Chosen One: Angel Olsen
Interview with Angel Olsen.
“My writing comes to me in waves and never with any specific theme, at least not one I can recognize while it happens. Over time the songs begin referring to different things, sometimes I forget where they began, knowing too that my own nostalgia can be unreal, or inaccurate..and buried beneath some romantic idea of what I thought was an epiphany.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
I first came across Angel Olsen by a simple twist of fate. During 2011 Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s latest record ‘Wolfroy Goes To Town’ was released to the world, and one of the creative sparks from those recordings is Olsen’s beguiling voice. Her harmonies and vocals add new layers of dimension to Will Oldham’s awe-inspiring folk songs. On ‘Wolfroy Goes To Town’ a rejuvenated spirit is born that recalls Bob Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’. A beautiful, clean country sound sweeps you off your feet. The gorgeous blend of harmonies between Oldham and Olsen is a pure joy to savour, akin to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris from another space and time. A tower of song from this album is ‘New Whaling’; where the mesmerizing harmonies of Olsen, Oldham and Emmett Kelly breathes aching life and windswept beauty. A little later, Bonnie “Prince” Billy came to perform a show in my hometown, at the Cork Opera House. A feast of divine folk and country music. I felt the tradition of folk music and spirit of rock ‘n’ roll unfold before my very eyes. Olsen, on stage right cast an illuminating spell, as did each and every of those masterful musicians.
The Missouri-born, Chicago-based Angel Olsen is a truly unique and gifted singer-songwiter whose latest album ‘Half Way Home’ represents some of the most affecting and empowering folk songs of our time. The intimate country-folk songs become part of you as the song’s lyrics seep into the slipstream of the human space. As ever, it is Olsen’s voice that lies at the forefront of her unique blend of folk music. Integral to the album’s sound is Emmett Kelly, he of The Cairo Gang and fellow-Oldham collaborator. On ‘Half Way Home’, a deep musical telepathy is forever alive between the pair. During the same time of the release of ‘Halfway Home’, Emmett Kelly released ‘The Corner Man’, yet another indispensable chapter from his compelling songbook. In the words of Olsen: “I’ve never met anyone who can grasp onto a sound or feeling with such effortless ease. We were breathing those songs together”.
‘Acrobat’ serves the perfect prologue to ‘Half Way Home’. Olsen’s extraordinary voice resonates powerfully amidst the intricate layers of instrumentation. The steel guitar notes rise and fall beneath Olsen’s words of longing: “I want to be made out of love/I want to be made into life”. Rarely is such raw emotion expressed through the art of song, like this one. I feel the song shares the kindred spirit of Mary Gauthier. The tempo changes on ‘The Waiting’ with its irresistible funk beat and Spector wall of sound. This is Olsen’s ode to The Beatles and The Beach Boys. A truly transcendent pop song is born with immaculate production echoing Brian Wilson’s ‘Pet Sounds’ and 60’s French chanson of Francoise Hardy. “I want to be the one who knows the best way to love you” has gorgeously timeless shades of Dusty Springfield and like any perfect pop song, a depth of heart lies at its core.
‘Safe In The Womb’ is deeply affecting where Olsen’s lyrics become more than mere words, rather, to serve as a sacred poem to guide the heart through the “dark depth” of life’s pain. The lyric of “That we can be anything/If we know anything at all” closes the song that brings light of hope to the foreground. The feelings and emotion that exudes from ‘Safe In The Womb’ creates a profound effect, reminiscent of the poetry of Sylvia Plath. ‘Lonely Universe’ transports me to ‘On The Beach’ era Neil Young. The intro comprises of a sublime blues guitar line as Olsen sings “Goodbye sweet mother earth/Without you now/I am a lonely universe”. The endless searching is etched on the sonic canvas, as the worlds of Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen are beautifully formed. The closing lyrics are true words of inspiration: “Start living out your oldest childhood dreams”.’Lonely Universe’ is “finding your way home” as Olsen has said about ‘Halfway Home’:
“It’s about many things, things that have happened to me, feelings I’ve had. Situations that have occurred to some I know. I think no matter how stable I am I will always be searching, I guess that’s what this album is about. The endless searching, the fruitless waiting, the idea of home that is inside yourself”.
‘You Are Song’ recalls the timeless spirit of Vashti Bunyan. A song divinely pure and true. Olsen’s beautiful voice seeps into your heart’s core, “With you here it’s been easy to say/That I could never lose sight of what my heart truly is”. The song is a meditative folk lament with a brooding darkness flowing effortlessly beneath: “It is impossible to escape the sound/Of the dark that is following around”. ‘Miranda’ is a country folk gem. The backing harmony on ‘Miranda’ possesses the vivid beauty of Emmylou Harris and the Bonnie “Prince” Billy songbook. The song’s lyrics are sheer poetry –a love poem, so direct and open: “You are a statue/You are like a mountain/Your life with many visions in your eyes”. ‘The Sky Opened Up’ is a cinematic tour de force with slowly building instrumentation of electric guitars. A vast sea of sound is created as a three-dimensional spectrum of shape-shifting rhythm and delicate percussion serves the sonic terrain for Olsen’s otherworldly voice. “There is always somebody to lose” is a lyric that resonates powerfully from the song’s compelling stratosphere of innovative sound.
‘Free’ draws from the Sun Studio recordings from Memphis in the early 50’s, Phil Spector’s wall of sound and The Beach Boys. A glorious bassline runs throughout. The drumbeat and song’s groove is similar to ‘Be My Baby’, a timeless pop gem blossoms before your very eyes. Magnificent beauty in full bloom. Album closer ‘The Tiniest Seed’ brings ‘Half Way Home’ to a fitting close. The spirit of The Band’s hybrid of country, soul and gospel permeates the atmosphere as ‘Halfway Home”s deeply human tones and resonant images are laid to rest. The unique songwriting voice of Angel Olsen offers a deeply immersive journey where each song is a star in the night sky and a dawn for a new day. ‘Half Way Home’ is a work of true art.
“Where is my harmony
Where is my friend
Her voice I hear loud and clear
Only now in my head”
“Half Way Home” is out now on Bathetic Records.
Interview with Angel Olsen.
It’s a real honour for me to ask you some questions about your utterly captivating music.
Thank-you for your curiosity, Mark.
Congratulations on your truly transcendent work, ‘Half Way Home’-it is such deeply affecting music. The country-folk songs are so intimate, that crawls into your skin and becomes part of you…seeping into the slipstream of my heart and mind. You must feel very proud of the record.
Please tell me about the time and place this collection of songs were given their wings, and put to tape?
I wrote part of ‘HALF WAY HOME’ a few years ago (never really feeling comfortable enough to record them until now) and another part during my recent travels within the last year or so. I think many songs on this record have different themes, I didn’t exactly plan one for the entire record.
‘Acrobat’ is a wonderful opener to ‘Half Way Home’. As you sing “I want to be made out of love/I want to be made into life”, it resonates very powerfully for me. I think these very words become the essence of ‘Half Way Home’ in its sense of searching and longing. The song is the prologue to the soul journey.
Tell me please about ‘Acrobat’ and the significance of this song on the album as a whole? The acrobat itself is a beautiful symbol and metaphor for life’s wandering, I feel.
This song has gone through many changes- at first it was performed with accordion and sang very loudly. It has since wandered from that and I have also wandered from accordion..however, the words weighed heavier somehow than they had before and in some moment I decided to make this transitioned song a kind of door to the rest of the album.
‘The Waiting’ has an irresistible soul groove and the song shares the timeless feel of a French chanson from the 60’s. It could be Edith Piaf, Francoise Hardy and Phil Spector rolled into one. Discuss for me please the production on ‘Halfway Home’? It is immaculate.
Emmett Kelly of The Cairo Gang produced the album, giving it that vibe you speak of- we are fans of Phil and Francoise as well as you know.. The Beatles, The Beach Boys. We were kind of nodding to them with a few songs.
The wonderful Emmett Kelly of The Cairo Gang plays an integral role to the album’s sound and depth. I would love to gain an insight into working with Emmett on fleshing out a song, and the source of inspiration of being a member of the Cairo Gang?
I’ve learned quite a bit from watching and listening and being involved in projects with him. He’s immensely talented. Can pretty much play anything, any instrument any song within minutes. I’ve never met anyone who can grasp onto a sound or a feeling with such effortless ease. We were breathing those songs together. Have you had a chance to check out his music?
He released a record just around the same time as HWH entitled ‘The Corner Man’…
I spent some time with him in the hills of California listening to early drafts he was working on…in my mind that album will always be locked into that travel.
I have seen you live as part of Bonnie “prince” Billy’s live tour of ‘Wolfroy Goes To Town’, when you played the Cork Opera House. I love the fresh country sound from this Will Oldham record-and your voice serves a vital pulse to the music. Please take me back to this record and the experience of performing with Will Oldham?
I learned a lot from him and from the band, I wish I had been more vocal with my ideas, I hope to be in the future. I went through many extreme changes during the beginnings of working with them, and I am forever thankful.
Performing the record was totally different than sitting in a hot closet singing to a million settings and microphones. I loved how improvisational we could be on stage. I don’t enjoy when music is calculated and easy, that’s not how life is, songs shouldn’t be either.
‘Lonely Universe’ is a tower of a song. I am transported to ‘On The Beach’ era Neil Young. The music floats by amidst your breathtaking vocals. A blues song-sharing the spark of Karen Dalton. The opening guitar is reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac. Your vocal delivery of the line: “Goodbye sweet mother earth/Without you now/I am a lonely universe” is deeply moving and affecting. Talk me through this song–it’s the album’s centerpiece.
Well, it’s irrelevant but I disagree with much of that. I guess as an artist it’s only natural and expected that I am seeing something different than what may be projected here.
This song is about multiple ideas, situations..and it’s not necessarily about my mothers.
It’s been to me..a song about letting go of roots and becoming a person, allowing myself to exist, to realize how existing is okay even while having nothing, and that somehow having nothing can possibly allow someone or myself to see something clearly.
Have you seen Vagabond?
When in life did you realize music’s importance? At what point did you find your voice-so to speak- and write/compose songs?
I’ve always been into music, it’s alway been in my head. I think I began articulating things around me much more when I was 17 or 18 and then really noticed a change in my writing during my transition from St.Louis to Chicago.
You are based in Chicago. Please discuss the musical environment of this city?
Everyone is making art and sharing it, allowing others to partake in it, if I ever move, I know it’s this that I’d miss most.. It’s my home.
What are the defining records for you, as a musician and singer-songwriter?
The answer to this changes quite a bit, and I assume it will keep on changing..
songs of Love and Hate is one of my favorite albums, and currently I’ve been revisiting ‘Desire’ and ‘Then Play On’.
‘The Sky Opened Up’ is a gorgeous song-title. I think this song could easily be on ‘Parallelograms’ by Linda Perhacs-the song has this three-dimensional texture. The instrumentation is sublime. Your voice is mesmerizing. The mood is perfectly captured. I feel the musical telepathy is most evident on this cut–did this song just happen spontaneously, as it sounds?
This song happened weeks before recording the album.In my mind it marks a new chapter in my writing.. its possible that newer material may sprout from this change.
The lyrics to all your songs are words of poetry-words that guide me along the path of life. I can make a comparison to your songs and the poetry of Sylvia Plath; both have made a profound affect on me. I would love to gain an insight into the creative process in you writing?
I don’t often think of my songs as poetry, but a poet recently told me that maybe I should..
I enjoy when one line means many things, I also enjoy being very uncomfortably straight forward. My writing comes to me in waves and never with any specific theme, at least not one I can recognize while it happens. Over time the songs begin referring to different things, sometimes I forget where they began, knowing too that my own nostalgia can be unreal, or inaccurate..and buried beneath some romantic idea of what I thought was an epiphany.
Even if that’s the case- that these songs or some songs are entirely made up over some unreal idea, I still feel somehow that they can make themselves relevant to those who actually experience them.
“Half Way Home” is out now on Bathetic Records.
Angel Olsen performs at the Half Moon Theatre, Cork on Friday 3 May. Tickets €10, doors 8.30pm.
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