A Chat With Angel Olsen

The American singer-songwriter will be gracing Australian shores this summer, bringing her fourth album My Woman. She shared with us her detailed thoughts on sound photographs, the many characters to her voice and the in-depth workings of the record.

You only visited Australia last year so it’s really exciting that you’re coming back so soon. How are you feeling about it?

I’m feeling really good! I had a really wonderful time there. The first time I went to Australia I was touring with Bonnie Prince Billy and it was such an interesting experience because I had at least Strange Cacti and my first EP [out] and I didn’t know that people were listening to it. I remember hanging out after the show and someone said ‘I wanted to hear your music! I heard your music online’. It was a weird time where I didn’t know that people were listening and that was the first time I had a conversation with someone who was a fan in a different place in the world, in Australia. I remember it fondly and I reflect on that time as a time of realisation. Because I realised that I thought maybe I should start playing some of my own shows some time.

Then I went on this festival called Laneway, which you’re probably familiar with. It was like a travelling festival and it felt like band camp or something! I got to know all the other bands really well because we were all flying together and we were getting set up together night after night. We were going to different places, we were enduring the travel together. A lot of the time, people were fooling around and getting drunk, joking around after the show. But also what was happening was people were having really wonderful, insightful conversations about their lives and their values and the kind of people they worked with and how they got to where they are. Hearing that perspective from artists, I thought ‘this is a journalist’s dream! I’m undercover here!’. There’s something really deserving about knowing I’m not the only one going through these weird, alienating… you’re successful but you’re also expected to regurgitate and regurgitate and regurgitate. And finding out that other people have that pressure, I realised there was something lifted from me, like a weight.

Laneway is such an amazing festival. They do such a good job. Did Australian fans and audiences have any particular vibe for you?

I like the culture a lot. People are really witty. I’m on the same page with their dry sense of humour. But people are also mellow, [they’re] mellow and kind. People are also super hyper-intelligent for their age and aware. The audiences just seemed like they wanted to have fun. You’re at a festival so I guess people are out to have fun. It was like everywhere was Big Sur, California or something, free in that way!

This time you’re bringing a new album with you. Are there are tracks you’re excited to be sharing live?

Yeah, I wrote two songs when I was over there. One of them is called ‘Pictures’ and the other is called ‘Those Were The Days’, and on the record, ‘Picture’ goes into ‘Those Were The Days’. I can’t wait to play the songs in the places that inspired the work, inspired me, just because it’s this meta thing. Maybe it wasn’t directly related to the place but whatever was happening in my mind while I was there, the landscape, the feeling, the reflection, of maybe the artists I was talking to… I was writing a lot and it was a fun, inspiring time. To revisit those places and to readdress the songs in that way is going to be really wonderful. I hope it’s going to be wonderful! I can already tell there are going to be things that are challenging about performing live in the next couple of months. But I’m really excited about those challenges too.

I think it’s really cool to have that experience with music, even if you’re seeing someone live and you’re like ‘the last time I listened to this song, I was feeling these things’.

They’re almost like sound photographs!

Exactly. How long did My Woman take to make?

I wrote a few songs in Australia and then I wrote a couple of songs along the way – ‘Intern’ and ‘Never Be Mine’, which was an older song that I forgot that I knew. ‘Give It Up’, [which] I have been performing a lot live and is one of the earlier ones I wrote. But it wasn’t until even last September, when I got home from a long trip and [then] wrote half the record.

I wrote a bunch of stuff and I also wrote the lyrics for ‘Caught’. And that voice recording is what I recorded at home. It peaks at times and it might be a little hard to listen to sonically because it’s bright but that is an exact photography of my voice in that moment, on that day, before I even stepped into the studio. That was a demo recording. On the last record, I started with a solo, raw recording called ‘Unfuck The World’. When I did that I was trying to tell people that yes, I’m making a record that’s produced but I still want to maintain that raw, solo sound that I had. When I recorded ‘Pops’, I kept the demo version of the vocals because I wanted the record to end on that rawness, the same way the last record I did began.

If it had been the record I wanted it to be, it would have been twelve tracks. The problem was I had a lot of tracks that were over 7 minutes and I didn’t want to exhaust the listener. So I have all the upbeat songs on Side A and all the reflective ones on Side B. But even then it was too long. There were other songs that I had written that I couldn’t fit on this record. I really wanted to but they’ll come out later and we’re going to play them live anyway. One of them is called ‘Fly On The Wall’ and the other is ‘Special’. They’re both real dark, John Cale, Velvet Underground inspired, real wirey sounding… One of them goes on for 9 minutes. It’s its own piece, in a way.

Speaking about sound photographs, I love how your voice changes over My Woman. There’s a lot of different tones to it. Is this something that happens naturally when you’re writing?

It’s not the first time that I’ve attempted to use my voice in other ways. I started out as a backup singer. What I learnt very quickly was that yes, I have my own voice that is mine, that is my personality and my style. But sometimes you need to cater to the sound and to the sound of someone else’s voice. The need to blend well is just as important. And the need to hold back serves its own purpose.

With this new landscape of synths and piano and organ and Melltron, I was like, I want to sing the way I know I can sing but I have to first write a song that allows my voice to do those things I know how to do. While I’m doing those things and challenging myself in that way, I have to admit I also have a continuing style. And that’s on ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ and ‘Never Give Up’ and ‘Never Be Mine’. That’s the continuing style that I know about. And even if you deconstruct, say, ‘Not Going To Kill You’, that’s a very wordy song and it’s all about the writing on that one. Trying to make a musical statement. Whereas on ‘Intern’, I wanted to have fun, I wanted to make fun of myself, I wanted to laugh. I wanted to make a song that was on synths but I wanted to make it meaningful. It was a challenge to me at first, to say to myself ‘I can sing to a synthesizer and still write a meaningful song, with good words and something I care about, use a voice that’s mine.’ It might not sound like my voice, but it is. It’s a character of my voice and my voice has to change in order to cater to that sound. It has to open up.

In the same way, ‘Sister’ is going to be a little bit different because it’s not on a synthesiser. It’s guitar driven and it’s vocally driven and it’s lyrically driven. So I can’t sing out as much as on the vocalisation of ‘Intern’ or ‘Woman’. I got to use these voices I knew I had from using these other instruments.

You’ve changed the processes you’ve used, from record to record. Do you find yourself learning new things about making music by doing so? And what did you learn from My Woman?

I think I’m still practicing a lot of stuff but looking back on it, I recorded on tape, everything was live. It’s not just a listening experience. It’s what our sound is live and we’re not holding anything back. You’re making a bold move by doing that but also, well, we’re going to be playing these songs lives anyway. But also what I’m learning about is the technicalities of recording, what it means to record on tape, how drums and voice and loud instruments pick up really well on tape. Tape picks up more information that digital does so sometimes, if you’re not recording it the right way, it doesn’t work out the way you want it to.

I just figured that out in mixing. I realised how important mixing is as the final piece. I’m sure when you do your piece, you’ve gotta give it to an editor and they’re like ‘change this, I like this, take this out’. They’re contributing to the art in their own way by telling you what to take out. They’re an important part of the article because they’re cultivating the message by telling you what to take out or what to focus on. It’s the same way in music. When you’re editing or mixing something, whether it’s a producer you’re working with or yourself, that person puts their own edge on the information you’ve been gathering. There’s an entirely different art in that, that people ignore and that I’m obsessed with now! You have to charm the editor! You’ve gotta be on their side and get your work and style to come through, even with a harsh editor. You know, like an editor with a lot of opinions or a mixer who’s like ‘you’re wrong! You should do this!’ You have to wait for them to listen. I find a lot of value in that part of it now, more than I used to. I really think editing is really fun; making something out of someone else’s mess can be really fun! Not mess, but information that’s laid out. Taking that and forming some sort of structure with it.

Here at Casual Band Blogger we’re very much about supporting young and local artists. As someone who started making music very early on in your life, do you have any advice for people making their own music?

My only advice is no matter how important you think you are or how established you are for your work, always try to remember where you came from and what inspired you in the first place. Very important. And be surprised!

Listen to My Woman and catch Angel Olsen on her upcoming Australian tour. 

Saturday 26th November – Grand Poobah, Hobart
Monday 28th November – Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Thursday 1st December – Lismore City Hall, Lismore
Friday 2nd December – Brightside, Brisbane
Saturday 3rd December – Fairgrounds Festival, Berry
Monday 5th December – Sydney Opera House Studio, Sydney
Wednesday 7th December – Grace Emily Hotel, Adelaide
Thursday 8th December – Badlands, Perth