Interview by Kevin Morby
Images by Alex Aristei
Editor: Clare Shearer
“There’s this image of me being projected and projected
and I have no idea what it means to anybody.
But it’s everywhere and everyone’s always asking about it.
—Angel Olsen I don’t even know what it is. It’s out of my hands now.” — Angel Olsen
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.
KM: I’m from the Midwest! We’re from the same place. Sort of. I’m from Kansas, you’re from Missouri. But it’s in the same way you could hear someone from California and be like, I bet this band’s from California. I bet the Ramones are from New York. I bet fuckin’ X is from LA, you know.
AO: Yeah… So when did you move out here and why?
KM: I moved out here September 2013 to get away from the chaos of the big city. I could no longer juggle living in New York and also touring because they’re both so crazy and they’re both so social. I needed some sort of privacy in my life. I had to give up one. Obviously I’m not gonna give up touring, so I had to give up New York. Which has been great, because I kind of hated it when I left. I lived there for seven years. It’s my favorite city in the world—I would like to be buried in New York. But I had to calm down a little bit, so I came out here. Which I feel is a common thing with Los Angeles, everyone’s kinda like (whispers), “Where did you move here from and why?”
AO: Every time I come here I like it more and more. I don’t like the driving aspect, but I think it takes a while to kind of understand the city and that it has different areas, different pockets. And if you don’t want to be in a huge city, that’s kind of nice, because it’s like several tiny little cities.
KM: That’s the magic of it, that you can have no social pressure. But also it’s there if you want it. Whereas in New York, the way I am, my character, I can’t say no if there’s something going on. And plus, if you say no, you have to stay inside with three roommates in your tiny, shitty apartment.
Why did you move to Asheville from Chicago?
AO: Sort of the same thing, really. Chicago was really industrial and kind of ugly in some ways. I never really minded because I was always hanging out and surrounded by friends and there’s always something to do, but I just got tired of the cold. Every year I was like, “I’m gonna do something else, I just don’t know where.” I didn’t have a group of people or associates anywhere else. It just felt like it wasn’t ever gonna happen. And then I met Jon Hency, who put out my first two records, him and his wife [Amanda] on Bathetic. He worked at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, lived there for a while and she did as well. They moved around quite a bit and then they eventually settled in Asheville.
“Los Angeles always feels like a vacation.
Or like a retirement.”
— Kevin Morby
KM: Asheville is a place where whenever I tour there I think, “Maybe I’ll move here someday.” It’s so beautiful.
AO: It’s immediately relaxing. As soon as the plane lands.
KM: Same here with Los Angeles. I flew to New York last week and when I landed I thought, “Kansas City feels like where I grew up, someplace I feel distant from but have an attachment to because I was forced to live there. New York feels like home. And Los Angeles always feels like a vacation. Or like a retirement.” I come here and other aging rockers who are not able to take the life anymore are like,“Oh yeah, I came out to get some sun as well man.” See ya never.
AO: Ashville is very new-agey. Everyone is a hippy, even people who aren’t hippies. It’s a very grow-your-own kind of place. You can go on hikes and see waterfalls and wildlife, and even if you don’t do those things, you’re still interacting with people in a scene where those things are surrounding you. And I think just being in the mountains really makes you change the way you see things.
It’s weird, in Chicago what you see is the person you’re in front of, and you’re talking a mile a minute. There’s just a ton of stuff happening and it’s super distracting. It’s so fast. I feel like it definitely helps me, as a musician, to slow down. I just needed a different pace I guess.
KM: I feel the same way. I feel like if I still lived in New York, I would stop playing music or something. I would be working three jobs to live there. It’s just too crazy. I had to get out. It’s good to confront the silence because when I first came out here I was like, “I can’t take it, it’s too quiet.” But it’s good to retrain your brain to live a different way.
AO: I wanna ask you all business questions but I don’t know… Do you have a lawyer?
KM: (laughs) That’s funny. I’ve used a lawyer in the past, but I’m meeting a potential future lawyer tonight at the show.
Emily Elhaj: Wow, that’s kind of like a blind date or something.
KM: Tonight is that night for me, and I have the polyps surgery tomorrow. All these music people are coming, like, “Maybe you’ll play at my festival if you perform well tonight.” That kind of thing.
AO: I hate that shit. You know, we played our first show after two weeks off and the whole industry, like our booking agents, everybody who owns a booking agency, came out to this show and they’re always like, “Oh this venue’s very nice, here’s what could have been better for you guys.” And I’m like no, no! We are trying to enjoy ourselves. We could always go that route…
KM: That’s a total industry thing, or like a dickheadish thing, when someone points out what could have been better. “Oh the sound was better last time!”
AO: You’re like, “Cool. I was feeling really good about it till you said that, but see ya later. Maybe we’ll get drinks. Nevermind.”
KM: And the only response to that person would be, “That’s funny, I was just thinking that your outfit was better last time I saw you. Tonight’s is okay.”
AO: “Your attitude was a little better last time, but maybe you just didn’t sleep well.”
EE: “You look tired.”
AO: That’s the worst thing to say to someone.
KM: When did you start doing… rollerblades?
An annual three-day music festival founded and supported by Asheville, North Carolina-based record label and store, Harvest Records.
AO: Oh yes! Well, rollerblades, the rollerblading thing was a joke—I was trying to do a commercial for Transfigurations festival.
KM: My question was gonna be rollerblades or skateboards?
AO: I started rollerskating pretty young. I used to go to this place in Maplewood where I grew up in Saint Louis, and we would go to this roller skating rink every Friday. I think it was a church gymnasium or something. They had a stage, and on the stage were picnic tables and popcorn and Coca Cola and stuff. People would just skate all day. And I just recently got back into it because there’s something about it that makes me really happy. It’s just all kinds of weird people. You got twelve-year-olds trying to make out with each other and the occasional weird dude who’s in there with his headphones, in his 40s, just going around in circles. And then there’s people like me who are like, “Oh this might be fun! Just mix it up, you know.” And they’re dressed up and they go out with a bunch of people, then afterwards go get drinks.
KM: Do you do that or do you go solo?
AO: I either go solo or go with one or two other people. But its nice to go with a group… Emily came with me once, and a bunch of friends of ours in Nashville. We met a bunch of little kids and they were giving us grief and punching us and stuff.
KM: When I was in fourth grade, these two kids and their moms went into business together and started a roller rink. They became the coolest kids in school. It was really 90s and flashy.
AO: I really like this specific style of roller rink where it’s like 1973 or something—just stays the same, nothing ever changes.
KM: It’s like a bowling alley in that way.
AO: Yeah, if it’s way too YMCA, I’m not into it. I don’t wanna be at the rec center. I wanna place that is like skate your date.
“That’s a total industry thing,
or like a dickheadish thing,
when someone points out what
could have been better.”
— Kevin Morby
KM: I wonder if they still do the races?
AO: We did the race!
EE: Of our age bracket. Well, I tried to sneak on in the 12-16 because I didn’t hear the announcer.
KM: Just pushing kids over…
EE: No, it was like 18 and up.
KM: How old are both of you?
EE: I am 32.
AO: And I’m 27.
AO: Kevin Morby, where are you going next year? Where do you wanna go?
KM: The West coast, the East coast, the Midwest of America. All over Europe.
AO: So everywhere?
KM: Hopefully Iceland someday, I wanna go – have you ever been?
AO: I’ve never been to Iceland.
KM: I really wanna go there.
KM: I haven’t been there, and I’m into the idea of the not-sunny vacation, the sort of wintery vacation. The kind of Alaska over Hawaii.
AO: Björk’s from there.
KM: She is. She is.
AO: So maybe you’ll see her
KM: I hear, no matter what, you always see Bjork … whether it’s a layover, no matter what.
You’ve had a busy year this year Angel, so what are your plans for next year?
AO: Yes I did. I think I’m gonna chill. I really wanna find a studio space in Nashville, there’s a couple of places in the Arts District opening up. Like, only artists lofts. But they’re pretty expensive so I don’t know. And I definitely know we’re going to Australia and New Zealand
KM: That’s cool, have you been there before?
AO: Yeah, I went there a couple of years ago as well. I’ve never been to New Zealand before.
EE: She’s a big “Lord of the Rings” fan.
KM: You are?
AO: No! (laughs) No I’m not!
KM: Well I’ll tell you, the Lord of the Rings stuff is everywhere there. And New Zealand Airlines is my favorite airline of all time. The [safety] video they show is all Hobbits. They’re like “No smoking of any kind,” and it’s Frodo with a pipe in a plane. It’s hilarious. And you’re in your own little pod, even in coach, and if there’s loss of power, you follow the lights along the seats and there’s Gollum and he’s running around. It’s super cool. Great airline, beautiful place New Zealand.
AO: I’ve been having all these snake dreams lately.
KM: Wow. What are you feelings about snakes in real life?
AO: I’m not really afraid of them. I think they’re interesting. But anyway, we’re going to Australia right? I’ve never seen any ocean snakes before in my life, but I have this intense, vivid thing where three huge ocean snakes come up out of the water trying to attack me. It was so insane, and I was researching it to see if these things actually existed, and this is the exact species that lives along the coast of Australia. (laughs) They look like eels. But I karate chopped them.
“I feel like a brand.
I don’t wanna be a brand
but I feel that way.”
— Angel Olsen
KM: Are you a great lakes or an ocean person? If you had to choose.
AO: Probably great lakes because the ocean is an alien environment. Even lakes scare the crap out of me, you don’t know what’s in the bottom…
KM: It’s horrifying.
AO: What if you’ve been dreaming vivid dreams of ocean snakes and then you’re like, “Fuck that was a sign I didn’t remember that sign.” You know? Dreams are real.
KM: Dreams are real, they kind of scare me sometimes.
AO: What’s coming up next?
KM: Touring. Just dropped my new record, which I already did all my touring for—it was within a year of the last one coming out. So by the time it came out I was like, well I’m not gonna tour for awhile, cause I just toured on the last one. So I’m getting vocal surgery tomorrow, and I have to take a month off, but then my next year’s really busy supporting my album that just came out. And I’ll be recording next year.
AO: I might record, but I don’t know. No pressure. Just trying to live.
KM: No pressure. You just put out a hit album and toured your butt off for a year.
AO: I don’t really feel like I’ve been a person. I haven’t really been able to call home to be like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing.” I’m just running and doing it.
KM: You’ve had one of those years. And I feel like your records been doing so well, that anytime I look anywhere, you’re there.
AO: I feel like a brand. I don’t wanna be a brand, but I feel that way.
KM: Do you feel like a Hershey’s chocolate or something?
AO: I don’t know, I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve made it this far, and that we’ve been able to tour so much together. It takes a lot of time out of everyone’s life. And a lot of energy. And a lot of patience. You have to find your Zen somewhere among the non-privacy. So I don’t know. I’m very happy about where it’s gone, but it’s also out of my hands. There’s this image of me being projected and projected, and I have no idea what it means to anybody. But it’s just everywhere and everyone’s always asking about it and I’m like, “I don’t even know what it is. It’s out of my hands now.” It’s crazy.