Like so many kids growing up in the '90s, Angel Olson spent lots of time singing into a Panasonic tape recorder—particularly in the bathroom, because of its natural reverb, a fact that drove her large family crazy.
"I still have some tapes from when I was sixteen or seventeen, and my voice sounds incredibly different," Olson tells me by phone from Asheville, North Carolina, her home for the past year.
Though she's been described as soft-spoken by music journalists, in conversation with KQED Olsen is self-assured and opinionated: about her recording vision, why the "women in music" category bums her out, and how to survive as an independent musician in 2014. She plays with her band at the Great American Music Hall on Dec. 1, and a sold-out solo show on Dec. 2 at The Chapel.
We start with Olson's voice, because it is just so remarkable. Will Oldham, the idiosyncratic, workaholic folk musician who plucked the then-23-year-old Missouri native from the obscurity of Chicago warehouse gigs in 2010, once said about her voice: "It's almost like I get hollowed out and then filled, but I don't know what it's with. It's a mixture of apprehension and satisfaction at the same time."
On her latest album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olson—who left her adopted family in St. Louis and moved to Chicago when she was 18—moves deftly between caramel-infused whispers, Roy Orbison-like quavers, and willfully controlled wails. Obsessed with the Fairport Convention at the age of 16, Olsen says, she'd mimic the "earnest, high-pitched folk music" voices of the group's singers Linda Thompson and Judy Dyble. At the same time, she'd been exposed to old-school country and rock like the Everly Brothers and Roger Miller through her parents. And then there were the '90s R&B singers, like Lauryn Hill, Destiny's Child and Mariah Carey, who inspired her to let loose in a different way on the album's last track, "Windows."
"I remember doing the vocalization and thinking 'This is totally R&B nineties right now,'" Olson recalls. "I asked my bandmate Stewart, 'Is it okay if I freak out and do something totally different?' At home, I'll sing along with R&B, but not usually on recordings."
It worked, and the track, along with an accompanying video which finds a glum, vacant-eyed Olson looking after two rambunctious kids in an old farmhouse, is one of the most powerful songs of the year.
Just don't lump Olsen into an ambiguous "women in music" category.
"I feel good as a woman, but as an artist, I identify as a human being," she adds. "It's not as if though we're all doing the same thing."
Olson first found her footing singing back-up with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Though nearly two decades younger than Oldham and his crew, she was able to hold her own professionally.
In Oldham, she found a "silent guide" who taught her about the music industry, she says, and what it means to work in a band. "He keeps to himself," Olson says. "He's on his own path and it's way more punk rock than mine is. He works with Drag City, which is still DIY in a lot of ways where the artists do pretty much everything themselves. And I don't know if Will would ever put his stuff in a commercial or a TV show."
Olson mentions that she was, in fact, approached recently about selling a song for a commercial. She said no, despite the temptation of being paid enough to live on for a year. "I'm like, 'I'm not going to do this because it's a crappy company, and it's going to damage my career and make me look like a piece of crap,'" she says. "But I'm okay with movies, and I'm okay with TV. I like the idea of combining art."
In 2012, she recorded her first solo album Halfway Home, gaining well-deserved attention. (She'd already released a cassette-only project Strange Cacti, but with very limited distribution). While living in Chicago, Olson recruited drummer Josh Jaeger and bass player Stewart Bronaugh. Six months later, they recorded the songs that would become Burn Your Fire. Later, Emily Elhaj joined as bass player.
In a recent interview, Olson described the songs on Burn Your Fire as "not quite resigned - but defiant." Though drenched in sadness, loss and yearning, just as many moments feel like gut-wrenching liberation—as if to say that sometimes you fall so far down, and still, even in the deepest corners, you find a glimmer of light, a fire burning. Call it the soul's force; Olson's songs, anchored by her powerful voice, have it in spades. "I wish I had the voice of everything, " she sings on "Stars," later adding, "To scream the feeling 'til there's nothing left."
Though Olson once put in time working at cafes, she hasn't had to work a day job in four years, a fact that she says makes her feel "lucky." Hers is a tenuous success, like anybody's, and one that she doesn't take for granted.
"Like any piece of art,” she says, “you can make a lot of money on it and be okay, but then it could be years before you make anything worthwhile again, and then you have to live off savings for a while." She credits her time playing with Oldham and the Cairo Gang for "getting her name out there by default," providing a ready-made scaffolding when she was ready to take off on her own: a booking agent, press agent, manager and a place on Jagjaguwar Records roster, soon after her first eastern solo tour.
And take off she did. In 2014, Olsen landed a cover feature in Spin, was praised in Pitchfork, and performed live on David Letterman. With the approach of a new year, she's anticipating a slower pace, time to reflect on "all that's happened," to record new songs, and to relax in Asheville. She moved there, she says, because after the constant whir of tour, she wanted to be somewhere that's "the opposite of moving."
"It's very much like Portland in a lot of ways, or like parts of Washington," she adds. "The mountains, and being in this tiny valley surrounded by nature. There's good stuff to eat and good people to hang out with. It's definitely a mellow place."