Swooning you in with her honest lyrics and dreamy band backing her sounds with strong musical talents, I had a chat with the queen herself, Angel Olsen, before her intimate gig at Stadtgarten in Cologne. With loads of interesting and inspiring things to say about herself, the album process, and growing up, she speaks in a way that reminds the audience that she is just a normal person, like me and you. She creates her art because it gives her passion that she craves for herself, and doesn’t care what people think.
We chatted loads about her recent album, My Woman, and the transition she made within it. She explains in a perfect summary what she was going for:
Eisert: What is your writing process with this album?
Olsen: I feel like I have four different versions of writing. Some of them start with music obviously—I like chord progression. Then I have to think of something intelligent to say within it, so the words end up being second to the music. Other times, I will just write it all within one sitting and its very clear. For me, I had played synth growing up and before I was putting out music, I used to do that all the time. But I was apprehensive to try something that different because people are so attached to me sounding folk. What I realized was that my interests were changing, and I was changing. I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a folk musician and only that. It took me a minute to just accept that I’ve changed.
With Pops, the piano song off the album, I used to play piano before I played guitar. I played songs with piano, but I never performed them and I never really sang to the piano songs. It was always just me coming up with progressions. So when I finished that song, the lyrics to me were pretty simple and straight forward but in a way that made me think, “Is this me writing this? Or is this me as a character writing this?” I felt very different and an element in my writing had changed. And I think it was just that I accepted that some things are better when they are made simply.
I did not want to betray my style, but I wanted to progress. I wanted to sing out more. I wanted to showcase that my band that had been playing with me, and that I had grown and developed with their style together. That though I wrote these songs, they contributed aspects of their personalities to the songs. I could sing differently for these different formats.
Eisert: With the longer songs, when you were creating them, did you just keep going thinking ‘this needs more?’
Olsen: Woman started off on piano like Pops and it was much faster and up-beat. And then I played it with my friend Seth Kauffman, who was a guest player on this record. He was playing bass, and sometimes drums. And I just played on his roads one day, and slowed it down and said, “Woah, this could be a totally different feeling if I just slowed it down a bit.” Pianos are really hard to figure out, they are cold instruments, so you have to figure them out and work around them. That’s why I feel like jazz chords on piano work best because they add a little bit of darkness to what you’re playing. So that one started off up-beat and a lot shorter. Then with adding that element, I slowed it down and changed the tone completely. Then there was all this space for guitar solos to happen because the piano wasn’t taking over it.
For Sister, it was intended to be a solo song. The solo song itself had me singing kind of vocalizations at the end and I showed it to some people in the band and someone said, “I’d like to try it as a band song.” And it was really hard to teach everyone as a band because it is like four different songs in one. It’s supposed to be like Sunday morning, George Harrison style beginning. And then by the end of it you’re hearing Neil Young and all this stuff. But yeah, it was definitely a nod to that kind of music and that time. And there is even a drum beat in there that’s not too Stevie Nicks, not too Fleetwood Mac.
Eisert: What is your favorite song to play live?
Olsen: Oh, definitely Those Were the Days. Right now we have been playing Sister into Those Were the Days and it’s been really fun because people are surprised by it even though it’s been something we’ve been doing regularly. Sister is so long, and by the end of it there is this big build up. But it’s nice not to end there, and to just keep going and then go into Those Were the Days because there is this little sigh of relief that happens. “What is she going to play after that song!?” And then it just kind of goes into the same song that it does on the record. So that’s kind of nice, and I don’t know if I will switch it up but for right now it is what we are doing. It’s been really fun to see how the crowd responds to it.
Eisert: Do you have a favorite record from 2016?
Olsen: I’ve been listening to a lot of Survive, and they just came out with a record. I had watched the series Stranger Things and then my friend Kenan introduced me to Kyle. Kyle and Michael wrote the series soundtrack, but the other two guys are in Survive. It is like super similar style stuff, so if you like the series it’s amazing to listen to their actual band’s record. It’s different sounds than on the TV show, but very similar. Kind of dark 80s and slow. I haven’t heard a record like that in a long time, so it’s really cool.
After reading a few of the Olsen interviews that were released following the album, I was interested in her interview with Fader when she talked about being in her 20s. How she was worried about having it all figured out and that she learned to not answer these questions. She responded with a beautiful response that not only I, but loads of young adults in their 20s could easily relate to:
I used to have really bad anxiety, real out of nowhere anxiety. I think it is pretty common for mid-20s. It’s like this bubble that suddenly comes to the surface, and all these things that you sub-consciously didn’t know you were freaking out about, you begin to freak out about. And then I got out of that somehow. There was just like a good year where I would just be having a good time with friends, then suddenly I was overthinking things. I would have to leave because it was a physical thing. I did some research, and found that anxiety is extremely common, especially when you’re 24, 25. And I think once it happens in your life, because your body knows what it means to have that feeling, you might always have it a little bit—that worry. But I just learned how to calm myself down a little bit better. And to be my own mom in that way.”
After attending her gig later that night, I was ever so grateful for the opportunity to speak with her beforehand. Not only was her personal performance magnificent, but also her band blew my mind. Each member has a raw talent that comes out behind each song, and it was incredibly special to see. These people are Olsen’s best friends and ultimate support through the insane music life, and it was refreshing and inspirational to hear her talk about these people during our interview:
Angel Olsen’s honest and unique look on life is one to applaud through her masterpiece record. The words Olsen and I exchanged this day made her performance completely pure to the point that I was on the verge of tears in some parts of the gig. But it also reminded me that she is just another soul on this crazy planet of ours, sharing her passion to the people that can relate and respect the art she creates.