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Interview: Angel Olsen

It's not just Angel Olsen’s range that makes her voice so unforgettable; it's the surprise turns she's learned to produce by manipulating it. Sometimes, at the climax of a song, the Chicago-based songwriter will be leaning so lightly into a high-pitched note that you have to check whether she's still in the room; seconds later, she'll have dropped down an octave and be digging into her vocal chords so hard that it sounds like there's a frog in her throat, albeit in the most broken, beautiful way. As it turns out, the St. Louis native is entirely self-taught, and only recently started listening to the outsider folk and blues music that we suspected she was actively revisiting. Because we've still got her Half Way Home album on repeat, we caught up with after her recent Grand Street Bakery session to chat with her about how she found her voice.

How did you get into singing originally? I’ve always been singing, since I was a little girl. It just makes sense to me. I never took lessons. But I’ve listened to music a lot, so I guess that’s a lesson.

You have an amazing range. How did you develop your technique? Well, I’m glad you think so. There was a lot of recording and then listening and feeling it out. Imitating other people, imitating sounds that other people made but not necessarily copying them. I don’t know what happened, when I reached a certain age, when I reached 15 or 16, I started to sound really different, and I don’t know where it came from or what exactly inspired it. I felt really comfortable singing loudly and letting my voice go all over the place—I think because I was in a band at the time, and it was this really crazy kind of ska punk Christian band. I used my voice a lot and was screaming a lot, singing really loudly, and I think that really helped me figure out what to do next. Experimenting with volume and different types of music. Recording a lot, like when I was a little kid I would record on tapes a lot and listen to the recordings and harmonize with those recordings and then try and experiment with sounds, and then re-record over them. I feel like that’s the most natural process of teaching yourself anything. Listening and recording and listening and recording.

Are there some vocalists that stood out to you in particular? My mom and my dad are much older than most parents, or most of my friends’ parents. So I listened to a lot of like Everly Brothers and the Righteous Brothers, naturally. At the time, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill were like my favorites. When I was like 13, 14, I loved them the most. I would listen to their recordings and just be totally dumbfounded that they could even reach those notes. I still am. Those are the people that I listened to a lot, as far as modern music of the time. Now I listen to everything. I recently got into Frank Ocean. I haven’t listened to a lot of new music: I kind of took a break from it and was getting more inspired about music from earlier times, or just different, weird, obscure periods of time. It’s cool to hear music that’s made now that’s actually meaningful and awesome and different. I think his music is really cool.

Any interest in early folk music? Not a lot. I just recently developed an interest in it, which is weird. A lot of people would assume that I listened to Loretta Lynn all the time or something. Since I’ve been working with Will [Oldham] I’ve been introduced to country music, and I never really listened to it before. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Jacob Niles, Slim Whitman, Johnny Paycheck. I got into Barbara Dane, ‘cause we did a Barbara Dane cover, and I was singing her role, so naturally I was curious about that. When you listen to these recordings, it’s obvious that people making music now are taking from them whether or not they’d even listened to them in the first place. And I think it does make sense to listen to it, but I don’t want to listen to it too much because I shouldn’t tamper with it. I should get my inspiration from other kinds of music. Lately I’ve even been listening to bands like The Clean and like The Chi-Lites, even stuff that has nothing to do with country or folk music. But I do like that kind of music; it has a time and a place in my heart, but it’s not what inspires me, necessarily. I think i just end up writing similarly to it naturally.

How did you get involved in the Chicago music scene? I never really played with other people, in the beginning. I played by myself a lot. I played DIY spaces, people’s houses, loft spaces in Chicago. I played a show at Ronny’s with Marissa Nadler that was my first real Chicago venue show. It’s kind of weird, because it’s coming full circle, because we’re working on some projects together now. At the time, I was like 20, and she was touring—she was really doing what I wanted to do, and it’s cool that we’re both doing it now. That was one of my first real experiences in Chicago, and then I just met all these people—through her, and through other people that enjoyed my kind of music. And it kept growing, I guess. People kept nurturing it and allowing me to play shows in their spaces.

How did you meet Will Oldham? My friend Mark Trecka, who is in this band Pillars and Tongues and also in this band Dark Dark Dark—he was a huge reason why I felt welcome in Chicago. He introduced me to his crew and he knew all these musicians here and they welcomed me in. He and I played a show together one day and Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang came to the show and really loved the music. About a year later, he contacted me about doing a project with Will, and I was like, Yeah, I’m totally chill with you sending him my music and seeing what happens. And then Will contacted me and said that he thought I would be good for the role of this singer for a band called The Babblers. It was a cover band that was covering Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krouse’s album Babble. It was really theatrical and weird and like nothing I’d done before. I said yes, because I was just so psyched that he thought I would be good for it. Then I listened to it and was like, I don’t know if this is my thing. But a few months later, right before tour, I got really into it, and it made sense, and I kind of just went with the whole theatrical thing and allowed myself to be fully involved in it. I wasn’t expecting to be involved in tours after that—it was mostly for this one cover band that we were doing. But it worked out so well, and we had so much fun together as a group, that I ended up staying and it ended up working out for a while.

When did you write all of the songs that are on the album? I wrote about five of the songs before I even worked with Will, and it was around the time that Strange Cacti came out on tape that I had written all these other songs. Then I worked with Will, and I kind of took a break from them because I didn’t have enough to make another album, and I just wanted to wait. I learned a lot by waiting; I learned how to record better. I don’t know, a lot of people will assume that I wrote a lot of those songs after working with Will, but in fact a lot of them are old and they have nothing to do with my experiences with the group or with Will. It’s kind of surprising: listening to it now, I can see the similarities in our music that I hadn’t seen before, but while we were working together, I thought we had totally different kinds of styles or approaches. I spent like a month in a cold basement with Emmett [Kelly] doing all the tracks, and he did a lot of the production for the album, but we both were talking about ideas and coming up with ideas for sounds. It was a pretty cool experience to put some really subtle arrangements to my music because I never figured that was something I wanted to do, and I always felt really crowded by people and change in my music. Now I feel like it’s kind of more fun when there are changes and other people are involved.

What kinds of stories do you find yourself coming back to when you write songs? Well, obviously, home. Being home, feeling home within yourself. Simple things like homes and existence and death and birth. These are things that I think about a lot and I think are important to think about a lot. Not necessarily negatively—just because you’re only on the earth for so long, so you might as well not waste your time thinking about other things. But it’s good to have a sense of humor, obviously. People would think, listening to my record, that I don’t know how to have a good time or how to party. But in fact, if you got to know me as a person, you would realize that I’m not like the music I make at all. It’s strange to be this person who’s like cracking jokes with my friends and stuff and not even thinking about music really around them, and then be like, Okay will you come to my birthday party where I’m gonna sing sad songs for you now? It’s a really crazy switch. People seem to want to know if I’m really depressed or something. And I’m like, Well no. I’m writing about these things because I’m kind of over these things. It’s helped me out of them, and I think that’s important to share with people.

How does it feel to perform such personal work? It doesn’t feel vulnerable at all, because it doesn’t feel like I’m alone in these things. And it doesn’t feel like it’s all me; it feels like when I’m singing them I’m just becoming a character. It doesn’t bother me to show people that I’m a human being and that I have feelings and I have experiences, and it will never bother me. If they have a problem hearing it, that’s okay with me. That’s the way I do it. I don’t want to sing about trees and oceans. Those things are interesting, too, but I just found myself not being uplifted by other styles of writing. I don’t even know what style of writing I’m participating in, but I know that what I’m writing about is something I’m not ashamed about. I feel like it is a vulnerable thing, but I’m okay with being vulnerable because I think in that, you’re overcoming something. You’re allowing something to run through you, and I think that’s pretty fun.

Interview: Angel Olsen