Angel Olsen Chases Creativity on Album ‘Big Time’—“I’m Proud of This Record for a Number of Reasons”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Angel Olsen is looking for a cat-sitter. She released her latest LP, Big Time, on June 3, and was hitting the road in a few weeks for a big summer and fall tour to support the record, her first since Whole New Mess in 2020. She had many dates ahead of her—so many, in fact, that her manager joked about recording her verbal agreements so she can’t exact revenge later for the many stops. (Olsen laughs when sharing this detail.) But what’s not a laughing matter is that she needed to find someone to watch her cat as she traveled with Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker for their Wild Hearts Tour. Olsen, who is a genre unto herself, breathy and moody as a singer, poignant and beautiful as a performer, has high expectations for whoever will watch her feline. 

“In this moment,” she tells Americans song during an interview earlier this year, “I’m just trying to find a cat-sitter for all those dates, you know what I mean?” 

Of course, Olsen has many additional responsibilities, from doing press to explaining her creative motivations on the album, which includes subject matter ranging from the death of her parents to coming out as queer. Also, she hasn’t been on tour much lately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But now she’s ready to hit the road and be in front of audiences. It’s the mark of a complicated, even dualistic existence, one with real-life concerns and professional triumphs. 

“The whole point,” Olsen says, “is you want [attention] to support the record and lift the record and make this beautiful statement. But it doesn’t always mean I’m in the best place of my life.”

Olsen remembers a prior album cycle during which she had to answer questions every day while also going through a tough breakup. This time around, she’s talking about death and sexuality. It can be hard, even if necessary.

Olsen’s musical life began more than three decades ago, around the age of 3 when the adopted Olsen received a keyboard from her biological uncle. That’s when the world of singing and songwriting opened. 

“Since the very beginning,” she says, “I was interested in going into that world and creating things.” She is a visual person, so in song, she’d imagine new surroundings. “It was kind of like a way to pretend. To go into my own little universe.” 

She’d write, sing, record, and listen back. That mode is still a big part of her process. When she’s on a creative streak, Olsen will write and record and then share what she comes up with. Upon sharing a song, if she feels that immediate pang of regret, she’ll explore her response and parse what needs tinkering. As a kid, she says, she “obsessed” over recording and listening back to the mistakes. That’s how she found her voice. Her voices. And when she doesn’t recoil, she knows she has something. 

“There’s nothing better than that feeling,” Olsen says. “Almost like your brain put together a puzzle. Like, how did I even do that?”

Olsen grew up in St. Louis and in the city, found small pockets of musicians she could relate to. That took her to Chicago where her sounds were more embraced. She played house shows and gigs in lofts and basements. When she started writing, she was more insular and introverted, but she began to spread her wings in the Windy City. Then she began working as a backup singer with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. That took her on tour and eventually to Asheville, North Carolina, where she’s been living for a decade. She released music after working at it for so long and almost immediately got offers for management and tours. Now, Big Time represents her sixth LP, with standouts like the self-affirming “This Is How It Works” and the exultant “All the Good Times.”

“I’m proud of this record for a number of reasons,” Olsen says. 

In the past, she’s actively tried to avoid being “genre-ized,” or put into a box. Now, though, she’s more comfortable with whatever she makes. It’s going to be cohesive because she’s cohesive. She doesn’t have to struggle to fit a song into a style anymore. In a weird way, the pandemic helped. Previously, she’d been constantly “playing catch-up.” But after the release of her fifth album, she had a chance to “sit with myself” and coalesce.

“That does a number on your writing,” she says. 

Today, the 35-year-old is extending her creativity, thinking about journaling, and even dabbling with a screenplay. It can be scary, but what else is there? Olsen is not afraid of a challenge. Even when it comes to finding the perfect song—or cat-sitter. 

“It’s important to always be gathering information as a writer,” she says, adding, “I love that music can change your mood. It can create a space for you to go into—it’s not even a space, it’s just a sound. I love that about it.”

Photo by Angela Ricciardi

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