Uncharted is our weekly showcase of rising artists. This week, Jon Pappo profiles folk songstress Angel Olsen.
NCHARTED exists because of artists like Angel Olsen. Her debut EP Strange Cacti, recorded quickly in her kitchen, is brimming with powerful and vulnerable ferocity. It’s a record that has turned a lot of heads, coupled with the fact that the songstress was in the touring band of the wonderfully weird Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It is clear there is a burgeoning talent, grounded in classic folk and country principles, but made her own with her rich voice and deft lyrics. Olsen’s full-length record Half Way Home comes out September 4 via Bathetic and in anticipation of this, I spoke to the songwriter via email, touching upon just about everything. Written when she was relatively “bored,” Angel Olsen discursively divulged in this lengthy interview, ruminating on her past, present and future, with grace, humility and humor.
What were some of the records you grew up with? Do you have any particular memories tied to them? And who introduced you to playing music?
When I was really young I was naturally drawn to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, but I especially became obsessed with that time period before, when people were just family bands… My mother was always a huge fan of the Righteous Brothers and the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly… I remember getting into those guys when I was 13 and feeling like such a grandma because of it. (I guess I still am kind of a grandma, and I’m okay with that.)
I wish I could say I was totally ecstatic about one particular band but I was just into all music from that period and still am and I mean, I’m fully aware that I can be musically nostalgic for that stuff and I don’t feel ashamed for it. It makes sense to me.
My uncle and my biological mother were both a huge part of why I play music. They gave me a keyboard as a last parting gift before my adoption. You can imagine why I became attached to it. For years I played piano and wrote many piano songs. It wasn’t til later that I became interested in guitar, it was easier to write to.
I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. Sometimes though, I wonder what it would be like to be a nurse or if I will one day do something that feels tangible and real and selfless, (or if that’s even possible because the want would be too great, and therefore would be vain.)
There is too much self in music sometimes, it creeps me out. I try not to think about it and I guess that’s why it’s fun to sing other peoples songs when I can.
Where did you grow up? Do you have any memories/moments of being a child or teenager that you feel pushed you to who you are today?
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri… in a big family. My mother and father were both divorced with kids when they met, then they married and had two together… got bored I guess and adopted my brother from one family, and later on me.
I always felt kind of a disconnect from kids I went to school with, and no one in my family made music or really cared much for the arts. I mean they cared…just not enough to teach me anything about it.
So I guess it was out of the need to identify with something that I started writing. I wrote a lot of really amusing songs about birds and trees and stuff. Then I’d rerecord harmonies. They were really bad. I had so many tapes of myself singing and writing stupid little songs. Even if they were probably kind of silly I think it helped me figure out how to eventually apply some kind of meaning to the melodies in my head.
There’s a sense of longing and solitude in your music, thinking of a lyric like “I know I’m only entertaining myself.” Would you describe yourself as a lonely person? Does songwriting work as a sense of emotional purging for you?
I try not to allow my personal experiences dominate my songwriting unless I feel for some reason it’s a point that’s worth making. It’s a difficult thing to avoid, because directly or indirectly I am inspired by people and events in my life( and I never wish to exploit them or myself or us). There are things I learn and want to share, thoughts I’ve gathered that I dare say are and can be helpful to sing out.
The line is “if only a song could carry us on…but I know I’m only entertaining myself” and there are just some situations like that… you can say something to someone and hope that they will remember it and think of it as a good memory, but sometimes it’s just not that way. Maybe they don’t even care or realize how heavy that something was to you. Maybe it never occurred to them. In a way you only entertain yourself with that idea SO RECOGNIZE.
I would say I am lonely in that I often think that we are all alone on our own “trip” and it’s very possible you may not know anyone but yourself, not truly. But you know I try to think of it in a positive light— if you know yourself and can be alone and you are psyched about how crazy it is to be alive, then loneliness isn’t so terrible, I mean… what’s up with that heaven in wildflowers, y’all? That’s where it’s AT.
Many of my songs portray me as this super sad person, but in fact these thoughts aren’t on repeat for me. I went through something, witnessed something, imagined something described it and it may or may not be helpful or even exciting to many people, but I hope it means something to someone. That would be cool.
Did you learn anything from touring with Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy? Is it one of the reasons you switched from a lone acoustic guitar to a fuller band on your upcoming record?
Well yes, of course (to learning), but even though I was performing solo then I was playing electric quite a bit and now I even prefer it. Before working with Bonnie P and crew it was totally challenging for me to communicate my ideas to people musically. I had tried to organize a group but always felt overwhelmed or frustrated and never could figure it out… why did I feel so crowded? Why couldn’t I allow people to bring something new to my music?
I was too used to being alone, to owning the material or sound in only one way and that’s not always fun. After being involved in the group I learned how to better communicate with others about music.
I work with Emmett Kelly a lot so when we put the record together it was easy to just tell him the truth about what I wanted without fearing I’d insult him.We could dish it out, we could be honest we could make something that wasn’t forced or alien to us.
What was the first song (or one of the first) written for Half Way Home and how did it inform the rest of the record? Was there a transformation from Strange Cacti, besides playing with a band and working in a studio?
Safe in the Womb, and Always Half Strange. Those are the oldest songs on the record. However the record wasn’t a planned concept.
This was a record made up (partially) of material that hadn’t been released, but had been recorded and rerecorded with and without people for the past few years in addition to newer material I thought made sense to sort of mirror these already written songs.
My goal after Strange Cacti was to attempt to unveil myself from the saving grace of reverb and to create something entirely different as far as a recording situation. To allow things to be stripped down, not overproduced… yet to give people an idea of what a band may sound like behind my songs.
Many people are so easily charmed by lo-fi recordings, they seem so pure, people want to feel the unpolished version of something because well, maybe it makes them feel like they were there in the living room with them when they wrote the song. I know this feeling. I understand… I even catch myself enjoying “found” unfinished songs of artists and really getting into the material, for the closeness or the raw human situation locked in time thing.
But I wanted to step out of that, if in fact that’s what I was conveying. I needed to challenge myself. I wasn’t trying to hide my songs behind something, I wasn’t trying to do anything and in fact never expected it to go anywhere or onto vinyl. SO THERE. Ha.
In the beginning Strange Cacti was a tape for a small record label. I felt uncomfortable in studios with people so I made a low fi recording, it was easy, but I’m not sure I want all my work to be like that.
I hear so many great bands, and can never understand what the hell they’re saying if they even want to say anything. (Some of them don’t, and that’s chill, its chill dudes.) But I often think to myself- “What is this mumblecore poetry everyone is singing over that amazing synth music?”
I will try to be moved if this is all that’s left.
What makes you happy these days? What really upsets you?
Traveling makes me happy, even if it’s just riding my bike in the sun somewhere. Creating things with people I care about… That makes me really happy. I could write you a list. hah. but I won’t because it’ll probably be so simple and ridiculous and boring yet the last thing you’d think of.
Man, I don’t know if I should tell anyone about what really upsets me, BUMMER.. plus I already sort of hinted at some things… and I’m not even sure it’s productive so I hope I’ll forgive myself later for even hinting.
What are your plans for this year? Do you have any particular goals as an artist?
I mean. GOALS. I have a lot of goals. My goal is to perform more live shows for my music. That would be real neat if I could do that. That would be superb. USA WHERE YOU AT? I mean but seriously… on top of all things music related or performance related, I hope I can keep a sense of humor and to remember I’m a person outside of all this stuff, because I am.