Angel Olsen Starts a Band

Published May 17, 2013

ABOVE: ANGEL OLSEN

After releasing her debut EP, Strange Cacti, as a small run cassette on Bathetic Records in 2010, Angel Olsen soon found herself playing with Will Oldham, both in Oldham’s cover band The Babblers, and as a recording and touring member with Bonnie “Prince” Billy‘s Cairo Gang. In 2012, she released her full-length debut, Half Way Home, and crisscrossed the United States as a solo act. Now, Olsen has finally formed a band—bassist Stewart Bronaugh, drummer Joshua Jaeger, and cellist Danah Olivetree —with which to tour. “Before, I was watching other people, Will and everybody else, watching how they approach situations and how tours went for them,” says Olsen. “It’s interesting to see how different it is when it’s something I have to organize myself.”

This month, Bathetic Records released both Strange Cacti and Half Way Home on CD for the first time, and, perhaps more excitingly, Olsen signed a label deal with Jagjaguwar Records. She is currently wrapping up a tour in support of Kurt Vile and will headline Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn on May 19.

FRANK VALISH: So, how crazy is your life right now? It seems like you’ve been on tour coast-to-coast for a couple years. You just signed to Jagjaguwar Records. You formed a band.

ANGEL OLSEN: It has been nonstop. I’ve been on tour since April. I had a break in the winter, but I was getting a band together. So yeah, I’ve been working. A lot. But it feels good to experience it head on.

VALISH: I understand that your touring setup is a bit different this time around. How so? Is it different from the solo sets you performed the last couple times you were East?

OLSEN: I was performing solo in Ireland and England when I was there. Before that, I spent three weeks on the West Coast with a full band, cello, bass, and drums. The way we did it was we played altogether for eight songs or so, and then Danah [Olivetree] and I played a song together, and I played a few solo, so that people could have the experience of what I do solo and what I do with a band. Now Danah’s with me, and the boys are going to join me Sunday at Glasslands.

VALISH: Have you written any new songs with the band or are you adapting the other material?

OLSEN: I wrote a lot over the winter. I’ve been playing four or five of the new songs with the band live, and then for the rest of the stuff, it’s written but I’m figuring out whether the band is needed. Some of the songs are very sparse, and some of them are very upbeat. I’ve been coming up with a lot of new material and hopefully can play some of it on this tour.

VALISH: What was the impetus for you to form the band?

OLSEN: I still like the idea of playing solo for a lot of songs. There’s a definite intimacy that you don’t have with a band that you have alone. But it’s more fun to play with people and see what they add to what I’ve created, and to allow myself to feel more comfortable changing things as we go along. Older songs can become new and, when played with other people, they hear something different than I would hear. That’s been a really cool learning experience, exchanging that information with people, organizing it, and seeing how we all feel about it. I feel like it’s something that I’ve wanted for a while, and I feel blessed now that I have these people in my life that are willing to dedicate their time and energy to what I’m doing.

VALISH: Bathetic Records just reissued your first two albums on CD. Does it feel like one chapter is ending for you and another is beginning?

OLSEN: In some senses, I think Bathetic is really open to this change just as much as I am. In a lot of senses, things are definitely changing in my life, and with what’s going on around me. But I still feel like the writing process is as intimate as it as before, if not more. Because I need my time more than I had before.

VALISH: You’re becoming needed by more people.

OLSEN: It seems that way. I don’t know if that’s true. But I feel that there are more people surrounding me and supporting me and it feels really good, but I still need my time with myself to write.

VALISH: I read some of the other interviews you’ve done where you talked about your singing style and how it was developed. For me, your music and specifically your singing seems very much a throwback to vocalists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Can you tell me a bit about the music you grew up on? What music was playing in your home when you were growing up?

OLSEN: I listened to all kinds of stuff. My parents were really in to Garth Brooks, which I wasn’t into, but they were also really into The Everly Brothers and The Righteous Brothers. I listened to a lot of ’90s pop music. There was a definite point in my life, when I was like 14 or 15, when I started listening to oldies quite a bit, like The Beach Boys and The Everly Brothers. I was like, “Mom, this is sick. This is so sick.” But some things are just timeless, and I feel like those songs just rubbed off on me. I still listen to them pretty faithfully.

VALISH: Do you have a first musical memory?

OLSEN: I remember being in my back yard singing, and my piano teacher—she wasn’t my piano teacher yet but she was going to be my piano teacher; she lived next door—came up to me and my mom in church or something and was like “Hey, I heard you singing in the back yard the other day. It was really pretty.” And then she asked my mother if I wanted to take piano lessons.

VALISH: How old were you at the time?

OLSEN: Probably eight or nine.

VALISH: Another thing I found interesting in some of the stuff I’ve read is that people have talked to you about folk music, and you’ve said you weren’t particularly into folk music.

OLSEN: I wasn’t really until later. I listened to Leonard Cohen when I was 17. I don’t know if that’s necessarily folk music. I don’t know what folk music means anymore, because the meaning of that just keeps changing.

VALISH: How personal are the songs you write? Something like “Lonely Universe” [from Half Way Home], for example, seems deeply personal.

OLSEN: I think that there was this point where I realized I was really going to have to grow up, and I’d have to leave my parents and leave my home and find my own home and find my own place in life, and I think that inspired that song. But I don’t know if it was a direct influence from any source in my life at the time.

VALISH: Lastly, I just wonder whether you’ve recorded anything with the band. What’s next for you?

OLSEN: I’m going to record with them some time this summer. But I’m letting the songs breathe and change and become what they are without force. That’s what June’s going to be about. I think we’re going to do some demo recording and just play around with stuff. And then probably go into a studio pretty soon. So that’ll be fun. It’ll be another new experience.

VALISH: And then back on the road I imagine.

OLSEN: [laughs] But that’s the life I chose, I guess.

VALISH: Well, we’re happy about that.

OLSEN. Who knows? I don’t know how long it will last but I’m excited that it’s something that I’m doing right now.

ANGEL OLSEN IS PLAYING SUNDAY, MAY 19 AT GLASSLANDS IN BROOKLYN. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT HER WEBSITE.