Angel Olsen on turning fandom to stardom
If you’re not an indie music fan, this may mean less to you. Then again, if you are a fan of anything really – painting or jazz or film or skate culture – if you’re fascinated by the organic and seemingly mystical ways in which scenes and cliques and communities of cultural producers coalesce in particular places and at particular times, then you’ll get it.
Angel Olsen started out as a fan-girl herself. She grew up in St Louis, Missouri, a city she describes as the Detroit of the Midwest, “very industrial but also quite depressed”, with the rest of Missouri “very much ‘the country’ ”. Olsen was adopted by an older couple who already had grandchildren her age. She was a self-confessed “weird kid”, a “heavy thinker” and the only musical member of the family. At 31, Olsen is still girlish and excited when she talks about discovering the first of many scenes she has been part of. “There was this website called STL Punk, when I was 15 or 16,” she tells me. “This was pre-MySpace or Facebook. You could have your own profile and there was a chat room that said who was online and a calendar of all the DIY shows going on and what was going on at all the venues … And it was cool.”
I meet Olsen at a wine bar in Fitzroy, where she is drinking with her tour manager and booking agent, reminiscing about her previous visit to Melbourne. She stayed in the same hotel she’s in now, along with Mac DeMarco and Tame Impala, all here for Laneway Festival three years ago. “It was like camp,” she says. “There were like 50 people in one hotel room, drinking beer and spilling it on the carpet and smoking. I couldn’t believe no one came up to yell at us.” She is dressed plainly, in beige high-waisted jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, her face fresh and free of make-up, hair up in a wispy bun. She wears an antique ring and a gold locket on a fine chain, which she fiddles with as she talks. Later tonight, for her third of four consecutive shows at the Tote, she will take her hair down, revealing a classic choppy rock-chic do, but won’t change her outfit or put on make-up.
Between sips of cloudy white wine, Olsen recalls with obvious fondness her early initiation into music fandom, her mother dropping her off at a dodgy all-ages venue called The Creepy Crawl in downtown St Louis to see Battles play, insisting Olsen introduce her to the kids she’d met online before leaving her there. She had a mobile phone she was only allowed to use for the night and had to call home three times during the show. “We were the cusp, or the very early millennials, who were the first ones to use [the internet] as a resource to go and meet people,” she says.
This process of finding “her people” has been an ongoing one for Olsen. From her early punk days, via a brief stint as the frontwoman of a Gwen Stefani-inspired ska band, Olsen discovered the indie scene in which she is still both a participant and passionate fan today. “Something changed when I got introduced to indie music,” she tells me. She describes meeting a group of “older people”, probably all of 25, who introduced her to bands such as Belle and Sebastian, Mount Eerie, Broadcast and Stereolab. “Then later someone was like, ‘You need to listen to Leonard Cohen, you need to listen to Fairport Convention, King Crimson, The Velvet Underground…’ And I was like, ‘Okay, this is it.’ ”
Nineteen years old and “really deep” into indie music, Olsen went through a depressed period. “I couldn’t really find people who appreciated [the same music] in St Louis,” she says. “But I met some people from Chicago who would come in and play DIY shows at my friend’s house and got really chatty with them, wrote a bunch of emails, and eventually moved to Chicago.”
In Chicago, Olsen began playing three or four shows a week, in friends’ houses or small venues, getting thrills from being part of a scene in which signed bands were playing and going to shows alongside her and her friends, everybody in it for the love. “That was a thing in Chicago,” she says. “Everybody was playing some sort of gallery or loft space or someone’s house. This friend of mine had this venue in her basement called Ottoman Empire, and like Jeff the Brotherhood and Ty Segall and Plastic Crimewave Sound … and all these people from Drag City [Records] were mingling with these kids in this tiny fucking basement. It was a great time.”
The rise of Olsen is the stuff of romance, taking place within the small, organic DIY scene that spawned some of America’s indie royalty and seems almost impossible to imagine existing in a sustainable way here. Many of the former “weird kids” Olsen hung out with in the early days have been able to make successful careers doing what they love and collaborating with friends. “Eventually a lot of people in that scene got put on labels or they became tour managers or started working for labels or opened a club, you know,” Olsen says. “It’s cool looking back because at the time we were just getting shit-faced and we weren’t thinking, We’re part of something.”
Eventually, the connections she made during her time in Chicago would lead naturally to where she is now. One of the people she met there was Will Oldham, who performs as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. He offered her a job as a backing singer in his band, and she ended up on the road with him for more than two years. I ask her about that time, her first touring experience as a professional musician. “It was crazy. It was insane,” she says, laughing. Then she sobers. “Actually, it was very enlightening. I’m 22 or 23 years old, back-up singer in a band of mostly dudes who’ve been playing in bands for 20 years. And they all have been around the block, and they’re all in a different space because of their age and what they think about the music industry, because it’s changing, and I’m coming in going, ‘This is great! We’re in Italy! I’m 23 years old! Pour another glass!’ I was very quieted by the experience because I was trying to watch and observe and learn from it … It’s different when you’re on the road, it really is. You get worn from it.”
That was almost 10 years ago. Olsen is now a seasoned frontwoman herself, with her own hard-won, road-weary wisdom. This current tour she’s playing solo, doing a series of shows in smaller venues such as the Tote, perhaps as a break from touring with a band and the challenges that poses. General issues of collaboration – how to build a positive and sustainable relationship with a group of musicians – seem to be playing uneasily on her mind during our conversation, raising questions that I leave unasked.
“Relationships with bandmates get older and deeper and sometimes more intense and more complicated,” she says. “Money and value starts coming to a head. That sort of stuff is the hardest part about making music: making intimate music for people and having a good time while knowing that somebody’s secretly pissed off about something, and it’s probably your fault because you’re the centre of it.”
She is dealing with it by talking to other musicians, particularly about the feelings of isolation that she says come with both success and with life on the road. “That isolation thing… It’s nice to talk to other people who are in my position, people who are in charge of their band or the leader of their band – the boss in a way. I don’t want to have a band that’s just a hired group of players, and because of that there are certain consequences. Emotions. The context of relationships starts to get tricky. But I think it’s all worth it because it makes the music better, and it makes it feel better when you play. But it can be really exhausting, physically and emotionally.”
Olsen has relocated to the small mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, where she can retreat for some solitary time after touring or recording. “I really love being alone,” she tells me. “I think that’s why I live in Asheville. I get to travel the world, and I’m busy writing and I’m busy playing and then I go home to a place that doesn’t care if I’m a musician. There is a scene, but I’m not trying hard to matter in the scene. It’s really mellow, you know. We’ve got all the acai bowl shit, and kombucha on tap, and the mountains.”
When I see her show later that night, I am surprised by how different she is on stage. Alone with her electric guitar behind the lights, she is sassy, playful, provocative, channelling a wild and restless energy, asking the audience if anyone wants to fight her. She hands out beers to the front row, jokes about the state of the Tote’s filthy carpet and the “band room” that is just a partitioned, windowless space at the side of the stage. “I’ve been living here for three nights now,” she tells the crowd. “And I think I’m gonna come back tomorrow and do some redecorating.”
And then there is her voice, pitch perfect and pliant, shifting between the light, melodic elasticity of a 1930s chanteuse, the deeper, plain tones of ’70s folk, and a raw growl that evokes her early punk background. Of her voice, her performance, her presence on stage, she is utterly in control.
Before she embarked on this Australian tour, Olsen was asked to play in Philip Glass’s yearly Tibet House benefit show at Carnegie Hall. It was an experience that had a big impact on her, reminding her of what she loves about music – of the charm and beautiful chaos of being part of a close-knit scene. It took her back to her old, authentic fan-girl roots. “I walk into SIR studios in New York on the Thursday morning before we play,” Olsen gushes, “and there’s Dev Hynes from Blood Orange playing Philip Glass for Philip Glass. People are milling about drinking coffee and eating doughnuts and chitchatting, and there’s the string quartet over here tuning their instruments, and some guy on a laptop without shoes on is here, and I’m like, Where am I?” A starstruck Olsen was teamed with the Patti Smith band to perform one of her own songs as well as a cover of “I Found a Reason” by The Velvet Underground. “I was so excited to meet them,” she admits. “Terrified and excited… They were all super nice, and saying ‘If you’re ever in New York, let’s hang out.’ And I was, like, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.”
Again, Olsen found herself around a group of older and more experienced musicians, who have all navigated the same territory that she is only beginning to chart, who have been at it together for many years. “I left that experience thinking, ‘It’s so interesting and inspiring to see people who have obviously shared a lot of grief and change and weirdness and time together, and just continuing to play.’ ”
I leave my interview with Olsen feeling belatedly starstruck, seduced by the mythology and romance of American indie music and nostalgic for the pure, heady excitement of fandom. There is something lovely about catching an artist at the particular point in their career where Olsen is right now, when their success is fresh enough that they are still grateful, blushing, blown away by the opportunities being presented to them. And when they come from a place of simple, consuming love for music, as Olsen clearly does, it feels that, for once, the stars have aligned for the right person.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "The recording Angel". Subscribe here.