Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Angel Olsen is a singer, songwriter and guitarist who began recording with Bathetic Records in Chicago with her debut EP Strange Cacti (2011). After touring as a backing singer with Will Oldham’s project Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang, she went on to record her first album Half Way Home (2012). Her third album Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014), out on both Bathetic Records and Jagjaguwar, is the first to feature a band. Angel now lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
Kevin Morby is a bassist, guitarist, singer and songwriter, formerly of NY-based bands Woods and The Babies. After relocating from Brooklyn to LA and embarking on a self-named solo project, Kevin released Harlem River (2013), an homage album to NYC. While touring his first, he wrote his second solo album, Still Life, released October 2014.
An independent record label which features a diverse and experimental array of artists. Started by Jon Hency in 2008 as a cassette tape label, Bathetic has evolved and relocated through the years, from Arkansa to Chicago to Maine to its current home in Asheville, North Carolina. Website.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
Kentucky-born Will Oldham began performing from 1993-1997 under variations of the name Palace – Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music – according to when the sound or lineup of the band changed. After 1998, he adopted his best-known stage name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and has recorded a variety of albums under that name. He is known for a trademark DIY punk aesthetic and prolific output of ever-evolving Americana folk-rock music.
Listen to Angel Olsen once and, without really thinking too hard about it, you’ll listen again. At first quiet, bare and lovely, Burn Your Fire for No Witness unfolds like a good conversation, with a voice that resounds through your bones and stays there. It’s the kind of album that is to be heard as a whole, and is best in the car at night.
Now at home in Asheville, North Carolina, Angel began in Chicago when her first EP Strange Cacti was picked up by the then-local (now also Asheville-based) Bathetic Records. After touring with the formidable Will Oldham and his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie band, she released her second album, Half Way Home in 2012. And now, touring her second full album Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Angel has acquired her own bassist and drummer and a ton of attention.
Angel brought musician and friend Kevin Morby to our office before their LA show later that night. With a polyps surgery the next day (if you didn’t know either, it has to do with vocal chords), this show would be Kevin’s last for awhile – he was formerly the bassist of Woods and co-founder/guitarist of The Babies before transplanting to LA and starting a solo career. The two, joined by Angel’s bassist Emily Elhaj, talked about quitting music lessons as children, rollerskating as adults and the strangeness of the media spotlight.
Kevin Morby: When did you start to play music?
Angel Olsen: Pretty early. I started playing piano when I was a little kid, and then writing songs, but I started playing guitar when I was like 16.
When did you start making music?
KM: When I was 10 years old. What was your first guitar and how’d you get it?
AO: It looked like an acoustic Airline, but it was an off-brand kind of cheap guitar. I had this teacher named Herschel, and he showed me like three chords. I started playing my own, and he gave me music to read and I was like, “I don’t wanna do this, I’m gonna go find some chords on my own.” So I came back and I’d written a song and he was like, “You don’t need me to teach you how to do it.” I ended up dropping his class and just teaching myself how to play guitar. I still don’t know theory at all.
KM: I had a similar experience. I had this cool teacher when I was twelve, his name was Nate Rogers, and he was this metal head who dressed in crazy kind of Hesher clothes and played a Parker metal guitar. He could shred. And he was rad. The best thing that he did for me is got me really excited about playing guitar. Because I got one when I was 10, and it was out of tune for two years and I didn’t know what I was doing.
AO: I didn’t even know how to tune my guitar until the time I was working with my band [this past year]. I was by myself. It doesn’t need to be in tune, it’s fine.
KM: Just tune it to your ear, but it’s in like some insane key.
AO: You’re like, I wonder why I can’t sing it as well. Oh probably because it’s in three keys different.
KM: But Nate was a great guy. I’d bring in Green Day or Blink 182 CDs, and he would figure it out in a second and teach it to me. But then he fell off the deep end, poor guy.
AO: Did he live in a trailer down by the river?
KM: No. Not like Chris Farley. Rest in Peace. At some point he cut his hair short, he got an X-box and his life changed. He stopped playing music, gained all this weight, stopped giving a shit. My half-hour lessons turned into me going in there and him being like, “I’ll be right back,” and he would go play chess with another employee and then go smoke a cigarette. So I quit.
What was the first tour you ever went on?
“I was like, I don’t wanna do this,
I’m gonna go find some chords
on my own, and I ended up just
teaching myself how to play guitar”
— Angel Olsen
AO: Probably the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy tour. Actually, no when I came out with my tape “Strange Cacti.”
KM: On Bathetic!
AO: On Bathetic! I booked like four shows in New York. I played Glasslands, Kim’s Video, Mast Brothers Chocolate, Zebulon. I was working at Argo Tea Café, which is now a branch of tea shops everywhere, but at the time it was the original store in Chicago, and I was wearing myself out working there and playing shows in Chicago, not really doing very much else.
Babble is an obscure 70s rock-opera album and accompanying theater performance from British artist Kevin Coyne and German singer Dagmar Krause. The Babblers are a Will Oldham tribute project to Babble, in which the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy lineup dressed in one-piece hooded pajamas and sunglasses and played an hour-long in-sequence performance of the album. Oldham and Angel Olsen performed the lead vocal roles.
Then I met Emmet and he introduced me to the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy band, and they were like, “We need a singer to do this cover band. It’s a Kevin Coyne, Dagmar Krause cover band called the Babblers.” I was like, “OK.” I listened to the tracks and her voice was so high and shrieky. [I thought,] why did they think that this would be a good thing for me? (laughs) And then I listened to it again, and I got really into the songs and thought of it more as a theater experience. I tried to make the songs my own. So, I was learning that album and then three of Bonnie’s albums because I was gonna be singing his songs too.
So the first professional, real tour was a two hour night with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy with sheets of paper of lyrics, and I’d be singing and trying to memorize the next one I was gonna do. And Will [Oldham] would just look at me like, “This song has eight stanzas, you ready to sing it?” I would be like, “No!” And he’d be like “Okay, Angel’s gonna sing this song now.” On the stage. (laughs)
KM: I bet you learned a lot being in that band.
AO: Yeah, sometimes it’s nice when people push you. I think I did a pretty good job. I think I only fucked up a couple of times.
KM: Okay Angel, you’re a Midwesterner—when I first heard your music I thought to myself, “I bet this person is from the Midwest.”
AO: Why? I’m gonna kick your ass.