists, a sentiment close to her heart.

Her latest venture, the Urbana Sandwich concert series at Gallery Art Bar, is a testament to her commitment to elevating the local music scene. The series, conceptualized during a recent visit to her parents’ house here in Urbana, aims to sandwich touring acts between local talents, fostering a symbiotic relationship between established and emerging artists. The choice of Gallery Art Bar, with its intimate size and unique visual capabilities, provides the perfect backdrop for this musical communion.

A moment is captured where a person is seated, cradling a red and white electric guitar close to their body. The individual is dressed in a black short-sleeved top and dark pants. A vibrant tattoo, full of color, decorates their left arm. Their hair, long and wavy, adds to the overall aesthetic. The background is simple, with soft lighting casting gentle shadows, contributing to an intimate atmosphere. It seems to be a quiet moment of music or perhaps preparation to play.
Emily Otnes

Her approach to curating artists for Urbana Sandwich is intuitive and flexible, driven by a love for diverse music styles. The series is an open platform, inviting submissions and recommendations, ensuring a fresh and dynamic lineup. The visual aspect of the shows, a nod to her love for cinematic aesthetics, adds an extra layer of ambiance to each performance.

Looking ahead, Otnes has grand plans the band and her broader impact on the music industry. A year of growth is on the horizon, with ambitions to expand her audience through touring and nurturing her business to a self-sustaining model. With upcoming gigs like the Wintersong Festival in Kankakee and a special show at Rose Bowl in March with Modern Drugs, Otnes is poised to make significant strides in her artistic journey.

As the Urbana Sandwich concert series gears up for its debut on February 1st, it’s clear that Emily Otnes is not just creating music; she’s crafting a legacy. Her story, interwoven with the fabric of Champaign-Urbana’s cultural landscape, serves as an inspiring blueprint for aspiring artists. Her tale is one of resilience, creativity, and an unwavering commitment to her roots, a melody that resonates throughout the thriving music scene of C-U.

Music Editor

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