How Olya Viglione Stays True to Herself
Russian-born 'Scarlet Sails' singer finds success in U.S.
Posted Aug 18, 2016
Throughout her life, Olya Viglione, the singer and piano player of the band Scarlet Sails, has had people telling her what to be and what to do.
This started in her native Moscow, where Viglione felt that there was little room for individuality in Russian culture. “We were a communist country for such a long time that there wasn’t much freedom of expression,” she told me. “The mentality of people has stayed the same. You have to be equal. You should not stand out."
"And if you do – what’s wrong with you?”
For Viglione, this lack of freedom mainly impacted her growth and development as a musician. While Viglione is a classically trained musician, she grew up listening to a range of rock music, from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to the Pixies and Arctic Monkeys. But she did not feel that there was a thriving underground, where musicians could break out and express their musical vision.
“I went to classical music school for piano, and everybody respected that. But I quit music school when I was 12, because it was too restrictive, and I wanted to write something. My teacher was like, ‘Play what’s written,’” Viglione explained. “Playing in a rock band was nonexistent. People didn’t support me. And I never felt like I belonged there in that mentality."
“It was hard for me to find myself and do things the way I wanted to do them.”
Rather than passively accept her musical fate, Viglione decided that she would venture out to the United States. “I started in public relations and marketing at Russian State Social University. And there was a company that came to our university,” she recalled. “They were suggesting to go on a fun summer trip, and learn a new language, and meet new people, and new adventures in your life, and stuff like that. I really wanted to learn English to be able to write my lyrics in English, so I decided that New York was going to be the city to go to for a summer trip."
“I thought I was going to go to church and sing gospel and explore the culture and stuff like that.”
Her stay in New York City started innocently enough. “So the company was supposed to provide a job offer and housing. I arrived in New York, and there was another Russian girl who arrived a day before me. I was supposed to meet my employer. I got to the place, and he was like, ‘I’m busy right now, but I’ll pick you up a little bit later, and we’ll talk about job opportunities for you. And I was like, ‘OK, cool’ because I didn’t know anything. I barely spoke English, and he spoke a lot of Russian,” Viglione recalled.
“So he came back to the apartment where we were supposed to stay … . We started driving and talking. It was cool. He was telling me different things about New York and asking me what I was doing before – what kind of skills I have and stuff like that.”
However, the man who provided her housing and was supposed to provide a job for Viglione immediately took advantage of her lack of understanding of geography. “After an hour of chatting, I was like, ‘So where are we going?’ He’s like, ‘Atlantic City.’ I had no idea where Atlantic City is, so we got to Atlantic City and parked our car and went to a casino,” she said.
The man then told Viglione that he had a couple of things to take care of and gave her a hundred dollars to spend. “And I played that [$100] and won $4,000. It was kind of crazy,” she said.
Next, the man informed her that they needed to stay overnight because he had a drink and didn’t want to drive back. Viglione told him that she didn’t want to stay, but he assured her that he reserved two rooms. “I went upstairs, and it was one room, and he tried to make passes at me. I didn’t want to deal with that, and he got pissed off. I had $800 from that money that I won, and I went downstairs and explained to them I needed a cab.”
Once Viglione returned to New York, she discovered that there was retribution if she and the other woman in the program did not accept these advances. “I got back to New York, and she was all freaked out because I was missing for a long time. It was 4 or 5 in the morning,” she recalled. “We went to sleep, then two hours later someone started knocking on our door. ‘Get the hell out of here! You can’t be here anymore!’”
When Viglione and the other woman applied for this program they were required to send pictures. And the man told the other woman that he was not going to give her a job because her pictures were prettier than she was and Viglione wasn’t going to get a job because she refused to sleep with him.
“So that’s how my ‘Welcome To America’ started.”
The nightmare did not end there for Viglione. In order to stay in the United States, she needed paperwork for the program to include this man’s signature. And he would not willingly sign the papers, forcing Viglione to return day after day until he did. More, Viglione soon discovered that many of the women in this program were subjected to the same treatment.
“I was scared because I never had to deal with that kind of stuff. A lot of the girls were scared, and they were younger than me. I was 21 years old, and I had some balls. But they were 17-, 18-year-old girls, and they were even more scared. They would get used and taken advantage of, and they would become strippers,” she said. “I saw two girls who lived in the apartment building winding up being strippers. Then they ended up getting kicked out of the building because they were strippers.”
More, Viglione soon discovered that the owner of the company that facilitated this treatment was someone who had been involved in other scandals. “It makes me really angry because the woman who owned that agency back in Moscow — she’s hiding somewhere,” she explained. “A lot of people went after her, and there was a whole episode about her on one of the major Russian TV channels. She owns properties and made a lot of money on people just scamming them."
“I just don’t understand how you can do these kinds of things.”
But Viglione refused to give up her dream, and she decided to fight back. “It was going through all of this wild and crazy, painful stuff. I was kind of pissed. I was like, ‘Really?’ I came here to explore and enjoy life, and this is how it’s going to be?” she said.
“I’ve got to prove that I’m stronger than that.”
So Viglione retained an attorney and made it clear to the man that there would be consequences if he did not sign her papers. “I would go there every day for a week to try to get his signature, and they were saying he was not there. Then one day, I said I was going to call my lawyer because this was not the right way to do things. And he came out yelling, calling me a bitch and saying I can call the police or whatever the fuck I want,” Viglione explained. “And then there was an older guy; I think a relative. He came and said, ‘It’s OK. I’ll make sure it’s alright.’ I think he was afraid that the guy was going to get in trouble, so he made him sign the paper."
“And I got out of there.”
Now that Viglione had her papers signed, she was free to do what she initially came to the United States to do; namely, learn English and pursue her dream of becoming a musician. This included taking classes and working with vocal coaches, such as Craig Derry. “I had a work visa, so I could get any job after the papers were signed. And Craig Derry was also a celebrity vocal coach who had his vocal boot camp,” she explained. “I never thought I would have an experience like that in Russia … I never thought I’d be given a chance to live a life like that.”
But Viglione’s fortune turned around when she began working for musician and entrepreneur Jesse Malin at Bowery Electric. Not only did she get the opportunity to work in a music venue where she had exposure to the very independent, underground scene that she had always craved, but also she eventually played in Malin’s band at South by Southwest.
But perhaps even more importantly, it was through working at Bowery Electric that she met Brian Viglione, former drummer of Dresden Dolls, who has played with Nine Inch Nails and Violent Femmes. Brian eventually became Olya’s husband — and a Scarlet Sails band mate.
Brian Viglione, who also played with Malin on Malin’s Glitter in the Gutter record, described how he and Olya met at Bowery Electric in 2013. “It was one of those very traditional stories of ‘I saw her across the way. And the clouds parted and the light glowed and the angels sang. And the thing that struck me was this warm and genuine feeling that you don’t normally come across in New York City, which is very fast-paced and the interactions are very quick,” he explained.
“Just a very thin excuse to come back and say hello.”
Brian was struck by Olya's story and how she had overcome so much to come to the United States and pursue her dream of playing music.
“Life throws some wild situations at you and, hopefully, we are equipped with the stamina and sense, and the people who love us who can help us navigate those tricky times,” he said.
“And she did.”
Soon the two formed Scarlet Sails. One of the songs, “I’ll Be There,” encapsulates her struggle and how she has overcome adversity.
“The video is shot around the concept of my broken self, and then there is my stronger self … the stronger part of the woman saying that it’s going to be OK, I’m there for you,” she explained. “It’s OK to feel that emotion, but you can always find within you that stronger self. And somebody that you want to be, or wish you could be. And I believe that everyone has that. You have to believe that."
“At your lowest lows, you have that in you.”
Ultimately, the decision to name the band Scarlet Sails was based on a book by the same name that she loved growing up. And as she describes the book, it’s hard to ignore the parallels in her own life.
“I decided to name the band Scarlet Sails … . It’s about a girl who lived in a town, and people didn’t understand her. She was different. She was weird. She was a wild spirit. And everybody made fun of her. She was from a poor family, and it was only her and her father. He would make these wooden boats, and she would go to the fair and sell them,” she explained.
“And this one day, she was walking to the fair, and this stranger came up to her and said, ‘You should stay true to yourself, and one day everything that you’re dreaming of will come true. A ship with Scarlet Sails is going to come for you and take you away to this land.' And everyone in the village thought it was just this cuckoo girl."
“And there’s another part of the story where there’s a prince, and he’s not happy with his father. He’s just always posing for paintings, but he wants to live a real life. And he escapes and becomes a sailor. He works his way up to become a captain of a ship, and one day he comes to the village. He sees the girl in the forest, and he falls in love with her,” she explained.
“They tell him she’s this crazy girl who thinks a ship with scarlet sails will come and take her away. He goes to the fair and buys scarlet silk, and he makes sails out of that silk. And in the morning, the ship comes into the harbor and the whole village comes to see that. And her dreams came true."
“And it’s a love story and an inspiring story. Stay true to yourself.”