Catching Up With: Angel Olsen

Music Features Angel Olsen
Catching Up With: Angel Olsen

Waylon Jennings once boasted that he “couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers,” a statement that said as much about how country artists regarded pop music as it did his lack of mainstream commercial appeal. The years have done much to erode the distinctions between genres, but some of those who came up through the DIY trenches can be forgiven for still harboring a little remaining “us versus them” tension. Angel Olsen is one such artist, having cut her teeth in her native St. Louis punk scene before moving to Chicago in the mid-2000s to reinvent herself with some haunted lo-fi tracks whose tape hiss was nearly as loud as the music. A career as a pop singer did not appear to be in her future.

Five years later, Olsen might not be dominating Top 40 radio, but there are few singer/songwriters who are better positioned to expand their cult beyond the NPR/New Yorker/Pitchfork bubble and into the living rooms of suburban America. The potential for such an expansion was obvious from the first echo-drenched vocals of “Intern,” the synthy first track from My Woman, her widely acclaimed third full-length release. Though Olsen quickly pivots on the album from those airy, electronic tones to explore more familiarly glammy, grungy and jangly textures, the impression sticks. This is an artist going widescreen.

At her adopted home in North Carolina following the first leg of touring with her band, Olsen appears eager to take the next step in her creative reinvention. The writing and recording of My Woman has left her with an expanded studio vocabulary and a creative toolkit bursting at the seams with new toys (effects pedals, synths). Get her talking about the minutia of mixing and mastering, and she doesn’t want to talk about anything else. There are stories Olsen doesn’t want to tell anymore—how she was adopted, how she grew up the youngest of eight children in a conservative Christian household, how she toured as a member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s backing band before she found success as a solo artist—and there is little reason to bring them up. The story she’s writing now is more interesting than any of her earlier chapters.

Paste: It seems like your music is all over the place right now. I see your album mentioned everywhere. Does it feel that way to you?
Angel Olsen: Hmm…slightly but not really. I know that I’ve made decisions to put my face on advertisements and stuff to promote the shit out of it, because I care a lot about it and I care a lot about the band that was with me making it. So I had to stomach a little bit of selling my thing, selling my sound to people and promoting it. I’m from this background that it felt uncomfortable for me to get used to it, at first. I didn’t do stuff like that for the last record. It was more like a test for me. If I just get the information out there, is that so terrible? So there were definitely decisions that I made to promote it that are different, that are affecting it and affecting the audience a little bit more.

Paste: Did you expect this kind of reaction?
Olsen: I didn’t really think that making a synth song was going to be this big statement that everyone thinks it is. The last thing I wanted was for my audience to be like, “You’re becoming something that you’ve never been. You’re not yourself anymore,” when I feel like I’m doing things that are within myself and within my writing. It’s just that I’ve changed as a person, and I’ve changed my aesthetic a lot. People are calling it a pop record, which I’ve never really thought of my work as pop. I don’t think of this record as a pop record, mostly because when I hear the word “pop,” I think they’re taking about the production style. But the production style is really raw in my opinion. The way I mixed it with Collin [Dupuis], we were recording on tape, and there are mistakes in that. You listen to a lot of records these days, and everything sounds super warm and “perfect for your listening experience.” I didn’t feel that way about mixing this record, necessarily, but I’m happy with it. I just didn’t think it was the product of a pop record. There’s stuff like that that throws me off a little bit, but I wonder if this thing that I feel is misleading is actually helping me promote my record. It’s a little weird.

Paste: So what do you think people are hearing that is making them think this is a pop record?
Olsen: I think they’re only hearing the first song.

Paste: It seems like the worlds between pop music and indie music, those lines are so blurred today. I grew up in the ‘90s, and that wasn’t the case at all.
Olsen: That’s why I feel a little weird about it.

Paste: Do you feel like the way you look at that distinction is different from your contemporaries?
Olsen: Yeah. When I think of a pop record, I think of Katy Perry. I don’t think of an independent musician. I mean, I like listening to Katy Perry’s stuff. My sound engineer plays it every night. I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s a different road than what I’m on. And I don’t feel like by playing one or two songs that are maybe in a style loosely related to that genre that you can overall say that what I’m doing is pop. But if indie and pop are the same thing and they are merging, it begins those discussions. So I don’t know how to think about it.

Paste: When you wrote the song with a synthesizer, did you have any anticipation for how that would be received?
Olsen: I had no idea. But also I want to make different kinds of music, and I’ve been listening to a lot of synth music, mostly Men Without Hats and Brian Eno and, recently, I’ve been listening to S U R V I V E a lot. I’ve just been really psyched about that kind of music, and it’s in my head. Stuff that combines synths or organs or stuff that’s prog or psychedelic ‘70s or synth pop—that’s the kind of stuff I’ve been listening to. So I was just playing around with the idea and seeing if I could write a song that I cared about in that medium, and it ended up having nothing to do with the rest of the material that I wrote that year but I didn’t want to let it go. When I was mixing I thought it would be really funny to have it be a disclaimer to the record, but also I knew people were going to be weird about it. I wanted it to be first, and I wanted it to fuck with my audience a little bit, because I think people expect me to write sad, folky music forever. And maybe I will. Maybe I’ll go back to that. But right now I’m ready to get into other things. I’m learning a lot about music and performing all the time. I’m using pedals now, and I remember a time when I didn’t know how to turn on a pedal. I have developed an interest in sounds with other people, and I started playing piano and organs and stuff. I didn’t necessarily want to do a whole album [like that]. I don’t sit down and write a song, like, “What if I wrote an entire piece of work that was just this…”

Paste: Do you like the fact that using synthesizers does unsettle the expectations that your listeners have?
Olsen: Yeah. I like to have fun. I like to fuck with people.

Paste: Did this album challenge the way you think about your own music?
Olsen: Definitely. I listened to older songs, like stuff from [2012’s] Half Way Home or something, and my voice has changed so much since then, and the way that I sing has changed. But I know that when I sing those songs, like “Always Half Strange,” I have to sing it that way. You really can’t change it that much. I don’t know that I could bring myself to change it. But “Acrobat,” for example, is a song that we perform a lot with this band and with the band previous to this band, and I’ve seen that one change over the years. It has followed me through my changes, and it made me think a lot about how I am testing my own voice and testing myself. There is always a fraction of trying to force it and trying to have intention with the sounds that you make. For this one, looking back I’ll say that I was intending to be soulful, because I was. I can see through it and say later, “Oh, I was good at this part, but I’m glad I left that behind.” But it will take me years before I’m at that point. I’ve done that with parts of Half Way Home. I don’t know that I’m going to yodel again for a while. [Laughs] But I liked that part of my life, because without having that part happen I wouldn’t have come to this point.

Paste: At this point, do you think you have a stable understanding of who you are as an artist and what kind of music that you make? Or is that always being revised?
Olsen: I feel like parts of it are always kind of the same. I really love demos and things sounding kind of shitty. [Laughs] I feel like that’s always stayed the same. Not really shitty—I like when things are a little off, a little janky, either in a recording process or the sound of my voice being a little flat but mixing it with another part of my voice that’s not. Things like that have always been really interesting to me. I feel like I’ve grown into a sound, and I have three or four different styles of songs that I have noticed. But with this new record, and piano and synth being added to it, it was a scary step to take to figure out how to do that live. I wasn’t used to all these presets before this record. So I had to do a lot of research with pedals in combination with keyboards. And even now flying in for festivals, you’re trying to make these sounds that are just as rich as the record, but you’ve got a lot of overhead, so you have to think about what kind of keyboards you are going to backline and if you even understand the presets of those keyboards. It was a lot of that stuff that dude friends of mine have been doing for years, and they don’t really talk to me about it. They just do it. So I was like, “I need to figure this out.” So that was a little scary, just writing for a new medium that I would later have to do research on. It was interesting for me.

Paste: Do you have a sense of what’s coming next artistically?
Olsen: I don’t really ever know. I’d like to do a synth collaboration or an EP. I’m working on a few songs right now and trying to finish one this week before I go [back on tour] Then I’ll have a little time off in January and March. You want to write in those times off, but you never know. You don’t want to force it, either. I’m just taking it as it comes, as I always do.

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