|Last year, while she wasn’t moonlighting on a short tour with Will Oldham in the Kevin Coyne/Dagmar Krause cover band The Babblers, Angel Olsen was quietly releasing her own music. The first of two cassette-only releases, Strange Cacti, was a six-song mini album of heartfelt and spellbinding folk songs released via Bathetic. (You might’ve noticed I loved it.) The second, Lady of the Waterpark, came via Love Lion and saw her intricately covering songs by the likes of Dolly Parton, Gloria Jones and Skeeter Davis, to name a few. Through word of mouth, each release quickly sold out, leaving me to wonder what this incredible new voice I knew so little about was planning next. I caught up with Olsen, who moved recently from Missouri to Chicago, Illinois, to ask her about her past, present and what will surely be a bright future.
Angel Olsen – “Creator, Destroyer”
OW: How are you surviving the Chicago winter?
Angel Olsen: A good friend of mine told me recently “winter is a liar” and I agree with her fully, and meditating on that has helped me quite a bit lately.
OW: How long have you been singing and writing songs? Does your musical background include any formal training?
Olsen: I’ve been recording on tapes since I was very young. I’ve never taken voice lessons.
OW: Do you consider yourself a folk singer?
Olsen: I’d say so, but then I don’t sing very many actual folk songs. It’s funny how the meaning of “folk singer” has changed over the years.
OW: Where and how was Strange Cacti recorded?
Olsen: It was recorded in my kitchen. I’d just moved into my apartment and for the most part it was completely vacant. “Some Things Cosmic” was recorded a year earlier, but everything else was recorded in one day. I used garage band. Previously I’d hired a few people to record these songs (in much better quality) …but I wanted to do it myself, and I like that they aren’t extremely clean…in any way.
OW: Lyrically, the songs on Strange Cacti seem to express some very personal emotions. Are they as personal as they seem, or do your words take on more of a secondhand, storytelling approach?
Olsen: These songs are written about things I’ve experienced, but also things other people have experienced. So, both.
Angel Olsen – “Drunk And With Dreams”
OW: So far, your music has only been available on cassette. What is it about that format that attracted you to release your music that way?
Olsen: Tapes are the beginning. If someone wants to hear a song or an album badly enough they will find a way – the format shouldn’t matter.
OW: Do you have any desire to release Strange Cacti or Lady of the Waterpark on any other formats?
Olsen: It’s possible that I will release the songs from Strange Cacti on vinyl early this spring, but there’s no definite date set.
OW: What are your plans for 2011? Any new material we can look forward to?
Olsen: I’ve been working on getting a band together for my old material, to sort of bring new life to it. I also have other recording plans in the spring, hopefully something will be out mid-summer again this year.
OW: Are there any changes stylistically, intentional or otherwise, to what we may hear from you next?
Olsen: I’ve been working with people a lot lately, and though it’s been challenging, the change has been much needed and also very beneficial for me. I think in the future more people will be involved with what I’m doing.
OW: What is playing shows and touring like for you? Do you typically perform alone?
Olsen: I haven’t toured much for my own music, but I hope to book some tours late summer or early fall this year. Touring is exhausting but just as equally rewarding. It’s almost like running a marathon, but you know…for your friends and for yourself.
Angel Olsen – “I Couldn’t Wait Forever” (Dolly Parton cover)
OW: What were some of your favorite albums that came out in 2010?
Olsen: Over the fall, I met Sonny and the Sunsets, and really enjoyed their music. His more dated material is pretty different but just as excellent and worth checking into. For that genre of music (if indeed there is one) it’s rare that someone can write a song with meaning and also project that meaning with a strong delivery. I think he knows what he’s talking about, and he knows how to write a catchy tune as well, so good for those guys. They are doing quite well.
OW: As an up-and-coming artist, what would be the biggest, most meaningful goal you could achieve in your career?
Olsen: Most things change, so I have to be careful with these sorts of questions. I do hope to reach out to people, to relate to them. If I can do that, I’ve succeeded.