Angel Olsen achieves a state of grace with her tuneful yet stark music

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

August 14, 2013 6:21PM

Witnessing a songwriter and musician develop their music in public is increasingly rare; many new artists are forced into a ready-made package and then pushed before an audience.

Angel Olsen, however, is emerging right before our very eyes. She was working the counter of Bourgeois Pig in Lincoln Park when she released a limited edition EP she recorded mostly by herself. Those songs, cloaked in reverb, showed promise, but her voice sounded like it was hiding. After a stint singing vocals for singer-songwriter Will Oldham, she returned to the studio and framed the songs around her voice, a potent instrument with an intimacy that few singers might dare. The most direct comparison might be Neil Young’s earliest acoustic recordings where, as a young man, he sang with the creaky vulnerability of someone older and wiser. Olsen’s songs cover similar ground; they are tuneful, simple and can make opaque sentiments accessible, even at their bleakest.

A touchstone for Olsen was the Southern country soul singer Tami Lynn. That singer’s voice on songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Wings Upon Your Horns” gave Olsen a blueprint for how she wanted to sound: unencumbered and raw.

“She doesn’t sound perfect, but for some reason in that recording, her voice sounds like it’s on a pillow, and she’s whispering to you. She’s right there in the room. I was blown away,” says Olsen, 26, remembering the discovery. “I was willing to take that dryness and apply it to my first full-length [disc].”

The result is “Half Way Home,” a stunning debut released late last year. It has transformed Olsen’s life by bringing her a record deal, an overseas tour and a spot at last month’s Pitchfork Music Festival. It also set her on a new path on which she admits she is still discovering new directions for her music and how she wants to present it in public. Much of the attention on the record, recently reissued on CD by Jagjaguwar, is on her vocals, and its place in the minimal production that makes every finger pluck or bass thump transfixing.

“I didn’t want too many instruments crowding the space,” she says. “Though my voice isn’t necessarily perfect, I wanted to own the space with what I was saying.”

The subjects of these folk songs, with a strong country music influence, touch on universal subjects: regret, wonderment and bereavement. On “Lonely Universe,” a country song in slow motion, a childhood memory is gently unpeeled: “Your hand was cold, your voice was shaking/One morning not too long ago/And I at the time was almost a child/About to lose my childlike mind/The way you touch my hands like you never had before/It wasn’t you anymore/I call for my brothers, I call for my sisters/But there was nothing for them to do/And so I watched from far away as the ambulances came/And started dressing for school.”

Producer Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang, also an Oldham collaborator, played most of instruments, and helped to convince Olsen that she didn’t need to hit all the notes if they stood in place of telling the story. On “You Are Song,” Olsen walks the line between talking and singing, making certain lyrics hang high with tension. “I like the idea of a human voice,” she says. “When things are too polished and when a singer is too good, there is no humanity in it.”

Seeking a more collaborative music community, Olsen moved from St. Louis to Chicago. She enrolled at the Soma Institute to study massage therapy, but later quit once she decided she had more interest in playing house parties and getting deeper in the city’s DIY music scene.

“Eventually it was made clear to me that if I’m going to get some crazy self-induced hand arthritis, I’d rather get it from playing guitar than massaging a body,” she says.

She found collaborators at her cafe job where she worked with Joshua Jaeger, one half of Lionlimb, a Chicago dream-pop duo. Olsen and Jaeger weren’t necessarily aware of each other’s music until she returned from touring with Oldham; he suggested they try playing together. Soon, they became her band, which meant she found herself in an unfamiliar role.

“It was the first time I had entered a position where I was the one leading and making decisions about how each song would go,” she says.

Working with Oldham gave her opportunities to observe other musicians’ experiments while staying true to the sound in her head.

Confidence is driving her to write more lately; new music is expected on Jagjaguwar in the winter.“I worked in a band I respected for a few years but kept silent about a lot of things. In a way, I’m trying to reverse myself,” she says of the rush of thoughts, images and song ideas that are showing up without invitation. “I’d rather be a waterfall of dumb words with a few good things happening within that, than have something interesting to say and never trying to say it.”

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