Mu­si­cian An­gel Olsen talks to Emily Bitto about fan­dom

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - EMILY BITTO is an au­thor. Her de­but novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize. By Emily Bitto.

“It’s cool look­ing back be­cause at the time we were just get­ting shit-faced and we weren’t think­ing, We’re part of some­thing.” An­gel Olsen

If you’re not an in­die mu­sic fan, this may mean less to you. Then again, if you are a fan of any­thing re­ally – paint­ing or jazz or film or skate cul­ture – if you’re fas­ci­nated by the or­ganic and seem­ingly mys­ti­cal ways in which scenes and cliques and com­mu­ni­ties of cul­tural pro­duc­ers co­a­lesce in par­tic­u­lar places and at par­tic­u­lar times, then you’ll get it.

An­gel Olsen started out as a fan-girl her­self. She grew up in St Louis, Mis­souri, a city she de­scribes as the Detroit of the Mid­west, “very in­dus­trial but also quite de­pressed”, with the rest of Mis­souri “very much ‘the coun­try’”. Olsen was adopted by an older cou­ple who al­ready had grand­chil­dren her age. She was a self­con­fessed “weird kid”, a “heavy thinker” and the only mu­si­cal mem­ber of the fam­ily. At 31, Olsen is still girl­ish and ex­cited when she talks about dis­cov­er­ing the first of many scenes she has been part of. “There was this web­site called STL Punk, when I was 15 or 16,” she tells me. “This was pre-MyS­pace or Face­book. You could have your own pro­file and there was a chat room that said who was on­line and a cal­en­dar of all the DIY shows go­ing on and what was go­ing on at all the venues … And it was cool.”

I meet Olsen at a wine bar in Fitzroy, where she is drink­ing with her tour man­ager and book­ing agent, rem­i­nisc­ing about her pre­vi­ous visit to Mel­bourne. She stayed in the same ho­tel she’s in now, along with Mac DeMarco and Tame Im­pala, all here for Laneway Fes­ti­val three years ago. “It was like camp,” she says. “There were like 50 peo­ple in one ho­tel room, drink­ing beer and spilling it on the car­pet and smok­ing. I couldn’t be­lieve no one came up to yell at us.” She is dressed plainly, in beige high-waisted jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, her face fresh and free of make-up, hair up in a wispy bun. She wears an an­tique ring and a gold locket on a fine chain, which she fid­dles with as she talks. Later tonight, for her third of four con­sec­u­tive shows at the Tote, she will take her hair down, re­veal­ing a clas­sic choppy rockchic do, but won’t change her out­fit or put on make-up.

Be­tween sips of cloudy white wine, Olsen re­calls with ob­vi­ous fond­ness her early ini­ti­a­tion into mu­sic fan­dom, her mother drop­ping her off at a dodgy all-ages venue called The Creepy Crawl in down­town St Louis to see Bat­tles play, in­sist­ing Olsen in­tro­duce her to the kids she’d met on­line be­fore leav­ing her there. She had a mo­bile phone she was only al­lowed to use for the night and had to call home three times dur­ing the show. “We were the cusp, or the very early mil­len­ni­als, who were the first ones to use [the in­ter­net] as a re­source to go and meet peo­ple,” she says.

This process of find­ing “her peo­ple” has been an on­go­ing one for Olsen. From her early punk days, via a brief stint as the front­woman of a Gwen Ste­fani-in­spired ska band, Olsen dis­cov­ered the in­die scene in which she is still both a par­tic­i­pant and pas­sion­ate fan to­day. “Some­thing changed when I got in­tro­duced to in­die mu­sic,” she tells me. She de­scribes meet­ing a group of “older peo­ple”, prob­a­bly all of 25, who in­tro­duced her to bands such as Belle and Se­bas­tian, Mount Eerie, Broad­cast and Stere­o­lab. “Then later some­one was like, ‘You need to lis­ten to Leonard Co­hen, you need to lis­ten to Fair­port Con­ven­tion, King Crim­son, The Velvet Un­der­ground…’ And I was like, ‘Okay, this is it.’”

Nine­teen years old and “re­ally deep” into in­die mu­sic, Olsen went through a de­pressed pe­riod. “I couldn’t re­ally find peo­ple who ap­pre­ci­ated [the same mu­sic] in St Louis,” she says. “But I met some peo­ple from Chicago who would come in and play DIY shows at my friend’s house and got re­ally chatty with them, wrote a bunch of emails, and even­tu­ally moved to Chicago.”

In Chicago, Olsen be­gan play­ing three or four shows a week, in friends’ houses or small venues, get­ting thrills from be­ing part of a scene in which signed bands were play­ing and go­ing to shows along­side her and her friends, ev­ery­body in it for the love. “That was a thing in Chicago,” she says. “Ev­ery­body was play­ing some sort of gallery or loft space or some­one’s house. This friend of mine had this venue in her base­ment called Ot­toman Em­pire, and like Jeff the Broth­er­hood and Ty Se­gall and Plas­tic Crime­wave Sound … and all th­ese peo­ple from Drag City [Records] were min­gling with th­ese kids in this tiny fuck­ing base­ment. It was a great time.”

The rise of Olsen is the stuff of ro­mance, tak­ing place within the small, or­ganic DIY scene that spawned some of Amer­ica’s in­die roy­alty and seems al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine ex­ist­ing in a sus­tain­able way here. Many of the for­mer “weird kids” Olsen hung out with in the early days have been able to make suc­cess­ful ca­reers do­ing what they love and col­lab­o­rat­ing with friends. “Even­tu­ally a lot of peo­ple in that scene got put on la­bels or they be­came tour man­agers or started work­ing for la­bels or opened a club, you know,” Olsen says. “It’s cool look­ing back be­cause at the time we were just get­ting shit-faced and we weren’t think­ing, We’re part of some­thing.”

Even­tu­ally, the con­nec­tions she made dur­ing her time in Chicago would lead nat­u­rally to where she is now. One of the peo­ple she met there was Will Old­ham, who per­forms as Bon­nie “Prince” Billy. He of­fered her a job as a back­ing singer in his band, and she ended up on the road with him for more than two years. I ask her about that time, her first tour­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian. “It was crazy. It was in­sane,” she says, laugh­ing. Then she sobers. “Ac­tu­ally, it was very en­light­en­ing. I’m 22 or 23 years old, back-up singer in a band of mostly dudes who’ve been play­ing in bands for 20 years. And they all have been around the block, and they’re all in a dif­fer­ent space be­cause of their age and what they think about the mu­sic in­dus­try, be­cause it’s chang­ing, and I’m com­ing in go­ing, ‘This is great! We’re in Italy! I’m 23 years old! Pour another glass!’ I was very qui­eted by the ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause I was try­ing to watch and ob­serve and learn from it … It’s dif­fer­ent when you’re on the road, it re­ally is. You get worn from it.”

That was al­most 10 years ago. Olsen is now a sea­soned front­woman her­self, with her own hard-won, road-weary wis­dom. This cur­rent tour she’s play­ing solo, do­ing a se­ries of shows in smaller venues such as the Tote, per­haps as a break from tour­ing with a band and the chal­lenges that poses. Gen­eral is­sues of col­lab­o­ra­tion – how to build a pos­i­tive and sus­tain­able re­la­tion­ship with a group of mu­si­cians – seem to be play­ing un­easily on her mind dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, rais­ing ques­tions that I leave unasked.

“Re­la­tion­ships with band­mates get older and deeper and some­times more in­tense and more com­pli­cated,” she says. “Money and value starts com­ing to a head. That sort of stuff is the hard­est part about mak­ing mu­sic: mak­ing in­ti­mate mu­sic for peo­ple and hav­ing a good time while know­ing that some­body’s se­cretly pissed off about some­thing, and it’s prob­a­bly your fault be­cause you’re the cen­tre of it.”

She is deal­ing with it by talk­ing to other mu­si­cians, par­tic­u­larly about the feel­ings of iso­la­tion that she says come with both suc­cess and with life on the road. “That iso­la­tion thing… It’s nice to talk to other peo­ple who are in my po­si­tion, peo­ple who are in charge of their band or the leader of their band – the boss in a way. I don’t want to have a band that’s just a hired group of play­ers, and be­cause of that there are cer­tain con­se­quences. Emo­tions. The con­text of re­la­tion­ships starts to get tricky. But I think it’s all worth it be­cause it makes the mu­sic bet­ter, and it makes it feel bet­ter when you play. But it can be re­ally ex­haust­ing, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally.”

Olsen has re­lo­cated to the small moun­tain city of Asheville, North Carolina, where she can re­treat for some soli­tary time after tour­ing or record­ing. “I re­ally love be­ing alone,” she tells me. “I think that’s why I live in Asheville. I get to travel the world, and I’m busy writ­ing and I’m busy play­ing and then I go home to a place that doesn’t care if I’m a mu­si­cian. There is a scene, but I’m not try­ing hard to mat­ter in the scene. It’s re­ally mel­low, you know. We’ve got all the acai bowl shit, and kom­bucha on tap, and the moun­tains.”

When I see her show later that night, I am sur­prised by how dif­fer­ent she is on stage. Alone with her elec­tric gui­tar be­hind the lights, she is sassy, play­ful, provoca­tive, chan­nelling a wild and rest­less en­ergy, ask­ing the au­di­ence if any­one wants to fight her. She hands out beers to the front row, jokes about the state of the Tote’s filthy car­pet and the “band room” that is just a par­ti­tioned, win­dow­less space at the side of the stage. “I’ve been liv­ing here for three nights now,” she tells the crowd. “And I think I’m gonna come back to­mor­row and do some re­dec­o­rat­ing.”

And then there is her voice, pitch per­fect and pli­ant, shift­ing be­tween the light, melodic elas­tic­ity of a 1930s chanteuse, the deeper, plain tones of ’70s folk, and a raw growl that evokes her early punk back­ground. Of her voice, her per­for­mance, her pres­ence on stage, she is ut­terly in con­trol.

Be­fore she em­barked on this Aus­tralian tour, Olsen was asked to play in Philip Glass’s yearly Ti­bet House ben­e­fit show at Carnegie Hall. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence that had a big im­pact on her, re­mind­ing her of what she loves about mu­sic – of the charm and beau­ti­ful chaos of be­ing part of a close-knit scene. It took her back to her old, authen­tic fan-girl roots. “I walk into SIR stu­dios in New York on the Thurs­day morn­ing be­fore we play,” Olsen gushes, “and there’s Dev Hynes from Blood

Or­ange play­ing Philip Glass for Philip Glass. Peo­ple are milling about drink­ing cof­fee and eat­ing dough­nuts and chitchat­ting, and there’s the string quar­tet over here tun­ing their in­stru­ments, and some guy on a lap­top with­out shoes on is here, and I’m like, Where am I?” A starstruck Olsen was teamed with the Patti Smith band to per­form one of her own songs as well as a cover of “I Found a Rea­son” by The Velvet Un­der­ground. “I was so ex­cited to meet them,” she ad­mits. “Ter­ri­fied and ex­cited… They were all su­per nice, and say­ing ‘If you’re ever in New York, let’s hang out.’ And I was, like, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.”

Again, Olsen found her­self around a group of older and more ex­pe­ri­enced mu­si­cians, who have all nav­i­gated the same ter­ri­tory that she is only be­gin­ning to chart, who have been at it to­gether for many years. “I left that ex­pe­ri­ence think­ing, ‘It’s so in­ter­est­ing and in­spir­ing to see peo­ple who have ob­vi­ously shared a lot of grief and change and weird­ness and time to­gether, and just con­tin­u­ing to play.’”

I leave my in­ter­view with Olsen feel­ing be­lat­edly starstruck, se­duced by the mythol­ogy and ro­mance of Amer­i­can in­die mu­sic and nos­tal­gic for the pure, heady ex­cite­ment of fan­dom. There is some­thing lovely about catching an artist at the par­tic­u­lar point in their ca­reer where Olsen is right now, when their suc­cess is fresh enough that they are still grate­ful, blush­ing, blown away by the op­por­tu­ni­ties be­ing pre­sented to them. And when they come from a place of sim­ple, con­sum­ing love for mu­sic, as Olsen clearly does, it feels that, for once, the

• stars have aligned for the right per­son.

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