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Interview: Angel Olsen Talks About New Collection 'Phases'

Interview: Angel Olsen Talks About New Collection 'Phases'

Ren Kirk / Wednesday 15th November, 2017 12:12PM

US artist Angel Olsen has certainly come a long way since her days as backing singer with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang. With an army of ardent fans steadily growing year by year, her trajectory mirrors the evolution of her sound: from the stark, indie-folk of 2010’s Strange Cacti, to the immense, swirling soundscapes of last year’s MY WOMAN. The success of her albums has not only propelled her into the hearts and minds of many, but also led to worldwide tours and sold-out shows.

All of this has culminated in an opportune moment for Olsen to release Phases, an album of B-sides, demos, covers and previously unreleased material. As wide-ranging in feeling as it is in recording styles, Phases serves as more material for fans, and a sumptuous sampler of the singer-songwriter’s discography for the uninitiated. A gentle caress of an album that also packs a punch, it’s an intensely intimate record that showcases Olsen’s mercurial talents.

So what was the motivation to make and release this collection (Phases)?

Well, I feel like the last record maybe gained some new fans and I feel like coming out with something like this - with different production styles, my writing along the way - it’s like a window for the newer audience and a look-back through my catalogue for fans. It’s the different phases of my styles. And there were a few songs that didn’t make it on the last record, like ‘Fly On Your Wall’ and ‘Special’. I had a little bit too much material, so I had to whittle it down to make an even collection.

So the album name, Phases, is quite literal then?

Yeah, it is.

So was there any new writing for this album?

Umm, I mean the writing process was quite different for the tracks, because of the time span. For example, ‘California’ was on my first record, from the same period as Half Way Home. ‘Only With You’, came in between Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and then ‘Sans’ and ‘Special’, those were written recently.

So the songs were already fully formed, there was no tweaking as you created this record?

Yeah they were already done. The most tweaking I did was making sure it wasn’t super intense to your ears.

What does that sound like, “super intense to your ears”?

Piercing! But some of them sound cool because of that. Like ‘Sans’. It sounds cool, like it’s from a bullet or harmonica mike - which is intentional – and is kind of nod back to Strange Cacti.

So there’s a real variety of recording processes on this album then?

Yeah, they’re different according to the different times; different studios, my house. It was about keeping them as honest as they were meant to be when I first made them, without hurting my ears, like making sure they didn’t go too far into the red and that sort of thing. I think most of the creativity was making sure I chose different eras of writing.

Did you find it quite nostalgic making this album?

A little bit. It’s like revealing to people different voices, different writing styles. It’s me putting myself out there, the story of where I’ve come from and where I’ve been. For me, I think it’s interesting looking back into old songs, and learning them with the band.

Do you have a favourite track from this album?

My favourite is ‘Special’, because it’s the newest and I love playing it… sometimes it takes nine minutes.

‘Endless Road’ is pretty unique: I was home with my family one Thanksgiving and I heard it in an episode of Bonanaza, which my parents loved, and I decided to cover it. ‘Sweet Dreams’ we always play on stage, but it’s one of the songs that didn’t make it on a record.

‘Special’ is certainly one of the standout tracks on the album, with a really interesting musicality.

It’s a good reflection of the band, Emily (Elhaj), Stewart (Bronaugh), Josh (Jaeger) and I. It’s like musical jamminess, which happened because the band became more comfortable.

Is that about longevity, the band playing together for a period of time?

Yeah. It comes from intuitiveness, which you gain through time with each other.

Do you ever feel bound to create music in a certain way? And how much does experimentation play a part in your creative process?

I feel like, for me, a lot of the time I’m just writing the song and I don’t think about it. Sometimes experimentation plays a part, to guide the song. A lot of key stuff, like MY WOMAN and a lot of the newer stuff started on piano. I like working with different mediums… sometimes the piano version sounds cold, but if I slow it down and play it on my synth it sounds better.

Both ‘How Many Disasters’ and ‘Sans’ are first time listens for fans. How do you think they differ from your earlier work?

I think there are aspects of my writing and voice that have changed. Especially in my writing, it’s become a lot less flowery, more direct. It’s interesting for me, like I’m going to a wedding and performing a song I wrote when I was 23. I want to sing it in a different way, but that feels wrong.

This album really highlights your vocal range, which made me think about an old interview where you talk about being a child and wanting a bigger voice, wanting to be able to do more with it. Is it there yet, or something that’ll always be a work in progress?

I think it is always changing, but I feel like myself more. I feel comfortable with my voice being what it is.

Do you think your family upbringing has influenced your music much?

In some ways yes, but I don’t know, I feel like everybody’s upbringing has inspired their music. I was surrounded by a lot of different kids and adults, and I was the youngest. I think the main thing is that I loved playing music and I had a family that encouraged me. They didn’t mind me staying up late to record on tape.

So, what do you most enjoy about being a musician, about getting to make music for a living?

I guess because it seems like… how do I describe it? No one has asked me that before and I’ve never really thought about it. I like that I get to be my own boss, and by being my own boss I get to sing for people. I don’t know how long it lasts, but I’ll enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

Listen to a stream of Angel Olsen's new collection of B-sides and rarities 'Phases'...


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