The Tiny Dreams of Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen is easily one of the most influential artists in today's music world.
Angel Olsen is easily one of the most influential artists in today's music world. Photo by Taylor Boylston

"That's been my number one rule, I only wanna' write a song that makes sense," remarks Angel Olsen over the phone last week.

Olsen has been making critics' top lists since she dropped her debut release Strange Cacti in 2011. She's made the rounds of the late night talk shows and garnered a pretty solid fan base of anyone who loves her mix of indie rock and singer songwriter tunes. Raised in St Louis, she relocated to Chicago to focus on music. "I think I had to be more creative coming up because there wasn't as much influence around me. You had to work harder in Chicago at that time, and the way I would meet people was to play shows."

Strange Cacti is a very intriguing release, with a lot of heft to the tracks. Songs like "Cosmic" and "Creator, Destroyer" seem to come from someplace else. "I feel like I was listening to Dolly Parton and lots of lady singers, and I was trying to figure my sound out. English folk music, French singer songwriters and jazz, going through the YouTube explosion before Spotify. I was always looking for old music that I thought wasn't discovered yet," she says.

With Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Olsen proved she could write catchy melodies with meaningful lyrics. "Sometimes I just forget, I forget that I'm that person until someone comes up and says, "hey I really love your music," and I remember, "oh yeah, I make music for a living," she says.

"It's weird, it's been a blessing and I don't know how it will be in the future. Even when I love the music of an artist, I want the writing to be there. It's been my number one rule for myself. Just to let go of being wordy, but also still say something."

Her follow up release, MY WOMAN made every music critic's top lists when it was released in 2016. It's one of the more beautifully written records to come out in the past decade. Olsen co-produced the album with Justin Raisen, most known for his work with pop singers like Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira. "Typically I want to work with people with a different energy. I chose him because of his energy and I thought he'd be a great listener because of the fact that he was a pop producer. What I realized is that Michael Harris and my band mixed while they went, which is typically how it goes. In the future, I want the final say on the mix. Justin is a different personality than John (Congleton). You can't use the same tricks with the same producer on everything you make."

When digging into some of the songs off of MY WOMAN, it's apparent that Olsen writes differently than many artists, or it at least seems that way. A track like "Not Gonna Kill You" has a different structure than what a lot of music coming out today has, so much so that it's curious as how Olsen goes about writing songs. "With "Intern" it was experimenting, I wanted to write as someone else, a character or like a robot. I kind of romanticize different characters. I wrote "Shut Up Kiss Me" and "Not Gonna Kill You" in probably an hour in my living room. With "Woman," it took seven months and with "Sister" it took about a day.

"Sometimes songs take a long time to finish and I'll come to the band and say, "hey I finished that song I started 15 months ago." I think that's the same for people who write books. Some come fast and some take ten years. I just bought a house and I just wanna' focus on fucking writing, but I can't write in chaos. I'm in Asheville, it's cute. People ask why I live here, and why don't I want to live in a major city. But I really love coming home to nothing. That Neil Young song, "Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere," that's Asheville."

The instruments that Olsen employs while performing are a bit mystifying. A Gibson S-1 was never a popular choice when it was released in the mid-'70s, though it's a guitar that she adores. "The S-1 is very dear to me, if it were ever stolen, I don't know what I'd do. If I play a lighter guitar it feels strange. The lighter guitars don't feel as good as a heavy Gibson. I just got a Jimmy Reed Silvertone, and I'll have it for this solo tour. I just started with an acoustic/electric, but I need to get it set up. It sounds like a 12-string. I hated the acoustic look because I was trying to get away from the Americana look. But I realized, let them say I look however. I just got a pedal I really love called the Scrambler, and the Jimmy Reed really sounds great with pedals."

click to enlarge Angel Olsen will break out unreleased tracks and old favorites for her solo tour. - PHOTO BY TAYLOR BOYLSTON
Angel Olsen will break out unreleased tracks and old favorites for her solo tour.
Photo by Taylor Boylston

For her upcoming Tiny Dreams Tour, Olsen has teamed up with Plus1, donating a dollar of every ticket to Direct Relief. Direct Relief, helps provide health care in poorer communities, as well as promoting maternity health and aiding in emergency response. "They approached me and I hope to continue it. I wanna' get involved with my community and there's a women's shelter here I want to get involved with. There are things more important than being pretty on Instagram. It's been cool to see how many other artists are involved with them, and they'll have a tracker so I can see how much has been donated. Even people on the guest list, media and photographers too will have to donate the dollar."

The tour, will be Olsen's first solo tour in four years. The plan is to have plenty of old favorites mixed with unreleased material as well. "Half of it is just new music as well as songs from Strange Cacti, Half Way Home, two songs from MY WOMAN, "Sister" and "Never Be Mine." But it won't all be new stuff, the crowd would be bummed. I'd love to do that one day, and see how many tickets I'd sell then (laughs). I think some of my older fans have been waiting a while to hear some of those older songs. I'm trying to learn a Black Flag song, and do one different cover every night.  The Everly Brothers song, "Since You Broke My Heart" I was doing for a while. I did an Australian and a European version of this tour and I ended up talking more. I'm surprised people are coming out, it's been fun. It will look elegant, but I don't want to be scared to also be a person."

You can stream all of Angel Olsen's catalog on all platforms, or purchase her music on various platforms through her web store, or directly from Jagjaguwar Records. You can catch Angel Olsen in person, when she returns to Texas at the Paramount Theater in Austin on September 20, or at the Trans-Pecos Festival in Marfa on September 21. The all ages show in Austin has an opening performance from Hand Habits. Doors at 7 p.m.; tickets $30 to $40.
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David Garrick is a former contributor to the Houston Press. His articles focus primarily on Houston music and Houston music events.