A few days out from Valentine’s Day, Angel Olsen is bringing Big Time to the Carolina Theatre. Feel what you may about the holiday—a sweet day to celebrate your sweetheart, a commercial tool of capitalism, a day forged out of the fires of heartbreak—and Olsen’s expansive romantic oeuvre will likely cover the mood.
Released last June, the Asheville musician’s sixth studio album is emotionally surging and stylistically sweeping, as all of Olsen’s work tends to be. But love, writ large in Big Time, is also no easily codified thing: it brushes up against freedom and exultation, grief and boundaries, sweeping listeners up into the gauzy expanse of “All the Flowers” and the tender parts of life that, as in “Go Home,” bruise at the touch.
It also chronicles the paradigm-shifting moments of Olsen’s last few years, which included falling in love, heartbreak, and coming into her experience of queerness, and coming out to her parents, only to have both parents pass away within a few weeks.
These experiences are all part of the album fabric, though Olsen is reluctant to retread the same ground in interviews—her publicist famously provides interviewers a multipage fact sheet with off-limit topics, and this interview was no exception. But these boundaries also make sense, given how raw and porous Olsen’s music is and what a gift it is to access such a rich translation of love.
Ahead of her upcoming Durham appearance, INDY Week spoke with Olsen about Karen Dalton, outlaw country, and dream journals.
INDY Week: You’re about halfway through the tour. What’s that emotional register like?
Olsen: You just start to feel really in sync with the band—you feel close to everybody and kind of get into a rhythm, and you’re not as nervous to try weird stuff or try covers or to switch up the set in the middle of the show. That kind of thing starts to happen. At the very end of the tour we’re going to be playing six shows in a row and Durham is our last one, so by then, we’ll be super tight.
The film for the song “Big Time” was inspired by a dream. Do you keep a dream journal?
I started to, recently, actually. I used to have a lot of really vivid dreams, so whenever I [do], I write them down. Last year, I did the three-pages-a-day thing. This time I’m kind of doing it as soon as I wake up, trying to write whatever it is down.
Visuals have a big role in your artistic project—does that have a relationship to your dreams?
I think so. When I was a little kid, I always thought I would go into film—I was really into reenacting movies with friends. Whenever I write things, I think visually. It goes hand in hand.
Who are some of the artists you found yourself returning to while writing Big Time?
Stevie Nicks, Big Star, Lucinda Williams. Dolly Parton. I listened to a lot of Jeannie C. Riley and a lot of outlaw country, here and there. Townes Van Zandt, Tucker Zimmerman, Mickey Newbury. That part of country that’s like, country-folk—it’s not really folk, but it’s sort of folky [laughs]. I listened to a lot of George Harrison, too. It’s a mixture of those kinds of things. Every now and then I go back and forth with a Neil Young revival—get obsessed and listen to all the records again.
That’s a long list—how do you hold all those influences while you’re writing?
I’m not trying to write exactly like those people, but I was just kind of like, “How do I do my version of this mixture of things?” I had already written “All the Good Times” in 2017, but I didn’t put it on any record—it just didn’t fit. So I knew I at least had that one. And then I wrote “Dream Thing” and “Right Now.” And once you write three or four, you’re like, “OK, I think I can try to write some more like this.” And “Big Time” was kind of a joke with my partner at the time—we wanted to make a country song.
A lot of the writing process for me, especially if I’m trying something new, is wondering if something is a song when I’m not sure if something is a song yet. And then after I take some time away from it, here I am. Once I’m writing the verses [sometimes] I’ll flip them or I’ll change where the verses happen, or I’ll take two lines and put them at the top. It feels like you’re completing a puzzle, in that mode.
What was it like doing the voice-over for Karen Dalton’s journals in the documentary about her?
They didn’t show me the film before I did it, so I was just trying to be as intimate as possible. There are parts of [the journals] that I related to, but it was so long ago—it took a few years before it was finished. But it was a fun project and it was really fun doing a cover for the Light in the Attic edition—that was for the movie; they made a record.
In so much of the early aughts, in the Joanna Newsom era of singing, people were influenced by Karen’s vocal style. Between her and Barbara Dane, who is also a soulful, jazzy singer in the sixties, I definitely got a lot of peripheral influence without even realizing it. I remember being really protective in the early days of writing and putting out music and not wanting to be compared to anything.
At this point, if people like it, they like it, and if they think it sounds like something, that’s fine. But, I think that’s because I’ve made a series of records and established somewhat of my own style at this point.
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