Angel Olsen, 25, is a singer-songwriter who has collaborated with Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and Emmett Kelly (Cairo Gang). Earlier this year Bathetic Records released her sophomore album, Half Way Home, to glowing reviews. —Leor Galil
The kind of music I write could be uncomfortable to listen to, in an interesting way. It’s almost like reading a passage and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s intense. I need to take a break from it.” Maybe it’s audacious to say that my music does that to people, but I often feel like I need to take a break from it myself. I think that’s why I enjoyed playing with Will [Oldham] so much, because it was a chance to sing somebody else’s music, to hear how somebody else approaches songs, to actually listen to something.
Before working with Will I had known of his music and heard his most popular songs, but I had never been a megafan and I think that that helped me ease into it pretty well. Then as I got to know him and everybody else in the group I started to realize, onstage in the middle of singing a song, “Whoa, this song makes total sense to me right now.” It’s crazy that I’m appreciating the music in this entirely new way that I might not have ever experienced.
What do I aim to be? Fuck. I don’t really aim to be anything. I want to write things that I feel honest about. I’ve always felt that the more raw something is, even if it’s uncomfortable, the more it’s forcing you to think about something. I guess that’s my aim.
A lot of [my most recent] album was written a long time ago, and I was just holding onto the songs ’cause I knew they needed to be recorded differently; they needed special attention. I wasn’t prepared to work with people yet. I was trying to get a band together. I had no idea how to communicate how I wanted drums on a song. It was just this totally alien process. But in the end, a lot of the songs, even the newer songs, all relate to finding a place to be that is a home, even if it’s within yourself, and that’s why I decided to name it Half Way Home. Also it’s a line in one of the songs, and it was this reccurring idea that I didn’t even realize that I was writing about. I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve really been thinking about this for a lot of years.”
I started playing music when I was really small. I was adopted at an early age, like three. My biological uncle gave me a keyboard as the adoption process was happening. And my mother, my adoptive mother, had a piano and I would play piano a lot and write songs. By the time I was 12 I was making mixtapes of myself singing Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. I would record the song on the radio and then put my own vocals underneath it and it was this little kid voice and I just kept thinking, “I can’t wait until I’m a woman, so I can have a real voice.” I still think that sometimes.
I started playing, I think, because I needed something to relate to. I didn’t really know the family I was with. My brother was also adopted, from a different family, so we weren’t alone in that process. But it’s still a weird feeling; you look around at these adults, and you’re like, “I don’t look like any of them. They’re not interested in the same things that I’m interested in.” And I just kind of had to find something that I could hold onto.
I’m not in touch with my biological father—I’ve never met him. The family that raised me is my family. I don’t really have much need to talk to my biological parents. I met my mother, and realized that she was also really into music but she was also really into a lot of things that I don’t really enjoy. It was almost more like meeting a lost sister than meeting my mom because she was kind of youthful and surprisingly superfun to hang out with. I was like, “Damn, you’re like a sister. But you obviously gave birth to me. This is weird.” We kept in touch over the years, not so much in the last couple of years. Occasionally she’ll come out to Chicago shows. She lives a few hours out, in the suburbs somewhere. She teaches and she has two sons. One of them is my real brother and the other brother is from a different marriage. I met all of them. I met her husband. They all seemed very family-oriented and awesome, like intelligent people. I just wanted to be like, “Hey that was cool what you did, I live a really awesome life, thanks a lot. Don’t feel so bad about that because actually my life is pretty cool.”
A lot of people think that “Lonely Universe” is about my biological mother, but it’s not.
I’m from Saint Louis. A lot of people wonder what influences me there, and not a lot did. I met the kids from Pillars & Tongues. They were at the time called Static Films and they had played house shows in Saint Louis and were very inspiring as far as telling me, “Dude, you got to go to Chicago—we can set up way more DIY shows even though you’re underage.” And then I moved to Chicago and it was the middle of winter and I didn’t get connected to people right away and felt really discouraged. Eventually, I got to know Sabrina [Rush] and Kerry Couch from [defunct DIY space] the Ottoman Empire—Kerry who now owns Cafe Mustache—and they were running this place called the Sac House out of their previous house. It was right above Miko’s [Italian] Ice, so they’d have summer shows over Miko’s Ice, on the roof. It was just a blast. We would have two or three shows a month just at random houses and after a while people started to know about my music. I got a show at Ronny’s when I was 20; it was my first big gig and I was opening for Marissa Nadler, so that was awesome ’cause I was always a huge fan of her music.
With Strange Cacti, I was really attached to the songs and I had to emotionally prepare for giving them up, allowing other people to add different beats or just to breathe something else into them. I had tried to record those tracks with subtle arrangements with other groups of people like three times, and each time I just felt too crowded. So I made this kind of half-assed recording in my kitchen and it ended up doing well, despite the fact it was drenched in reverb. I guess at the time it was superhip to have tons of reverb on everything, but I was really embarrassed when it came out. I was psyched that people liked it but I almost cringe thinking about it.
When I first met Emmett [Kelly], he was like, “I sent some of your tracks to Will and he said you would be perfect for this project.” I was kind of scared. It was a definite challenge, because the album is very shrieking, theatrical, noisy, superloud—nothing like the music that I’m used to making or singing.
After working with Will and watching the way that Emmett and Will interacted and communicated to me about changes, it was like, OK, these people are very good at keeping a solid nature. It suddenly clicked in my mind. I was like, “I can do this.” On “The Sky Opened Up” Emmett and I were both playing these huge drums with big soft sticks, headphones on, and wires all around us, like, “OK, go!” There was a lot of intense yelling, but in a kind way. There was a lot of openness; we could sort of just dish it out together.
Each night on tour we would open as the Babblers and then play a full Bonnie “Prince” Billy set, so we played two and half, sometimes three hours. I was just thrown into this whirlpool of musical emotion and intensity every night and it was crazy. I never expected it to be longer than a one-off kind of tour. And then it just kept happening.
I think my voice has developed a lot from working with them because I forced it to do different things, like singing superloud and then singing superhigh. My album [Half Way Home] isn’t perfect in any way. There are a lot of mistakes. I’m in and out of tune constantly. On some of the songs it sounds like I’m actually just talking, or it sounds like I’m trying to do some weird impression with my voice and it’s not working. I can’t listen to the album—I’d rather just perform the songs than listen to it. I haven’t really listened to it more than once, and that’s all I needed. I was like, “OK, I think this is pretty good, pretty honest.”
It makes me happy that people in my life enjoy what I’m doing, in a real way. It’s definitely more difficult to play in Chicago despite the fact that I’m surrounded by my friends—because they also know that I’m a human being full of shit sometimes and they’ve seen me at my worst. People are psyched about this album and are really gracious about it, but I’m also like, “Shit, now I have to write something that’s better than that.” And that’s not always easy, because you’re happy and can’t write as articulately about how happy you are because you don’t want the happiness to be figured out.