Brianna O’Dell’s debut EP is proof of her ‘Resilience’

The singer, nurse, domestic violence survivor and Marion native will perform with her band during a release show at Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Worthington on Saturday, Jan. 22

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Singer Brianna O'Dell

Going to nursing school during a pandemic would have been tough without any other difficult circumstances. But in 2020, Brianna O’Dell found herself in an abusive relationship, and she knew she had to get out. 

It came to a head in August of that year, when O’Dell said her former partner pulled a knife on her. That day, she called her mom, packed a few bags and moved from Columbus back to her hometown of Marion, Ohio, where she lived for about a year, commuting back and forth to nursing school.  

“It was rough. I was depressed for eight months out of that year,” O’Dell said. “What kept me level headed was going to school and writing music.” 

Even in the midst of the toxic relationship, O’Dell turned to music, writing the jazz-inflected R&B song “Lost Myself” while still plotting how and when to leave. “It’s time for a change, I need to get back my identity,” she sings on the track, which opens O’Dell’s debut three-song EP, Resilience, and which the artist will celebrate with a full-band release show at Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Worthington on Saturday, Jan. 22.

“Entrapment” describes how O’Dell felt confined for two years, while closing track “Miss Me” serves as a final kiss-off. “It’s when I left and I gained my power back,” she said. “I had all of these lessons from this relationship. I was like, ‘OK, you can fall, but you have to get back up.’” 

Musically, Resilience is the culmination of a life spent searching for her own sound — an exploration that began at an early age and in an unlikely place. “My mom told me that at daycare, I would sing in the bathroom. My teachers would tell her, ‘Do you know that Brianna sings on the toilet?’” she said. 

O’Dell also ended up singing in her church’s choir while still in elementary school. “I tried out for the church play when I was a kid, and I had to sing a song, and then the adult choir director asked me to be in the choir,” she said. “I was the only child from fifth grade and up to be in the adult choir.” 

In the coming years, O’Dell continued to sing in Marion wherever she could: show choirs, musicals, an a cappella group. After moving to Columbus to attend Ohio State in 2013, O’Dell joined the university’s all-female a cappella group (the Scarlet and Grace Notes), sang in a production of “Hairspray” (as Motormouth Maybelle) and played trumpet in the marching band. “I did anything musical I could do,” she said. 

Still, O’Dell had yet to discover her own sound. Would she be like her grandparents, who play in a jazz and blues band in New York? Or her dad, whom she described as “a white guy — blond hair, blue eyes — but he sings R&B”?  

The turning point arrived when she became a student of Shawn “Thunder” Wallace at Ohio State as part of her jazz and vocal studies. “That's when I was like, OK, this is what I want to do. I want to perform live and I want to create a specific sound for myself, and I don't want to sound like anybody else,” said O’Dell, who incorporates jazz, gospel, R&B and hip-hop into her music. 

O’Dell graduated from nursing school in the spring and began working as a nurse over the summer, then moved back to Columbus in September to work at a nursing home and rehab center. Recently, she has been caring for patients in the COVID unit.

Since music has provided healing for O’Dell, she now uses music to bring healing to others at her day job. “You don't have to go get your degree in order to be a music therapist. You can literally bring yourself and an instrument and sing songs that they know and they'll sing with you,” she said. “Being able to go to work and do this with my residents makes me want to go to every single nursing home and do it.” 

These days, when O’Dell performs the songs from Resilience, it doesn’t remind her of the bad times; it reminds her of everything she has overcome. “I just feel happy. I'm just like, wow, I can't believe I went through that, but I'm kind of glad I did because now I can help other people and tell them not to lose hope and that it's OK to ask for help,” she said. “I'm a nurse now, and I incorporate music into my job, and I have this EP. So it's kind of like I made it, you know? I made it out.”