Pierce laughs as she plays the guitar at the Lakefill. On a chilly January day last year, Olivia Pierce stood at the south edge of the Lakefill, the Chicago skyline glowing in front of her and the reflective building housing the Bienen School of Music to her right. At the time, she was an African American Studies major in Weinberg with a minor in music, but she had always pictured herself on the other side of the building's panes pursuing a major in the school. Nearly a year later, Pierce stands in that same spot, the peaceful atmosphere of the Saturday evening accompanied by the sound of her acoustic guitar. Now, not only is Pierce a musicology major studying the intersections of music and history, she also has her own album on the way.
A portrait of Pierce, playing the guitar at the Lakefill. When she isn’t in the classroom or practicing with the a cappella group Soul4Real, Pierce works on music under her stage name, Moyana Olivia. Moyana, Pierce’s middle name and her mother’s maiden name, is a popular name in Zimbabwe, her mother’s home country. Adding it to her first name was a way to distinguish herself as an artist.

To create her album, Pierce gained access to multiple recording locations, including her own makeshift home studio, a recording studio at the Best Buy Teen Tech Center in her hometown of Minneapolis and the University Library recording booths. These locations, in addition to campus landmarks like the Lakefill, Bienen practice rooms and Hobart House, were integral to Pierce as she wrote, recorded and produced her 11-track album titled Forever. She also collaborated with Communication second-year Kay Cui, Weinberg second-year and music tech minor Josh Fleckner and Weinberg second-year Emilio Cabral. Forever currently has no set release date, but Pierce’s first two singles on the album, “Long Distance” and “Missing You,” are available to stream on all platforms.

Pierce’s inspiration to make music started in high school as she watched other teenagers post their own work on Instagram. But even before that, she grew up surrounded by music.

“My dad is a very musical person,” she says. “He recorded a bunch of CDs of covers of him singing Nat King Cole, and he would play them in the crib for me and my sister to fall asleep to. We still listen to them.”

Her first real experiences playing music took place in her church. As part of her church’s band, she would practice every Sunday, learning how to play different chords. She was also a member of several choirs.

Though music has always been a part of her life, Pierce has received very little professional instruction aside from a year of vocal lessons and a year and a half of piano lessons. However, her lack of formal training did not stop her from applying and being accepted into Bienen’s musicology major in the Spring Quarter of her first year.

Pierce looks into a mirror in the Bienen practice room and sings. After the Lakefill, Pierce's next stop is a practice room in the Bienen building, a space the size of a small walk-in closet housing a piano, music stand and full-length mirror. She spends seven to nine hours each week in practice rooms like this one to practice for her major.
Pierce poses at the piano in the Bienen practice room. When the inspiration strikes, she sits at the piano and plays around with chord progressions until she develops a melody that suits her Neo-soul sound. A fusion of several genres that combines traditional R&B with modern jazz, hip-hop, pop and African music, Neo-soul reminds her of “Sunday morning, you’re making tea or coffee.” She then either puts that melody to lyrics she previously wrote with Cabral or comes up with lyrics on the spot.

“That takes like two hours tops, [but] if I don’t feel inspired to finish it, I’ll just finish it another day. Because I think that’s more productive than trying to force it,” Pierce says.

Her interactions with friends about her music have influenced how she approaches songwriting. She wants to write songs that have multiple interpretations, so even if they hold a specific meaning to her, her listeners can still connect in their own way.

“Hearing people listen to it for the first time and having them come up with their own stories about it from listening to it is the best part, because then you’re also kind of listening to it for the first time,” she says.

Pierce uses her lyrics to pay homage to other Black artists that came before her. She takes inspiration from hip-hop and rap to include clever wordplay in her songs. Lyrics like “No more standing by the phone / Saving cents back to my senses” from her song “Long Distance” demonstrate the intentional wordplay in her songwriting.

“We were using a payphone, but you're not anymore, because you're mad at the person because they're not picking up. So you're saving your cents, but you're back to your senses,” she says.

After the song is written, her production process begins, starting with an often hours-long process of recording piano, bass, acoustic guitar and sometimes electric guitar. Taking inspiration from Prince, Pierce plays all her accompaniments herself. She then records the lyrics and harmonies with the help of Cui. Finally, Pierce or another photographer takes pictures for her cover art while Fleckner masters the song.

Cui explains that her role was to help Pierce re-record her songs with a better quality microphone. They would record the song verse-by-verse and then combine their favorite takes to include in the finished product. Fleckner’s role was the post-production side of the song-creation process. He describes his job as “finding the right balance of making her quiet parts loud enough that they’ll sound decent, but not so much that you don’t notice the crescendo and the exciting rise and fall and emotion in her voice.”

“Anybody can figure [out how to make music], and everybody should have the opportunity to do that."

Bienen second-year Olivia Pierce

Both Fleckner and Cui are proud of their work with Pierce and have high hopes for her future in music.

“I’m excited to see where the song goes and where Olivia goes as an artist,” Cui says. “And [I’m excited about] being able to say I had a part in making that happen.”

Pierce is not focused on the potential fame her music could bring her. Instead, she hopes to create music that fosters social change. She wants to provide the same opportunities that she’s received to younger students, especially Black children, so that they can make their own music too.

“Anybody can figure [out how to make music], and everybody should have the opportunity to do that,” Pierce says.

Pierce poses sitting at the piano in Hobart House. Pierce then makes her way to Hobart House, the women’s residential college where she lived last year. She sits at the piano, playing selections of her music, reminded of how out of tune the instrument used to be when she lived there. Playing at this piano garnered her the praise of several students and faculty, and the encouragement that she received is what gave her the confidence to apply to Bienen.

Although she started working on Forever prior to her acceptance to Bienen, the mentorship that she found in her voice teacher Patrice Michaels made her feel more secure in her artistic process. According to Pierce, Michaels sees the value in musical artists who might take less traditional approaches to music than what is taught in a Bienen classroom.

“At the end of lessons, she’ll teach me how to do something classical and then be like, ‘Let’s sing a verse of your own songs, just to make sure that you still have your own style,’” she says.

The professional training that Pierce has undergone at Bienen helped her to hone her natural talent and build on her existing skill set.

“The way that [Michaels] thinks of it is she’s teaching me to be like a light board, like switching on certain things for different styles and being able to navigate between them, versus just, ‘Forget everything that you knew how to do, ‘cause we’re starting from scratch,’” she says.

Though she doesn’t have extensive musical training and the multi-step production process can be long, Pierce has no problem finding motivation for her projects. For her, music is an escape from academic pressures.

“At the end of the day, I can always just take my guitar outside and sit alone and play something and recenter and refocus,” she says. “It’s been really nice to remember that no matter what I’m trying to do in terms of promoting and sharing [my album], I can always come back to myself and be like, ‘I still have this.’”