Close-up: An Interview With Kaelen Ohm

Actor, filmmaker and musician Kaelen Ohm joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her compelling lead performance in the short film Little Grey Bubbles, finding her voice as an artist, making ethereal music, and much more.

Q: Charles Wahl’s short film, ‘Little Grey Bubbles’, follows Kim [played by Ohm] as she travels to a small town in Canada to attend the funeral of one of her best friends, who she had only ever spoken to online. On what levels did Kim’s situation and emotional journey in the film resonate with you?

A: I really enjoyed the script when I first read it. I thought it was a nice commentary on modern day relationships in the digital age. The closest I’ve had to that sort of exchange was with a pen pal when I was a kid. A girl from Eugene, Oregon. I think our parents knew each other somehow and set us up to write letters to one another. I don’t believe I ever ended up meeting her and as far as I know (and hope) she is very much still alive.

I think Kim’s situation resonated with me in terms of being a stranger in new environments. I tend to float around alone quite a bit and often find myself in close-knit communities with people who have known each other for a long time. In my experience, showing up vulnerable in those spaces can be very interesting. I think it can lead to a lot of confusion for people and I really connected with that in the story.

Q: There’s a fascinating note in Short Of The Week’s piece on ‘Little Grey Bubbles’. It mentions that you were flown to Nova Scotia ‘at the latest possible time to mirror the character’s disconnection from Marlon’s community.’ How did you respond to that approach? Was it an effective way of helping you connect with Kim?

A: Charles and I spoke about me not meeting any of the other cast before we started. I arrived in Halifax the night before we began filming and the first scene we shot was the funeral scene. I’m not even sure I was introduced to anyone besides Josh McDonald – who plays Cory – moments before we got rolling. It was a really effective approach for me. At the very least it made feeling like a guest in Marlon’s life very natural.

Q: Did yourself and director Charles Wahl have any other interesting ways of tapping into this character? And more generally, what was he like to collaborate with?

A: Charles and I hadn’t met each other prior to him picking me up at the airport the night before shooting. We had a mutual producer friend who recommended me for the role, so Charles and I had a couple of phone calls and decided it was a good fit to work together. I recall we were on the same page from the get-go, which made approaching Kim feel very grounded and yet free.

Charles is a very talented director and lovely human to work with. He truly has a vision yet remains very open and collaborative on set. The two days we shot in Halifax (in shockingly cold conditions) were easeful and a lot of fun. Our crew was amazing and now that I think about it the film really has that fluid quality as a whole. It feels very natural, which you always hope a film will.

Q: You attended SXSW with the film. How did you find the festival experience and seeing audiences and other creatives engage with your work?

A: I had attended SXSW as a musician a handful of times between 2009 and 2016. This was my first time there with a film and I really loved it. The festival has such an amazing vibe and the curation of the films and artists really synthesizes a certain kind of potent, creative energy all around. Austin is one of my favorite cities to spend time in, especially to take in and celebrate art.

To be honest, the life that Little Grey Bubbles had in 2019 really blew me away. I went to Halifax to shoot this little film for two days and a year later it’s being premiered all over the world at these really amazing festivals like Claremont Ferrand in France and SXSW. The response to the film has been incredible and screening it with our very talented fellow short film creators at SX was a real honor.

The story moved people more than I (and I think Charles) could have ever imagined. It really reminded me that it’s important to tell stories that mean something to you because they are bound to have an effect on someone.

Kaelen Ohm in ‘Little Grey Bubbles’

Q: You grew up in the small town of Fernie in Canada. Can you tell us about that upbringing and the ways it shaped you as an artist?

A: First and foremost, Nature. I think growing up in the mountains and spending so much time outside as a kid has informed almost everything I’ve ever done as an artist. Especially nowadays. The level of connection I have to Mother Earth is relative to how much access I have to my creative psyche and Source.

Also music. I spent a lot of my Summers at Folk Music Festivals. My mom was on the artist selection committee for the local folk festival so for a couple of years all of the audio submissions were coming to our house. Everything from Celtic to West African, folk, jazz, rock, everything. There was always music playing in our home – vinyl, radio, tapes, CDs. My parents were pretty free-spirited and allowed me to jump from one sport or artistic modality to the next without much question. The only challenge that came out of that for me as an adult is my occasional lack of patience and staunch discipline in approach to craft.

But otherwise, I think it gave me a sense of freedom to go after anything that came to mind without feeling I needed permission to do so.

Q: Can you pinpoint a moment in your journey when your artistic voice began to emerge and take shape?

A: That’s a good question. Maybe right now, in the past six months actually. I have always been a very creative person but I am starting to feel truly connected to my own voice and story for the first time. So I suppose it has taken me my whole life to reach this gateway of creative emergence, where it feels in some way like I’m being reborn as a 33-year-old woman with a lot of history and life experience, but discovering maybe for the first time a sense of creative freedom and abandon that I would have had as a child. It’s as equally liberating as it is confusing and terrifying at times.

Q: I was grateful to discover your music because, as I always bring up on the podcast, my playlist consists largely of dream pop tunes. Can you tell us about Amaara [Ohm’s musicial alias and middle name] and what this musical outlet gives to you?

A: Wow, that’s so cool. Thank you. Amaara was a solo project born of a need to find my own musical voice and have something to work on between tours and film projects. I started playing in a lot of bands in 2009 and, by 2013, I realized I really needed a place to play and explore on my own. It’s been a slow project to bare fruit, but as of this past Summer, ideas are starting to flow more abundantly and I’m excited to be making music in a way that feels less precious and attached. 

Q: What drew you to this ethereal sound and what does it say about the way you see the world?

A: I wanted to play music my whole life and dabbled in it here and there. I played piano as a kid and tried picking up an acoustic guitar a few times but could never really connect to it.  

In 2010, my boyfriend at the time was incredibly passionate about music and also played. I was being introduced to bands like Warpaint, Washed Out, Wild Nothing and and Kurt Vile. I picked up his Fender Jaguar one day, turned the reverb way up and learned the riff to Warpaint’s song Elephants. And well… yeah. It really changed me. It connected me with the part of myself that is a total daydreamer. I suppose it gave me a sense that it is a quality that is okay and very useful in my approach to art. That it doesn’t mean I’m not being present necessarily, it means that I need a moment to drift off into another world to nourish my creativity.

I will say, however, that I find myself having to practice the balance between that space and pulling myself back down to Earth for longer periods of time. I could spend days on end up there and I do when life allows.

Q: Do you have any music in the works for 2020?

A: I actually just finished mastering a new record about a week ago. So, I suppose this is technically the first announcement. So, yes, there is an album called HEARTSPEAK that I will be starting to release songs and videos from very soon.

Q: Do you have any other plans or ambitions for this year?

A: I’m in Tel Aviv at the moment working on a project I’m really excited about – an American/Israeli co-production that I started working on this past Fall in New York. For now that’s as much as I am allowed to say about it. I also just spent another few days in Halifax working with Charles on his next short film called The Mohel. I’ve taken more of a supporting role this time, though, given it’s coming from the same mind as Little Grey Bubbles I imagine it will turn out pretty sweet. I’m really excited about this year – it feels very new energetically and I’m grateful for that.

Though, I will say that these are interesting times and I hope we can start taking better care of our planet and each other in a very serious way. Let’s put our bare feet on the ground as much as possible, boycott plastic and single use containers, continue to collectively fight against war and injustice, start listening to our Indigenous elders and communities and be kind to all beings – especially our plant, animal and insect kin. We need them so badly to survive and thrive and right now they need us more than ever. 

Title image by Shawn Hanna

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