From Cincinnati To Nashville – Olivia Frances On Music And Jewishness

Like many musicians, 26-year-old Olivia Frances’ songwriting started with young love. A seventh grade crush – and the music of Taylor Swift – inspired her to write her first song, “The Spark.”

But it was a chance encounter at an open mic night that cemented Frances’ path toward music and performing as a career. After singing “The Spark,” three strangers in cowboy hats and boots told her to join the Cincinnati chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI).

It’s “a group of folks who would get together and talk about how to write melodies, how to write lyrics,” Frances said. “So I really became ingrained into that community, learned all about songwriting, and just fell in love with it.”

Frances now lives and works in Nashville, with over 300 songs, three albums, a Grammy consideration, and countless awards and nominations under her belt. Just recently, she released her first piece of Jewish music, “Harmonica for Hannukah.”

In some ways, the song brings Frances full circle as the first public intersection of her Jewish heritage and chosen career, something she has long been cautious about.

Frances started taking piano lessons as a six-year-old, and loved listening to and singing along with Kidz Bop tunes. “I would put the CD in my karaoke machine…stand in front of the TV, and I could kind of see myself in the reflection,” she said. “I would come home from school and dance and it was always just a show.”

Growing up in Cincinnati and attending the Isaac M. Wise Temple with her family, Frances seemed like the perfect candidate to help lead services: young, involved, and musically inclined.

“I made such good friends through” temple, Frances said. “Music is so much part of going to services, all the Jewish songs and the piano or the guitar player. And I’ve always loved singing Jewish music.”

But when asked to help lead services, she shied away. “I find services…to be very relaxing,” she said. “And I just like being more of a participant than being up on stage in the spotlight, especially because that’s what I do with my own songs.”

In 2013, Frances released “Back to Happiness,” her debut album recorded in Nashville during her junior year of high school. The title track won best pop song of the year at the Ohio Music Awards. “That was definitely a pivotal moment for me because I was 16 years old and I was like, ‘Okay, I think I can do this. I can move to Nashville,’” she said.

In writing music, Frances leaned into what she has called “sunshine-story-pop,” upbeat music with a message. It’s a genre-hopping approach that garnered her a Grammy consideration in 2022, where Grammy judges listen to songs before deciding which will be nominated for a chance to win an award.

Judges considered “Somebody’s Reason,” a piano ballad about finding positivity on dark days. “You’re somebody’s reason to dance the night away / You’re somebody’s memories, somebody’s greatest dreams / And somebody’s wish upon a star,” Frances sings.

“Although it didn’t move on to the nomination stage, it was a huge deal,” Frances said. “I’m so grateful, especially as an independent artist, to have even been considered. I’m definitely hoping in the future to be nominated.”

“Somebody’s Reason” was co-written with Michael Astrachan, Frances’ regular collaborator – and a fellow member of the tribe. Astrachan also wrote “Harmonica for Hannukah” with Frances in 2019, though Frances was hesitant to release the obviously very Jewish song.

“With branding, people can get pigeonholed really easily, like, ‘you are somebody who writes Jewish music and Jewish music only,’” Frances said. “And I have never wanted to be pigeonholed.”

But every year, Astrachan would bring up the tune, and finally, for Hannukah 2022, Frances decided to let the song out in the wild and see what would happen. Frances expected hate mail  in response to the release after months of antisemitism from national figures like Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West; neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes; and white supremacist personality Alex Jones.

Instead, “I got a bunch of random texts from people who I haven’t talked to in years being like, ‘I love (in all caps) your Hanukkah song,’” Frances said. “That was really validating and gratifying…[and] really special to write a Jewish song with another Jewish songwriter in Nashville.”

Though Frances has largely kept her music and Judaism separate, she is involved with the Jewish community in Nashville, particularly with young professional groups. “I actually just hosted Shabbat in November,” she said. “There were like 30 people at my house, which was so fun, and I want to do it again.”

Frances (born Olivia Schwartz) is also following in the tradition of American Jewish performers taking different stage names, like Carole King (born Carol Klein) and Danny Kaye (born David Kaminsky). But rather than trying to hide her Jewishness – as many of those classic performers did – the name change was to keep from blending in in the phone book.

“When I was 12 years old, and I wrote my first song, I looked in the Yellow Pages and there were 10 pages of Schwartz’s,” Frances said. “I thought to myself, ‘I cannot be Olivia Schwartz.’”

Luckily, there was only one phonebook page for the last name “Frances.” And seeing as Frances is also her middle name, after an aunt Fanny who passed away before she was born, that’s the stage name Frances decided to adopt.

“I feel like, as I tell [the story] and I’m older and older, I’m just like, ‘wow, this is really dating myself,’” she said. “But alas, you gotta be honest.”

Frances plans to be back in Cincinnati in 2023, but has no tour dates scheduled yet. To keep an eye out, visit ​​her website and follow her on tiktok and instagram.