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Deeper Read: Things You (Possibly) Didn't Know About Angel Olsen

18 October 2019

By Triple R volunteer writer Katherine Smyrk

She’s an indie-rock darling, she’s verbose and melodious, she’s sharp and punchy, she’s a soloist, she’s playing with a 14-piece orchestra, she’s Roy Orbison, she’s Bjork, she’s light and dreamy, rollerskating in a silver wig, she’s tender haunting, all winged eyeliner and dark hair.

Upon the release of her fifth album – All Mirrors , Triple R’s Album of the Week – we take a closer look at the undefinable Angel Olsen, and some things you may not know about her…

SHE HAD AN UNUSUAL CHILDHOOD

Angel Olsen is kind of sick of talking about her childhood. Adopted at age three by her foster parents – a much older couple who were often mistaken to be her grandparents – she grew up in St Louis, Missouri, in a poor, religious family with eight children, although most of her siblings were out of home and starting their own families.

‘People only want to hear about my dark childhood; that’s all that matters to anyone,’ she told Bristol in Stereo. In reality, it seems like it was a pretty wholesome way to grow up.

She told Pitchfork: ‘The family that raised me are awesome people and they are my mother and my father and my brother and my sister. I've never viewed them as these "strangers" that took over. It's never been this crazy, dramatic, Lifetime-movie situation. It's been chill.’

Her parents gave her a love of ’50s music, and her mother taught her the skill of ‘saying dark shit and then smiling’. A fine legacy.

SHE WAS ALWAYS ALL ABOUT MUSIC

Since her uncle gave her a tiny Yamaha keyboard to celebrate her adoption, Angel has always been musical. She took piano and guitar lessons as a child, and had a habit of recording herself singing on a tape recorder ­– kind of unbelievably, she has never had singing lessons. No-one else in her family was a musician, but they all loved music; her birthday tradition was to go to the St Louis Symphony with her mum.

‘Music is the first thing I ever cared greatly about,’ she told Pitchfork. ‘I've been singing and writing songs since I was six or seven. My parents would tell stories about how I'd wake up in the middle of the night and start singing and they'd have to get me to go back to sleep.’

She fronted a rock band called Goodfight in high school, and moved to Chicago at 20. She had a brief stint at massage therapy school, but quickly got into the city’s DIY music scene. She was the singer for cover band The Babblers, with Will Oldham, better known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

But it was only a matter of time before she made her own music, starting with a cassette EP called Strange Cacti in 2010. By the release of her first album, 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel had signed with Jagjaguwar. Her third album, My Woman, was critically acclaimed.

‘Not very many people have been blessed to know that that’s what they want to do from their childhood. And it stuck with me.’

SHE ISN’T ALWAYS SAD

Angel is an over-thinker, and a self-confessed goth.

‘I’ve always been someone who obsesses over life and death and darkness and brightness,’ she told Crack Magazine. ‘Maybe that’s why I feel like I am a true goth. I’m just always thinking about time, and then I start thinking about death. Now I’m just fully embracing it.’

But, she’s not always sad. After her first album, which she describes as ‘dark and fucked-up’, Angel says people kept assuming she was always miserable.

‘[People think] you're just sobbing in your closet with all your clothes around you,’ she told Pitchfork. ‘A lot of people ask me if I'm OK. I'm capable of crazy – a lot of people are – but I'm okay.’

She says that after her shows, audience members would come up and share deeply personal and traumatic stories with her – something she wasn’t quite sure how to deal with. She actually has a whip-like sense of humour, a darkly funny side; she likes to laugh at herself.

‘Music is a wonderful thing to do with your life,’ she said to The Guardian. ‘But it’s a fucked-up thing to do to your psyche. So I have to make fun of myself being sad and bummed out sometimes, and invite listeners to do the same.’

HER NEW ALBUM HAS TWO VERSIONS

All Mirrors is a sweeping, epic album, Angel’s sound augmented by a 14-piece orchestra and production from John Congleton. But it didn’t start out that way. After near burn-out from her No Woman tour, Angel has been doing things solo and lo-fi for a while. And All Mirrors started on a similar path. All of the tracks were first recorded as simple, solo tracks, but then Angel decided she wanted to do something more with them.

‘I knew I wanted something big and epic and different than the stripped-back versions I had done,’ she told Billboard. So she recruited Congleton, and had friends and composers Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt create a ‘world of dark clouds around my songs’.

She plans to release the original version of the album next year. ‘I got to make my Nebraska,’ she told The New York Times, referring to Bruce Springsteen’s famously spare album, originally recorded as a set of demos.

SHE’S ALONE AND HAPPY ABOUT IT

On Instagram last week, Angel posted a black-and-white photo of herself in a long wedding dress, ensconced in an ornate veil.

‘Ya’ll, I finally got hitched. With myself. For myself. The time is now. Big surprise!’

While touring for My Woman, Angel went through a break-up that she likens to a divorce, and All Mirrors reflects that. But while people might see it as a break-up album, she says it’s actually an album about changing. And, surprising even herself, she’s happy on her own.

‘I had left this thing and it was really hard… Then I bought a house, and I did all these things that I never thought I could do without this person,’ she told Pitchfork. ‘I always thought I’d be a person with a traditional life… But I just don’t know if I’m ready to give my life to anyone in that way. I actually feel nice spreading out in my bed and not worrying about someone waking up next to me and saying something dumb. There was this freedom that I never had.’

She is happy living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her cat Violet (who has her own Instagram, @violettttcat). A lot of her friends there aren’t in the music world. In between tours, she likes to come home, watch a lot of Humphrey Bogart films, go on hikes.

‘I’m happy, and it’s great,’ she said to The Fader. ‘Who knew I would be happy? Not me.’

But she says will continue to make music, no matter what life throws at her.

‘Yes, my life has been weird. It’s been really fucking weird,’ she told Bristol in Stereo. ‘[But] I’m really blessed that I can make music. And what I’m learning is that even if I hate being on tour sometimes, I won’t stop writing because I have to write. It’s part of who I am.’


Katherine Smyrk is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the Deputy Editor of The Big Issue. When she's not reading or writing she is usually eating cheese, playing footy or dancing to Beyoncé. You can follow her on Twitter.