Interview with Angel Olsen

In pictures and videos, Angel Olsen looks so delicate she could be snapped in half. But in her singing and phone voice that isn’t the image I conjure of her. Like a lot of folk singers, her voice might sound soft but somehow an element of strength and rawness to Olsen comes through. She reminds me more of something like the elements or like rain, and sometimes you’ve got to be careful around rain.
A backup singer to Bonnie Prince Billy in another life, Olsen released her third studio album last year, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and it easily sidled on to best of lists like Pitchfork’s Best 50 Albums of 2014 (it got no. 15), and Spin, and Stereogum. If it’s not on yours, it should be.

She’s coming to Australia later this month to play at Laneway Festival and a few select sideshows around the country. We had a chat to her about being in a Christian ska punk band as a teen, being “not like your music that you make at all”, and getting out in the wild.

Anna Horan: What have you been up to?

Angel Olsen: I just got back from a tour of the east coast of the US, and I’m practising some other material, older material again. I’ve been doing that today.

You’ve been singing since you were a little girl, and I was curious about what kind of songs you sang and whether they were ones you made up for yourself or they were just favourite songs.

Yeah, when I was a little kid I would write all kinds of weird songs and stuff. I still have – well I guess it was ten years ago – but when I was 16, 17, I recorded a lot on tape and have some of the tape recordings, and they’re really funny to listen to ‘cos they’re all like teenage problems (laughs).

What kind of stuff did you sing about? Can you elaborate?

Yeah, like boys, and flowers. I was really into like, I was obsessed with trying to sound as poetic as possible, and I still think I’m kind of obsessed with that. But I was this pretentious 16-year-old kid, so I don’t know. I think a lot of it was inspired by Fairport Convention, and Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan. Growing up I liked listening to stuff like that.

Trying to sound deeply profound.

Yeah, as a like, as a 16-year-old (laughs).

I’ve noticed you like listening to Frank Ocean, Lauryn Hill, Jodeci, and A$AP Rocky. I find it really curious how a lot of musicians like listening to almost the opposite of the genre they’re known for. What do you think about it?

I feel like I was always into R&B, but I definitely just started developing an ear for it again recently. My band members play it all the time. Everyone [around me] is so much more, like, up on music, than I am – for like modern stuff. So I always just ask them. Emily, my bassist, she knows about the newest kind of music. Everyone in the band is like huge music fans, so you have different genres that they bring to the table, so I think I’m just developing an interest in that stuff again after taking a break from it for a few years.

I was wondering if it had anything to do with how you’ve said before that you’re “not like your music that you make at all”, like as a person.

This is funny to me.  I think I just, whenever I’m writing about something I want to write it in detail and if it’s something like that I want it to be detailed. I don’t want it to be vague. Even if its happy I want it to be detailed. I think I am like my writing in that I enjoy and pay attention to details a lot and I like to control things, which can work for me or against me really, but as far as like personally like when I’m singing the songs on this last album… I’m not necessarily going through something, you know, emotionally because of the song. I guess that’s what I mean when I’m not the same person necessarily.

You’re more like a character, rather than ‘speaking deeply from your heart’.

Yeah, kind of. There are certain things in my writing that are exaggerated.

I saw that you were in a ska punk Christian band growing up. How formative was that for you?

(laughs) Well, it was sort of ska, rock, punk, and I would only say it was Christian because we were all attending private schools at the time. We weren’t singing about God or Jesus or anything. It was kind of like, we met after our private school and so I just refer to that time in my life as, ‘oh, that Christian time’ because it was a really weird point in time where I was a cheerleader, then I quit, and then I joined a band (laughs). So like, the whole time I was going to this tiny private school, and I had friends in other private schools in the area and its funny we would go to all kinds of different churches. Like we would go to a Baptist church, and a Catholic church, and I was like and I don’t even know if any of this works for me. But I met a lot of friends through like those different programs, so when I think about my first band, that’s what I affiliate with it.

So I’m guessing, from what you’re saying, you didn’t lead the church in song or anything like that? 

Oh no, I never lead anyone in song. Not that I recall. Though I have been asked to sing the national anthem at a basketball game and I said no.

Aww, that would have been awesome.

Haha, no.

It is a tall order to sing the national anthem at one of those events.

It would be funny to do it fuck it up, like on purpose, like sing a different song.

You’ve directed High Aura’ds ‘Red Rocks’ films clip.

Yeah, I did like a really kind of sketchy lo-fi film with iMovie (laughs) and I made that film like two years ago, because High Aura’d, I met on my first east coast trip and he’s awesome. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to his music but that aesthetic. They put out like ambient noisy, like, slow metal kind of stuff, and High Aura’d.

I went to see him play and I had to leave the room for a minute because the notes were hitting so intensely that I thought I was going to have a panic attack. I’ve never been so physically… It’s like going to a metal show, like listening to metal on a shitty AM radio and feeling the metal it was like a totally different experience. I wanted to work with him on something, even if it was small, and he told me about this project he was doing.

You know, looking back on it, I probably could have done it a whole lot better. He asked me to do a video, and I’m like, well I’m not really good at this. I did a couple of these and they all looked kind of weird, and he’s like, ‘whatever, sounds like a fun idea.’ He had had it for a really long time, and I didn’t know when it was going to be released, so yeah, but I’m happy that he’s doing well. I think it’s hard for people who make that kind of music to reach the same like big audience, but I really love his stuff. It would be like such a sweet soundtrack, you know. Like, have you seen Only Lovers Left Alive with Tilda Swinton?

I haven’t seen it yet.

I love that movie. It’s like got the best soundtrack ever. It’s so good.

Is that something you’d like to do more of, making videos, or is it just a one off thing?

It’s something I like to do for fun when I have time. I would like to invest in it, and have it be like a little bit better quality. I think it’s important if you can do something with crappy materials that you can make something good. It’s not always about having like high res things.

On social media you’ve posted quite a few pictures of ominous-looking landscapes, like smoking volcanoes, mountains, rivers… is that something you’re into, ominous imagery?

I really like parts of the desert. It’s so open. I don’t know it’s like everything is revealed (laughs). And I also really like North Carolina. I just moved here from Chicago, so I’ve been kind of obsessing over it a little bit. But I think that landscape really does change like the way people think and the way people feel towards the place. I’m totally like 100% sure it happens, ‘cos when I go up to a city like New York or Chicago… any big city I think the energy is being around people… not like the scenery is necessarily. Like being in front of a mountain and not knowing a bunch of people, it’s still intense, but it’s not intense in the same way. I like imagery, it has an impact. Even the smallest images we see throughout the day they can impact on how we feel about stuff.

Via Angel Olsen’ Facebook page.

It also made me think of, I don’t know if you’ve seen it ‘cos it’s an Australian movie but, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and a major part of that film is like this scary, stony landscape that almost looks like its alive, and its about these girls who go missing.I’ll have to watch that. Is that an Australian film?

Yeah, it’s from the ‘70s. It’s like an Australian cult classic. 

Is there one about two kids in the desert, who meet an Aborigine? I just recently watched a‘70s film about two kids like walking through the Australian desert.

Hmm, I’ll have to work out what it must be. [I think she might be talking aboutWalkabout.]

And do you go on a few nature expeditions? Like it seems like there’s been a lot of footage of you like on a river or walking through mountainous areas. Do you take advantage of that now you live there?

I haven’t yet. I have tonnes of footage that I haven’t used, but I would like to do more stuff like that. I’ll do some in Australia.

I read you used to fantasise what it would be like to live in the ‘30s and ‘50s because of your parents. Do you still do that?

Yeah, kind of. I feel like part of my writing comes from those eras. I feel like I try to think about what daily life would have been like. I love period pieces and stuff like that. At times when I write stuff I like think, ‘oh this is exactly like this period of time and this is happening’, and then I get kind of lost in it. I definitely think about it a lot.

What kind of period pieces are you into?

I used to watch Downton Abbey (laughs). I never got really into Mad Men, I was never really into that, I don’t know why. I love Freaks and Geeks, it’s like ‘70s, early ‘80s. The perfect sitcom ever made, ‘cos everyone in that show it’s like their first major role and they’re all so perfect for their roles, like unbelievable.  I haven’t watched a lot of period piece stuff… but I definitely love to study like artists from the ‘30s.

Yeah it’s pretty cool to think of someone in the ‘30s encountering like abstract art for the first time. It would have been pretty crazy compared to now where it’s kind of run of the mill almost.

Yeah, I wonder what a good comparison would be. Maybe its like we have some kind of extra-dimensional kind of art or something (laughs). I don’t know. Super weird to think about.

Originally published 13 January 2015 on

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