As someone who is as influenced by Chaplin’s The Vagabond as they are poetry, and Francoise Hardy, Angel Olsen crafts each of her work with an intensity that is mesmerising.
A self-taught musician, her unusual voice that recalls the ghosts of musicians like Roy Orbison, remains a mystery to her, and consequently remains a mystery to us. Drenched in emotion, her voice flits and soars, accompanied by guitar, a beacon of beauteous otherness. Growing up, she listened to what her parents were listening to – artists like The Everly Brothers, but later was drawn to musicians like Lauryn Hill because of her vocal stylings and range.
Olsen’s own range is borne from an acute grasp of harmonic structure, a radiant individuality, and time spent singing in various coffee shops, punching the limits of her voice. This was challenged further when she met Will Oldham, and her contribution to his last record Wolfroy Goes to Town helped to elevate that work skyward, and perhaps helped Olsen to expand her own musical vision. Although that journey possibly began a few years ago, when Oldham asked her to join his unsettling “charged up punk” project “The Babblers” which at different turns required Olsen to shriek and scream down a microphone.
Her EP Strange Cacti (2011) and record Half Way Home (2012) contain moving, deep-wrought songs, full of often devastating language; devastating because the words resonate true, and because her voice shifts with each subtle break of emotion, the “tiniest seed” that “is both simple and wild”. Think of something like “Creator, Destroyer” and the lyrics: “And I never seem to notice/ It’s too late before I know that all the love inside has been empty/ The world we made has been ending/ And like a ghost that hangs around and won’t forgive its earthly sins/ I’ve carried on this love for you/ It’s how my body lives”. Perhaps it is Olsen’s poetic acknowledgment of the inherent sadness of life – “if only this song could carry us on, but I know I’m only entertaining myself” – that makes her so special, that understanding that what creates us, can also destroy – a “lonely universe”, Siobhán Kane talks to her.
I believe that Francoise Hardy is a real influence on you, how did you come upon her work?
I think a friend of mine made me a mix a while ago, and then I found a ton of footage of her and even tried learning the songs she sings. It’s difficult – and fun – to sing in other languages. For a while I spent a lot of time trying to learn the song “Bambino”, and somewhere around here there’s a copy of some other Italian songs. I’m terrible at it, but it’s fun to hear songs in other languages. There are new noises to make, and new feelings to express.
Half Way Home was an even deeper rendering of the atmosphere you created with Strange Cacti – did the response to Strange Cacti spur you on, and did your process differ?
I gave myself more time to think about the process when it came to recording Half Way Home. After Strange Cacti was released I had already made plans to do other things, to focus on other parts of my life. I feel like it was carelessly thrown together, and though-even that has its appeal to some people, I feel like some of those early songs could have been given a different kind of attention.
You worked with Emmett Kelly [of the Cairo Gang, Bonnie Prince Billy] who did a lot of the production for the album, he is such a tremendous, intuitive musician.
He is endlessly talented. I am forever grateful for the heart he put behind my songs. He released an album called The Corner Man just after Half Way Home was released, if you enjoy his efforts you should really check into his own music.
We saw you here with Will Oldham in Dublin last January. In an interview around that time he mentioned that he was completely humbled by your lyricless vocal on “Time to be Clear” from Wolfroy Goes to Town. He said you were all in one room, and it stopped him in his tracks, that he could feel the “spirit”, is that how it felt to you?
Well, I think by the time we recorded that song I had opened myself up in a lot of ways. Maybe that’s what he meant. I met Will through Emmett [Kelly], who asked if I’d be interested in joining for a cover band called “The Babblers” – featuring the album Babble by Kevin Koyne and Dagmar Krause. We continued to sing together after that project/tour ended. Will is extremely sharp and resourceful, and so naturally there was much for me to take in by working with him, and by just being around him.
One of your earliest concerts was in Chicago, with Marissa Nadler, who I admire very much. Is it true that you are working on some projects together?
Yes, I did perform with her at Ronny’s in Chicago, but we didn’t know each other very well until recently. We have recorded some lo-fi jams together. I’m not sure what we’ll do in the future.
Is music the most cathartic force for you? You write beautiful, deeply emotional songs – often deeply melancholy, and I wonder if perhaps it is your way of somehow saying “I have triumphed over this particular situation, and that it is a way of strengthening yourself?
In a way, when I write about anything I feel like I’ve triumphed over it-but feeling that way is really kind of misleading. Writing about something real doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got it all figured out, addressing something doesn’t mean you’ve conquered anything at all. It just means you’ve got yourself a little feeling with a melody to it. I sometimes get lost in it myself, for many songs…I couldn’t tell you who or what it exactly is about. I always feel like I’m pulling from a number of dreams or experiences. I’m not sure if it strengthens me, or makes me feel like I know more about anything, but I enjoy doing it.
The videos for your songs “Tiniest Seed” and “Sweet Dreams” are so evocative, how did you come to find the people you worked with on those videos?
They’re my friends! Randy [Sterling-Hunter] and Zia [Anger] approached me about making something before they both left Chicago. “Tiniest Seed” was talked over, and it was a continuation – at first – of a theme from the first film we did for “Tiniest Lights”. Where, instead of viewing this fluttering image-you see multiple moving images side by side. And “Sweet Dreams” was sort of improvisational.
You began on your own, and now work with a band – how has that transition been? It must feel quite exciting to hear your compositions so richly drawn out with all these other players and instruments.
I feel very blessed that I can make music with my friends. I am finally learning how to work within a group -and to allow my songs to change and morph. It’s very strange and new and exciting and I am so happy. I can’t even tell you how happy I am.
Chicago is your home now, you moved there some years ago from St. Louis, Missouri, what drew you there? Do you feel that you have made a home for yourself there? It’s a strange thing, isn’t it, where you actively decide to make somewhere “home”? People often just stay where they grew up, but it is so satisfying to actively search out answers, and landscapes.
I’ve always been someone who’s wanted to travel and explore and all of that. I really wouldn’t know much about the St.Louis music scene-I left before I could perform at most clubs or get too deeply involved in any circles. Chicago definitely has taken care of me, and shown me a world of trouble and happiness. I don’t know if I’ll live here forever-but performing here has been really wonderful..there’s always something happening. Even in the dead of winter.
Bathetic is a great label, and I sense that they are very nurturing, didn’t you recently do a label tour?
Well, I just finished a west coast tour along with Villages who is also a Bathetic artist. We had a blast! I also met many other Bathetic Artists during my November tour along the U.S. east coast. I am so grateful to the Bathetic family for allowing me to be a part of what they do.
What are you listening to, and reading?
I’ve been listening to Kris Kristofferson’s Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends, and I have just started reading Land at the End of the World by Antonio Lobos Antunes, and recently started checking out Larry Fagin’s poetry.
In fact, this last tour has been circling around poets. There’s a modern typewriter poet you should check out named Zach Houston, I met him at a punk rock house in Oakland. Maybe you’re into that sort of thing…
- More Info: Angel Olsen w/ Lisa O’Neill & Bill Blood, Whelans. Thurs 2nd May 2013
- BUY Tickets for the Dublin show here : www.skinnywolves.com/tickets/
- Facebook Event : https://www.facebook.com/events/137698426392389/
Over the years, Siobhán Kane has written for various publications on music and culture including The Irish Times, Thumped, The Event Guide and Consequence of Sound. She occasionally contributes to radio, including the arts and culture show Arena on RTE1, and amidst trying to write her doctorate and teaching, runs the collective Young Hearts Run Free, putting on music, literature and arts events in unusual spaces, raising money for the Simon Community in the process.
Website URL: http://www.myspace.com/youngheartsrunfreeevents