A hot minivan barreling down the highway, filled to the brim with siblings, sleeping bags, and travel checkers sets—this is the setting for a decades-old American tradition upheld by millions: arguing over the radio dial until consensus is happily found at that hallowed institution, the oldies station. Thus begins the story of Ortolan, four young women from Southern New Jersey with music-loving, art-teacher parents, devoted to each other in laughter, bickering, love, and play. Sisters Stephanie (16), Brianna (18), Lara (20), and sister-in-law Jill (23) also happen to create music that is singularly winsome, disarming, and sincere, possessing the same kind of universal appeal of 1950s and '60s rock and roll, with its earnest abandon and joy in simple and uncluttered gestures. Ortolan’s sound is at once familiar and new, a sort of musical déjà vu—where listeners remember that which they are hearing for the first time.
The group came together in a remarkably unassuming manner, almost unintentionally, with Stephanie Cottingham (at the time just thirteen years old) signing up with a friend to play at a church coffeehouse. Having only picked up guitar a few months prior, she was surprised by the audience’s enthusiasm for her fledgling attempts at songwriting. Encouraged to give greater heed to the writing impulse, Stephanie spun more melodies and drafted more lyrics, and one year later, she signed up to play the coffeehouse again, this time joined by sisters Lara and Brianna on drums and bass respectively. Ken Fabianovicz of Sounds Familyre was in the audience that night and was so struck by the maturity of song-craft present in this humble outfit that he recommended that the band go into the studio. A few months and several penny-jars later, the group found themselves recording a four-song demo at the New Jerusalem Recreation Room, home to one of indie music’s most creative producers, Daniel Smith. Smith immediately recognized something special in Stephanie’s beguiling voice and songwriting, and in the remarkable support these sisters showed for each other, cheering one another on as only siblings can. Throughout the next several months, Stephanie and the others continued to write, Jill was added on keys and vocals, the band crafted and refined arrangements—and within a year Ortolan was signed to Sounds Familyre Records and back at the Recreation Room recording their first full-length album, Time On A String (to be released in early 2010). The original four-song demo was mixed and mastered as well, and has become the perfect introduction to the group, simply titled Ortolan EP (to be released July 14, 2009).
Much like the beautiful, thumb-sized songbird from which the band derives its name, the music of Ortolan possesses the kind of startling beauty that reintroduces wonder to the weary. With playful lyrical themes ranging from sandcastles to buckets of light to fanciful creatures following you home, it’s music with sass and spunk, born from fierce imaginations and young hearts just as enamored with the classic sounds of The Ronnettes, The Shirelles, The Beatles and Motown, as with modern songwriters Regina Spektor, Feist, and Joanna Newsom.
Perhaps what is most striking about Ortolan's music is its satisfying inevitability: the melodies, the chord progressions, the instrumentation, the production all boil down to the right note followed by the right note followed by the right note. All this inevitability and sense of rightness—and yet quirkiness, spontaneity, and joy scamper rambunctiously through every measure. The sound makes you feel that perhaps there are things in the world that exist as they are meant to, and that is no small feat.