Angel Olsen on writing a song in twenty minutes, playing with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and the difference between recording a 7 inch and an album.
If you go see Angel Olsen headline—that is, the crowd is there to see her—you’re going to encounter The Angel Olsen Phenomenon. This is where the audience’s collective pair of lungs gets sort of vacuum-sealed, or maybe replaced with packing peanuts and silica gel packets, and all of their focus is squarely directed toward Angel and her band. Read any review of one of her shows and you’ll find someone describing the same thing. I know I’m not imagining the Phenomenon because I also know that the human race isn’t categorically polite—they leave each other at bars without saying goodbye and they have loud conversations in the bathroom and most notably will talk through every show they go to . . . So what I’m saying is, for the air in a room to actually vaporize, a performance has to actually have intensity, it has to actually have some sort of emotional impact or value or purity. Leonard Cohen used to cut concerts short if he felt at all that the performance “wasn’t getting off the ground.” Angel and company get off the ground regularly.
I should note that this happens the old-fashioned way, not with antics, pantomiming, pyrotechnics or posturing; just put her and her songs and her voice and a venue together, and it happens. I met with Angel before a show, and over chocolate cake donuts, we discussed recording, Russell Crowe, and the nuts and bolts of songwriting.
Gary Canino I know playing your songs with a backing band is still relatively new for you. How does it work, do you bring your songs to them and work out arrangements?
Angel Olsen Yeah, everybody kind of suggests different things and if it doesn’t end up sounding the right way, we can change it. But it’s especially cool with the older material, because they can really bring new life to it.
GC Your earliest recordings are just you, right?
AO Yeah, and Half Way Home was just Emmett Kelly and I, but it was still pretty minimal. It’s kinda crazy to be working with more than one person. Stewart [Bronaugh, bass] and Josh [Jaeger, drums] are both bringing a lot of ideas. They’re actually in a band called Lion Limb, and I just really like their style and the kind of energy they bring to my music and songs. They really hear what I couldn’t hear on my own.
GC Had you heard their band before you started playing with them?
AO Yeah, I was working at this café called the Bourgeois Pig, in Lincoln Park in Chicago, and someone was playing Lion Limb. A few months later, I realized it was my co-worker Josh’s band.
GC I love how Strange Cacti opens with that crazy wobbly tape sound. What is that?
AO It’s probably just the tape degrading! (laughter) I did it really lo-fi quality, which is cool, because at that point, it wasn’t like, “Music is what I’m gonna do.” I worked at a café, and Jon [Hency, of Bathetic Records] asked me to do a tape, so I recorded six songs. I didn’t expect anything really to happen, and he only made 50 copies. And then we ended up making 500 copies of the EP.
GC So the attention the tape got was totally unexpected?
AO Yeah, it was kinda crazy. And when the tape came out, I started working with Will Oldham immediately, so I didn’t do much touring or anything for it . . .
GC Had he heard your music before?
AO I think he heard some songs through Emmett Kelly. They were looking for someone to sing in this cover band we were a part of, called the Babblers.
GC Which was a rearranged version of Bonnie "Prince" Billy and the Cairo Gang.
AO Right, and that was my first experience with them. It was crazy. “Now you’re working with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, and you’re gonna play for three hours a night, for two weeks. And learn all these songs. And wear a jumpsuit and sunglasses.”
GC You’ve been doing a lot of 7 inches lately.
AO Yeah, Sleepwalker is a limited release on this Japanese label, Sixteen Tambourines. It has two sort of older songs on it: “Sweet Dreams” is a louder, grungier song that didn’t fit on the album. And “California” was this throwback song that could have fit somewhere, but it didn’t feel right. So I liked the idea of them being put together. And I might be working on another 7 inch soon.
GC What do you like about recording 7 inches as opposed to albums?
AO It’s just a lot of fun. You can record it all yourself. Albums are fun too, but it’s work, and a lot of patience, and you have to remember at the end of the day that these songs matter to you. You have to be outside of yourself for a week and a half while you’re doing [an album]. But a 7 inch is more like “I wrote this song last night, now I’m going to record it and send it off, and it’ll be out in two months.”
Recording quickly is good, because sometimes when I write songs I feel like I don’t have an understanding of it until it’s recorded in a definitive way.
But a song can exist when no one knows about it. I think that sometimes those are the best songs, the ones you save for yourself. We’ve been playing this game in the car where we try to make up silly songs imitating other artists we like—imagining how they would song, or writing the type of lyrics they would write.
GC Do you have an example?
AO There’s this one that Zia [Anger] and I wrote called “Living Out of a Bag,” and we sing it like John Cale or Lou Reed. I’m a huge fan of Lou Reed.
GC Even Lulu?
AO Yeah, even Lulu.
GC I put it on sometimes just to remind myself that it happened.
AO (laughter) You gotta stay in check, I guess.
GC With these 7 inches, do you feel that it’s important to be constantly releasing music?
AO No, I don’t think anyone should force himself or herself to record. You have to live your life, and sometimes you have to do something else for a while. And if anyone keeps telling you to push yourself in that way, you gotta be like, “Get out of my shit!” I write a lot of songs, but I don’t always record them or do something with them. I feel like having that space for the songs to breath and change and morph into stronger, more interesting situations is really important. But sometimes I’ll be riding my bike, and come up with an entire song in 20 minutes.
GC Like the entire thing, lyrics and melody?
AO Yeah! And I’ll go home and play my guitar and figure it out. Or sometimes it’ll take me months to finish one song. So it really can happen either way. I feel like the ones that come to me altogether, like when I’m riding my bike. . . Those tend to be the ones that’ll end up on a 7 inch.
GC I read a lot of songwriters saying that their favorite songs are the ones that come to them quickly.
AO Yeah, like, “Wow that was gathered in my mind—I opened my mouth and there it is!”
GC Do you ever write lyrics first?
AO Sometimes. I’ve been going back and forth, writing music without words, and words without music, and seeing how they match up. Usually, it happens together in parts, if not altogether. Also, just being in the mindset of playing with a band, the way that I hear things when I’m writing has changed. Now I hear bass as I’m writing songs, and I never used to before. It used to be just about the writing, and what was directly happening with guitar.
GC The bass playing and bass tone really stand out on Half Way Home.
AO Yeah, Emmett’s a great player.
GC You’ve mentioned that you’re interested in musicals. Have you thought about writing one?
AO It would be interesting to write my own. I don’t know if I’m ready for that part of my life yet.
GC Do you think it would be similar to your current music?
AO Probably not at all. I can’t see the style that I’m writing in now becoming a musical theater-esque thing…
GC Have you seen the Les Miserables film?
AO No, but I heard it was great.
GC I thought it was pretty good, but Russell Crowe is terrible in it. Even my mom agreed with me.
AO “But he’s so sexy Gary! You have to see it!”
GC Do you have a favorite guitar chord?
AO I feel like I end up playing sevenths a lot. I remember my friend told me, “You play Bs a lot.”
GC You seem like you play a lot of A minors.
AO (laughter) I’ll check into it. I’ll consider playing some of those tonight.
GC Do you remember writing your first song?
AO I wrote some really bad songs when I was 15. There was one very similar to “Acrobat,” that just says “I am alive,” and the whole song was about how simple and amazing it is to be alive, but I don’t remember what the words were. So maybe those words pop up in other songs now. I feel like I’ve always been writing, but at least not until I grew up and moved away did I feel like sharing it with anyone.
GC Was there ever a point where you knew your songwriting has gotten really good?
AO There are certain songs that feel really good when I play them. I get excited when I’m writing anything that I feel really good about in general, it’s like, “What a relief! I was trying to write that earlier, and now I have it articulated and there’s a melody to it!” But it’s hard to say or know if anyone is going to like it.
GC Do you have a favorite place to write, or a certain mood?
AO A lot of the times I write in chaos, on my bike, or in the middle of working. I remember working at the café and being like, “I need a receipt, I’m gonna write this song down.” I’ll be randomly thinking about something and I’ll just write a song. Or it can happen when I’m just playing guitar…it’s not a planned thing. I don’t sit down at a table and say “I’m going to write a song now. . .”
GC I know what you mean, that never really works.
AO I think it just happens when I’m living and doing other things.
GC I’ve been trying this thing where I only write when I’m really hungry, right between lunch and dinner.
AO Crazy! I feel like when I am writing a lot I don’t have an appetite, and I lose my interest in seeing people and hanging out. All I want to do is go home and play guitar, and this will happen for like four or five days. I’ll just want to get home, to get in my zone and my world. When you get really excited about anything, hunger doesn’t matter as much. But I can’t see myself being like,” I’m gonna fast and write an album!” (laughter)
GC Lastly, and unrelated to music, I noticed that you have iPhone Read Receipts turned on. What do you think of them?
AO I think it’s unfair! It’s like, “I know how busy YOU are. . .” It’s just a new reason to start an argument, you know? But it’ll keep things interesting for sure. . . “I saw you read it! Why don’t you care about me?!”
Angel Olsen's Mix Tape:
Kenneth Higney – "Can't Love That Woman" (1976)
Women And Children – "Oranges"
Ida Presti Classical Guitar Video: HVL Prelude No.1
"Privilege" by Peter Watkins
The Tennors – "Pressure & Slide" (1967)
José Afonso – "Traz outro amigo também"
Braco (The Healer) – "Gentle Touch"
Duncan Browne – "Ninepence Worth Of Walking"
The Chi-Lites – "Coldest Days of My Life"
Black Sabbath – "Changes"
For more on Angel Olsen, including tour dates and release information, visit angelolsen.com.
Gary Canino is a writer and musician based in New York City.