Interview

Talking with friends like I used to: Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen in conversation

The first interview with the two iconic songwriters about their new collaboration

“Well, it was cloudy this morning,” grins Sharon Van Etten, under a bright blue sky in Los Angeles, commiserating the Zoom screen that faces her across the Atlantic, framed gracelessly by a rainy London evening. Angel Olsen joins a few minutes later from her place in Asheville, the small talk traversing New York to LA, how there’s no real Manhattan on the East side and how the downtown’s weird. When your own American geography has been learned vicariously through Brooklyn-based sitcoms, the non-homogeneity of the States can still elicit a strange coming-to-terms. 

“It’s been a very chilly spring so far but I’m so ready to go swimming,” says Olsen. “Usually I’m able to go to the waterfall here, or hike somewhere and swim, but whatever. What am I going to do? A lot of the people I know, including myself, are vaccinated, which is really great. A lot of states haven’t fully opened yet. I was reading the New York Times today about which states are hoping to open by June completely, but it’s still kinda weird to be seeing people.”

Plenty of pandemic anthems have been constructed over the shared pain of the last year, but few feel so cathartic, so geared for the confetti cannons coming down over the future end-date as Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen’s surprise teaming up on ‘Like I Used To’. It’s ‘One Day’-era Van Etten with a few more choruses added in, each one listing the indiscreet realities – sleeping in late, avoiding the crowds – of their new reality.

Tristan Gatward: I’m very aware that every interview you’ll be doing for the foreseeable future will start with a stranger asking you how you’ve found the last year. I’m sorry for falling into the trap, as well.”

Angel Olsen: It’s okay! We just did an interview earlier, and Sharon, I want to apologise. I’m really bad at this. I’m so out of practice.

Sharon Van Etten: No, really, my brain has gone. I’ve forgotten how to do interviews.

AO: So, you know, we have to talk about the new song and what we’re working on, and the pandemic, but obviously we’ve hung out and there are other real things that I’d love to talk about that we can’t talk about. I was trying really hard not to go into anything earlier and I just felt myself becoming really weird instead.

SVE: But actually that’s a good thing. We’re just starting to do this again, Tristan. I feel like we’re not at the point yet where we know how to phrase things. You’re getting all of the unfiltered awkwardness. 

AO: Yeah, I really hope that it’s not going to be written verbatim.

SVE: No, these people are good. You’re all really good at editing.

TG: It probably will be written verbatim. I’m out of practice, too.

AO: It’s okay. And actually, I’m still sort of reflecting on this song myself. And processing working on a music video again, and doing something new with somebody else. It’s all a big change for me. Sharon, I’m still realizing the growth that’s happened in my life. I used to feel so weird about writing something with someone. Like, I used to feel very precious about how that would go for me. This process has made me realise that if both parties are involved and honest and kind about it, and both go into it equally, then it can be a really beautiful thing. I mean… I don’t know if I’m ready to write songs for pop stars yet. Or even write something for someone else to sing entirely. But maybe I’ll change my mind in the future now that I realise working with someone can open up a different angle to thinking about music.

TG: Congratulations on the release of [new box set] Song of the Lark, Angel. I suppose having spent the last few years since All Mirrors extrapolating it, and stripping it for parts with Whole New Mess, it must have been even more exciting to jump into a new project with somebody else?

AO: Thanks! It’s hard for me to keep up because there’s so much stuff coming up I’m not allowed to mention yet. But, yeah, I’m so excited for that to come out. It was a dream of mine for these songs that were massive and produced to be released together with another version of them that was small and demo-esque, so people could really see the process behind them, you know? But I am ready for something lighter. I’m ready to have a sense of humour back. I’m ready to dance and get loose.

TG: On the contrary, has this felt like a good way to get control back, Sharon? After inviting other artists to reinterpret Epic for you, does it feel nice to be back in the room, so to speak?

SVE: As I’ve gotten older it’s been nice to let the demos go, actually. I don’t know how to re-think things anymore. You know, when you’re living in this vortex, changing things doesn’t always make them any better, and sometimes it’s of benefit just to step back and let other professionals do their thing. The idea for the Epic comp was just to reach out to people that I respect or have recently learned about. I wanted it to sum up past, present and future, and help me come to terms with an album that, you know… it was released ten years ago about times that I don’t really want to return to myself, but I’m happy for other people to return to those moments for me. 

TG: What made you want to reach out to Angel when you started writing ‘Like I Used To’?

SVE: I hadn’t finished the song when I shared it with Angel. I think what I was most looking forward to was how she could make it feel like a duet and a collaboration, with two different narratives rather than just my own. I haven’t really done that before with my own writing.

AO: I’ve found being a part of this song has been a really nice way to let go of taking everything so seriously all the time. I mean, I love being serious and I’m going to continue to make serious work, obviously. Kinda at this point I don’t know what else I do. But I love and I miss having a good time and letting go completely. This has really been a lesson in how to be light-hearted about something again.

[A streetlamp turns on outside my window]

SVE: Hey look, Angel! Tristan’s head looks like the shot in the video where your face has that line shining across it.

AO: It’s kinda true.

TG: I haven’t seen the video. Would I make the cut?

SVE: Take a screenshot and you can compare it later.

TG: I’m going to do that.

AO: Your head needs to move back a bit.

SVE: Yeah, wait a minute. We’ve got to frame you. Move your head to the left. Up. A little to the left. You know what, leave it there. We’ll work with this.

AO: It looks better on you than it did on me. You’ll see what I mean.

Still from the video for ‘Like I Used To’

TG: So, ‘Like I Used To’ is a lockdown song, in the most unfiltered sense. Where were you both at when the collaboration began?

SVE: Angel and I started this conversation about a year ago. We were both writing in our respective homes, trying to stay productive and fight off the darkness, you know. Just the things that everyone’s dealing with. I’d been approached to do a cover of ‘Femme Fatale’ for a companion piece to this documentary on The Velvet Underground, and so Angel and I were talking about that because I really wanted her to sing on it. And she did a beautiful job. I just saw the artwork, Angel; it’s really cool.

AO: So wait, it’s for a movie, right?

SVE: It’s for a documentary about The Velvet Underground, but the song won’t be in the movie. They’re creating an inspiration soundtrack to release when the movie comes out, I think, with a lot of people we like to listen to. I don’t know exactly what they’re calling it.

AO: The companion-piece-that-isn’t-in-the-movie-but-is-inspired-by-the-band-with-artists-that-will-fuel-the-promotion-of-the-movie. 

SVE: Right!

AO: I did a similar thing with ‘Mr. Lonely’. My version wasn’t in [2020 film] Kajillionaire, but was on the soundtrack [album]? Anyway, I was so stoked to do that. It was so fun. Obviously I’m a huge Velvet Underground fan.

SVE: Yeah, and that gave me the confidence to reach out to Angel and see how much I could milk from her. That’s a terrible euphemism. 

TG: Was there a specific moment when you knew it was really going to work?

SVE: From the start, it was so natural and Angel was so giving. I shared the song and she fucking nailed an incredible vocal. So yeah, that felt really good and I wanted to work out a way to work more together. So I sent over a couple of songs I’d started working on at the top of quarantine that I heard her voice in somehow. Angel’s going to get tired of me saying it, but I had this inner dialogue in my head that I was ripping her off when I started writing. Like, I’d pick up a guitar or whatever the instrument is and I’d sing stream-of-consciously…

AO: Look, if everyone that ripped me off just invited me to sing with them it’d be water under the bridge. 

SVE: Ha, a call to all rip-off artists! Ask to collaborate, that’s it. I don’t know. I just heard her voice when I got to the pre-chorus part. Maybe it’s the range or the key but I found myself being like, okay, this is Angel right now. And then it went from Angel being open to help me with the lyrics, which we had a back and forth on, to being a duet, working out who’s going to get what verse, sharing vocals back and forth, and just feeling like we’re sharing our stories with each other, you know. It was like catching up over a song. 

TG: So, it was entirely collaborative from the start?

AO: Yeah, although, I was sharing it with my partner and I really wanted to rewrite one part of my verse. But it was already tracked by this time so it was too late.

SVE: Oh no!

AO: I thought it would be really funny to change it to “Shut up and kiss me like I used to”. You know.

SVE: Shit. We can do that live!

AO: Yeah, I’ll add it in at some point. You know… That song just follows me around now.

TG: Were you together for any parts of the recording process?

SVE: There were two times when we tried to meet up. The first time Angel was going to come out here to do her vocals. It was as I was taping the Zebulon performance that’s just come out, but the day after we shot there we got a note from the management there saying that someone had tested positive for Covid. Angel was already in town and I had to let her down.

AO: Oh yeah, that was right at the beginning. But I was already in town for my friend’s wedding.

SVE: I felt so bad having to cancel, though. It broke my heart not being able to hang out. But you know, we had to. So yeah, we decided to do the vocals from afar, but Angel came out here once the song was mixed to shoot the video. I mean, how weird was it to do a photo shoot the normal way? I had just broken my toe, and I was trying to act so cool. Like, I’m just gonna put on these boots, and dress up all nice after literally wearing the same thing always. You know, I’ve got my comfortable uniforms now. Then you get to a photo shoot and dust off of the old stage clothes and hope they work with my vibe right now. It was nice to step outside of the homebody and remind myself that it’s still in me somewhere.

AO: I’m trying to get into shape right now. I was just about to smoke a cigarette but then I realised I should probably go for a run instead.

SVE: Why don’t you do both?

AO: I should really just run. But I might still have it later. We’re doing a no-dairy and no-gluten diet right now. It’s boring. I’m trying to eat cashew cheese.

TG: I had a pistachio pizza earlier.

AO: Oh wow, how was that?

TG: Bad.

SVE: You know, these replacements just need to be marketed differently. Don’t called it a pizza and don’t call it cheese. It’s not pizza. It’s not cheese. It’s pistachio crostini with pistachio cream and pistachios on top. 

TG: It’s not smoking. It’s going on a run with a cigarette hanging out of your mouth.

SVE: I try every now and again to do a week-long detox. I’ve found some great recipes. There’s a butternut squash cashew soup that’s delicious. It’s part of this no-sugar diet, which I’m gonna get on… shortly. I’m not there yet. 

AO: Me too. It’s really hard to push through. In 2020 I really had a lot of selfish times and running actually really makes me feel good. Like, I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to gluten but I was eating it every day. I love fresh pasta, baguettes, toasts, you know. I was having toasts every day. But I didn’t drink for a month and a half, and I was like “Wow, I’m really doing it.” And then life happens. 

TG: Is there anything you’re starting to learn about yourself as the world opens up again?

AO: Yeah, I’ve found that I’m even more awkward than I was before. I don’t know about you, Sharon, but I’m used to performing in front of people, and I find it easy to be anonymous if it isn’t in my hometown, or at a small show with a bunch of people I know… I can be in it and I have no issue. Yeah, it’s really natural to play in front of strangers, but in terms of having conversations with people, I’m becoming more introverted. I find myself getting really quiet and weird most of the time. I miss playing with a band, but I don’t miss being someone’s boss. I don’t love that part of playing music, at all.

TG: What about it don’t you love?

AO: It’s just weird asking people to commit their life to your music.

SVE: It’s like going on a family road trip, right? You love everyone, but you all have your different ways of connecting and communicating. We’re pretty lucky to travel and work in this field that we do, but I don’t think a lot of people realise how hard it is with schedules and being away from friends and family, and partners, and stability. Like, your stability becomes your group. And sometimes there’s weird chemistry and if someone’s going through something…

AO: You can very quickly spiral and wonder if you’re doing this right. If one person is deeply unhappy it can be contagious. And you can feel your whole vision of what you’re doing changing. That’s the part that no one really loves talking about, but is very real. In some ways, it’s taught me how to create boundaries of not sharing my personal life with everybody when I’m going through something on tour. It’s hard because you’re there constantly with these people and you want to be honest and tell them what’s going on in your life and hear what’s going on in theirs. But you all carry it together. And I feel obligated to everyone’s happiness. When we stopped touring for All Mirrors it was the first time in a really long time where I was like “Woah, this group of people really fits with what we’re doing, and the chemistry is really good.” It kinda sucked to have to stop in the middle of finally figuring out how to be in a band and be on tour.

SVE: That was the last show I saw! Your show in February last year. I’ve got a picture of your shoes.

AO: I remember. I was in a very specific mood that show. I was feeling spicy.

SVE: It was really good, by the way.

TG: Would you consider doing a joint tour?

SVE: Yeah, I’m down.

AO: Let’s do it.

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