The singer-songwriter’s expansive new record Big Time was born out of two nightmarish and transformative years – here she explains how it all came together
Now on her sixth album, Angel Olsen can comfortably claim to be one of the best songwriters of his generation. Along with Sharon Van Etten, Olsen’s career foreshadowed the female indie explosion we’re currently experiencing, defined by artists like Snail Mail, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker (with whom Olsen is touring later this year). . from early days through his scuzzy indie rock breakout era to 2019’s magnificent sip of synths All mirrors, his discography is remarkably diverse, with each album carrying a distinct and cohesive sound. His last, Highligths, is no exception. Incorporating elements of country and Americana, alongside 1970s rock like Big Star and Fleetwood Mac, it is both simple and expansive, even epic; the instrumental arrangements are lush and richly textured, and Olsen’s vocals are breathtaking at times. First single All the good timeswhich begins quietly before exploding into an American tour de force, is one of the most delightful pieces of music you’ll hear all year.
Despite all its triumphs, the album is the product of a deeply difficult time. Shortly after coming out as queer, Olsen experienced the tragedy of losing both parents in quick succession. As such, there is a fierce and sometimes desperate quality to Highligths, but it’s also full of hope and challenge. Below, Olsen talks to AnOther about the influences and experiences behind one of the best records of 2022.
James Greig: Throughout your career, you have moved back and forth between stripped down, unadorned and intimate music, and grand and sumptuous music, with elaborate arrangements. What is the appeal of either style to you?
Angel Olsen: Sometimes when I write, I want the words to be front and center, and I want it to be intimate. At other times, I want to lose myself in sound; I want it to be a bit more loose, dreamlike, and vague in a way that’s open to interpretation. chasing the sun is a great example, because it starts off really intimate and then all of a sudden it becomes this crazy, theatrical moment with strings – I wanted something that felt like it was somewhere big, like mountains or the top from a vantage point. Strings are good at conveying those kinds of moments, whether they’re scenic or emotional. But other times it’s all about the words: I really get close, almost like I’m telling someone a secret.
JG: On this record, you feel like you’re experimenting with your voice as if it were any other type of instrument. How do you approach your voice when writing and recording?
AO: It’s like the record is a play and each song is a different character. It’s about getting a different tone across; they are all my voice but i lean on different aspects of it. all flowers is really vaporous and innocent, which is very different from Go home, who is very defiant and frustrated. So what Highligths is really upbeat and jovial, like having a good day at the park with a friend. Sometimes I experiment with a key first, a piano or a guitar, and think about how a key might look. A lot of these songs are from personal experiences, so I try to remember the absolute feeling I had back then with my voice.
“Enjoy the things that make you happy and learn to laugh at the things that don’t make you happy. You have to accept that it will continue to get worse and weirder as you get older” – Angel Olsen
JG. : How did you match Highligthsthe musical styles and lyrical themes of ?
AO: When I met Jonathan Wilson at his studio in Topanga, I played him some of the demos, and he played me some of the recordings he was working on. I just loved the way they sounded, and being up there in the canyon seemed really inspiring. I had made the choice to record in July, after having met him in March, and my parents died in the meantime, so the choice was already made. I had already finished most of the songs except three, and I really wanted to get out of town. I decided that if I couldn’t finish it, that would be fine, but I had to go out and see, because I didn’t want to sit still. I just wanted to try it, and that was exactly what I needed to do at the time.
JG: Do you think the grieving process influenced the recording of the album?
AO: I think so, because I was so pissed off that I could only concentrate on singing and didn’t care about anything else. In previous recordings, I hear myself feeling pressured or playing for the producer. But in that environment, I really gave it my all and didn’t think too much about it. I felt in the songs in a different way, and they also had more time to breathe before I recorded them. Whereas in older recordings I can tell it’s always a new song; I hesitate to sing or the voice sounds calculated or something like that.
JG: This album contains a lot of tonal extremes; some of the songs are very desperate or dark, but a lot of them are hopeful.
AO: I think maybe it’s just because I’m in my thirties and losing people in my life alongside the pandemic has been really humbling and soothing. Eventually I started to realize what matters most to me and how much I really enjoy spending my time. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way through all of this. Life goes on, and just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean more bullshit isn’t happening to you.
So I went through all this crazy stuff and got to a point where I realized you really have to take it one day at a time, enjoy the things that make you happy and learn to laugh at the things that don’t. don’t like. ‘t. You have to accept that it will continue to get worse and weirder as you get older. The only way out is to face it head-on.
JG: The video of Highligths takes place in a sort of queer country living room. Here in Britain, at least, country music has a reputation for being quite straight and conservative. Do you think there’s something subversive about putting a queer spin on the genre?
AO: I mean, there are a lot of gay people who like Shania Twain and Dolly Parton! I also live in a very strange town in the south, so there are a lot of them there too. That’s one of the reasons I like it there. People are really open-minded and progressive, even in this tiny Appalachian town, and there’s country karaoke happening once a week in this neighborhood bar, which is a huge inspiration for the video. It was also fun trying to make country songs because country music is often very simple, isn’t it? You can convey something really intense or sad in a simple, upbeat way.
JJ: All the good times is a sad, depressed breakup song that turns into something really euphoric and upbeat. How did you balance these two elements?
AO: The song was written in 2017 and I was mad at someone at the time. It’s like you’re on the journey with me through the heartbreak. You know when you’re in a breakup or you’re fighting and you’re like [she speaks in an exaggeratedly quiet, small voice] “Oh, I don’t care anymore. It’s over.” Then all of a sudden, you’re like, “Actually, you know what? No, fuck off! I’m fine! You go through these different stages of being calm and not worrying about being like, “actually, you know what? You’re the worst.”
JG: What was it like co-writing Highligthsthe title song, with your partner?
AO: It was first done as an exercise. I was having a hard time: usually I go into the studio with 15 or 16 songs, with a few leftovers, but I hadn’t finished three of them and I was panicked. And I didn’t feel like writing and my partner could tell I was frustrated so they just suggested it as something to try for fun. I decided it would be a great title track because I had all these time travel dreams. And it’s been a really long time, not just for me but for everyone I know. So it was less about, like, “we had the big time” and more about it being a big time. The song is about loving the things I learned during this time, even though it was hard.
JG: Is it more difficult to write a happy love song than a sad song?
AO: The more pain you feel, the more open you are and you can love bigger after that. Although obviously for some people it’s the opposite and they become more reserved. I’ve lost all of these things in the past – but without losing them, I wouldn’t be here today, just as I am.
So Highligths isn’t even just a love song. In the end, it’s really about how you see everything. Even if you sleep with someone in the same bed for 50 years, you are still with yourself. And it’s about surrendering to that and realizing that you’re on a journey.
Angel Olsen’s Big Time is out June 3
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