Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen Are Aware You Compare Them
Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen are used to being compared to one another, and they don’t mind. In fact, they see it as the highest form of compliment. On their new single, “Like I Used To,” the musicians merge their vocal powers and songwriting prowess for a record that oozes nostalgia. It’s the kind of beckoning power ballad that fans know and love from the artists, arriving just in time for wistful late sunsets and 70-degree nights. Below, Van Etten—whose recent release, epic Ten, also includes features by Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple, Shamir, and Courtney Barnett—speaks with Olsen about emerging from a year of solitude to create and collaborate.
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Hi, sorry I’m late. How are you?
ANGEL OLSEN: I’m okay. I’m hanging in there. How are you? Where are you coming from?
VAN ETTEN: I’m house-sitting for a friend. Just couch surfing, but hanging in there. Just me and the dog hanging out, unpacking.
OLSEN: I feel that.
VAN ETTEN: Are you in North Carolina right now?
OLSEN: Yeah, I’ve been here. Well, I went on a trip about a week or so after I got back, and I’ve been here since. I’m hoping to stay here for a while until July. So I have a few questions for you. Hold on. I’m really bad at interviewing someone I already know.
VAN ETTEN: I know. I mean, there’s so much I still want to know about you, Angel.
OLSEN: Do you feel like you changed a lot about your career during this time? Because for me, I didn’t miss touring. I want to get back out there with my band because I love making music, but I also got to be home for the first time in like seven years. So I was just wondering if it was like that for you as well?
VAN ETTEN: It was definitely a mix of emotions for me. I feel like any time there’s an emotional hurdle you have to get over, the first one is really hard, and then with the next one you’re just kind of bracing yourself for something else, and at every point, things kept changing. I just said, “Okay, well this is how it is right now, and I’ll adjust again.” We had just relocated from the East Coast and were finally starting to feel a bit settled, and I didn’t even realize what a homebody I was before COVID happened. It was nice to spend more time with my kid and figure out this new balance and what it means to be home and do all the things. Have you tried to offset your time at home with any activities other than music?
OLSEN: For a while, I was like, “Maybe I’ll start writing about my life,” or “maybe I’ll start a zine.” And I started to feel like, who wants to know about my life right now? I’m sure the fans want to know about what led me here, but I started to feel like I was taking up space by doing that, which is dumb because my entire singing career is taking up space. I had a big talk with Christian, my manager, and was like, “Maybe I’ll take some time off from recording and touring and doing that back-to-back all the time.” But of course I don’t really know how to stop doing that because I’m in it, you know? So here I am. I’ve continued to sing and found myself continuing to work on stuff, even if it felt slower because I was home. I really, really needed that. I love to be at home, but I also love having a purpose. I don’t want to stop making music or working, but at a certain point, you do need to take a moment and think about all the years that you spend on the road. There’s been a lot of reflection this year.
VAN ETTEN: I know that you’ve written a lot. Do you find that the things that you’re writing tend to be more reflective of what’s happened this past year? Or is it kind of a mix?
OLSEN: I started to feel like I was overzealously wanting to use my platform for talking about politics and what was happening in the election and the music industry and what my place in it all was. I was sort of manically excited to be sharing news and ideas and thoughts, and then I just came to a halt and was like, “I’m taking up space again.” At a certain point, the best way for me to really express these thoughts and feelings and fears and to really confront myself about these things was to continue what I’ve always been doing, which is write music and try to put some of this stuff into songs. The way that I write anything, it’s pretty open-ended. But a lot of stuff that was happening has affected my writing recently.
VAN ETTEN: I’m still in the process of figuring out how it all fits together. You know, having a studio at home has been nice, but at the same time, I’ve had to learn when to stop to let other people find themselves in it. I don’t know if you feel that.
OLSEN: I do feel that. I definitely get attached. There are certain songs that I can’t let go of the way that they were. Was the beginning of “Like I Used To” an older demo, or was it something that you put away for a while?
VAN ETTEN: I wrote that last year as COVID was hitting. It’s such an effort to say to myself, “I want to try to write a feel-good song.” Make it a little bit faster than normal, which is still slow for me, and just try to get myself in a different tempo and mindset and energy while still reflecting on what’s actually happening. At the beginning of all this, I found myself falling into old habits now that I was home. It’s like laughing at my adult self that stays up too late and has a couple of extra drinks than I’m supposed to. It was more of a joke to myself at first when I started it. And I did put it aside. You and I had been talking when we were working on the “Femme Fatale” cover, and I was just like, “You know what? I’m going to push my luck here.” But I had this internal dialogue—I felt like I was singing like you. I was paranoid that I was ripping you off. And so I was like, “I’m just going to send it to her and see if she’s going to call me on it.”
OLSEN: Your writing and singing style remains really unique. Honestly, this is just so cool that we were able to meet each other with our voices and with our writing and go back and forth on this. A lot of people over the years are like, “You guys sound alike,” and I think we sound really distinctly different, but with harmonies you learn to step back or to match someone’s style. Harmonizing is not about sticking out, necessarily. It’s about making something strong. I just have to keep my head down and continue to sing and play music. People have compared us to each other, but I’ve never felt weird about it. I’ve always felt like the relationship between us has been really strong. There are definitely artists where I’m like, “I should wait to listen to it until it’s done” because I don’t want to accidentally create something that’s too much like theirs. But with this song, it was an opportunity for us to get together and make something with both of our styles attached to it, and I love that.
VAN ETTEN: It’s funny because we’ve toured a lot, highway high-fiving each other and stuff, and we’ve had hangs along the way in Europe and at festivals. I’ve been to your shows, I’ve cried in the audience. I imagine people think that we hang out all the time but because of our schedules and especially this past year, it’s not something we really get to do. I’m honored that you wanted to fly out here to be a part of it and put so much of your heart in it during such a hard time.
OLSEN: It was nice to participate in something and have it be shared versus having to be at the complete center of it. It was a little less stressful.
VAN ETTEN: It did feel very shared to me. Not just between you and me, but by everyone that was a part of the video as well. I felt like everyone was in it and cared about it. It was nice to focus on something other than the routine that we’ve had in isolation; to travel and to be in the same room with people and to feel creative and working towards the same goal has definitely lit a spark in me, and I can’t wait to get to do it more when I’m in the right headspace.
OLSEN: Do you have any questions for me? We got to hang out a little bit after the shoot, but we didn’t really get to hang deep because it was just full days working.
VAN ETTEN: There were long days, and you had longer days than me since you had to go back home. You were such a trooper. You have two shows out here this year, right? What’s on the books?
OLSEN: I think I’m going to see you at Outside Lands. I know that.
VAN ETTEN: I don’t know how it’s going to feel like when I’m there, what a festival is going to feel like after Zooming. But I’m excited.
OLSEN: How do you feel about doing TV performances however you want to do them? Because I love that, and I’m going to have a really hard time going back. I did it for Whole New Mess and I’m sure I could have done something a little more creative than I planned. At the time it was the middle of the pandemic and it’s in the middle of Asheville. I’m not in L.A. so there are less people around to facilitate a music filming thing. I just watched Billie Eilish on Fallon or one of those late nights, and she’s in Joshua Tree and it sounds perfectly like a studio recording, it’s crazy. I am looking forward to performing. Performing this song live will be fun. I’m trying to imagine what my next record will sound like and how that will form with the band. It’s really weird to be completely clueless and then one day it happens and you just do it over and over and over again. It’s hard to know what the next thing is going to be.
VAN ETTEN: I think just like minor league baseball stadiums, you know? All outdoors, secondary markets. A booking agent’s dream.
OLSEN: For sure. Well, I’m looking forward to it, whatever it is.
VAN ETTEN: You have songs to make a record, right? You’re going to be sesh-ing it up?
OLSEN: My goal is to write four more songs in the next two months. I already have like 12 songs written that I wrote in 2020. Everyone’s going to be coming out with a record at the same time because we’ve all been on hold. I’m just trying to figure out the timing of everything. But yeah, my goal is to continue writing more over the next two months and then record as soon as possible, maybe in July, but we’ll see. That way I can be on tour in the spring of 2022. Who knows?
VAN ETTEN: 2022.
OLSEN: I know, it’s so weird to say that out loud. It feels like there was a year skipped in life, but it was definitely meant to happen. All of the changes that happened for me in 2020 personally were meant to happen. So I’m blessed. It’s a weird backwards blessing, but I’m excited to be recording and sharing my experiences a little bit. For right now, I’m still gathering. I’m still forcing myself to get in the mood to write. I’ve hit kind of a wall, but hopefully I can push myself to that goal. Are you going to record anytime?
VAN ETTEN: Right now I’m listening to stuff. I’m so bad, I just create lists and lists and more lists and reorganize and go back and forth in what world I want them to live in. There’s part of me that just wants to allow them to coexist in different worlds because that’s how I feel like my brain and my heart have been. I don’t want it to feel like it’s a compilation of songs that don’t make sense together, so there’s always that balance. I’m trying to wrap my brain around what that is, but I still feel like I need to organize the demos, figure out what can I build upon, what do I want to re-record, who I want to work with. I know it’s a struggle for people to want to work on something that’s kind of hodgepodge. I’ll just put a synth across all of them and my drum machine and call it a day.
OLSEN: I look forward to hearing whatever it is, even if it’s a playlist.
VAN ETTEN: An Angel Olsen record?
VAN ETTEN: I’m actually calling my next record Angel Olsen. You’re giving me hope.
OLSEN: I can’t wait to hear what you’re making because it keeps getting better and better every time I hear it.
VAN ETTEN: I hope I don’t disappoint you. I’m trying to force myself to write happy songs, but I’m really, really good at being sad.