When Flagpole caught up with Angel Olsen last week, she was wrapping up a rehearsal in Chicago with her new band, which will back her at her Normaltown Hall appearance Tuesday, Oct. 8. Talking over the traffic on Milwaukee Avenue, amidst professions of adoration for her adopted hometown and Esoteric Tapioca, she discussed her writing process and the unexpected freedom that comes with being a touring musician.
Flagpole: How and when did you first decide to start writing songs?
Angel Olsen: I've always been interested in writing. I started to take it a little but more seriously when I was 17 or 18. I remember being in a rock band, kind of a jam band, in high school. I was starting to write my own material, and it didn't work out with the band. I didn't know how to adjust to it, so I quit the band and started working on writing more. That was when I was 16 or 17, I guess. I started performing when I was 19 or 20.
Do you feel like your approach to songwriting has changed?
I think I'm writing a lot more than I used to, and a lot more frequently. I'm kind of allowing myself to write—not just the process of making a song, but when I feel like I have a thought that needs to be written down, I write it down. Sometimes I can do something with it. Before, there would be long periods of time where I was working, or distracting myself with different things. I had multiple cafe jobs, and school, or whatever. Distractions kept me from having the time to write.
But now, traveling nonstop, you would think I would not have time to write. But I find time somehow, in these breaks, like being on a plane, or being in a car, or walking down the street going to the next show. It's really weird, because I never thought it would be like that. I guess in that way, it's changed quite a bit.
When I listen to your music, I'm always struck by the way you use your voice, which is very big and powerful, to reveal these small truths. There's something startling about that. I'm curious what role the element of surprise plays in your music.
For some songs, I like to keep it simple and sweet and predictable, and have it be more about the sound of the music and the sound of the song with the music. And for other things, it's kind of nice to have it be an open book, to interact with people, and interact with the situation that's right in front of me. I think it's more interesting to be theatrical with a performance than it is to be a band or a musician who plays the same exact way every time. But there are definitely songs that call for that, and I appreciate that, as well.
What's the scene in Chicago like these days?
There are a lot of different artists here. There are different pockets of the scene, and I'm noticing, just being a person who's not here as often as I used to be, that I'm not as in touch with it as I used to be, either. A lot of my friends who were very deeply a part of the scene when I was also here have gone on to do other things, like [being a] tour manager, or working in the music business. Or, some of them have started doing festivals. And then another group of friends has opened a cafe and venue.
[The scene is] kind of growing up, in its way. You can kind of see how everyone has changed and how everyone has grown into themselves in the past four or five years. It's interesting—all these people I started playing music with in the beginning, we all played DIY shows and weird art galleries, and nobody came except for our friends. And now, it's cool to see people showing up, there to support what we're all doing in all these different areas of our lives.
I've been really blessed to be a part of the scene here. But also, because I've been gone, I've lost touch with a lot of newer artists, and it's a shame, really, because if anyone should know about what's going on in Chicago, I guess I should. [Laughs]
The songs you've debuted from the new album have had a little bit of a '60s psych-rock influence. What can folks expect from the new album and at the Athens show?
We'll do a few songs of the new material, one of them being ["Forgiven/Forgotten"]. It's going to be a mix of everything. We're gonna try to hold on to [the new album], because we're just waiting for that to come out. We'll play a few new songs, but mostly revisit old material, as well as "Sweet Dreams" and "California" and some stuff from Strange Cacti. Hopefully by Februrary or March, we'll be performing all the new material.
As far as the album, it will be a mix of faster [full-band] stuff and solo work. But, I would say most of the new material is with the band, if that gives you an idea of what to look forward to.