The intimate power of Ocie Elliott's folk music
How the B.C. duo went from performing covers in coffee shops to getting its big break on Grey's Anatomy
All that stood in the way at first was just a bit of awkwardness.
Jon Middleton and Sierra Lundy, the couple who now perform as duo Ocie Elliott, chuckle as they recall the first time they sang together, something that the two were hesitant to do. Both were artists in their own right, but to open themselves up not only romantically but also musically felt like it was too much, initially.
The members of the B.C. duo are currently sitting in the exact spot in their home where that first performance took place, roughly a month into Middleton and Lundy's relationship, at the insistence of Lundy's sister and a friend. After obliging, the two jumped into a rendition of Gillian Welch's "Look at Miss Ohio." Almost immediately, a spark ignited. Their voices fit together like two puzzle pieces creating a whole new picture.
That cover, and many more, are preserved on the band's social media platforms. In fact, the first couple of years were dedicated to just singing covers. For Middleton and Lundy, that time was formative for what would eventually lead to Ocie Elliott's original releases.
"We probably learned like, 50 covers," Middleton said, looking back at their days mostly singing in restaurants and coffee shops. Covers, as he explained, allow you to "figure out what your strengths are in terms of keys of songs, what style works, how to sing together, and also with songwriting because you learn structure."
From Simon and Garfunkel and John Prine to Milky Chance and Beach House, their various covers helped the two form a foundation of influences and sounds, mostly grounded in folk but also fortifying what would become the duo's calling card: a symbiotic chemistry forged through harmonies.
Their earliest work reflects the best of those covers: an intimate, acoustic setting that gives way to Middleton and Lundy's voices, often taking turns leading verses and coming together on choruses. On a sweet little tune like "I Got You, Honey," Middleton's voice picks up on the delicate tones of Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Julian Taylor, and Lundy's vibrato sounds like a spiritual sibling of Leslie Feist.
"We go into songs not knowing who is going to sing the lead," Lundy said. "Sometimes we switch, and so it's kind of a journey." In the end, she said it often boils down to "what sounds better."
It's a much more collaborative songwriting process than Middleton has ever participated in. In his previous project, the more rock-centric Jon and Roy, Middleton was the primary writer. "I didn't get a lot of discipline from anybody," he said, laughing. But with Ocie Elliott and on the duo's two full-length albums so far — 2019's We Fall In and last year's In That Room — he said he and Lundy have learned to trade ideas and work on syncing that up into a product that both can feel equal ownership over.
While intimacy is something Middleton and Lundy focus on developing in their songs and live performances, their music can also be used for big, cinematic moments such as a 2019 episode of Grey's Anatomy that used the Ocie Elliott track "Run to You." For Lundy, who is a longtime viewer and fan of the Shonda Rhimes series, seeing the track on-screen in that way expanded the song's meaning to her. "You get a different view of the song while watching it on the show," she revealed. "All of a sudden, it became more epic." (That song has since been placed on other TV shows, which Middleton said is a blessing especially in a time when their main revenue source, touring, is not an option.)
There's a strong sense of nature taking root in everything Ocie Elliott does, from their visuals (album artwork, music videos, performances) to their lyrical content. Imagery of lakes, oceans, night skies and forests come to Middleton and Lundy almost through osmosis, given their upbringings on Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island, respectively. ("Smoke from the forest fires, fill up the air/ while we jumped in the lake tired, in our underwear," they sing vividly on 2020's "Tracks.") Living in Victoria, B.C. now, Lundy said the "crazy, beautiful place" they're in provides easy inspiration, with Middleton adding that their surroundings "definitely affect our state of mind, so it works its way into the lyrics."
They're also tuned in to the factors that are endangering the environment. On the closing track, "The Reckless," off of last March's In That Room, Middleton and Lundy warn listeners of land owners "with grandiose grave plans." As emerging musicians, the two don't have the same power as a Billie Eilish or Radiohead to demand plastic-free events, but they are doing their best to minimize their own ecological footprint. "I feel like one thing we try to do is actually not make a lot of merch," Middleton noted, explaining that overproduction can lead to "more stuff put into the world." Lundy also said that they take trains as often as possible as opposed to driving. (Although when they're stationed at home, a common place you'll see them practise, record or perform songs is often in their beloved Honda CR-V.)
Ocie Elliott has remained productive in the past year, even though Middleton and Lundy admit that they have struggled to stay inspired and creative, too. But in true Ocie Elliott nature, going on retreats in and around B.C. has helped them fill two new EPs worth of music, which they are looking forward to releasing this year.
As the band continues to grow, one of their challenges is figuring out how to evolve their sound, which they hint at on their new music with the inclusion of keys and synths. And while Middleton admitted that they occasionally feel the urge to be more "raucous," they want to find a path forward that still protects the most important element of the duo: their intimate bond.
"We want to be careful not to affect that," Middleton said, with caution. "I've definitely seen bands before where I love their music on record, and then you see them live and it's like a folk band that is now a rock band for some reason. We just want to be true to what our strength is."