Angel Olsen’s sophomore, Half Way Home, goes way past your standard set of earthy Folk Blues. The Chicago-based musician has a voice to die for and a set of songs that bleed with soul. We hooked up with Angel to talk words, music and inspiration.
Bowlegs: Half Way Home is such a great sophomore record – do you hear a progression between this and your debut? If so how do you think this has come about – are there certain moments/experiences that have had a defining effect on you and the way you write music?
Angel: First of all: Thank you for thinking so. Glad it translated well with you. Secondly I do hear a progression – do you? Hah. I mean versus Strange Cacti I think Half Way Home is definitely/obviously not hiding under a monsoon of reverb, and I’ve had to allow my voice to be heard..for the mistakes to be present and real.
I’ve traveled and watched and listened and experienced much in the last two years. There have been many things occurring now, and which have occurred before, things that encouraged, and are encouraging me, to realize that it’s okay to be present, and to allow things to be what they are – without over doing or under doing it – in the case of the monsoon that surrounds Strange Cacti. It’s really a paradox. It brings to mind a desert, but the recording is so so oceanic. Almost embarrassingly so, but I have no regrets. I am-very attached to that album and think much of it even now, even as I have moved on. It was my first step, and I don’t mind that it was.
Bowlegs: You have an extraordinary vocal – it is placed right up front in the mix to wonderful effect. How did you get into singing originally? There is a real old time folk/blues tone in your voice- are there direct influences that helped shape the way you sing?
Angel: Again: Thank-you for thinking so, I’m always telling myself I need to do more and I should and I think I will even. I want to. (with my voice, my writing). Honestly, the up front- feeling that Half Way Home has was influenced by many things, but more specifically the feeling or idea to record sort of up close and personal came from listening to the song Wings Upon My Horns (the version by Tami Lynn) It blew me away, not her voice, but her voice – her human voice, and that it was so so CLOSE. And I thought “I want to be close too, I’m human too.”
Bowlegs: Lyrically these songs feel very personal – there’s almost a sense that you are often looking for a safe haven – be it the womb, death or even just tomorrow? Does writing music bring out emotions that may normally hide deep inside?
Angel: If you knew me as a person, you would find..that I am not walking around crying everywhere or serving my feelings to people upon some kind of platter. I do know how to have a good time, and I feel at home within myself. I feel a home that is changing but is always present, and well..writing definitely allows me to articulate and do something with some of the intense, or even very simple things I interact with or feel or see. It can at times be cathartic, but at other times very fun and non-personal – though it seems personal. Though, everything is kind of personal, when you perform it, when you are singing it over and over like a mantra. Even if it’s not about you. So in that too, is a paradox. I think a lot, about death, and wombs, and tomorrow, but also the fact that existing is so strange and crazy and unknown and well..do others not think about this? I just happen to sing about it, it makes it sane somehow.
Bowlegs: The Sky Opened Up is one of my personal highlights – it feels like you are looking in from the outside – a new sense of perspective maybe? What is this song about?
Angel: A new perspective…yes. I wrote that song a week before recording. It’s about changing, and my changing and people being disappointed, and me saying “f” caring about their disappointment. I’ll keep singing, or doing whatever feels most natural and good.
Bowlegs: The arrangements on these records make their impact by being so sparse. The guitar and bass backing on Always Half Strange is like a whisper in the background – such stark instrumentation really makes a difference. How did you go about the arrangements here – how does a song dictate its backing?
Angel: I was very attached to the simple-ness of a lot of the material, and I didn’t want to overload it or have it be too polished or accessible but yet to still keep the focus on what I’m saying. Sometimes, I’m not singing always..to celebrate or show off. Sometimes it’s simply that words sound better to a bit of a melody, don’t you think? Even uncomfortable ones? Well. yeah. That’s how I feel.
Bowlegs: Talking about the instrumentation – Free has a real sixties vibe within its rhythm and guitar work. How did that song come about?
Angel: This song is very simple to me, and one that I feel is very easy to…sing to hear..but Emmett and I had been listening to our favorite recordings, and thinking back about how we’d like to apply techniques, even re-use some throw back stuff, and I think for me..it was for a little sunshine in a super dark personal space (compared to a lot of other songs on the record.)
Bowlegs: You toured with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as part of the Cairo Gang – what was that experience like? Have you stayed in contact since the tour – has he heard your record?
Angel: The experience was very fruitful and difficult and fruitful. But mostly difficult in a positive way.. because I silenced myself and forced myself to really LISTEN and for the first time also to harmonize and to trust it and to interact with it and with people in the group.
I have stayed in contact, for the most part. I’ve also been very busy doing some focusing on this release, and touring and propelling whatever I may be propelling, if anything. I think people in the group have heard it, I sent a copy to Will, yes. I’m not sure, I’m not pressing anyone to listen to my shit, though I am thankful and of course psyched when they do, when they have something to say negatively, positively-if they even cared enough to think or say anything. I am psyched.
But I find, even among friends, and those I’ve worked with..inviting people to listen..It’s like asking people to come to my birthday party. Something about it is really…wrong. I mean..being born is great and all, but sometimes I’d rather focus on still existing, maintaining. I mean, people should seek out what they want to seek out, but obviously I would like to share even my most raw, uncompleted moments with those I care for and respect, and I do, and I will, and yes.. I like to share and to receive too. hah sigh.
Bowlegs: Folk/Blues – or however you want to describe it – is obviously a genre steeped in history. Was it always the route you wanted to take – what makes this music so special to you?
Angel: I didn’t listen to Loretta Lynn and go home and write a bunch of songs. I didn’t even know I was…of this vibe.. until someone said “girl, you country.” I always just thought…hey, I like these themes, I think I can write something within them, it makes sense. I hear something in my head and it makes sense. That’s all, yo. It’s not planned or studied or thought out too much. I like much music, I hope to step out of realms, into new themes, and to work within those-whatever they be, however they occur… hopefully without too much of a plan, without too much thought or scheming- for it to be natural.
Bowlegs: What do you have planned for the next six months – are you touring this record – do you get a live band to work with on the road?
Angel: I’m working with a drummer lately, and we’re really getting along. I feel very positive and open about it. I’m not sure, it’s still in a very early stage but I do want to tour with a group. It’s so much more fun that way-to share music with others, to play with others. It recreates feelings in songs.
And yes, I’m touring and plan on touring in the future too.. in a few days I perform along the east coast/US and I’m thinking of and working on setting up some gigs in Europe/UK for 2013 as well.
Bowlegs: What current artists have you been listening to over the last few months?
Angel: Chavela Vargas, Frank Ocean, Mariah Carey, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, The Clean, and most recently The Quick. But more locally, as in Chicago artists, I love lately and have loved but am really psyched for: Scott Tuma’s recent live performance brought me to tears.., The Cairo Gang’s new record, The Corner Man is phenomenal and totally different and crazy intense at times, in new and unexpected ways.
..and also..I’ve been taken to a new level listening to Joshua Abram’s Natural Information Society record Represencing and also..THEY RULE LIVE. It’s a joyous, natural experience. I dance to them. In front of strangers.
Bowlegs: Thanks so much for the time
Angel: Thank you