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Oliver Tree on his new album 'Alone in a Crowd'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Oliver Tree records and performs in different personalities.

OLIVER TREE: Each album comes with a new character. They have to have a certain bang-style haircut. They have to have some form of a turtleneck ski jacket.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTROSPECTIVE")

TREE: (Singing) This is overcomplicated. I guess I miscalculated.

SIMON: For his first album, it was Turbo, a too-cool-for-school social media influencer who was steeped in parody. On the second album, it's a cowboy with a blonde mullet named Shawney Bravo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALLOON BOY")

TREE: (Singing) Running for my life while I'm bleeding out my eyes, and my teeth start feeling loose. Watch them fall right from the roots.

SIMON: Oliver Tree's third album is called "Alone In A Crowd." His latest character is a fashion designer named Cornelius Cummings. He sports a helmetlike black bob and wears an oversized magenta tracksuit. Cornelius Cummings, like the real-life Oliver Tree, is constantly surrounded by an entourage, but both search for human connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVISIBLE MAN")

TREE: (Singing) I sit alone. I feel like a ghost. Can she see me? Does she know my heart's beating? Do I exist? I am easy to miss like a shadow at night. What a lonely life.

Cornelius Cummings and Oliver both have backgrounds in designers, both eccentric characters. Both put themselves out there in a way that's easy to be judged, easy to be, you know, subject to ridicule. The difference would be Cornelius is a little more of a - I would say he plays a villain at times. He's a little more of a chaos creator.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVISIBLE MAN")

TREE: (Singing) I am the invisible man. If you look, you'll find me. Come say hi when you can.

This character gave new room for myself to explore the fashion world, a parody of such, just, like, trying to make "Zoolander" for the music industry.

SIMON: What comes first, the character or the concept of the album?

TREE: The music started three years ago. The actual visual component starts with just something simple as showing a friend a picture of a funny haircut and saying, hm, what's the reaction? And I kind of get a sense, and that informs the actual character. But ultimately, so much of this whole art thing is entertainment and recognizing that marketing is pretty much most of what you're going to do. And I think people have a misconception of that when they think, oh, I want to make art, I want to be a musician, I want to be a filmmaker, a painter, whatever. It's like, well, OK, but just be aware this is entertainment.

SIMON: I'm going to guess your music videos are not an afterthought to the music. Tell us, please, about "Bounce."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOUNCE")

TREE: (Singing) I'ma bounce you up and down.

SIMON: What we see in that video is very sober, even stern, grave Soviet-style buildings with sharp edges and wild gangs of paparazzi, all of them having that Cornelius Cummings kind of helmetlike black bob. What are we seeing there, do you think?

TREE: For me, this album was made at a time where I experienced a pretty unique thing, which was having viral success and experiencing fame, which I went from having in two months zero followers on TikTok to 10 million. And in that process, I became incredibly lonely. I felt isolated, Rapunzel-ed (ph). It wasn't actually a really healthy experience. Whether it's tons of praise or tons of negativity, there's nothing healthy about that for the psyche. But in the visual context, basically that video expresses that people are all - want a piece of you. They're grabbing at you. They all just want something from you and recognizing, you know, maybe it wasn't really what you thought it was going to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER TREE SONG, "BOUNCE")

TREE: Everything has a price. And for me, my dream is to inspire people, and everything has a cost, so you can't really expect anything different.

SIMON: And that's where the song "Strangers" comes in.

TREE: Yeah, that song specifically explores that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGERS")

TREE: (Singing) I turned into what I hated, but I can't escape my own fate. In the mirror, I'm betrayed when I am staring at my own face. It's hard to believe the more friends you have, the better. It's never what it seems. I feel more alone than ever.

Especially as a guy who goes on stage and plays shows for sometimes, you know, 30, 40,000 people at a time, still walking off that stage, feeling lonelier than you can imagine. But on the other side of it, it's such a beautiful thing when these people join together, and maybe they're filming on their phones, but a lot of times they're removed out of that, and they get a second to really live and be present, to be able to have moments that everyone is unified, and those moments in the show where I take out the music and it's just the crowd singing and they're the show. I'm no longer even doing anything, and that is such a beautiful moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESSENCE")

TREE: (Singing) Baby, you're my essence. You make me lose my mind.

SIMON: When Cornelius goes into "Essence," who's he singing to?

TREE: That's a love song. And this album might be the first love songs I've ever written. I tend to go to music in my darkest times, and I found that this time around on the album, as I was falling in love, I realized, wow, you know, it would be really important for me to try to document this 'cause I'm always focused on heartbreak and loneliness, alienation, these concepts that I need as a therapy. I've leaned on music, but I always forget it's time to be able to maybe just capture something that isn't so purely on the negative spectrum, time to capture a beautiful moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESSENCE")

TREE: (Singing) Without you, I'm nothing. Baby, you are my essence. Let me make a confession. You're all I talk about when you're not around. I need you in my presence. You always know what to say.

SIMON: Is there a message that you would like people to take from your work now, something we need to hear?

TREE: My goal is to just show people how to be themselves, how to embrace their imperfections and lean into it and be the best version of ourselves and be able to - like, through the process of this album, I've become, you know, fully sober. It's been three years of being sober and learning how to love yourself. You know, that's the thing is, like, we have so much anger in this world. And a lot of times people are just very unhappy with themselves, and then they take that out on others, so so much of my goal is to be able to learn how to love myself and try to show people how to love themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER TREE SONG, "ELEVATOR TO THE SKY")

SIMON: Oliver Tree talking about his new album, "Alone In A Crowd." Thank you so much for being with us.

TREE: Appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEVATOR TO THE SKY")

TREE: (Singing) Where do we go in the end? Gone with the wind and never seen again. Where do we go in the end? Gone with the wind and never seen again. And we ride an elevator to the sky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.