SOUNDTRACKING: Five Minutes With Angel Olsen When She’s Not Making Sandwiches

by Daniel Colussi | Angel Olsen has a commanding voice. Even through the crappy pinhole speakers of my Macbook Pro her voice comes across like a wave. The Chicago singer has done time in Will Oldham’s Babblers (a pick up group that covers Kevin Coyne and the Mekons at house shows/pajama parties) and she’s released some small run cassettes and 7″s. But it’s on her recent full length, Half Way Home, that Olsen really shines. The songs on this album possess a sincerity and directness that not all singers are capable of, much less without crossing into schmaltzy bathos. This music almost sounds beamed in from a previous age. The effect is transfixing, as if Olsen is playing a private set for you in your living room. That’s her over there on your couch, with a guitar and a bottle of wine, just telling it like it is. She’s is actually totally nonchalant in conversation, seemingly just happy to have a break from her day job of making sandwiches at a cafe counter. Her first Vancouver show – at the Media Club later this month – should be a good one. Readers, I give you Angel Olsen…

Tomorrow is the start of a pretty big tour for you. You’re touring up the West Coast, over to the UK, and then back to the East Coast. Have you toured a lot? For my own music, not really. I went on an East Coast tour in November and then I went to the Netherlands in September when the album came out. I’m trying to plan more tours on my own, for my own music. But for the last few years I’ve toured a lot with Will Oldham, which is a totally different experience.

Back in Chicago what are the cool spots you like to play? My friends own a cafe in Chicago and I’ll play there, just solo sets or whatever. I like the smaller bars. I think they have way more charm. There’s a place called The Burlington in Chicago that’s been around forever and they just opened up a back room that’s awesome. It’s really mellow. There’s another place called The Hideout that’s really cool. But yeah, I like playing in bars, which is a bit weird because you’d think that someone who plays solo a lot would like intimate situations. But I think that bars can be intimate. You go see someone play and you buy a drink. I’m not turned off by it.

I’ve been listening to Half Way Home and it’s really nice. You have a really strong voice. Something that I appreciate in particular is that your voice is pretty much unadorned. So much music today masks the singing in dollops of reverb and delay. My first album was super lo-fi and not really well done, and going from that to working really hard on making things sound good has been a really good step for me (laughs). But I prefer playing live. It’s just more…I feel like I’m having fun, too, and I’m not just giving my record to people and saying, “See ya!”

So it’s a little more immediately satisfying? Yeah, totally.

When did you start singing? I dunno. I’ve pretty much being doing it since I was a little kid. But trying to seriously write songs, I didn’t start that until I was 15 or 16. I think I’ve always wanted to be a performer, definitely.

Your singing is really strong and it’s got a really classic quality, almost like someone from the 50s or 60s… I think I draw from a lot of different singers. I really like Spanish music. I really love Amalia Rodrigues. There’s just something about it that really moves me. And I also like The Miracles and The Everly Brothers. I like a lot of old music and I know my music has a kind of nostalgia to it and I don’t really mind that it does because I don’t think I’m writing in the same way that they would’ve written back then.

What was the first cassette or cd you bought when you were a kid? I think it was a Mariah Carey CD or maybe Boyz II Men (laughs).

How does it feel to have your music get this much attention? Interviews, kind words from The New York Times, etc. Is it unexpected? It kind of feels weird. It’s kind of unexpected. We were talking earlier about how Half Way Home is really kind of dry and you can hear my voice, versus my first album which was drenched in reverb, a rainshower of reverb. I wasn’t sure if everyone was ready to hear something so dry because everyone likes that comfortable distance, you know? I don’t really want to listen to what someone is singing about. I’d rather listen to this zoned out music. And I was just kind of like, well I don’t know if people are going to like this at all but we’ll see. I mean, I played a show in Los Angeles last January and I didn’t expect anyone to be there. And it was full of people and I thought, “Who are these people? I have no idea why they’re here!” It’s a strange experience, but not a bad one. Before I was just over here making sandwiches, living my life. It’s surprising but it’s good.

So it gets you away from the sandwich counter for a little bit. Yeah, I can stop making sandwiches for a minute!

Angel Olsen plays the Media Club on Sunday, Apr. 21st. Tickets at Zulu, Red Cat and the venue.


Daniel Colussi is the Music Editor of Scout Magazine and a contributing writer to Ion Magazine. A veteran employee of Zulu Records and tuneage aficionado, he DJs on an infrequent basis (about four times a year) and is a musician around town who plays in several ensembles.

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