Singing the Angel’s song with indie Olsen

Bathetic Records/Courtesy

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There are few words to properly describe the power of Chicago-based artist Angel Olsen’s music. Olsen’s ability to manipulate her voice — which at one moment seems almost effortless and at the next unbelievably powerful — is reminiscent of a 1920s radio personality. Her lyrics are painfully honest, and her music is gorgeously simple. She released her debut 12” Strange Cacti in 2010 and her debut album Half Way Home last year through Bathetic Records. Olsen was signed to JagJaguwar Records this week.

We caught up with Angel Olsen last week — snagging her from band practice at her friend’s loft in Chicago. Our conversation covered a range of topics, including recording and writing Half Way Home, a past project under the pseudonym Angela Babbler, performing with her new band, Bill Murray, Leonard Cohen, some questionable photos she received from a fan in the mail and her secret life as a rapper.

Angel Olsen will be performing on April 6 at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop with support from Villages and Kacey Johansing.

Daily Cal: If you could be talking to anybody besides the DC right now, who would it be?

Angel Olsen: Bill Murray. I don’t know what I’d ask him, probably just a really normal question.

DC: You’re a Bill Murray fan? Is there a particular movie that you like?

AO: Yeah, I really like “Stripes” a lot.

DC: You guys have been on a mini-tour. How’s that been going?

AO: Really good, we haven’t been playing together live for very long, but I feel really comfortable merging with them. For the longest time, I was playing solo, and it took me a while to get used to adjusting to other people playing parts of my songs, and now I’m at a point where I’m allowing things to become what they are live instead of trying to control them.

DC: Your songs are really personal. Do you feel differently about them now that you’re playing them every night and with other people?

AO: Parts have changed because different people are playing them, and they don’t want to play the same exact thing that is on the album. I think that I still tend to write quieter songs whether or not the band is here, but now if I want to write something like “The Waiting” or “Sweet Dreams,” then I have a band that I can play it with instead of it being this thing where I record something and then play it differently live. Now it’s cool to have that change with my music.

DC: Do you have a favorite show that you have played? Is there a show that particularly sticks out to you?

AO: We just played this space in Nashville that was fucking awesome. It was a friend of a friend who runs this space, and he only has shows there sometimes. He’s an older guy, and William Tyler played and this guy Richie played with two drummers — it was crazy. It was a really fun night, and it felt like family vibes. He’s from Nashville, so a lot of friends and family were there. It was really fun.

DC: When you walk away from a show, how important is the reaction from the audience that determines whether a show is memorable or not?

AO: There are certain parts of the lyrics that I pay attention, to because when I wrote, it I thought, “Oh, this is funny to me.” It’s cool when somebody in the audience starts laughing — not in a “this sucks” kind of way — but I can tell that they got the inside joke. I get really psyched when people react in that way because it shows that they’re really listening to what I’m saying, and it’s not just this thing that’s being played for them.

DC: Do you ever have fans give you gifts after shows?

AO: Sometimes. I played a show in Chicago at The Hideout, and for some reason, even though I had a great time at the show, I was feeling weird because a friend of mine was going through a rough time with her family, and I had just found out about it. Afterwards, this woman came up to me and gave me this Valentine, and I guess, evidently, she had met her boyfriend in England, and he had introduced her to my music, and they fell in love. She wrote this really long, beautiful Valentine, and you could tell that she put a lot of effort into it, and it was really sweet. I was almost moved to tears, because at that moment, I needed something like that. I know it sounds cheesy, but she gave me a Valentine, and it was awesome to receive something at that moment.

DC: Do you ever get weird gifts from fans? Something you just have to laugh about?

AO: I have my P.O. box somewhere on the Internet, and somebody sent me a bunch of different exposed photos that they did, and I’ve been meaning to return the gift. I just don’t have time — I have this package of all these random photos from this person that I don’t know, and I’m grateful for it, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what the next step is.

DC: Do you have a specific group of people, musician or ideal audience you’d want to play for?

AO: Oh man, I wonder what it would be like to perform for an audience of only classical musicians. I wonder what that would be like.

DC: Did you play any classical music growing up?

AO: No. I played piano for a few years, but I stopped playing just in time for me to forget theory. But I wish that I had kept it up. I’d probably be more flexible on the guitar. There’s something kind of mysterious, though, about not knowing what chords you’re playing or how to mathematically figure something out.

DC: I read that you’re a big Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill fan. Is that true? Do they have any influence on your music?

AO: I mean I grew up on them, you know. It’s one of those things where you can put on one of any of their albums and every girl that I know, including myself, knows all of the lyrics for some reason. Even though you haven’t heard it in 10 years, it’s like, “Shit! I used to sing this entire thing every day in my living room!” But in terms of them influencing my music, I don’t know if I’ve reached that level. It might take a couple of decades to reach that level, but I’ll try.

DC: What about Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?

AO: I grew up on Bob Dylan, and later on, I found out about Leonard Cohen. I actually found about his poetry first, and I really liked his poetry. Then I heard his voice and didn’t like it at all, and then I really started to like him a lot. A year passed, and I was like OK, “Give me some more Leonard Cohen!”

DC: Can you tell me a little bit about who Angela Babbler is and who the Babblers are?

AO: Oh my god. Well, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang contacted me about performing for this part as Angela Babbler, and they sent me these tracks, and it was kind of something I’d never done before. It was really theatrical, and her voice shrieked a lot almost like gothic punk-anthem music. I was really shy. I had never performed with a group of professional musicians — professional as in bands that make a living — and I had to force myself to learn so many songs that I felt like I was entering theater, but I was entering theater and so many realms by skipping so many steps to get there. It was really fun because during this whole project, we were wearing these jumpsuits with sunglasses, and it ultimately brought us all onto the same page musically and made us more comfortable. It was a really fast way to get to know everyone because we were doing this really emotional and theatrical thing together, so I tried my best to embody this punk-anthem creature. It has nothing to do with any of the music that I play now or the music that I was playing before, so I could put myself fully into it without worrying about anything. I could just become that character instead of worrying about presenting myself personally to an audience.

DC: It’s a lot different than Strange Cacti and Half Way Home. Do you feel that there is any relationship between them? Did Angela Babbler help you grow as a musician or set the stage for your recording your solo project? How did you get from working with Bonnie “Prince” Billy to Half Way Home?

AO: Well, I feel like I just spent a lot of time watching the way that things worked out for us all as a group. Singing someone else’s music and singing parts that I wasn’t necessarily totally comfortable singing — but I knew that I had to because it’s part of this music that we were all playing — made me stretch myself and forced me to challenge myself to do these things that I wasn’t comfortable doing, and I think by just exposing myself to that kind of challenge, constantly, by default my voice just changed. The way that I approach writing has probably changed; the way that I sing has changed. But also, I don’t think I’ve totally completely changed — I’ve just learned how to do other things with it because it is so much easier to sing someone else’s songs than your own. It takes this weight off of you. You can just become their song instead of it being this thing where it’s all up to you because you’re presenting it. I think doing that for so long has helped me figure out going about writing the album and composing parts for it.

DC: I was listening to “Miranda,” and towards the end, there’s this point that you almost yodel. It’s unusual to be able to do that. How did you figure out that you are even able to make that sound?

AO: I wouldn’t call it a yodel because it’s not this thing that I’m continuing to do. It happens because for some reason or another my voice ends up skipping a note instead of going to the next one. I have a weird range. There’s this range that I just can’t reach, and it’s in the middle somewhere, so I end up doing that. I’ve thought about it a lot: How does this happen, and why does that occur? I think it has something to do with something missing in the range, and I’m just cheating.

DC: Is there a specific song that you feel the most connected to?

AO: “Some Things Cosmic” is my favorite song that I feel connected to always. There’s another one — I don’t really perform it live — from Half Way Home, and its called “You Are Song.” When I’m playing that one at home, I think a lot about it. It has everything to do with being friends with other musicians and knowing where they’re coming from. I don’t know how else to explain it; you’ll just have to listen to it again.

DC: There are a few unrelated questions that I want to get in before we wrap up. Do you have a favorite sound?

AO: I really like the sound of the ocean.

DC: Is there a sound that you particularly dislike?

AO: I really hate the sound of nails on a chalkboard. That’s a pretty typical problem in the world. Oh, and the sound of ambulances. I hate the sound of them. It’s so unnecessary. It’s like, you could turn it down a little bit; people get the idea. It’s cool when they’re far away. But when you’re on a bike and they ride by, the sound just damages your ears.

DC: Do you think that the Angel Olsen that I’m talking to now is the same as the Angel Olsen behind the microphone? Are your songs a good way to get to know you?

AO: I think there are parts of me in it, but I’m a very social person, and I like to have a good time, and I don’t think that that comes across, necessarily. I think that the people that know me know that there are these other elements to who I am outside of what I’m playing or what I’m writing about. It just so happens that I end up writing about these things. I think that I’m probably different. You couldn’t get to know me from what I sing in my music. You might to get know me a little bit, but not the full picture. You don’t know about my secret life.

DC: Is it an Angela Babbler kind of secret life?

AO: Kind of like that, yeah.

DC: Do you have an underground rap career nobody knows about?

AO: Wow, I mean, it’s a secret, so I can’t tell you. I have an alternate personality, sort of like Chris Gaines and Garth Brooks.

DC: What’s your alias?

AO: You’ll find out eventually if you’re a master.

Contact Samuel Avishay at [email protected].