When I spoke recently with Whitney Olpin, she sounded perfectly content to be off tour and home in Los Angeles, just watching the rain come down. “The city needs a bath,” she says, although not so long ago, she wouldn’t have been quite as content to be between gigs.
It was a “slow burn” for Olpin to get where she is now with her career, and while she’s relatively new to the road, she’s put a lot of miles behind her to reach that goal.
“It felt like forever getting my feet off the ground,” she notes. Since doing so, however, she’s worked steadily, handling monitors for artists such as Melody Gardot, Lauryn Hill, Toni Braxton, Fitz and The Tantrums, Dirty Heads and Sublime With Rome.
Even as a teenager in Southern California, Olpin was certain music was going to figure into her life in some way. “In Orange County at the time there was this awesome punk, hardcore, metal, alternative scene,” she says. “I was 14 and just loved the energy of that. I’ve wanted to work in music ever since.” Even earlier, she recalls recording mix tapes on a rainbow-colored toy karaoke machine. “It had a little microphone and I’d bring it in the car. If a song I liked came on the radio I’d record it and sing along.”
Growing up in Salt Lake City, singing was her passion, something she did both in the Mormon church and with the Salt Lake Children’s Choir. Following the divorce of her parents, she and her mother relocated to the Sunshine State, with both the move and divorce making an impact.
“It really made me question the church and what it was about. I was angry. I stopped singing.” She didn’t give up on music though, teaching herself to play piano. (“And I still play,” she adds.)
The upheaval as well as her mother’s work as a government attorney prompted her to consider her future more carefully: “I felt like my mom saw potential in me and wanted me to do great things. I didn’t want to let her down, so I thought that I should be an attorney, a doctor – something reputable. But once we moved to Orange County, I mean, that just went out the window.”
She embraced her new surroundings wholeheartedly. Then again, Olpin isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, and she certainly doesn’t scare easily, a quality that’s helped her get gigs as well as weather some serious challenges along the way. “There have been times where I’m anxious about a gig, but I’m like, I don’t know if I can do this, so I’m going to try it anyway,” she says, laughing. “That’s always been my approach. Never be afraid of anything and learn everything you can. That’s how you grow and get better.”
Sometimes she went to shows without even knowing who was playing, just to soak up the energy. She was fascinated by the production, the music and the overall scene.
Pragmatically, however, she decided to study sound/interactive media design at a local college, yet it proved to be a short stint. “That was right after high school and, honestly, I’d probably have a lot of money if I’d stayed,” she says. “Every time I use a website I’m thinking that I should have finished that degree. But it was a lot of color theory and design, and just not enough music.”
Olpin switched to studying jazz piano and improvisation; a better fit, initially, until she came to realize that it too might not be a viable career option. She approached a member of the faculty (a “killer” music teacher, she notes) seeking advice on future plans, and he counseled pursuing live sound or something on the management side of production.
The former was a far better fit for her A-Type personality and her love of music. “UCLA and USC offered music business degrees, but that’s not what I wanted,” she explains. “Plus, do you know how expensive that is? I don’t have a trust fund. It’s crazy.” She also flew to Florida and looked into Full Sail University, but that didn’t seem like the right fit either.
However, the Santa Monica Art Institute offered an audio engineering/science degree where she could apply the credits she’d earned previously. “I was trying to be frugal,” she adds. But after six months, the price of admission, the four-year timeframe and her desire to get some real-world experience led her to yet another option.
“When I found the New England Institute of Art’s two-year program, the oldest audio program in that family of schools, I said ‘bingo’. I just wanted to get going and get the hell out of LA. I’d moved a lot as a kid and was getting antsy. I applied for a transfer, was accepted, got in my car and drove across the country.”
The necessity of earning “a real degree” had been hammered into her psyche from early on. “Everyone said that you need a degree or you’ll never make money,” she expounds. “I wish someone had said, ‘Just do a six-month program, then get an internship, or work for free in a club. I spent so much money and wasted so much time, and no one’s ever asked if I went to school, but at the time that was all I knew to do.”
There are more alternatives now, she adds, citing programs focused on specific industry segments. “They aren’t cheap, but you get exactly what you need, and they help you plug into a network of people in the field you want to work in.”