Nine Songs: Angel Olsen
“Sorry, all of these explanations are going to be long-winded, because I can’t simplify things.”
For those who believe that storytelling is an ancient, dying art, a conversation with Angel Olsen about the songs she loves reveals such thinking to be a fallacy. Her take on each of them is permeated with stories of discovery and their significance, as much as they are celebrations of incredible artistry.
Over the course of the hour we spend talking about them, Olsen’s Nine Songs thread connections between moments and people, as well as music. There’s a trip to Lisbon with her best friend Dev, where a meeting with a flower seller called Rosa was soundtracked by a Gal Costa song, a recent chance encounter that saw her strike up a friendship with David, a legendary figure in Olsen’s local community in Asheville, North Carolina. Meeting David prompted Olsen to rethink “Night Comes On”, Leonard Cohen’s ode to the passing on of wisdom, and few days after we speak she posted a hilarious clip on Instagram, where Olsen quips she decided to learn to play it because she’d run out of pens.
Besides running out of pens, Olsen’s been busy during lockdown. “Considering I’m still at home, I’ve still got so much stuff to do. Everyone around me is ‘I don’t know what to do with myself’ and I’m ‘Well, I’ve got so much to do with myself I don’t know where to begin. I feel suspended in air, between happiness and frustration.’ As well releasing Whole New Mess, the prequel to 2019’s All Mirrors, Olsen has created some of the best livestreams out there with her Cosmic Stream series where rather than grainy home-recordings, she’s played shows in beautiful venues in Asheville.
Being at home has also given her time to connect with the wider world as well as domesticity, and she talks with pride about the plants she’s been tending. “I’ve been keeping plants alive for the first time in my life. You’ve got to spend time with them, prune them, take off all the dead leaves, talk to them, check out if there’s spiderwebs or any bugs going on in there. It’s so simple.”
Her newfound skill for keeping plants alive has prompted Olsen to wonder if such a simple practice can be mirrored in her wider life. “Symbolically, if I could apply that to everything, maybe things would live a little better. I’m trying to think meditatively like that.” Thoughts of plants brings her back to her art as a storyteller. “I love music. I love putting things together. I like taking tracks, stacking them, fading them in and fading them out. Taking a step away from it for a week and then coming back and being ‘Part of this is shit, and part of this is great’ and I’ve got to keep working on it, because I love music, I love it and I don’t want anyone to take that away from me.”
We return to her Nine Songs and Olsen asks, “So, you wanted to have a conversation about some songs that have changed my life?” before laughing and deadpanning, “Well, they changed my life when I listened to them yesterday.”
Olsen’s initiation to several of them began when she was an avid YouTube explorer, where she’d find herself going down endless musical wormholes. “I would go into these crazy YouTube tunnels and find rare music. I was really into digging for those rare gems, because I wanted to keep searching for the things in the shadows that nobody sees.”
She started with Amália Rodrigues, the Portuguese fado singer, which lead her to Latin artists. “I love hearing the Portuguese language, so then it was Chavela Vargas and that lead me to Gal Costa and then to Ida Presti, because that style of guitar, scale and tone was all in the same kind of world to me.”
The songs, artists and stories here take in a singing nun, a jazz bandleader, a folk troubadour, the best female classical guitarist you’ve never heard and her friends Dev and David. Yet ultimately, they’re stories, always stories, and brilliant stories at that. Or as Olsen puts it, “There are ways to talk about things without being ‘So when you said this in your song, is it about your life and your personal relationships?’”
“The Singing Nun’s story is fucking insane. Will you please publish me saying ‘It’s fucking insane?’ No one ever publishes the word F anymore; can you do that? Is it allowed? That would be good, because her story is fucking insane.
“It started with listening to Françoise Hardy and I loved Françoise Hardy, but I read somewhere that she’s a super right-wing human now. Anyway, I was listening to Françoise Hardy and I was learning French at the time. I was obsessed with trying to sing in French, I went through this period where I was learning to sing Italian and French songs and I butchered them like hell, but I loved the exercise of language in songs. Then my friend Matt said to me, ‘You need to check out this woman called The Singing Nun.’
“We listened to the record all the way through and it was so good. It was so beautiful, light and happy, but sad also. At the time I was listening to Connie Converse and Molly Drake and I’ve been revisiting those musicians a lot lately, so I brought The Singing Nun up first, because they were artists I was listening to when I was living in Chicago.
“I didn’t hear about her story until later, but she had so much light in her and I thought her music was so beautiful. It’s tragic how she passed, but I think all she really wanted was to believe in herself and her connection with this person, to be with them and accepted by God with them. Finding that out was so beautiful, but sad too, that the world didn’t agree with that.
“I’m looking the lyrics up right now, the title is ‘Radish Feather?’ I don’t listen to everything with a complicated glance, with some sort of philosophical language every single time. Sometimes it’s just ‘Something about this track makes me happy', and also, I have to forgive people who listen to my own music and don’t really listen to the words. But someday, you wake up and you listen to the words, and you really, really hear them, you know? Maybe I’ll understand what the radish song is all about someday, that’s what I hope!”
“It’s the live version from 1971, mainly because Gal Costa sings it in a different way, it’s so different and the production is better. I like when people can make live productions sound really good and I prefer live over packaged stuff sometimes, especially with songs that are so vulnerable in that way. “Sua Estupidez” is about telling your lover ‘Don’t be stupid sometimes’, it’s just so simple.
“I heard it again last year when I was sitting at a café in Lisbon with my best friend Dev, I love her to death, she’s a riot. I said to her ‘Hey, do you want to go with me to my press trip for All Mirrors? Because I need you there to be a witness to how ridiculous it is sometimes.’ And we did that, and then we went to Lisbon and it was a beautiful summer. I felt so alive and awake and happy.
“We had a great time. We took on the streets, we took over the land with our good situation, or at least in my mind we did. We talked about life, talked about love, talked about art and culture - drinking, sharing good food and getting lost in beautiful forests. Then at some point we were so exhausted by going monkey-mind all over the place, so we went to this café and we met this woman called Rosa, who sells flowers.
“We kept going back to this café every day, because Rosa would sit and wait for people to come by and buy flowers. She didn’t speak any English, but one day she spoke to us by giving us flowers that had Portuguese messages in them. She gave one to me and I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I was so overwhelmed by this woman and how she didn’t care; she just wanted to share our company and we would talk in our own language at each other.
“Eventually she hugged me, and she spanked my butt! Like a Nanna would, she spanked my bottom and laughed. We sat down at the café, had a coffee and Rosa just smiled at us. We listened to “Sua Estupidez” by Gal Costa and Dev then started crying. I said ‘No, no, no! Not you too!’ It wasn’t out of sadness, it was release. So, that song is really important to me for that reason.”
“When I was in Chicago, I used to listen to a lot of jazz. The students at Northwestern University would play at this place The Hungry Brain every Sunday, and the bartender would always yell at the top of his lungs ‘Everyone, just shut the fuck up!’, because jazz was important to him, and this was a jazz club - so shut the fuck up, no talking. Honestly, you could only order a beer after each song, that was the rule.
“It was a wild place. I remember going there and it was very pretentious, but I’d always been pretentious as a child. I was trying to read Dostoevsky at sixteen and know nothing about it but try to understand it, I was that kind of human.
“I met this guy who loved music and his Uncle runs Honest Jon’s records with another guy who was a member of Blur. He introduced me to jazz and soul, he considered himself to be very cultural and he’s a teacher now, he’s a clever guy. We’d share music and talk and he would say ‘I like folk music and I like Fairport Convention, but have you ever considered listening to something like this?’ And it blew my mind away. I’ve always wondered what it is when you listen to jazz, or music that doesn’t have words, where you just have to pay attention to the tones of the music. I can’t help but wonder what the thoughts were that were such a nightmare in this song.
“Artie Shaw and that period of time is like a window in my life. Lying on the floor, listening to the record the whole way through and it not being in the present, it not being a new artist, but being so excited about by the things I was hearing that existed before now. The way that people cared about making art and music then was that you had to really care about every aspect of it, whereas now you can get away with so much - you can get away without caring about most of it.
“I take this back to my parents; they didn’t consider me to be a musician, not in a rude way, but I think they were worried about my livelihood, how I was going to make a living and how I was going to take care of myself. It wasn’t until I was on David Letterman that they understood I was a musician - it needed to be stamped with the approval of television.
“I thought that was so backwards and funny, but then I think about their era and how that was the only way that people really knew about musicians. There was no social media, people could call each other on the phone and there was the radio, but there was really no way to make advantage of the media for your message, you had to just have the message and share it.
“I love the music from that time because it wasn’t corrupted by that process and I love jazz, so that’s my explanation for Artie Shaw and his orchestra.”
“I’d been listening to a lot of blues when I discovered this song. I listened to the record I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a compilation of singers and songwriters and different versions of the blues. There’s a Greek singer on there who I love, Marika Papagika, I obsess over Greek singers because I’m also Greek, so I’d nerd out on that shit. I don’t really know what my family story is or what my actual lineage is, I just know that my Grandmother was Greek and that I was named after her. After learning that, I was ‘Oh, I’m going to check out some Greek music’, and Marika Papagika was how I found out about Johnnie Frierson.
“This is a song that I listened to in Chicago back in the day, but with the current state of the world and the civil rights uprisings that are happening all over America, it’s been an inspiring time for me. A lot of people are overwhelmed - at times I’m overwhelmed - and it’s hard to say this, but in a way I think the pandemic has been a huge blessing, it’s just not showing itself in that way yet. I don’t believe that everyone is taking the time to re-evaluate their lives, but I certainly am. I finally get to be home in one place, to put my feet on the ground, know where I live, understand the people that live here, and I’m working at getting to know that further.
“And also, I forgive myself. I forgive myself for the things that I didn’t know, and I’m moving on. This song is all about ‘just be good to yourself’ and you might see the people around you in the way that you’re supposed to see them, and if you’re not good to yourself, you’re not actually in your own body and with yourself, so the way that you see things will be through another lens.
“I really find that to be a powerful message and it doesn’t really matter what I’m moving on from personally. I’m looking at different things in my life in that way and I hope that I can continue to do that. It’s been inspiring for me to open up my own eyes, to see things, listen to people and put myself in questionable positions. Like for example, trying to understand political jargon and really deconstruct it to make it simplified for the people that need change. That’s just one of many things I’d like to be good to myself about, and this song is very activated by what’s going on currently for me.”
“When I was living in Chicago, I went through a period of listening to jazz but I was also studying these two women, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who were Surrealists. I loved their friendship and their relationship to each other, they shared men and they shared experiences together. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty the entire time, but I loved reading about them, I was really inspired by them and also in turn I felt a strength in myself.
“Then one of my oldest friends Tyler sent this song to me and he said, ‘This song reminds me of your voice’. I was like, ‘That’s a huge compliment, because this fucking song rules’, and I obsessed over it. I bought a case of five of Mildred Bailey records, I haven’t been able to find it since I moved to Asheville actually, I might have left it somewhere.
“I love the sound of the brass on this song, it’s so beautifully captured, it’s so perfectly lush and perfectly atonal at the same time. I really, really like that push behind the song and then there’s the words, obviously. I love her voice and her other versions of songs are incredible too, but “My Reverie” was the beginning point.
“I used to play it a lot with LeRoy Bach and my boyfriend at the time Emmett Kelly. A chef that was trying to get their name known would put on these pop-up dinner parties, we’d perform for them and they’d pay us. I remember learning a bunch of songs and one of them was “My Reverie”. The three of us would play that song for these Valentine Days dinners, LeRoy and Emmet would play the guitar and I would stand up and sing.
“When I heard Mildred Bailey’s voice and I read her story I was like ‘How come no one talks about this woman?’ The way she sings these old songs is so beautiful and wonderful. Obviously, I love Billie Holiday and a lot of those kind of songs, but Mildred Bailey is a little under-recognised I feel.”
“Andrés Segovia was obsessed with her, but no one really talks about this woman and she shreds, she’s a ripper. It’s a really rare performance and I can only find it on YouTube, you can’t really find work by her, but she’s incredible. I don’t even know how I came across it, but I feel so inspired by her music and her approach to playing the guitar.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever play guitar like Ida Presti and I’m OK with that, but watching someone put everything - every ounce of their soul, their whole body, channel every muscle and every breath - into their instrument is so incredible to watch. And to know that you could do that feels miraculous in a way, to be able to do that with the body and the person that you are. It’s like someone who is an acrobat or an Olympic athlete, they put so much of their soul, their energy, their meditative thought and their whole life into their body to become this strength, to just embody it, to be the thing, and it’s really wild.
“I know it sounds silly when I say it out loud, and I’m sure if I read this I’ll be ‘Wow, I was feeling inspired that day!’ but it’s ‘Sometimes things are just simple Angel, let them be simple.’ I love this performance so much because I can see that and I think it’s so beautiful, it’s such a reminder of what we can do as humans if you spend the time really, really working at something.
“It inspired me to push myself as a writer and as musician as well, but that apart, whatever it is as a symbolic thing for me, it’s just beautiful, there’s also that too.”
“I’ve been going to this lake house in Kenilworth, a few neighbourhoods from where I live. I dated someone very briefly who introduced me to this moss garden there, it’s like you’re in Japan, it has these moss-covered pathways, all kinds of trees and animal life - heron, turtles and butterflies - it’s completely preserved.
“Then I found out that there’s this guy who lives just down the street, he’s 90 years old and his name is David Herbert. My best friend Dev, who I was in Lisbon with, were walking through Kenilworth and we met David. He said we could use his canoe whenever we liked, anyone in the community can use his canoe between 12pm and 12am. Of course we loved that idea, so we went.
“I was driving yesterday and this song came on shuffle. I never have my music on shuffle, I just plug my phone in, but for the longest time it was playing the same songs and it was driving me crazy every time I plugged it in, and for whatever reason this came on. I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen off and on throughout my entire life, I’ve related to songs like “Suzanne” and all kinds of songs that he’s written, that I think articulate corruption in a way that no one else was really doing, even his own corruption, but with this song, for some reason I keep thinking of David when I hear it.
“I’ve never felt super-close to my own father - we’re close, but typically we’re not very emotional to each other. It took him about eighty years before he said he loved me, but, you know, sometimes it takes people a while to say these things out loud. I feel closer to my father now, but David is that kind of archetype where he seems like a good father. Every time I go out to the canoe, I end up getting into a conversation about life with him, about his experience with fascism and the experiences that we’re having now in America.
“I don’t know much about his personal life, he told me he was an investigative journalist and that his wife passed away a few months ago, she taught at college. They’d been trying to preserve the land around their house so that the city wouldn’t build on it, and they were trying to protect the lake and get all these people involved in saving the lake.
“Every time I go over there, I hear a story from him that changes my life - every single time. I don’t know how to describe it without also creating a super long-winded answer to a Leonard Cohen song, but David is the new person I’ve met in my life who has been really inspiring to me. When I think about the lines of “Night Comes On”, where Leonard Cohen is speaking about a father reminding him that these people have lied, don’t forget, they’ve lied, and him not wanting his father to be right, but he was - he was right. It’s all there in the song and it’s pretty clear what it’s about but I just keep thinking of David, because he’s been an activist his entire life, and not an activist necessarily even in a political way. At eighty-eight years old, he was skydiving, that’s the kind of human David is.
“Recently he found out that the social security office had moved location and that the new office was up a very steep hill. He found out that a private company owns a bus that take elderly people there, but it stops two blocks short of the destination. Then he found out who owned the building, he talked to the city and the government. He was trying to get the bus to take the people all the way to the office, that was all he was trying to do, but the city was taking forever.
“In the meantime, David buys a van and shuttles people there himself. When I think of a father, that’s the kind of human I’m thinking of and to me “Night Comes On” is about fathering yourself through something and going out into and back into the world. Don’t get too attached to yourself, go back into the world, be a part of it, father it and mother it, like you would yourself.
“It’s not a simple song for me, none of them are, but these are the people I want to hang out with, instead of talking about art.”
“This one has a very simple answer, I love Nick Drake. I’ve been thinking about him a lot and thinking about his story and his mother’s story. I love that piano part in “Pink Moon” and how spaced it is, it’s like a tiny ovation.
“I’ve been listening to Molly Drake’s music recently so I thought I should listen to Nick again as well. I don’t know why it just so happens that some of the people whose music I love the most have also committed suicide, like The Singing Nun and Nick Drake, but that happens sometimes.
“I don’t know what the pattern is with artists that do that. I think sometimes it’s just because it’s overwhelming, all of it. All of the information that you have to hold into your body, knowing that no matter how articulate or musical you are, how beautiful you sound, how relaxed you are to other people or how you heal other people, unfortunately as an artist, your songs don’t heal you. You have to find something else to push you and to heal you, it can’t always be music.
“That’s just me speaking the truth. A lot of people look at an artist and think ‘Why would they ever hate themselves that much, or decide to do that?’ And I think it’s because they’re not in it - people are not their songs, they’re themselves. Their songs are only a linear part of themselves.
"It’s the same in writing, it’s only a linear perspective of a person or an event, a narrative of what is happening. You can’t expect that linear narrative to speak new truths all the time.”
“It took me a really long time to get into It'll End in Tears and to take it seriously that I liked it, but I really like this whole record. For me, “Kangaroo” is ‘I don’t want to fall in love you, but I’m doing it. I’m doing it again; I’m throwing myself in there. I’m trying not to, but here we go.’
“The song feels like even though he’s describing seeing someone at a party - I don’t know if it’s an intellectual experience or if it’s something that’s more passé - but in my mind I think ‘Oh, this situation has already happened.’ He says, “I first saw you”, as in, you’re not seeing that person anymore… well, not like that.
“So that’s where I’m at in my personal life and I really relate to that right now, having to release love and believe in love, no matter how disappointing every moment can be if you’re that vulnerable and that open. Just being like ‘Hey, I saw something and the way I saw it, I think it was really good. I saw beauty in that and I’m not going to release that from my mind, even if it can’t be that way anymore.’
“It’s my love, these are the things that I see and that’s mine. No one can interfere with that or change it, I get to have that. I don’t think that’s what the song is doing necessarily, but when I listen to it, that’s what I want to hear.”