Turntable Interview: Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen isn’t a household name yet, but once you hear her unforgettable voice and her skill at manipulating it in unexpected ways, you may find yourself playing the role of the town crier making sure everyone knows her name. The Chicago-based songwriter is entirely self-taught and she has earned some ardent fans for her charming voice, including Will Oldham. In fact, she’s part of the Cairo Gang that performed on Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s recent records, and has toured with him, too, although her extraordinary vocal talent means she hardly blends into the background when accompanying Oldham. When she’s not in Oldham’s backing band, Olsen is crafting folksy, bluesy songs like the ones on her album Half Way Home. The record showcases her serious songwriting chops and her incredible vocal range, which when paired with a mournful electric guitar or an ebullient acoustic one, make for a powerfully mesmerizing combination. Olsen stepped up to Turntable.fm and talked about working with Will Oldham, the burdens of songwriting and her desire to braid Dolly Parton’s hair.
Angel Olsen started playing “Karen” by Slapp Happy
ANGEL OLSEN: So I think what I’ll do is while we’re chatting randomly select songs on my mind. Is that cool?
STEREOGUM: Of course! That’s how I do it.
ANGEL OLSEN: So SICK
STEREOGUM: Slapp Happy is not a band you hear every day
ANGEL OLSEN: Definitely not. I just recently discovered them.
STEREOGUM: They remind of a cross between The National and Leonard Cohen and some guy at a coffeeshop
ANGEL OLSEN: They remind me of the Velvet Underground, if they had been more theatrical.
STEREOGUM: Yes, that is much more apt.
Melissa Locker started playing “One Day” by Sharon Van Etten
ANGEL OLSEN: Oh I like Sharon!
STEREOGUM: Me too! I could see you two on a tour together.
Although I think she is going on tour with Nick Cave.
ANGEL OLSEN: Yeah, maybe one day we can braid each others hair. That would be chill. I’d be fine with that.
STEREOGUM: Nick Cave? Can you imagine asking to braid his hair? Who else’s hair would you like to braid, professionally speaking.
ANGEL OLSEN: Hah. Well, June Tabors. Maybe Dolly Parton’s. I just watched steel magnolias last night. I have no regrets.
STEREOGUM: Best movie ever! “If you have nothing nice to say, come sit by me”
Angel Olsen started playing “Anything Could Happen” by The Clean
ANGEL OLSEN: I’m not certain of it, but I’m pretty sure Dolly wrote half of her own lines for that script. She’s so aggressively positive and hilarious.
STEREOGUM: I love her.
ANGEL OLSEN: Me too. I didn’t even know I loved her. But yeah. I’d let her braid my hair. I’d braid her hair.
STEREOGUM: Ha! Yeah, she’s one of those artists who I fall more in love with every time I read her interviews
ANGEL OLSEN: And we could talk about how music is so complicated and funny and wonderful.
STEREOGUM: I am going to start a petition to make that happen.
Melissa Locker started playing “Golden Brown” by The Stranglers
STEREOGUM: Do you listen to a lot of country? Your songs seem country influenced
ANGEL OLSEN: I have been lately. I never listened to it until the last year or so.
STEREOGUM: Oh really? What got you into it?
ANGEL OLSEN: Yeah. I just found out about Roger Miller and Mickey Newbury and I’ve never really been into it before but I get it now.
STEREOGUM: Was Roger Miller your gateway drug?
ANGEL OLSEN: I guess I was always into Skeeter Davis, but it’s really just the blood harmonies like the sounds of the Everly brothers that I admire
STEREOGUM: What are blood harmonies?
ANGEL OLSEN: Hah. I call them blood harmonies, in my mind I mean brothers or sisters that harmonize. They are blood and you can tell
STEREOGUM: Oh! Like bands like TEEN or HAIM
ANGEL OLSEN: Sure, I don’t know them.
STEREOGUM: Oh, I will play
ANGEL OLSEN: You’ll notice that I’m playing older tunes, older bands. I don’t listen to a lot of stuff that’s recent. But I’ve been into Frank Ocean
STEREOGUM: Yeah, he’s amazing. Everyone should listen to Frank Ocean.
Angel Olsen started playing “Karen” by Slapp Happy
ANGEL OLSEN: He’s pushing the envelope for sure. Whoopseee here we go again.
STEREOGUM: Let’s listen to Germany’s answer to Lou Reed again. Frank Ocean is definitely a gateway drug into R&B/hip-hop though. Next thing you’ll know you’ll be listening to El-P and The Weeknd.
ANGEL OLSEN: Hah, how about you pick a jam. I can’t seem to escape “Karen” though I love it, I wasn’t planning on hearing it again.
STEREOGUM: If you mouse over your avatar you’ll get a “skip song” option
Melissa Locker started playing “Electric” by TEEN
ANGEL OLSEN: Cool. purfeekt
STEREOGUM: This is TEEN. Three sisters and a friend making “blood harmonies”
ANGEL OLSEN: Oh cool
STEREOGUM: So what have you been up to lately?
ANGEL OLSEN: Well, running around! I just got back from tour and Thanksgiving at my family’s in St.Louis and now I’m catching up with friends, organizing a band
STEREOGUM: What goes into organizing a band?
ANGEL OLSEN: Well, practicing with people. Hah. Teaching people my songs. Allowing them to change feelings or vibes within the ones I’ve already written. Stuff like that.
STEREOGUM: How do you find your band members?
ANGEL OLSEN: Through friends usually. I’m going to see the drummer dude I’ve been playing with…he’s performing at the empty bottle tonight with another band he’s in called “Lionlimb”
Angel Olsen started playing “Leave My Girl Alone” by The Everly Brothers
STEREOGUM: Your songs are fairly personal, is it strange inviting new musicians to play on them?
ANGEL OLSEN: Not really. I’m okay with existing and showing myself to people. I’m not ashamed. In a way once I’ve written about things I’ve experienced I feel very detached from them. They’ve been accounted for. I don’t have to keep thinking it over and over in my mind wondering if people relate
STEREOGUM: So songwriting is therapeutic
ANGEL OLSEN: I guess so? I’ve always been writing songs. I’ve never once thought, “God, how am I gonna get over this??? I guess I’ll write a song about it”
Melissa Locker started playing “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke
STEREOGUM: So the therapy is just a side effect of the art
ANGEL OLSEN: It’s more just that sometimes it articulates things for me, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it seems personal when maybe it has nothing to do with me
STEREOGUM: Do you find that songs are more successful if they are personal?
ANGEL OLSEN: I don’t know. What is success? We could make this existential, but I’ll just answer you best as I can..
STEREOGUM: I guess I meant for you artistically speaking
ANGEL OLSEN: I don’t think songs that are personal are better or more interesting or successful always. Sometimes they are embarrassing and difficult to hear and can be disappointing, but why screen yourself for the sake of someone else’s embarrassment. Who cares?
Angel Olsen started playing “Call Me The Breeze” by J.J. Cale
ANGEL OLSEN: J. J. Cale …took a risk with this one
STEREOGUM: How so?
ANGEL OLSEN: This isn’t my favorite recording of this song, but I love this song.
STEREOGUM: It’s a great song.
ANGEL OLSEN: And I had no idea while choosing it that it would be this recording. Whatever. I listened to one of his albums all summer, sitting out on my rooftop, reading books in the sun
STEREOGUM: Which album?
ANGEL OLSEN: Anyway the Wind Blows, the anthology
STEREOGUM: Do you think JJ Cale is ready for a comeback?
ANGEL OLSEN: Totally. I mean, I’m not behind every one of his songs, but I’ve not really given him a real listen. It’s just this one album I love.
STEREOGUM: Do you cover any of his songs?
ANGEL OLSEN: Nah, I never cover any of his stuff, but it would be fun to be in a bar band one day. I think there’s some real bar band potential in his music and bar bands should make a comeback
STEREOGUM: Yes, and so should the movie Roadhouse
ANGEL OLSEN: Hah. Totally
STEREOGUM: You could be in the bar band in the reboot
ANGEL OLSEN: I’d love that.
I also love dancing. There’s a place in Chicago for country and bar band dancing, it’s called “Carols” and you see all kinds of characters in that place. 75 yr old couples with matching cowboy outfits, street kids, suburban families
STEREOGUM: Are you a barfly there?
ANGEL OLSEN: Not really, but I’ve definitely gone dancing there and you never run into anyone you know
Melissa Locker started playing “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson
ANGEL OLSEN: I love this song
STEREOGUM: Me too. He’s amazing
ANGEL OLSEN: It’s such a… “I’m departing, you’re arriving,….you’re departing, I’m arriving” kind of feeling
STEREOGUM: I haven’t heard it described like that before, but yes, totally. Your new album is coming out soon. Is it a little more country-fied, since you’ve been listening to so much country music?
ANGEL OLSEN: My new album?
Hah. I mean, my next album has yet to be recorded, but I have a new unreleased album in the works. Yes. I wouldn’t say it’s countrified. Hah, I didn’t deep-fry it in a style or anything. I think it has elements of different things.
ANGEL OLSEN: I wouldn’t say it’s in a box with a label on it yet
STEREOGUM: When do you think the new album will come out? and when you say ‘it’s in the works,” how much has been recorded?
ANGEL OLSEN: It’s all written, and drafts of each song have been recorded in my house, on a cassette tape. But like I said, I’m organizing a band, so I have to teach the parts to them and I want to really think about what songs make sense to me, together or apart. What songs follow a theme in my mind, if any.
STEREOGUM: Do you ask potential band members if they have a tape player before you audition them?
ANGEL OLSEN: No, and if and when I find people who are willing to work with me and are psyched and I’m psyched for, then I send them recordings — raw recordings — as examples and we change things together, discover parts together, but the lyrics, I write of course. And the basic melody.
Angel Olsen started playing “Sweedeedee” by Michael Hurley
STEREOGUM: What’s your song writing process like? How do you start before sending out raw recordings?
ANGEL OLSEN: I write a lot of songs while riding my bike
STEREOGUM: You write songs on your bike?
ANGEL OLSEN: Yeah
STEREOGUM: Is that a safety hazard?
ANGEL OLSEN: I know that sounds really typically romantic songwriter BS, but its true. I write a lot of songs while riding my bike. I think living is a safety hazard. Hah hah, but um, yeah I mean I wear a helmet! And I dont really ride fast and I take the side streets. I cruise.
STEREOGUM: And you wear reflectors on your knees or a reflective vest, right?
ANGEL OLSEN: I have reflectors and all sorts of dorky crap. My bike is super bright, you can’t miss it. It’s sparkle blue with red handle bars and a yellow crate. Its so bright, whoever hits it is completely color blind.
STEREOGUM: Ha! So you hum or sing while you bike? Or do you create it in your head and then write it down when you get to your destination?
ANGEL OLSEN: I hum a lot of melodies yeah and then thoughts come and fill them in or sometimes I write the words. Poems! And later add music to them, change them, morph them into songs. It’s a magical feeling when it all works out like here’s this thing that existed inside of my body or whatever all this time and now it’s somewhat tangible, melodic. It fills space elsewhere. It’s all mystical and fun and dumb too
STEREOGUM: Has working with Will Oldham influenced your songwriting at all?
ANGEL OLSEN: Probably? I mean, most of the work I did for “half way home” …well, at least half of it was written 2 years before working with him and I was going to release newer material, but I really felt attached to these songs. And I knew they needed to be heard, so I chose 5 other songs that I had recently written and combined the thoughts, the songs, together. It’s weird how themes have reoccurred, from old songs to new ones, but I’m just psychoanalyzing my music. I’ve been writing a new material, while I worked with Will, and now…since I’ve been working alone I’ve been writing quite a bit. I have more time on my hands and I have this freedom to use it. I feel very lucky that I too have been able to write during this period, because sometimes the want the inspiration to write isn’t there even when you have the time. Phew. Run-on sentences!
Angel Olsen started playing “Romance In Durango” by Bob Dylan
ANGEL OLSEN: This album, desire, is soooo good. I love the harmonies on it. I love how stoney it is.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a name for this kind of harmony?
ANGEL OLSEN: Hah! Sunset porch harmonies
STEREOGUM: Oh very poetic!
ANGEL OLSEN: Hah! See. I’m full of all kinds of shit.
STEREOGUM: What do you call the harmonies on your album?
ANGEL OLSEN: sheeeeet. Oh man
STEREOGUM: That sounds like the guy from The Wire
ANGEL OLSEN: Hmm well a lot of the harmonies are with myself, so mirror harmonies
STEREOGUM: You are good at this!
ANGEL OLSEN: But Emmett sang and two other boys sang…Sam Wagster and Jeff Harms, but I feel like they were pillow harmonies
Melissa Locker started playing “Call Me” by Petula Clark
STEREOGUM: Pillow harmonies, huh? Soft and receptive?
ANGEL OLSEN: Sort of there, softly there…presently there, but not forcibly there
STEREOGUM: You should write a Taxonomy of Harmonies
ANGEL OLSEN: Right after I write more albums that aren’t (in my mind aren’t) BS. Hah! If I can do that
STEREOGUM: Do you entertain yourself on tour thinking of names?
ANGEL OLSEN: Maybe I’ll write you a personal booklet of harmony info. Thinking of names for harmonies
STEREOGUM: Of harmonies!
ANGEL OLSEN: Hah, no.
I just free-styled for you.
STEREOGUM: I appreciate the effort! Thank you!
ANGEL OLSEN: Yeah, I’m down for some free-style. We can rap, nbd.
Angel Olsen started playing “When You Walk In The Room” by Jackie DeShannon
STEREOGUM: So what did you mean when you said “after I write more albums that aren’t (in my mind aren’t) BS”?
ANGEL OLSEN: Well, I guess it can be very exciting to write something in the first place…when I finish writing something I feel good about…It fills me with joy, but when others seem to relate, that overwhelms me with joy. What also overwhelms me is that those people I’ve made impressions upon –my family or friends or strangers– that they would want more and for the next thing to be the best or better or more captivating something they can relate to even more or enjoy more.
Melissa Locker started playing “Graveyard Shift” by Uncle Tupelo
STEREOGUM: So you want to write an album to live up to those expectations?
ANGEL OLSEN: Well, I’m not sure. I think what’s most important is to write for myself and to keep even my family, my close friends, critics, out of that equation, but to remember myself and how it exists. And if I write, that it should be truthful and real and not BS, but my own existence, my thoughts, my creations, could very well be BS to you or to anyone already
STEREOGUM: Ah. Does that put a lot of pressure on the songwriting process or is it liberating?
ANGEL OLSEN: I think its both liberating and alien. I never wrote songs and shared them with the world before and now I have all I want now is to keep them from being polluted and to keep myself from polluting, but obviously you can’t worry too much. Just gotta have fun and make music and live life and be free.
STEREOGUM: …and braid Dolly Parton’s hair
ANGEL OLSEN: Well yeah
STEREOGUM: Thanks so much for chatting with me!
ANGEL OLSEN: Yeah! It was fun!
Angel Olsen’s Half Way Home is out now on Bathetic. Get to know: