We recently caught up with Australian singer-songwriter & music-producer, Billy Otto to chat all things music, mental health, sustainability and connection to Country.
This is one inspiring interview you won't want to miss.
Oh one more thing, we recommend reading this interview while listening to his latest tune 'California'. Turn it up and enjoy the read!
Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing in Newcastle and how you got into music?
Sure! I grew up in Newcastle in New South Wales. My Mum is Malaysian and my Dad is from Queensland. I grew up in a town where everyone drove Hilux’s!
I’ve had a number of different jobs and career paths before music. I was a Church Pastor and a minister in Chicago. I grew up in a very conservative home and although music was calling me for a long time I thought it was a waste of time.
Around my mid to late twenties I started to strongly feel the calling to music. I felt like I needed to fixate my soul and my mind into sonics. I didn’t want to create songs for song writing sake but I felt a calling to create anthems. Music that people can resonate to on a personal level. Music that’s singable and matters in its own way.
I’ve always been committed to things. Whether it’s gospel, music or climate change. I feel as though I have a deep responsibility for people and want to create music that shares stories, opens up space for people and opens up hearts. I like to think my music transcends cultures, generations and is uniting. I believe music has the ability to affect culture in a massive way!
What brought you to Byron Bay? What do you love most about living here?
I moved to the area a year or so ago at the end of a relationship with my ex-fiance. She went back to LA because of COVID and I was in Sydney going into lockdown. It was a weird time. I felt like I needed to get out of Sydney, and had the opportunity to move to Lennox so I just packed up my van and moved North.
At this time of my life I had to experience a transition. I was confused but Byron has been like a pillow for me to land on, so many crazy opportunities have come up for me.
There’s so many creative people here and brothers that hold space for me. Death of one thing always gives life to another. The chaos of life can be hellish but it’s beautiful in it’s own way. My community here has been so supportive and I feel like the throws of life up here are experienced with so much grace.
I’m a very sensitive person, I process on a very deep and dark level so having a community that’s very supportive in this way is incredible. I’ve felt suppressed in other places and areas where I’ve lived. I felt more like a castaway, different and quirky to everyone else but up here vulnerability and emotions are celebrated, especially in men.
It’s clear you have a deep connection to Country. Have you always been this way or is it something you've become more passionate about over time?
My dad always had a very deep connection to Country. He would make me aware of massacres close to where we lived growing up and had a beautiful way of revealing Australia’s dark history. Because of our Christianity it was hard to embrace the Aboriginal wisdom of First Nations people.
Aboriginal culture wasn’t necessarily celebrated at home, it was revealed but not celebrated. The last couple of years I have reconnected with Country and Aboriginal culture. It’s made me feel so connected with the land. You grow up confused as a non-Aboriginal person. You feel like you’re here and you know it’s a young country - but you feel off. You don’t know if you belong here or how to understand Aboriginal people but for me now I have so many questions for our Elders. Knowledge passed down from them is like gems of heaven for me.
When we’d go on camping trips when I was younger I felt a deep connection to Country. Whenever I’d go surfing I would feel a deep immersion and be filled with love and light. I’ve had a deep connection to the ocean my whole life. It’s a real heart knowing for me. That’s the place I start from. It’s started from a place that’s all I’ve ever known. This is my second mother and I want to protect it.
I am so much closer to nature now and every year I set new intentions, to learn about local totems, vegetation and how to live off the land. That’s all so interesting to me. I think the system we’ve made isn’t sustainable, for our grandchildren and generations to come. I like to create music about its frugality.
Is there something you do daily to strengthen this, a routine you have?
Surfing everyday is a morning ritual for me. I’ll meditate first at home or in our backyard for half an hour to an hour by myself. That’s where it all begins for me, with spaciousness. Spaciousness is the place I deeply create from, out of the clutter of the world. Then I surf, it’s like a watery baptism of love. It’s the most grounding thing of my life, I feel the most anchored and can be a better partner.
During these uncertain times, how do you think people can come together more as a community and do their bit to help protect the environment?
I think one way we can help people cultivate a deeper caring for the planet is by bringing people into the natural world.
It’s sensual, it’s primal, you can’t forget memories of being in nature and the feelings you get. It’s always going to be there. For example, diving the Great Barrier Reef, you can’t forget that knowledge and how you felt doing it. I really want to encourage people to be off their phones more, I am very strategic to completely switch off everyday, to be in nature.
Can you tell us a bit about your latest song California?
It’s all about coming to terms with an ex lover who feels called to not be with you and putting into poetry how that feels. I had to relive my abandonment trauma for a second time in that relationship. It’s all about letting go of resentment towards someone who feels they shouldn’t be with you anymore.
The death of our relationship brought so much more. I was so attached to the relationship, I was squeezing her, I was going to use my super to go to LA, but the universe was calling us in two different directions.
The song acknowledges that people come into your life to teach you things, they’re not meant to be with you all the time. We’re not taught to see chaos as beautiful or important. Someone leaving you could be the most important curriculum of your life. Suffering can be the greatest teacher of your life. That whole experience was so good for me. Now I can see who I am becoming, my new life and a new awakening. Sylvie has been the greatest blessing of all time. So many things came from embracing my heart. It’s all about embracing pain through change. Learning to love chaos and change.
Is there anything you're currently working on to be more sustainable?
For myself, I was trying to become carbon neutral by 2021, and thinking about how I can properly offset my carbon emissions and what that looks like? I’ve got different people I am consulting with on flights, materials for my studio, etc.
In Hearts Wake made an album that’s carbon negative and it’s awesome to see big bands that are doing their bit, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to other industries but it all begins with small steps. Becoming carbon negative is happening more and should be across all industries; music, fine arts, plumbing.
Sylvie and I are planning as a couple to be waste free. I’ve been on the bulk food train for three years - I’ve been trying to make it sexy for years now! I feel truly privileged to be able to go single use plastic free and heck yes I am going to take note of smaller things in my life and look at ways I can cause the least amount of damage to the planet given. We buy from local farmers markets - they are the closest thing to church for me, it’s all different generations coming together. It’s powerful.
It’s great because Sylvie and I both love being sustainable. If you’re both aligned you can make it work. I find when you’re using less packaging, you eat a lot better too. You eat more whole grains, fruit and things in their natural form. We haven’t eaten refined sugar in a long time and I look healthier for it.
For me, I’ve never wanted to be that old school rock & roll musician with bags under my eyes. That’s never been me. I don’t really drink alcohol. I am 33 and I feel the healthiest I’ve ever been, my soul feels really young as well. I play rock music, but I want to be a different example. It’s all about holistic flourishing for me. Looking at your diet, what you consume, ethical business, the air you breathe - it’s all a big web of beautiful decisions that need to be made.
There is a changing in the tide, I see it especially within men. Especially over the past 10 years, rock stardom being called out. You can’t say certain things anymore, fans want to know their idols are doing something with their fame and voice.
Rockstars that don’t care about the planet aren't cool anymore.
Imagery: Kacper Czerniak @gasparskitchen