Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Angel Olsen's Personal Best

16 October 2022, 09:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Angela Ricciardi

With her Big Time Tour rolling into the UK and Ireland this week, Angel Olsen looks back with Alan Pedder on five key songs from her incredible career so far.

Angel Olsen’s musical universe is a constantly expanding place.

In the decade since her spectral folk debut, the Missouri-born singer/songwriter has shown that she can slip in and out of vastly different song worlds with breathtaking ease. This year’s Big Time was another bold leap, out of the tinderbox and spleen of 2019’s All Mirrors and into a warm bath of bruised Americana, soaked in pedal steel, brass and glorious strings.

It’s hard to say what suited her more. There’s a protean quality to Olsen’s singing that seemingly gives her an unforced mastery of every genre she dips into. Even on the lo-fi Half Way Home, the signs of a truly great vocalist were there. Want fevered ululations? “Acrobat” has you covered. Incandescent tenderness? Listen to “Tiniest Seed”.

As with most fantastic singers, it’s in the live performance space that Olsen really excels. To celebrate the European leg of her Big Time Tour reaching British shores on Tuesday, I got her on the phone with the mission of talking about which songs she considers to be her own greatest hits – her personal best.

Lead Angel Olsen Big Time 11 Photo Credit Angela Ricciardi

When we talk, it’s shortly after 11am in Spain and Olsen is on a tour bus heading from Madrid to Barcelona. She’s just woken up, having forgotten to charge her phone the night before (we’ve all been there), but she quickly warms up to the challenge.

“On a different day, I might have chosen five different songs,” she says. “I just tried to think about the songs that translated most. The ones that I put more energy into live, or ones that I thought were good examples of that era of my songwriting, rather than only the singles from the records.”

Olsen says she rarely listens back to her old albums, though sometimes she forgets how a song goes and needs to relearn it for tour (“Not Gonna Kill You” from 2016’s My Woman, in this instance). For her, the real gold often lies in her demos, which she says she always keeps and is planning to release in some form or another. “I have a label that’s under the umbrella of Jagjaguwar, who release my music, and I’d like to put out my demos for my earlier records on that label”

“Listening back, I like how we made the songs sound bigger but in some cases I liked the demos more, and I think it’s interesting to see how the songs change. For my newest record, I like some of the demos in a different way than the album versions, for different reasons. Mainly because they just have more space to them. You can hear the words differently.”

The influence of Roky Erickson and other lo-fi favourites comes through clearly in Olsen’s 2010 EP Strange Cacti and, to some extent, in 2020’s Whole New Mess, a revelatory insight into the original sketches for All Mirrors. Those releases aren’t represented here, though Olsen says she would have picked Strange Cacti’s “Creator, Destroyer” if she’d had the room.

Read on to find out which song was the first to touch on her queerness, which song made her cry, and which is a pop song in waiting.

"Acrobat" (2012)

ANGEL OLSEN: “Acrobat” stuck out to me because we've played it the most of any song and it's grown and changed over the years. We’ve flipped it and stretched it out, and it’s become more and more like that Caetano Veloso version of “Cucurrucucú Paloma”. It kind of has that feel to it now, whereas in the beginning it was really rigid and folky. Like, I'm telling a story and playing guitar super staccato, almost like a harpsichord.

You could tell what was popular in the era of “Acrobat”. Like, even if I didn't like Joanna Newsom’s music and I didn't really listen to it, it still sunk into the way that I was affecting my voice or changing the way that I wrote. I felt safe because Joanna Newsom was popular. I felt like I could write a song that was telling a story in a poetic way without people being bummed about it.

That style became part of the zeitgeist and part of the way that people were understanding music at the time, so I thought that if I could find my own way of doing it and express myself honestly, I could also use it as a way to reach people.

BEST FIT: The lines “Who cares? I'm not a moralist / I'm just a lady with some time” are some of my favourite lyrics of yours. What inspired those?

I think it was my way of saying, ‘You don't have to protect me,' you know? I just want to explore and keep searching, you don't have to do that patriarchal stuff.

Also, I think it was the first time I was really touching on my queerness and how I felt about singing about it. I was aware of it then; I had just always been with men. I’m pansexual, so it was harder to figure out if it was just me ‘dabbling’ or me experiencing whether those feelings were real. I just played that side of me down for many years.

Actually, I’d had a two-month relationship with a woman around the time I wrote “Acrobat”. I also had a boyfriend at the time, and he didn’t like that very much. It didn’t end well. I was like, ‘Aren’t you supposed to like this?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, not like that.’

I remember hearing “Acrobat” in 2012 and being totally stopped in my tracks. It’s a very physical song but also kind of cosmic. Can you talk a bit about the recording process?

I was playing principally with Bonnie "Prince" Billy [aka Will Oldham] in those days, and I think I had maybe one more tour to do with them. My boyfriend at the time, Emmett Kelly, produced the record and then Ben Boye, who played piano in Will’s band, played harmonium on this recording. People from the music scene in Chicago.

At the time I didn’t have any money, so it was a case of ‘I’ll pay you as we go’ and thinking we were gonna do the whole album in one day. I think we did it in three or four days in the end, and then we ended up taking a little bit of a break to mix it. It’s funny, because I didn’t know this record would take off, so when it did well I had to kind of retrace my steps and make sure everyone was good.

It's so weird to be thrown into situations like that. As I get deeper and deeper into the music industry, money becomes this weird thing. It’s like a snake. It’s like a slippery slope. If you don't communicate what your needs are and what your expectations are, money can become such an offensive thing. It kinda makes you think, ‘Oh, music is ugly,’ or ‘This is gross, I wish I had thought this through.’

I think I've learned from that process to always state what I expect and what I want. But I didn’t have any idea what I was doing at the time.

Album cover for Angel Olsen's Half Way Home (2012)

"unfucktheworld" (2014)

ANGEL OLSEN: I was really upset when I wrote this song. It’s about a typical breakup. I was at a point where I had to make a choice between their sadness and mine. It was that thing where you’re in a relationship and you just can’t pass the torch anymore.

It’s one thing for the other person to be really sad and depressed, but they can also be quite selfish in that sadness. I needed to stick up for myself. I was also sad, I was also in need, and I also needed to make sure that I didn’t get lost. I was just at a point where I couldn’t be the one who had to be stronger.

It's funny, thinking about the lyrics. The line “I started dancing just to be around you” is like a big red flag. And you hear that kind of thing a lot in old love songs. People are like, I did this thing just for you, and I did this thing just for you. And I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s a red flag!’

I put “unfucktheworld” in the list mostly because it’s kind of unavoidable as part of my catalogue. I didn’t expect it to take off and I think it’s weird that it did. When we recorded it, I felt like it should be almost like a demo; a way of softening the blow of the new sound. It’s the first song of that record and my theory is that’s why it did well. Like, if it had been track ten, I don’t know if it people would have noticed it so much.t

BEST FIT: Has your relationship to the song changed over the years? Are you still angry when you sing it?

There's always something to be a little bit upset about. I think I just appreciate the song more now in terms of how other people relate to it. It’s more for them than for me at this point.

It seems to be your most covered song. Why do you think it appeals to so many people?

I have no fucking clue! I think it’s probably because it’s so to-the-point. It’s really straightforward. In my mind, I feel like I've written so many other songs that are way better. But it's always like that with music, right? Often you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the one that people love? Interesting.’

The title seems to have caught on as a bit of a catchphrase, sometimes appearing in graffiti. How do you feel about that?

It’s funny. I saw it written on a wall somewhere and thought, ‘Oh, that’d be a good title!’ – it was only later that I realised it’s actually the name of an organisation and that you could even get Unfuck The World t-shirts and stuff. So I kind of ripped it from them without even realising. I just liked the idea. Like, I’m fucking this relationship up. Let’s go back and pretend this never happened.

Album cover for Angel Olsen's Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014)

"Pops" (2016)

BEST FIT: My Woman was the record where you really expanded your sound, so it’s interesting that you’ve chosen “Pops” here as it’s just you and a piano. Can you talk a bit about why you’ve picked this one?

ANGEL OLSEN: Yeah, obviously a lot of things happened on the My Woman record that sounded bigger. But I chose “Pops” because it was like I was allowing myself to go back to minimalism, in a way. I think it took the songs getting bigger and bigger for me to really appreciate the idea of just playing piano and singing.

Also, I think I was writing really differently than before. This song is something I couldn’t have written in 2012, you know? My sound was really changing, and I think “Pops” was the first time that I really felt the urge to play piano again. And from then on I incorporated piano a lot more – there’s a lot of piano stuff on All Mirrors – and I think “Pops” represents the beginning of that change for me.

"Pops" is the one song on the album that stayed more or less the same as my home recording. We tried to re-record the piano but the demo just sounded better so we decided to keep it. We added another piano underneath and mixed it in, to make it a little bit stronger. The vocal is also originally from my demo. I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna get a better vocal of this.’ It was totally in the moment.

Some people interpret “Pops” as being about the music industry and about how it can be incredibly isolating. Is that a valid interpretation in your eyes?

Yeah, I think so. At the time I had become really popular in the music industry and it was kind of jarring. I didn’t know how to say no to interviews because I didn’t feel like I could. I didn’t feel like I could take a break and I never allowed myself time to just be a human and relate to people, and I just felt really alone in all that.

There were certain people in my life who were like, ‘Oh, but you have all the love you need because you’re getting it from your audience.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, that's not the kind of love that I want.' I mean, it’s nice to be appreciated but nobody really knows me out there. That’s not the kind of love I need. It's not the kind of love I am asking for.

Also, I guess band members and people around me were seeing me change. They were seeing me enjoy the attention, and I think I was probably annoying. But I was only in my twenties. I was growing up and I was enjoying making an impact, you know? But “Pops” was kind of like the beginning of me saying, ‘You know what? Fuck you!’. And by the time we get to "Endgame" on All Mirrors, I was like, ‘Okay, really though, fuck you!

“Pops” is an interesting title because, like “unfucktheworld”, the most immediate interpretation is not one that seems to be related to the song. Where did the title come from?

I thought it sounded more like a pop song than anything. In my demos, for the longest time it was just called “Pops”. There’s no esoteric meaning to it, it’s just a pop song. To me it sounded more like something I could hear Adele singing.

Weirdly, that's a cover I’d like to hear.

Yeah, me too. I'd love to quit my job! [Long and weighted laugh]

I’d love to go to Hawaii for a year. If she could just maybe learn one of my songs and sing it for about a year, that'd be nice. I’m trying to get Miley into it, too, but I don’t know if she’s down.

Album cover for Angel Olsen's My Woman (2016)

"Lark" (2019)

ANGEL OLSEN: I started writing this song while I was on tour in Australia, before we recorded My Woman. At first I wasn’t even sure if it was one song, because it sounded like three different songs. For the longest time I just thought that it wasn’t going to work, but I recorded it one day and it suddenly got to a point where I was like, ‘Maybe I can do this! Maybe it’s just a different kind of writing.’ I sort of tried to channel Patti Smith. Like, what would Patti Smith do in a scenario like this? I think she would just make it into a song, right?

“Lark” doesn’t fit comfortably into a formula, and I think that’s why I was so scared of it at first. Like, it has movements. It doesn’t have a fast beat like “Give It Up” or “Shut Up Kiss Me”. It doesn’t have a 1950s melody like “Never Be Mine”. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to think of it more like a play than as a song.

I was sort of imagining it like an argument. You know, when you are really calm at first and trying to be patient and then you react. You get mad and then calm down again, then they say something else that pisses you off and you’re like ‘Fuck you!’

Without it being about a specific person, I wanted people to feel like I was talking about the experience as though I was still working through it.

BEST FIT: How did you feel when you first heard it with all the orchestration, and all the dynamics?

It was my birthday when we were adding the strings to “Lark”. I have a January birthday and when I was a kid my mom would always take me ice skating or to see The Nutcracker or something. I just remember leaving the opera as a kid and going home thinking about the string players and all the different melodies and thinking, ‘Wow, it’d be so cool to arrange something like that one day.’ I remember thinking how special that would be.

So to have the strings on All Mirrors was a dream come true, in a way. I was with my friend Ben, who wrote a lot of the string arrangements, and I was crying. I couldn’t believe it was happening. To write a song like that and then to see it being performed by other people was really wild.

What I really love about “Lark” is not only how it changed my mind about the songwriting process – how songs will work or not work – but also about how you can use strings. It doesn’t have to be fairytale sounding all of the time. You can use dissonant strings to make things feel on edge. You can use different levels of reverb to create different textures, and the impact of strings can be really subtle.

Have you been able to perform it live with an orchestra?

No. It was a whole ordeal to figure out All Mirrors live, because we needed to simplify some of the string arrangements and bring some of the parts closer together – more low end than high end. On this tour, I have a cellist and a violinist in the band, and my guitarist uses samples to get a mixture of textures. And then Nona [Invie, formerly of Dark Dark Dark] who sings and plays keys will add some synth strings in there, to sort of create that low-end, cloudy kind of Mellotron sound to fill in the space.

It's funny, since “Lark” there’s been a lot of strings and piano in my music. It’s always interesting to think, 'Okayyy, how many other things will I add that I can’t take back?' But you make it work, and it’s gonna sound different live no matter what.

I think that’s what’s so fun about seeing the live shows because you can see how relaxed some songs have gotten or the slight differences in the arrangements. When I go to shows, I want to see people fuck up a little bit or to change some things around. I think it’s nice to see people opening up songs and stretching them out a little bit on tour. Of course there are some songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” that are gonna sound pretty much the same.

Album cover for Angel Olsen's All Mirrors (2019)

"Ghost On" (2022)

ANGEL OLSEN: This song is interesting. I wrote it after a queer relationship I had for three months before I publicly came out. We’d had these really intense conversations about how, because of the pandemic, I was in the relationship out of convenience. And, oh my god, that is probably the worst thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about me. I was like, ‘Wow, do you hear what you are saying? It’s so fucked up.’

Even if they believed that was true, they could, like, lessen the blow and just not tell me that [Olsen starts laughing]. Like, I don’t know who told them they had to be so completely honest, but that person was wrong. It was a really shitty thing to say. I was like, 'You! You just be quiet!'

I ended up writing a couple of songs after that, just out of anger, and “Ghost On” was one of them. We are friends again; they know now not to say those things out loud. And I don’t think the relationship was out of convenience. I just think it was easier to say that because it was so easy to become co-dependent during the pandemic. It was, like, ‘Okay, you’re my person, right? We’re good, we’re safe.’ And I think we were both lying to ourselves, because of the experience.

BEST FIT: This song fits a theme of refusing to fit into the image that other people have of you, and more broadly speaking that’s kind of something that you've dealt with throughout your career: Angel Olsen the person versus Angel Olsen the star.

Yeah. I think everybody who makes music or makes art kind of projects the person they want to be through their work. I feel like the writing and the making of things are really what you aspire to be, but it’s only one facet of your personhood. You’re still a shithead. You still don’t consider everyone. And you are still insecure about dumbass things. Like, you’re still bad at math and calling your mother.

As a songwriter maybe you’re aspiring to be this poet person with a gift, and there are moments when you are channelling that, but it doesn’t mean you’re a good person, necessarily. Like, just because you wrote it down once, it doesn’t mean you actually practice it in your everyday life.

Let’s talk about the electric guitar solo.

This is the one song in the show where I get to play a solo, and it’s been really fun. You know, I’ve always been too afraid to play guitar solos because I’m a singer. But now that I’m so deep in with my music, I’m like, ‘Okay, I can try to do this as well.’

During the pandemic I spent a lot of time playing around with a loop pedal, just coming up with guitar lines and getting into the practice of repeating them. Sort of developing that hand-to-brain memory of where everything is. Then you have to think about how nervous you’re going to be on the night and how you’re going to forget stuff. You can never really know how it’ll affect you when you go on stage in front of people. I fuck up sometimes, which is fine. But I’m getting to a point where I can sort of look up halfway through the solo.

So, yes, I chose “Ghost On” because it’s my favourite from the new record. It’s so simple and to the point, and – selfishly – because I get to play guitar. I get to show people that that’s something I’m experimenting with. Also, it’s kind of like a throwback song. It reminds me of old soul songs, in the way that it swings. When I imagined how it would sound, it was almost like something Candi Staton might sing. Or something Cass McCombs might write. I don’t know. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and it’s interesting how those can show up in different forms in my own songs.

Could you see yourself going more into a soul direction in a later record?

No. I feel like I've touched upon it. But it's hard to say, because I never thought I would make an Americana record, you know?

Everything's on the table!

Yeah. I’m like, okay, next album’s gonna be all textural sounds like Brian Eno [Olsen laughs at her own joke – at least I think it was a joke…]

Album cover for Angel Olsen's Big Time (2022)

The UK and Ireland leg of the Big Time Tour starts at Brixton Academy on Tuesday, 18 October, with support from Tomberlin. Tickets for all five dates are available through her website.

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