Angel Olsen: The Cream Interview

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Light shows, a dance crew, glitter cannons — we love a show with good old-fashioned spectacle. A few artists, however, can stun a crowd into silence with the power of their pipes alone, and this spring we learned that Chicago’s Angel Olsen is clearly located in that upper echelon. She often sings about longing, loneliness and feeling small, but coming from Olsen, even the sound of a broken spirit is big and bold. More often than not, the resilience of the characters in her songs sticks with you. Like the greats that came before, she has an innate ability to make you think she’s singing directly to you, no matter where you are in the room. Maybe it’s the white-witch stare, cold and sultry at the same time? Whatever it is, it stopped us and the rest of the audience dead in our tracks.

As a member of The Cairo Gang, Olsen has also been a part of Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy traveling circus. Her first solo release, 2011’s Strange Cacti, was recorded in her kitchen, released on a friend’s tiny tape label, and quickly became a collectors’ item. Her second LP, Halfway Home, including significant contributions from The Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly and others, earned well-deserved rave reviews on its release last fall. A master of vocal techniques — especially at knowing when not to use them — she’s mostly worked in a country-folk vein, with some strong tinges of Latin and European folk. Last year, Olsen began working with a new band who amplify her psychedelic rock bent, which she tells us features prominently on her forthcoming record from Jagjaguwar. If her latest single, “Sleepwalker” b/w “Sweet Dreams,” is any indication, it’s going to be a beast, with all the power of the old Angel and more.

You can catch a peek for yourself when Olsen plays The Stone Fox Friday night, with support from Honey Locust and Lylas. The show starts at 9, and cover is $8.

Meanwhile, we recently had a caffeinated phone chat with Angel, covering quite a bit of ground including sociology, economics, record labels, noise rock and Birdcloud. Check it out after the jump.

Thanks for taking time out to talk. What’s going on this morning?

My friends own a cafe here in Chicago called Cafe Mustache, and they’re about to expand, so I just visited them to talk about it. … It’s cool to see [this happen for] your friends, who used to live in a punk rock house, where they were constantly hosting weird music — like Ty Segall, at the beginning [of his career], or some random punk rock band from Philadelphia, and letting strangers live in it. They’ve changed their life a little bit, and now they have a space that they can run legally in the city, but in their own way. I’m really proud of them, I’m really psyched!

It’s very cool that they’re able to grow without having to compromise what they believe in.

Yeah, it’s a rare thing, I think. … [The part of Chicago where I live] is changing a lot. A lot of artists are moving in, and it’s really uplifting, but at the same time, it gentrifies. … There’s a lot of that here; rich, young people who are artists, moving into the neighborhood and taking over. I think that’s great, it’s cool for the economy and everything, but preserving everyone that’s already here instead of letting that take over is important. I just went on a rant [laughs]! Because I go to these places I’m talking about, and take friends there when they’re in town … in a way I’m supporting [gentrification]. And I feel kind of responsible, sometimes guilty about it. I wish there were a way for some things to remain a secret!

We’re having similar growing pains in Nashville. You’ve been on a relatively small indie label [Bathetic], but you recently signed to a much bigger one [Secretly Canadian subsidiary Jagjaguwar]. Did you have some of the same concerns about your own career as you prepared to make the switch?

They expressed interest in working with me a year or so before I decided to work with them, so their patience and their faith in what I was doing revealed to me that they were [the right choice], even if a bigger label came along that other people might run to for security reasons, or the amount of exposure, or whatever. None of those other offers — there were a few — seemed real to me in the way that [Jagjaguwar’s] seemed real. …

I think it’s the artist’s responsibility to make sure that they remain themselves and not allow any situation to completely change the trueness of what they’re doing. It’s challenging, especially now, because you can’t make a living playing music, and I think a large amount of people, who don’t play music or work in the music business, who assume that you can do it without exploiting yourself. Well, maybe you can, but you’re gonna have to cut corners, and you’re going to have to tour a lot, and you’re going to have to work really hard at it.

But a lot of artists end up submitting their work to huge movies, and TV shows and commercials. I used to be like, “That sucks! I don’t want to hear a car commercial that’s playing one of my favorite bands’ music. That sucks for me, and it sucks for them.” But when I [met some of] those people, I had to forgive them. They have families to raise, and they kind of wrote themselves into this corner. Like, “Wow, I became really good at this thing that people are psyched for, and I have to continue doing it, but now I have a family, and I have to decide if I’m going to keep doing this.”

You have to work really hard at it, because those issues come up a lot; labels, booking agents, and other people involved will suggest [artistic compromises] that might be easier to fall into just because you’re at a vulnerable point. I’m not there right now, but sometimes artists are at a vulnerable point: They’ve made a few records, and then they somehow can’t get the exposure that they need, so they find ways to exploit their music. …

I feel very happy with [Jagjaguwar]. I’m sure that we will have disagreements, just like anybody does, but I don’t think there was a better step to take for me. I’m just really psyched that I can work with people who’ve been incredibly supportive, even before they worked with me. They are pushing my music before it even comes out. That’s really rare!

Do you feel that this kind of sensitive treatment has anything to do with the size of the label?

Yeah, I think that, because they’re not as huge as a lot of other labels ... Not that a lot of people don’t listen to their artists, but it’s not like Beyoncé or something. It’s very different — the record label doesn’t seem to be running in the same way. But I don’t know, because I’m not Beyoncé! [laughs] …

I always wanted to self-release, and I’ve been putting out records with my friend Jon Hency of Bathetic Records. He mostly puts out abstract noise-rock, so it was kind of a weird thing that he asked me to be a part of his tape label. It was weird because I was making accordion music — not your typical accordion music, it’s distorted and layered. He was more interested in that than in my lyrics or my guitar music. So he asked me to submit those songs, and I did, and it went really well. Then, a year passed, and he said “Maybe we’ll put out a tape of your [other] stuff.” I didn’t spend very much time producing it. I just kind of recorded [Strange Cacti] in GarageBand, put it on a tape, and gave it to him.

For the most part, [Hency and Bathetic have] kept the same vibe, except for me. I just toured with the guy on his label called Villages [aka Ross Gentry], and he makes amazing, disturbing, dense noise, but at the same time, there are melodies within it. Kind of heavy, like when you’re watching a David Lynch film, where the images might seem normal, but there’s something really disturbing about them. You have to take a break sometimes, or at least that’s how I feel. There were moments where I had to leave the room — in a cool way, like I had to leave because I was so affected. I like that music can do that!

I feel like a lot of my friends assume that I just go home and listen to country music all the time. I love going to random, abstract, dense noise shows totally alone, getting that disturbed feeling happening, and then being like “Okay, now I’m affected by something.” You do have to pick over a lot of shitty sounds. There are people that make noises that have no feeling, that are just really, really abrasive and annoying. [interrupted by passing train] It’s important to not assume that the entire genre is that shitty, abrasive noise. …

I’m from St. Louis, where there was a huge noise scene growing up. [At] this place called Lemp Arts Center, it was all these 15, 16-year-old kids trying to make abstract noise-rock. And it was so artsy; some of it was great, but some of it was so boring, it was like “Man, I could go do something else right now. This is not helpful or effective. This is just some dude, scratching the violin with his fingernails.” That’s cool for, like, 5 to 20 seconds, but then you’re like, “Alright, now I want to hear something. I want to see something build, or at least be blown away by something that doesn’t build.”

I didn’t stay in St. Louis long enough to be affected by the noise-rock scene there. When I moved to Chicago, and I was old enough to go to bars and other kinds of venues, I think it hit me harder, because I was more surrounded by it. It’s possible that the music was just better. I didn’t give up on it, though. I was determined to figure out what it is people do when they go to these kinds of shows. What is it that they want to hear? Is it something that they’re missing? They have a regular 9-to-5 workday, and then they go to a noise show. What is it that they want to feel? It’s easier to figure out what people want when they go to a folk show, or a rock show — they’re going to hear the same kinds of songs, pretty much, that they’ve always heard. But when you go to a noise show, it’s very improvisational, and because you were there, you’re witnessing something new. So maybe even if people have heard [a noise band’s] record, they’ll hear something that they’ve never heard before. That’s kinda cool! It’s one thing that you can witness or experience because you came to the show, not because you bought the record on iTunes, not because a friend played it for you. You went to the show and you were affected by something totally different than the record or your friend describing it to you.

It becomes your own very personal experience.

That’s the reason for doing all of this, like “I want to do that.” I know my songs are limited, because they follow a pattern for the most part, ABABAC. You can’t always make the music that you’d like. Who knows if I would go see my show! [laughs] But I do enjoy writing and playing with the people I’ve been performing with. I’m learning a lot, and I hope I can keep doing things. If not in exactly the same way, to keep making things, in general.

Who’s in your band now, and how did you meet?

Stewart Bronaugh, the bassist, [is from Nashville, and] went to school here in Chicago. I worked with Josh Jaeger, the drummer, in a coffee shop called Bourgeois Pig. We never worked the same schedule, so we worked five or six months in the same place without ever getting to know each other. To be honest, I don’t think we liked each other very much at all; we each thought the other was really snooty. We never talked about making music. So when Halfway Home came out, one day I just left and went on a tour. But he found the record, wrote me, and said “I’d love to play drums with you.” …

You can put up an ad, but it’s kind of awkward to interview people to work for you. So we just hung out, and became friends, and started playing music together, and it made so much sense. Josh and Stewart are in a band together, called Lionlimb, and they already had this connection that you have when you spend years working with someone. He and Josh already spoke in their own language to each other about parts for things. When we all got together it was like, “Wow, why didn’t we do this a year and a half ago? This is crazy.”

Let me ask you about your voice. I’m sure getting it to do the things you want it to do takes a lot of work, but part of why it’s impressive is that you make it feel effortless.

It does take effort, I’m not gonna lie. [laughs] I’m still learning to use my voice in different ways, trying to do more with my falsetto, trying to expand what I can do. When I perform live, I’m not really worried about if I can hit a note, necessarily. … My voice is already changing; since Strange Cacti, I’ve had to change the keys of things! My register has become lower. Which is cool, but I’m like “Damn, I gotta keep trying to hit the high notes.” And listening to Tina Turner, or anyone who ages and loses their voice, it’s scary to me. How do I preserve this thing that I want to do forever, and yet still use it as often as possible? You don’t have to sing well — you don’t have to hit that note, as long as you’re confident about the thing you’re saying behind the note. It shows.

It sounds like your new album is finished. Any idea of a release date yet?

No idea, but I am really excited. If it’s not special to anyone else, it’s at least the album of my dreams. I’m OK with saying that. [laughs] I’m happy that I made it with them. We learned so much about each other in the process — I know that sounds kind of corny, but it’s true! You have to cut the shit and tell somebody “Hey, back off on this part” or “Maybe you should really push yourself on this part.” It’s a really cool process to go through with people if they’re really open to it, and nobody comes out hating each other. It can be a cool risk to take.

It’s too soon to say what our relationship is to each other, but I feel like I’m finally part of a band, not just like it’s me calling the shots. Sure, certain songs require a certain amount of intimacy, or me telling them what I hear, but I feel like we’re creating something [together] instead of it being about “Oh, yeah, we’re Angel Olsen’s band.” I hope that later in life, too, I can be part of a band, more so than a personality. There’s something that’s just so much better about making things with people than making them alone.

Did you have to make any changes to your voice, or the way you were presenting yourself, to adjust to the new material?

No, I wrote the new material before I met Stewart or Josh. It’s more along the lines of the last release I did, “Sweet Dreams” [recorded last winter with Kelly and Emily Elhaj], more like requiring a band and more of a musical theme within a song, than it being just about my voice. Not to give it away, but instead of [shifting the focus to the band], I feel that the lyrics are still just as important. I’m still writing intimate songs, within those [different] band-type song structures. … It all came together as I was showing them the songs, it’s like “Oh, I didn’t realize that this is a punk-rock song — I didn’t realize that this had this vibe to it!” But now it totally makes sense, because we’re all here doing it, and it isn’t a forced thing.

I can’t even tell you how happy I am about this. I was on a plane from Dallas and I was like “You know, I could probably go down right now, and be fine.” But then I landed and it was like “I wonder where the next burrito is that I’m gonna have.” …

Eventually, I want to do a lot of different things. I want to get a different guitar, I want to work with pedals, I maybe want to get another person to play lead guitar, but right now, it’s just us three, and I feel like it’s a good vibe, so just trying to make that stronger is my main focus. … It’s fun, man! Not everybody does this.

Outside of your own music, what are you excited about?

I just went to a Scott Tuma show. Every time I see him, I’m just moved to tears. I don’t know why! [laughs] He often changes the group of people he plays with. … [Tuma’s] music is a mix of dreamy ambient noise, with dissonant melodies in it, that you wouldn’t hear on a rock ‘n’ roll record, necessarily. Everything that he performs is so delicate, and there’s so much feeling behind it, even if he’s playing or singing just one note.

I also have a friend in Chicago who calls himself Esoteric Tapioca. He sings these kind of perverse, abrasive songs that are really, really catchy. Really well-written lyrics, really great harmonies. … He’s really catchy and dark at the same time, and I’m such a sucker for that. Like, saying something really cute and beautiful, but when you listen to it, it’s something that’s actually really dark and sad and kind of embarrassing.

Ha! That reminds me of one of my favorite local groups. Do you know Birdcloud?

“I do what I want, dammit!” Yes! I haven’t seen them live, but I enjoy their records. In fact, I really enjoy their artwork, these cheesy, ‘80s Glamour Shots of them staring at each other. When I was working with Will Oldham, the drummer Van Campbell [of Ghostfinger and Black Diamond Heavies fame] showed me their music. … Only recently, my friends here in Chicago have been singing me their songs, and I’m like “What is this band? I have to check them out!” It’s so well-done. Some people might say they’re just screeching, and it’s not melodic in the way an Everley Brothers song would be melodic, but what they’re saying is more comedic than anything. And when you listen to the writing, it’s actually well-written dirty pop music. It’s like “Wow, you actually put effort into this!” The harmonies are super-tight, even it it’s just one note over and over again. I’m psyched about their stuff! It’s more of a mix of theater and music than easy listening.

Even with your music, there’s a dramatic aspect to it, though it’s not presented explicitly as drama.

Yeah, I’m definitely more inspired by people who tend to be on the theatrical side of things. You can’t do a song and not feel it! You can’t just be “Oh, this song doesn’t mean anything to me, and I’m going to sing it in front of a bunch of people.” You have to put a feeling behind it, even if the feeling has passed. … Eventually you start to think about it from other perspectives. You start wondering “What is it that someone else hears when they hear me say this word? I wonder if they think all these things.” And you think, “Wow, this reminds me of this thing that I witnessed, or that I felt before. Is that what this song is about? It could be about that.” And then the song just changes meaning, over and over again, and renews itself. … I’m not just singing for people, I’m singing for myself. Whenever I’m being theatrical, I’m trying to get inside my world, and figure out what that song means to me.

To find out what mindset the song is going to lead you into?

Yeah, exactly. I don’t mean to get all Esoteric Tapioca on you, but that’s kind of how it goes. … I wouldn’t want to write a record that didn’t mean anything to me. I wouldn’t want to perform something that I didn’t feel genuinely about. Maybe a lot of people can do that, but why bother? … So, I don’t know, it’s cool to keep that in mind, to remember that behind all of my decisions, I’m still only myself, with myself, not in a lonely, sad kind of way. It can be thought of in this really experimental, awesome [perspective], where I’m ready to live as much as possible. There’s my little podium speech.

I’m always looking for those people who are living life to the fullest extent. It continues to frustrate me when it seems that someone isn’t. It’s like, “What is it that didn’t happen to you that needs to happen, in order for you to see that you have a choice to sing in a certain way, to put meaning behind what you’re doing in your life? Yeah, it’s not easy, so don’t think it’s easy, but you have that choice.” … I could just keep talking to you all day about it, but instead I’ll just write a book. I should just write a book, and have it flop, and maybe get a dog and a house somewhere, and talk about it with a stranger.

And that could be fuel for another record.

Anything could be fuel for another record! But maybe by then I’ll be building boats instead of making records. And someone’ll say “Why aren’t you making records?” And I’ll say “This means more to me now.” I think it’s important to not be defeated if meaning changes for you. Just find meaning in something else. That’s your responsibility — to keep life interesting, instead of wasting time being negative. If, for example, a record doesn’t work out, you move on, you live your life. But I’m very excited about making records right now. Maybe we’ll talk in a few years, and my outlook will change.

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