Angel Olsen: it’s been a lot

Angel Olsen’s new album was forged during a period in which she fell in love, came out and lost both of her parents in quick succession. In her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, she gets into the details of the aptly-titled Big Time

Angel Olsen is trying to teach me to drive stick. I am not a good student. Behind the wheel of a ’63 Ford Ranchero, she down-shifts and motors through historic Asheville, laying out the finer points of third gear and what the hell a clutch is while deftly navigating the narrow mountain roads of her neighbourhood. If you are uninitiated to the world of vintage cars, let it be known: this is one hell of a truck. You hear it coming and you watch it drive away. At one point, a muscled arm extends from a passing SUV to flash Olsen a hearty thumbs up. Nice ride.

Elaborating on the distinction between second and third gear, Olsen glances my way to check that I am absorbing this important lesson. She quickly clocks that I am not. There’s some amusement, I hope, but perhaps some frustration as well. She’s explaining. Don’t I get it? 

We pull up in front of Olsen’s home. She has lived in Asheville, North Carolina for nearly a decade, but she bought this house after the success of her third album, My Woman. She writes music here and steps away from the demands that come with being a successful musician, recording across the country or touring around the world. Asheville and the house are home in the truest sense of the word. She’s noted in previous interviews that her house is actually across the street from her dream home. After she parks, the dream home’s current resident steps out to compliment the truck and swap notes on the pleasures of Asheville living. It’s all very neighbourly.

This is where Angel Olsen spent most of the past two years while we were all confined to our homes by Covid-19. As far as pandemic experiences go, hers has been, in a word, big; replete with very high highs and very low lows. She fell in love. She came out. She lost both her parents. She grew in myriad ineffable ways that come with accepting her rarified status as a Great Songwriter and simply growing older. And she wrote and recorded a new album. Inspired by two intense years and influenced by Neil Young and Lucinda Williams, it’s a warm, moving and personal collection of songs that just might be her best record yet. It’s called Big Time.

It’s raining in downtown Asheville. The weather hangs close in mountain towns, and today a low fog hovers around the buildings, casting a hazy damp grey on everything for miles around. On days like this, Olsen likes to drive. That’s our plan today – she’ll drive us around the Blue Ridge Mountains, showing me around as she tells me about her new album and everything that shaped it.

I’m surprised. Now on the cusp of her sixth full-length, Olsen is a veteran of the music industry who is all too familiar with the rigamarole of a press rollout and music journo bullshit. She has suffered through enough pat and reductive questions about “being a female songwriter” for a lifetime, she has seen the flattening effect a profile can have on her work and her identity. 

Yet here she is, welcoming me into her passenger seat for the day. Despite some palpable (and fair) scepticism about the press, she’s talkative, friendly and much more at ease than you would expect from someone about to talk about a deeply personal album with a stranger for seven hours. Experience plays in here – this isn’t Olsen’s first rodeo – but part of it is also a newfound level of comfort and confidence in her music and personal life, which she’ll discuss at length over the course of the day. Another part of it is just being home. Olsen clearly loves Asheville. She jokes with friends that one day she’ll become a tour guide.

She’d be good at it. Whipping through the mountains, she points out the river running along the road. “That’s the French Broad. It’s one of the oldest rivers in the world.” So old, I later learn, that it’s impossible to say quite how old it is, though geologists ballpark it at 325 million years. In much more recent history, Asheville has made a name for itself through its outsized cultural footprint. The area has been a fertile creative home to several artists, writers, and musicians throughout the 20th century. Thomas Wolfe and the Fitzgeralds spent time here, and the influential art school Black Mountain College, where artists like Ruth Asawa, John Cage and the Albers taught, is just 20 minutes from downtown. Today Asheville is home to globally-known artists like Olsen and the genre-bending Moses Sumney, the storied venue the Orange Peel, and a vibrant local scene. Rolling Stone called it “the new must-visit music city” a few years back.

Olsen moved here back in 2013, just before the release of Burn Your Fire for No Witness. That album, her second, was arguably her first big break; a critically acclaimed record of lo-fi tunes that drew comparisons to Leonard Cohen’s work and landed on plenty of year-end lists. Her arrival in Asheville roughly coincided with the takeoff of her solo career. 

But before that, she cut her teeth in the Midwest. She’s originally from St. Louis, where she grew up as the youngest of nine in a blended family. Olsen is adopted and her parents both brought children from previous relationships. “Everyone had a different set of parents,” she notes. “My mom wasn’t the mom of everyone, my dad wasn’t everyone’s dad.” Olsen remembers her childhood as loud, with raised voices and the TV on. A household of 11 generates some serious volume. 

“My dad used to be a big yeller,” she recalls. “[He] was a hard guy, but he softened over the years.” She was closer with her mother. “My mother was the most hilarious. You never knew what she would say next but it would always crack you up. If ever I’m funny, I have to give her credit for that.” Olsen, for the record, is indeed quite funny, albeit in a particularly dry way. “My family was religious, but like Baptist religious, and I wasn’t,” she says. “I tried for a little bit but I can’t. I simply don’t care for congregating. Or listening to white old dudes tell me how I should connect with God. It’s just not cute.” It comes through in her lyrics, too. On the new song ‘Right Now’, she belts out a wholehearted chorus of “Why’d you have to go and make it weird?” I tell Olsen this made me laugh and she replies with a muted smile, “It’s not your typical country classic.”

Eventually she moved to Chicago to break out of St. Louis’s orbit. Her music career began there, writing and playing in the city’s scene and, eventually, singing backup vocals with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. ‘Dream Thing’, a song on the new album, is a slight nod to those years inspired by, you guessed it, a dream Olsen had. “I was searching my mind for the words to that ‘Black Captain’ song,” she sings, “I was looking at old you, looking at who you’ve become.”  I point this connection out and I suspect that Olsen, watching the road, is rolling her eyes. She gets a lot of questions about this relatively short period of her life from over a decade ago – are we still talking about this, although, in my defence, the reference on the new album makes it difficult to ignore. That chapter of Olsen’s career ended after she toured her first album, Half Way Home, and moved to Asheville, determined to step out on her own. She left glad for the opportunity but equally grateful to be “out from under the hetero, patriarchal, brooding indie rock dude bullshit” that characterized her early experience of the music industry (she makes a point to note that while this is something from which she’s mostly broken free from in her career, it remains a real problem for many).

Asheville proved itself to be a necessary haven for Olsen after that first move, and since then she’s returned there between albums and tour dates to reset and recharge. It’s a good town for that. Incredible hiking, friendly people and a comically robust healing economy (throw a stone and you will hit an acupuncturist, herbalist or Transcendental Meditation centre). But because of her career, Asheville was always a place she came back to rather than somewhere she lived. She has estimated that she spent nine months on the road per year. Then, like everyone else in the world, she was suddenly spending way more time at home.

Over the course of the pandemic, her fans were spoiled with new music. She released Whole New Mess, an album’s worth of material recorded in a studio/haunted church in Anacortes, Washington (pared down versions of the songs that originally inspired 2019’s All Mirrors), a deluxe combined version of those two albums called Song of the Lark and Other Far Memories, complete with bonus tracks and remixes, and an EP of synthy covers of ’80s hits called Aisles. She dropped an absolute banger of a single with Sharon Van Etten, ‘Like I Used To’, which will undoubtedly bring down the house when the two hit the road with Julien Baker later this year. (Van Etten is “the real thing,” Olsen tells me; hers is the first name she mentions when we discuss rare examples of true integrity in the music industry.) Throughout, she live-streamed shows and shared covers on Instagram. Even though the world stopped, Olsen’s music kept coming.

All the while, she was going through a separate process of self-discovery and struggle, coming to terms with her sexuality and confronting the illness of her ageing parents. “I was dealing with a breakup and sorting through the feelings of my first queer relationship,” she says. “And during that relationship, I wasn’t ready to come out. Everyone needs their own time to do that, and because my parents were so sick, I didn’t know how, or when.” 

That relationship and its end had a profound effect on her. “That was the first time I was really being open with myself,” she says. “In previous relationships I had hidden myself, I didn’t allow people in in the same way.” In the aftermath, she had to reckon with a new sense of identity. She started exploring her neighbourhood and beyond, taking long walks and absorbing whatever the world cared to offer. “I like the things, even when I’m heartbroken, that open up to me when I’m alone,” she says. Mostly, she took her time. “Sometimes the hourglass is the best healer.”

Then, in late 2020, she met her current partner – also a writer, who, at the time, was doing a writing residency in Asheville. When Olsen talks about them, she relaxes. “When we met, we had a long hug and it was like, ‘Oh God, I feel high.’” It wasn’t long before the two moved in together.

“I’m very in love,” she says. You can tell. As we drive around she occasionally gives off that casual Zen you find in those friends who are holding it down in good, stable relationships. Olsen’s partner is responsible for that in a major way – she says they balance out her more serious, cynical tendencies. The personal growth on Olsen’s end in the months and years preceding also played a role. “I feel more comfortable being myself, I can offer a lot more.” And then there’s the fact that in a relatively short period these two have weathered a brutal time together.

With a newfound confidence in herself and her relationship, Olsen felt ready to come out to her parents and the world (she identifies as queer). She told her mom last spring. Three days later, her father died. Her mother’s condition rapidly worsened, and she passed away soon after. Her partner met her family for the first time at her father’s memorial, and they sat at her mother’s bedside in the hospice.

Olsen’s parents were already fairly old when they adopted her; their health had been in decline for some time. In some way, she felt it coming. “[New track] ‘Through the Fires’ was written before my mom died, but sometimes when I write things, it feels prophetic,” she says. “It sounds stupid, but you feel it – the impending loss.” Expected or not, death in the family is awful. Grief does not respond to preparation.

“We never got to talk more about it, but I’m glad I told her,” Olsen says of coming out, and she feels relieved that her mom met her partner. “They’ve really been there for me during all of this stuff in a way that was really sweet and really special.”

Does this feel like a jam-packed, laundry list account? A long narration of Major Life Events? It does because it is, and it is because there’s really no other way to tell it. In a few months’ time, Olsen came out, lost her father, introduced her partner to her family, and lost her mother. It was a hell of a lot.

Then three weeks later, she flew to Los Angeles to record a new album.

In an alternate universe, Big Time was never made. After the deaths of her parents, there was a question as to whether Angel Olsen could or would even want to record. Withdrawal is a common form of grief, and in the following days and weeks she often found herself at a loss for words with friends and loved ones. “I’m a talker, and you really know something is wrong if I can’t talk about it.” But ultimately, the studio time was booked. Olsen chose to move forward with the sessions. 

She really is a meticulous songwriter. Consider the process that went into her last two full length releases. She wrote and recorded Whole New Mess, then spent months reworking and expanding the songs into the elaborate, symphonic form that would become All Mirrors, then released the original sessions nearly a year later. Big Time, by comparison, was a more laid back affair. She rehearsed songs two or three times with her band, then she laid them down. 

A part of that is attributable to her studio experience and the top notch team of musicians on the album. Olsen recorded this record with Jonathan Wilson, best known for his work with Father John Misty and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. Speaking of Wilson’s skills as a producer, she notes: “People who are songwriters and producers understand when less is more and when something that’s gorgeous is also unnecessary.” She liked him immediately.

The same goes for the other musicians on the record, some old collaborators and some new. She says: “It’s taken me so long to get here, to a place where everyone in the room is insightful and respectful. Doesn’t underplay, doesn’t overplay. Asks questions, is engaged, wants to be there. And it’s good company. You can tell they’ve been through some shit and they still have their wits.” 

More than the personnel, though, the Big Time sessions succeeded because of Olsen’s mindset. “Part of it is that I showed up without any expectation. I was ready for it to not work because I was not emotionally sure if I could do it.” But once she got in the studio, she came ready to work. There was one major hurdle – she arrived with material, but she needed a few more songs, and the words still weren’t coming.

That wordlessness became the inspiration behind ‘This Is How It Works’, the most moving track on the record

I’ve never been too sad
So sad that I couldn’t share
When you can’t find the words
Guess it’s time to listen
Took a lot to get me here

The longest song on Big Time, it’s a slow burner about the steady, staying force of loss. Sad songs are Olsen’s oeuvre, or, for better or worse, her reputation. Much of her best work plumbs the depths of sorrow and heartbreak, and has soundtracked tear-drenched, wine-soaked nights of many a fan. When you search her music on Spotify, the first playlist that comes up is titled “sad and angry women.” To that point, there’s an impersonal, meta quality to ‘This Is How It Works’. Here is a Sad Angel Olsen Song. But it also defies that platonic ideal by finding the personal in the everyday rather than the extreme. ‘This Is How It Works’ isn’t about the worst of a feeling. Instead, it evokes the unvaried nature of grief and depression; the low hanging clouds that grey out days and months on end. Musically, it’s no dirge. A lilting ballad that veers into country territory, it floats along a stream of gentle strumming guitar and pedal steel. “I’m so tired of saying I’m tired,” she sings. “It’s a hard time again.”

Written in that difficult period between tragedy and the studio, the song is the emotional nadir of Big Time. In that same period, however, Olsen also wrote the album’s two most joyful pieces. They’re both love songs. One is ‘Chasing the Sun’ – the magnificent album closer that combines the swelling strings of All Mirrors with the simpler approach of this record. It feels like a culmination of the various styles Olsen has played in her career. The other love song from that period is more of a departure. It began as a lark, then it became the title track. 

To break through writer’s block, her partner suggested they write a song together. If you’ve ever collaborated with a romantic partner on anything, from picking out linens to creating art, you know this can be tricky. “It’s scary to write a song together,” says Olsen, but she was game. “The song was an experiment, an exercise, that started out as a joke. I don’t even know which parts were mine and which parts were theirs. But whoops, it ended up being the title of the record.” 

‘Big Time’ is the brightest and most direct song in Olsen’s catalogue to date. It’s a love song, straight up: “I’m living, I’m loving, I’ve loved long before / I’m loving you big time, I’m loving you more.” An homage to the little pleasures of domestic life, Olsen sings about cups of coffee, walks by the lake, and nights by the fire. A deep sense of contentment shines through.

It seems like a fitting title for the album. After all, the track reflects Angel Olsen in love and exemplifies the Neil Young-ish, country inflections that show up throughout. Moreover, there’s a warmth to Big Time that stands apart from Olsen’s other records. Despite the tragedy and tumult that led up to it, Olsen seems happier and more self-assured than ever before. For an artist known for songs that could make people cry, it feels like a big shift.

I bring up this sense of warmth to her on more than one occasion, and she doesn’t disagree, but perhaps it’s not quite right. Rather, she says, it’s “the first thing that doesn’t feel hesitant.” In the past few years, she’s found some sense of peace in her relationship, her craft, and her identity. “I feel a certain amount of freedom,” she says. “I finally feel like I’ve settled into myself or something.”

The phrase “big time”, then, is more than a term of endearment for Olsen. It’s about Big Times – periods in life, long or short, that shape who we are. 

Duration and transformation are not one to one, and a relatively brief chapter can have massive implications. In the middle of our long, winding tour of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we pull over at a cafe outside of Asheville, where Olsen elaborates. Auspiciously, the spot is called Zuma – it shares a name with a California Neil Young album, also informed by loss.

After her parents passed, Olsen had dreams about time travel. Not dreams set in the past, but dreams in which she would suddenly move from one era to another. Here’s one of them:

Olsen is in a hotel with her partner. They’re heading down to the lobby in an elevator when she realises – damn, she left something in the room. No problem, says her partner, just meet me in the lobby. They get out, Olsen heads back up. But when the elevator doors open for Olsen, she’s not on her floor. She’s in a hodgepodge of earth and construction, someplace, somewhen, totally different from when she left the lobby. It’s unclear whether it’s the past or the future.

She gets out. She wanders outside for a while. It’s a beautiful place. Eventually she stumbles upon a man and a woman. They chat, there’s a problem, they need Olsen’s help, and there’s a condition. They need her to write a play, but it will take 25 years. But when she goes back to her world (her time), she will only have been gone for five minutes. Will she do it? 

Of course she will. She spends a quarter of a century crafting an opus for these two nice people. Then she hands over a manuscript, heads back to the elevator and goes down to the lobby. Her partner barely notices she was gone. Who knows what happened to whatever she left in her room.

She’s had tons of dreams like this last year. No Freud here, but it seems like a lot can happen in a little bit. A short time can still be big.

“People don’t need to know anything. If people are interested in my life, that’s what happened in my life. If people are interested in the record, obviously I’m always hoping that people can find whatever thing, if they like my music, to lose themselves and find their own meaning.”

My time with Olsen is winding down and I have asked her a blunt question – what do people really need to know about the record? We’ve pulled over at a cafe downtown and Olsen bolsters herself for a few final questions. With the recorder between us on the table and the finish line in sight, she’s more circumspect – this is work, and the workday is ending. For a whole day, she has driven me around Asheville and gamely showed me taco spots and scenic overlooks and her bad-ass pickup truck while telling me the story of the past two years of her life. It’s undoubtedly a strange exercise – condensing trauma and epiphany for someone in your passenger seat. She’s explaining. Do I get it?

“It’s not just love and it’s not just heartbreak and it’s not just my mom passing. It’s just where I’m at right now,” she says. The miracle of Big Time is how it combines all those big, difficult things in a body of work that feels rooted and whole. Going back to that lack of hesitation, she notes that the record “has movement in it that’s sad, and uplifting, and angry, and upset,” but “it feels like a complete story or feeling.” 

Maybe that feeling is presence, something hard to understand and even harder to practice. But at a big time in her life, Angel Olsen seems to have mastered it, at least in part, and become a fuller form of herself. That’s most apparent on ‘Go Home’, an extraordinary standout on the back half of Big Time. “That one’s just directly about the pandemic and change and not wanting to go back to the past way of doing things,” she says. “Trying to be truthful, and to be truthful, is to spend time living it and not talking about it.” She sings:

The world is changing
You can’t reverse it
The truth is with you
You can’t rehearse it
Pretend to know it
It’s time to live it
That’s how you show it baby we’re in it
I wanna go home
Go back to small things