Ahead of Red Rocks, Oliver Tree Discusses the Impact of Going Viral

Oliver Tree Merch

On the cover of his viral album Ugly Is Beautiful, Oliver Tree Nickell, aka Oliver Tree, showcases his eclectic indie style with a sleek, dark bowl cut; narrow, rectangular red sunglasses; and a purple, pink and yellow ’80s-style windbreaker paired with comically large wide-leg jeans. It’s also how he presented himself on at least eighteen of his singles since the release of “All I Got” in 2017.

Nickell’s online discography — including three full albums and several EPs and singles — is surprisingly barren considering the amount of music the 29-year-old has written since his first composition. The mastermind behind the viral character has a musical journey that reads like that of a prodigy: He wrote his first piano piece at age three and completed his first album around age five.

Since that first piece, Nickell’s career has been undeniably rocky. Although he’s poured his blood, sweat and tears into his work, his career has been filled with the maddening highs and lows of professional artistry. He has spent countless hours writing and recording music, crafting projects that he ultimately deemed “monumental failures.”

Nickell got his first independent record deal at eighteen, but “the label had trouble really figuring out what to do with me, and I didn’t really wanna take the chance on releasing the music that I wanted to release,” he says. “I ended up getting shelved…but I couldn’t stop making music, so I realized this was just something I was going to continue doing whether people heard it or not.”

And continue he did. For the next ten years, Nickell estimates he made around fifteen albums, spending massive amounts of time and energy on art that sat unheard and unperformed on his laptop’s hard drive. So he turned to an atypical source for hints on how to boost his music: his budding comedy career on Vine.

“The first character was the big pants and the bowl cut. That was a super-viral look that kept connecting on Vine,” Nickell explains. “I was able to kind of test a bunch of characters out, and none of them really connected like that. So I made [that character] the main focus, to make my project presented as that.”

When the Oliver Tree character went viral, his first reaction was skepticism: Was the attention a one-time thing or the beginning of a new chapter? Luckily for his devoted fan base, the now-iconic, comical bowl-cut character Nickell created was just the beginning, and it rocketed his music career into a totally new orbit: The musician has more than 22 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone.

“As far as ten years of failure goes, it was nice to see there was something there that could actually connect, because when you spend that much time and never have something really connect…it can feel a little frustrating and heartbreaking,” he says.

Nickell’s second character is seen on his sophomore album, Cowboy Tears, a country parody album inspired by his grandparents’ ranch in Northern California. Although the album’s country twang is a dramatic shift from the alt-pop of Ugly Is Beautiful, Nickell’s second persona is just as comical as the first — a blond, mulleted cowboy caricature in a full Western get-up, fringed jean jacket and all.

His third character — as well as glimpses into new music and art — will be unveiled during his first Red Rocks headliner show tonight, June 20. Nickell says the performance is a television show, Broadway play and concert hybrid — an intricate love letter to his collaborators and fans that has been in the works for five years.

The Red Rocks show “is the first time people really get to see how all these universes interconnect, and they’ll be able to see all the different eras together,” he says. “It’s basically like a two-hour-long film that’s scored live and a play that’s mixed in and interfaces with all of its songs. It’s got a lot of dimensions to it, and this is the first time I get to do this show in its entirety.”

Nickell’s constant shifts in characters, sound and even performance venues keep the artist, who says he’s always on the verge of burnout, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. “I just go from one project to the next, hopping around, and it’s a constant state of burning the candles at both ends,” he says. “So I’ve found that when I’m constantly burning myself out, the chance to be able to make art in a new place, in a new setting with new people, keeps me very inspired.”

Despite his constant flow of ideas, Nickell’s core vision for his music remains fixed: to help listeners express themselves authentically. “Embrace your flaws and embrace who you are, what makes you different, and use the things that most people would consider your weakness — try to figure out how to use that as your superpower,” he says. “I’ve struggled severely with addiction. So instead of me just letting it ruin my life like it has in the past, I’ve channeled my addiction to drugs and I’m sober now, and I switched my addiction to art, music and filmmaking so that I can make something that can hopefully inspire people and bring some color into the darkness of this world.”

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