When I first heard Angel Olsen’s music in 2011, I was writing what would be the first songs for a band I had been dreaming about, which would turn out to be La Luz. Olsen’s first EP, Strange Cacti (2011), wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before—it was lo-fi and understated, but full of giant mystery.
The lyrics were dreamily devotional, and the songs felt to me as though they could have been written in any era imaginable. In the time since the release of that first EP, Olsen has released two full-length records, Half Way Home (2012) and Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014), and toured extensively, including a short stint as Bonnie Prince Billy’s backup singer.
In 2015, La Luz traveled to Europe for the first time and had the good fortune of sharing a couple of bills with Olsen and her band. She seemed a born performer, able to hold a huge dark room of strangers completely under her quiet spell. Of course, behind the mystery of her music and performance there is a woman traveling around with her guitar and her musical comrades, just trying to figure shit out. I caught up with Olsen as she prepared for the release of her new album, My Woman, released September 2nd on Jagjaguwar.
She Shreds: How have you been?
Angel Olsen: I am a little crazy right now. I just got back from making a third video in the desert. I kind of missed June and July—they just went on by without saying anything to me.
I’m sure you’re getting ready to go on the road for a while—do you like touring?
I do like it. There are things that I’ve learned that I don’t like about tour. I’m an introvert actually. I’m talking like an extrovert and I perform like an extrovert, but I don’t get energy from being around people. After the show or before I might be the one in the corner who looks uninterested, but it’s really just that I need to save my energy for playing.
Do you go out to the merch table and talk to people?
It depends—if I’m having a bad night, I’m not gonna go out there, you know? I try to fight it, I try to hang with people. But I’ve got some weird fans, dude. The thing about meeting your fans is it’s really wonderful, they deserve to have that experience with you. But when someone compliments you, and they keep complimenting you, they’re not trying to leave it at that. They’re hoping that the you in your songs comes out someway in conversation, and then they leave being like, “What a great gift that she gave me when she said this thing.”
They’re hoping you’re going to impart some words of wisdom.
Yeah. You know, Dolly [Parton]’s doing her first tour in a long time this year and this woman was telling me that she went to work on a Dolly event and the entire hotel was just people that worked for Dolly that day. I was like, “Wow, she must really have some creepers.” She’s not trying to say, “I’m important”—girl’s just trying to talk to her family or like do her nails privately. I don’t know! Maybe she doesn’t have her wig on yet.
I want to ask you about My Woman. The way the tracks are ordered reminds me of the times I’ve seen you play live, how you started off with the full band and ended solo. Is there something about ordering your songs in that way that appeals to you?
Well, I wasn’t really thinking about it too much when this record was being recorded because I didn’t really know if there was a theme or a concept in mind. But I’ll say it was intentional to end on “Pops” because it was the most raw of the recordings to me. I might not be a folk musician forever, or identify as one even though I have this catalogue, but there is something that I really like about someone who just pulls everything off the tracks and just does it with just one instrument, you know? And I want to keep doing that even though I really love playing with my band. When you remove everyone from the stage, I can sing out more. I really appreciate that aspect of hearing music and playing it. So it’s hard for me to completely let go of the solo part of my career. Sometimes doing backflips with your voice or with your instrument doesn’t drive the point home as much as pausing and holding back and allowing the listener to fill the space with their own thoughts.
Yeah, that’s something I’ve noticed your band does really well. The dynamics feel really natural and effective.
Well, we’ve had to work on it. Sometimes I’ll change shit on stage because we’re so comfortable. It requires energy to not get lost in the songs, to be listening to each other.
When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing guitar when I was 16 or 17. I had a teacher who gave me this shitty Airline guitar and it sounded really ratty, it’s like a short-fretted little acoustic—he probably bought it at Sears or something. And he tried to teach me for like three weeks and I just wasn’t listening to him because I just didn’t care about learning theory, so I taught myself, and I’ve been kind of limited because of that but that’s why I’m a rhythm guitarist [laughs]. I mean, I also use it more as an instrument to sing to, I’m not trying to shred a lot. You know, I did write some licks for “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Give it Up” which is fun to say because I never do anything like that. But yeah, in the live performance I was just like, “You guys play those, I’m just gonna go on singing”.
Do you use guitar pedals live?
I’ve been using a little multi-tone fuzz, and I’ll do that with a little reverb. It’s pretty simple. Sometimes I like the reverb on my pedal more than my amp because it’s just more consistent. Stewart [Bronaugh, lead guitarist] uses a lot of compressed fuzz and overdrive with very minimal reverb on many of the loud songs, and I really like that tone because it’s very in-your-face attack—no water on top, no space for fucking up. It’s just there. If you’ve ever listened to Robert Fripp’s guitar . . . I could nerd out about King Crimson and Brian Eno. That album Here Come the Warm Jets, that guitar sound is my favorite guitar sound I’ve ever heard in my whole life.
It’s interesting to me that sometimes it has nothing to do with the great gear that you have. I don’t like when people are like, “You gotta use this amp to get this sound,” because it’s not really up to one piece of material. It’s the guitar you’re playing, the strings that you have on the guitar, the amp . . . there are all these elements that make up the sound. And as much as you’d like the gear to be consistent, it’s not. You’re constantly adjusting to keep your sound consistent. It’s a game, you know?
Photo by amdo photo
I wanted to ask about Strange Cacti—it’s still one of my favorite records. I love how it sounds so huge and intimate at the same time. Can you tell me a little about how you recorded it?
Well, I used GarageBand [laughs] and I had just moved into this sketchy apartment in Humboldt Park [Chicago]. It was a weird spot—every time I left my house I was hollered at. I went to the laundromat down the street and dudes had like tattoos of tears on their faces. The dudes that lived next door were obviously selling drugs—let me just set that up for you. I had all my shit in boxes and my computer set up and no one was there. I used different parts of the apartment to record in. One of my favorite records is Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen—it’s just him with a little bit of slap and a double voice and double guitar and that’s it, and it’s so good.
I love those kind of recordings. So did you just record into the computer mic, no other mics?
Yeah, there were no mics. I knew enough about GarageBand that I would go into the settings and change the reverb manually and I would change the echo manually, you know, I would fuck with the EQ. Try and make sure it didn’t go too far into the red but just enough that it made it interesting. I haven’t listened to that in a long time. My voice was younger and I was doing more flowery stuff with it, and I liked that about that period of my writing. I still want to embrace it but when I listen to old stuff I’m always seeing my 17-year-old self, the self that was very impressionable and very much into imitation before getting to a point where I was allowing myself to be myself.
What singers do you still imitate?
You know, I love Dolly Parton, but I’m not trying to imitate her. I do like listening to soul music—Candi Staton is a huge influence, just the way that she shouts when she sings. She’s not just talking and singing, sometimes she’s shouting and singing. That thing when your voice cracks because you just had to sing that hard to get that note out, you know. I feel like a lot of people don’t realize why they like Adele, but I think Adele has a voice that’s like two voices in one. She’s got the husky voice and the melodic voice and they hit at once. That’s not something that’s easily achieved.
There are certain things that I’m limited by but I try to work around them. Recording is such a useful tool because you’re hearing your struggle, you’re hearing your limitation through that process, and first it bums you out but then you’re like, “What if I do it like this?” I love the process of recording, it’s less about trying to prove that I’m a producer and more self-exploratory. It’s like a mirror in a way. Sometimes when you’re recording it sounds different than when you sing without the recording and when you listen back you notice and catch those subtleties, and you can perfect them or grow with them or just accept them and let that be the character that you appreciate.
I like that idea of recording as a mirror. La Luz has been working on songs for our next album and I’ve been using Voice Memos on my phone constantly.
Yeah dude, especially if you’re around people constantly. If you take that 10 minute walk after soundcheck, sing a melody, record it, then write down whatever words come to mind—and then you go do the show. That’s your time that you have, and that’s often so useful. It’s also like, the demo world at home, before having this career, was so different than trying to navigate it on the road and trying to focus on the same material over and over again and still allowing space to write even one line or one melody. There are so many songs on this record that started as little scrambled pieces of me in Idaho somewhere. That’s the part of the process that I think is so raw and wonderful, knowing that about yourself, knowing that it started there. Being like, this is actually kind of sick, this song was written in this weird, fucked up town and the band was yelling at each other at the time. Knowing the process is your secret thing that you have.