Angel Olsen: The Sound of Silence


Videos by American Songwriter

Saturday evening in early April, a handful of Angel Olsen’s first-in-the-door fans are waiting at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop. Olsen is a 26-year-old singer-songwriter and this is the first date of her Western U.S. tour, and she is heading to the green room for a nap before her openers go on. She is tiny and pretty and low-key in a black-and-white striped t-shirt, black jeans, and brown boots with laces. She’s pulled her hair into a ponytail and pouf. Her manager lounges behind the merch table, stacked with her latest album as well as the re-press of her first, Strange Cacti. The waiting fans lean against the red-curtained walls of the club or sit up in the balcony or linger at the bar drinking cocktails out of pint glasses. They don’t notice Olsen making her way to the curtained door beside the stage, even though she isn’t wearing the glasses she wears as disguise before a show. Later tonight she will perform with her new band (together for the first time). A few others from her cohort drift around Rickshaw Stop: her manager, Mark Capon from Asheville; and Jon Hency, the guy who found her on MySpace and produced her first two records. Hency also lives in Asheville. Olsen lives in Chicago.

This is Olsen’s second solo tour. For her first, in November, she went East, and this time she wanted to go West. So she starts in San Francisco—or actually in Oakland, where, last night, she put on a show at the house of her band’s cellist, just for friends and friends of friends. This was a fitting launch for the trip, as living room shows are how she got her career start. When she was 20, she moved to Chicago from St. Louis, and house shows were the way to get a leg up and your music out. Olsen and her friends brand house shows as “DIY” (“Do It Yourself”): you create your music and keep pushing yourself to find your own voice. Olsen has trained hers to move from a traditional, smooth lower register into a high range that gives raw emotional pitch to her lyrics. She continues pushing it and this is how she will set herself apart. When you’re DIY, you figure it out. For performances, you collect friends in someone’s loft or living room, and it’s BYOB, and you play with a few people or you play solo. You get an audience of twenty or a hundred, who give a donation or not.

Olsen’s music, and the way she sings it, has been getting niche attention for a couple of years, and since September the curiosity has been intensifying. She has a reputation for being able to silence the loudest dive bars, making space for her songs. In the past few years she has developed a striking stage presence with an intense gaze that seems focused only on you. The lyrics she writes are intense and raw and poignant. You connect to her sense of longing. “What I find in her songs is an imbalance in every relationship,” says singer-songwriter Matt Kivel, who opened for her one-off solo show at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater in January. “She loves someone more than they love her. And that is a heartbreaking thing.”

Angel Olsen – Tiniest Seed (Official Video) from Randy Sterling Hunter on Vimeo.

Olsen put out her second record, Half Way Home, in September. It was the first follow-up to Strange Cacti from 2010, which she made by playing and singing into her laptop and sending the files to Jon Hency, who’d convinced her to do it. He produced it as a cassette. (Bathetic Records began as a cassette-only label about eight years ago. Hency has a tape cassette collection you wouldn’t believe.) She recorded it in the empty kitchen of the house she’d just moved into, and it’s lo-fi, with lots of reverb. (This house was in the kind of neighborhood where she’d go to the Laundromat and run into someone and wonder if he’d just shot somebody.) At the time, she says, she was working a minimum-wage job at Argo Tea, where they were either going to fire her or promote her. She hadn’t known Hency personally. He had moved from Arkansas to Chicago and was scouring MySpace for Chicago artists to include on a compilation tape for Bathetic. Coming across Olsen’s page, he got stuck on an instrumental track she’d posted. She was playing the accordion. “It was kind of dreamy,” Hency says. “Kind of a dark, stormy sea.” He went to see her at a bar and was blown away. She had plenty of original songs to record, and she hadn’t been ready to let go of them yet. The first cassettes sold out, and he made more, and then produced it as an LP. That sold out, too, and until the re-press in March, Strange Cacti on vinyl was going for up to $150 on eBay. They’re selling the new batch on tour along with Half Way Home.

Half Way Home was Olsen’s second and last record for Bathetic. Two days before this Western tour, the prominent indie label Jagjaguwar, based in Bloomington, Indiana, announced they’d signed her. (Their other artists include indie favorites like Bon Iver and Sharon Van Etten.) When she’s finished up out here; when she’s played a few festivals and venues in the U.K. and Ireland; when she’s through with additional East Coast dates (including three with Kurt Vile of The War on Drugs), there may be talk of a new record. She doesn’t force her writing: it comes, and she has new songs that she’s trying out on tour. When it comes to putting something out, Jon Coombs of Jagjaguwar says they’re following her lead: whatever she’s been doing is working out well.

Olsen’s stage presence intrigues people. They variously say it’s commanding, intense, piercing, mysterious, silencing. When she stares off stage she seems to be peering right into you, telling something to only you. An L.A. Weekly blogger wrote, after her Bootleg show: “Is she eyeball-fucking the whole crowd, or just someone in particular?” The New York Times reviewed her Brooklyn show at Glasslands Gallery in November and noted that about 200 fans were utterly hushed and stopped buying drinks and even stopped drinking, and that the bartenders put their elbows on the bar and just listened. “It was remarkable”—thus spake the Times. And her friends—who have known her for a long time and have seen her evolution from nervous singer-songwriter to an artist who takes over the room with a voice that takes you into uncharted, unexpected places—all talk about it. She casts a spell: she can hold an audience of hundreds in the palm of her hand, says Jagjaguwar’s Jon Coombs, who tracked her for a few years and approached her about signing before the release of Half Way Home. Her friend and former roommate Emily Elhaj says she’s more of a mystery onstage than she once was. “That lends itself to intrigue, and everyone is very quiet and listening,” Elhaj says. “She takes playing in front of people more seriously—it’s just the evolution and maturity of an artist.”

* * * *

There’s a lot of anticipation built up around this spell she’s going to cast. Still, Olsen says, you never know what to expect. In San Francisco tonight the crowd is active and reactive and she doesn’t silence them right away. Instead, she chats. Later she’ll say of all the talking: “That was really surprising.”

When she comes on, the Rickshaw Stop audience double and people shift positions and squeeze in between one another for a better view of her onstage. A few guys shout words and phrases and running commentary to her, and she plays for more. “I feel like I’m in a cloud,” she says. “I’m in a little cloud, you guys.” And then: “I’m really going to go for it, guys.”

She smiles before setting out on some intense lyrics from “Always Half Strange.” I thought I knew it well. In my mind I knew well what I wanted you to be. In this world I know the lover never really is who he is to me. Some bloggers who have been following her talk about the sadness of her lyrics, suggesting she’s sad in person. She’s actually pretty buoyant. She makes fart jokes. And then, Capon says, when they’re all being silly she’ll come out with some insightful line that splits silliness into different layers. She’s a poet.

Despite the poignancy of the “Half Way Strange” lyrics, it’s an upbeat song. Olsen uses her volatile higher range to make certain words flicker with sad or restive meaning. The fans are grateful and someone shouts: “Good show!” and Olsen says: “Sick. I’m a little tired, a little cloudy, a little dirty. Siiiiick.” Sometimes when a day has been hectic, like today, she gets onstage and she feels like talking even though she’s drained. And other days, she’s already spent so much energy that by the time she starts performing she says she doesn’t mind not talking.

“It’s dark, introspective stuff,” one guy says to his date before Olsen sings “Miranda,” a slow and dreamy song where her voice inflects against the emotional rungs of the cello: Don’t stand too close to me, darling. Keep your hands where I can see. Don’t you know you’re wanted in fifty states. I love you, dear, but it’s not up to me.

* * * *

When she was three, Olsen’s mother put her up for adoption and her biological uncle gave her a keyboard to carry with her. She still has it. In her new family, living in Maplewood in St. Louis, she was the youngest of eight siblings—the one closest in age is eleven years older—and so music is what she grew up with. She took piano lessons from a neighbor, “Mrs. Morris,” and, by the time she was 12, was making her own compilation tapes of covers by singers like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. She still loves Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, her friend Sabrina Rush says; it’s part of their own bond. (Then again, Olsen listens to everything; she knows any artist you’ve never heard of.) By the time she was a high school sophomore, Olsen was playing with a band in all-ages clubs around St. Louis, including the now-defunct Creepy Crawl (where Fall Out Boy and Yellowcard performed as unknowns), Hi-Pointe Theater, and Schubas. She wrote what she calls her first “real” song when she was 16 and eventually moved to Chicago. “I remember not feeling very welcome in the first few places I stayed—probably because I’d never really learned how to live on my own at that point.”

She was on her own there, but she did know a few key people: members of the band Pillars and Tongues, including a guy named Mark Trecka who introduced her to her friends Sabrina Rush and Kerry Couch. “It kind of went from there,” Olsen says. Rush and Trecka told her about the DIY scene, where you could have plenty of chances to perform. Trecka also introduced her to her friend Emily Elhaj (a bassist and the buyer for an independent music store called Reckless Records). Meantime, Olsen would go to the public library to rent a piano to practice. She likes the earthy tones of guitar and set to work on bettering her technique. Sabrina Rush hosted her early shows, in a house on Sacramento Street over a store, isolated with streets on two sides, an alley on one and an empty lot on the other. Rush’s house was at the heart of the Chicago DIY scene for several years and, along with Kerry Couch who now runs a popular DIY space called Café Mustache, Rush put on a ton of shows. “It was organic,” she says.

2010 was the big year for Olsen. She made Strange Cacti for Hency’s label. And then she was invited to join Will Oldham, a singer-songwriters who performs under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. This happened through Emmett Kelly, a native Californian musician whom she’d met at a house show, and who was the regular guitarist for Bonnie “Prince” Billy and has a band of his own, the Cairo Gang. A little later, she sent Kelly a few tracks of her songs, and a few months after that he and Oldham asked her to join a touring project called “The Babblers,” a reconceiving of an album by the late Kevin Coyne. She performed as “Angela Babbler,” wearing pajamas as a costume and, in the words of one blogger, “screaming down the throats of the front row.” Elhaj says this is when she saw Olsen’s aura forming, her stage persona turning into something different, her vocal range morphing into something interesting. And Kelly taught her how to harmonize. “I know it sounds silly, but that was a lot of work on its own,” Olsen says. Oldham has a deeply committed fan base and while she toured and got noticed while singing his songs, she kept writing her own. She was playing solo and in band iterations, including on with Rush and Kelly.

Touring with Oldham also led to the encounter with Mark Capon, who runs Harvest Records in Asheville and knew Hency. He had also fallen in love with Strange Cacti. (After listening to it once, he had to put it on repeat, knowing it was something special; rare for him, as eight years of running a record store will make you jaded about Next Big Things.) He asked Olsen if he could figure out how to be a manager for her. It was September 2012, and Half Way Home was out and getting buzz from Pitchfork and all the indie blogs. Jon Hency was afraid the whole thing would be more than he could handle on his own, being a one-man operation. It was obvious that now was the time for her to do her own solo tour, DIY. She immediately set off for the Netherlands with Emmett Kelly for the first-ever Angel Olsen tour. Then Capon booked her for a string of dates in November and he and Hency packed Hency’s Subaru, stopped at the Charlotte airport to pick up Olsen and her guitar, and then all three drove to Bard College to kick it off.

Capon says he’ll always remember this tour. When they reached Bard they were given the choice of many rooms in the mansion they were staying in; but they crashed in the same room because, Olsen says, “we couldn’t bear to leave each other.”

And it was a special time. Around the country, in the corners that Half Way Home reached, a fan base was building, getting mobilized by music blogs. Meantime, between cities, Olsen sat in the back seat of the Subaru with her guitar, with Hency and Capon in the front. “She’d just talk and talk and talk about her crazy ideas, and I just love to hear them,” Hency says. “It makes you warm and fuzzy inside and also makes you crack up.”

She can also still get him starstruck, he says. She’s coming into her own and can be intimidating. Now, Sabrina Rush says, Olsen’s going to take over the world.

Leave a Reply

Video Premiere: Jen Chapin, “Go Away”