‘When she howled, you could feel it’: How Angel Olsen turned grief and longing into triumph

A woman in a white dress leans against a wooden wall and looks down, sullen
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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The most emotionally committed music of Angel Olsen’s career grew out of the possibility that she might quit making it at any minute.

A singer and songwriter known for her impassioned melancholy, Olsen, who’s 35 and lives in Asheville, N.C., arrived at producer Jonathan Wilson’s Topanga Canyon studio last year amid a stretch of serious personal upheaval. Three weeks before she began recording what would become her sixth album, “Big Time,” her mother died at age 78 of heart failure; two months before that, her 89-year-old father died in his sleep, mere days after she’d told her parents she was gay.

“I’d already planned to come here and make the record before all that happened,” she recalled during a recent return visit to Topanga. “So I was just kind of like, ‘F— it, I’m gonna go and see if I can get through this, and if it’s weird then I’ll stop and pick it up another time.’ And it was honestly the best decision I could’ve made, because it was so much better than sitting around feeling disassociated.” The rustic location — “being able to take a break and go on a hike or go to the beach,” as she put it — was another balm, Olsen said.

Is she a beach person?

“Not really,” she replied with a laugh. “But in the morning, when no one’s there and it’s not too hot — when you can kind of have a reflective moment — that’s my kind of beach.

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“I’m not trying to get a suntan,” she added. “I’m just there to, like, look at the waves.”

Olsen’s contemplations on grief, family, memory and the loneliness of the pandemic come through vividly on the deep and moving “Big Time,” which puts her powerful vocals at the center of arrangements rooted in the sounds and textures of classic mid-20th century country music. “I don’t know how it’s happened / That we’ve both abandoned the reason we used to believe,” she sings over a slow-building groove studded with brass in “All the Good Times,” a philosophical breakup tune she considered offering to Sturgill Simpson before deciding to cut it herself.

A woman plays guitar and sings onstage
Angel Olsen performs at the Grammy Museum on June 1.
(Timothy Norris / Getty Images)

In “This Is How It Works,” against the pleading tones of a pedal steel, Olsen longs for someone to call — “someone who knows where I am,” she clarifies, her voice on the edge of breaking, “someone who knows how it’s been.” “Through the Fires,” about learning to “let go of the pain that obstructs you from higher, higher, higher,” climaxes with the singer reaching up into a breathy falsetto as lush strings swirl around her. Throughout the album, Olsen explores the extremes of her voice — the dreamy upper register, the sultry low end, the “midrange that just smacks you over the head,” as Wilson described it — to embody the overwhelming fullness of loss.

Yet “Big Time” also takes in the healing promise of fresh romance; Olsen co-wrote the lightheaded title track with her partner of over a year, Beau Thibodeaux, who met the singer’s family for the first time at Olsen’s father’s funeral — and whom Olsen introduced in an Instagram post in April 2021 captioned, “My beau, I’m gay.” “We’re always busy, baby, not this time,” Olsen sings over rippling barrelhouse piano in “Big Time,” “Lay in the tall grass, talking with your eyes.” The result finds a place in a queer country-soul lineage that encompasses Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis,” k.d. lang’s “Ingénue” and Shelby Lynne’s “I Am Shelby Lynne” — exquisitely rendered albums by women who broadened ideas about what stories roots music can tell and to whom its traditions belong.

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The LP’s much-discussed excellence — not to mention widespread curiosity about the recent dramatic events in Olsen’s life — has established big breakthrough energy around the singer a decade after she got her start in the scrappy indie-folk underground. “Big Time” has earned rave reviews in Rolling Stone and Pitchfork; she performed the title track on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show; Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy posted an admiring cover of the title track on the day the album came out. Some of Olsen’s moves lately have suggested a growing interest in pop: She sang a few bars of Harry Styles’ “Boyfriends” on TikTok (which Styles appeared to have seen when Apple Music’s Zane Lowe mentioned it in an interview), and she made a short film based on “Big Time” with director Kimberly Stuckwisch, who previously oversaw Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour Prom” concert movie.

“Angel’s making a lot of new fans right now,” said Jon Coombs, vice president of A&R at Secretly Group, which includes her label, Jagjaguwar. Said Wilson, who’s also worked with Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey: “I think about her peers, folks in the scene, and I think Angel’s kind of the one.”

Olsen insists real-deal pop stardom isn’t her goal. “I don’t aspire to be there. I like where I am,” she said over coffee at a restaurant not far from Wilson’s studio. That’s partly to do with lifestyle — an aversion to “the personal trainer and the nutritionist and the insane schedule,” as she put it — and partly to do with snobbish old reflexes.

“You know, when a book is blowing up and everyone’s telling you to read it, and you’re like, ‘I’m not reading that book’? That’s kind of how new music is for me.” She laughed. “But then every now and then, you’ve got friends who are piano teachers, and they’re telling you all the kids are learning Olivia Rodrigo, and you can’t get the songs out of your head.”

A woman in a white dress sits on a bench outside
“I’m hesitant to call this a queer love album,” Olsen says about “Big Time,” “only because I might end up with a cis man — though I’d still be queer, you know what I mean?”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Olsen said she’s unfamiliar with modern Nashville acts like Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean — “No idea who that is,” she said of the latter — but digs country (or country-ish) music from the ’70s and ’80s: Lucinda Williams and J.J. Cale and Dolly Parton, whose personal style she seemed to borrow for an afternoon gig this month at Topanga’s open-air Theatricum Botanicum, where she played tunes from “Big Time” wearing a powder-blue pantsuit and platform heels.

Asked whether the notion of a queer country tradition resonates with her, she pondered the question briefly, a slightly skeptical look on her face. “Here’s what I’ll say: I’ve always written songs about love and heartache and all those things, and I don’t feel like I’m a different person now,” she said. “I mean, I am different, but I don’t feel like I was hiding myself or that my writing before was a lie. So I’m hesitant to call this a queer love album, only because I might end up with a cis man — though I’d still be queer, you know what I mean?”

The singer, who’s heavy on the eye contact in conversation, thought for another second.

“I’ve been doing all these Pride campaign interviews, and the question is always the same: ‘How do you celebrate Pride?’” she said. “I’m like, ‘By being gay every single day of my life?’”

The bisexual, multilingual funk singer Anitta, who dazzled audiences at Coachella, co-headlines this weekend’s Pride in the Park concert.

Olsen grew up in St. Louis, the youngest adopted child in a religiously observant family that included eight other kids. After high school, she moved to Chicago, where she eventually befriended Will Oldham, the enigmatic singer-songwriter also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who invited her to go on tour as his backing vocalist. She released her debut album, the stark “Half Way Home,” in 2012; more records followed, each to increasing acclaim and each with a slightly different framing of her voice: jumpy rock, fuzzy psychedelia, icy synth-pop. In 2019, producer Mark Ronson drafted her for a cameo on his “Late Night Feelings” album, which also featured Miley Cyrus and Camila Cabello.

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For “Big Time,” Olsen said she wasn’t trying to “be experimental about what an Americana band should do. I’m sure many of these chord structures have been done before. But my experience has been different, and my voice is different. It was more about spotlighting the lyrics than anything.” She showed up at Wilson’s place without having rehearsed the material as well as she’d have liked; the producer recalled her being “kind of apologetic when she got here.”

“But,” Olsen said, “I think the sound of the record — the focus that I’ve got on it — had everything to do with me not feeling afraid to lose anything because I was just so exhausted — so pummeled by everything that had happened” with her parents, whose deaths made her consider “my own mortality and who the people are that I want to spend my time with.” Wilson, who called in players including guitarist Gus Seyffert and the horn section from Burt Bacharach’s band, said he “witnessed the catharsis of the process. It was palpable. When she howled, you could feel it.”

A woman in a white dress leans on a tree trunk
“I’ve been doing all these Pride campaign interviews, and the question is always the same: ‘How do you celebrate Pride?’” Olsen says. “I’m like, ‘By being gay every single day of my life?’”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Olsen said talking about the album in interviews — talking about the intensity of its circumstances — has been similarly therapeutic, though she’ll occasionally get caught off guard in a call with one of her siblings. “It’ll bring everything back up that I’ve tried to work through,” she said. There’s a heartbreaking voicemail from her mom in the “Big Time” short film that says plenty about the pain of losing her. Yet she’s spoken less about her dad.

“We weren’t as close,” she said. “My dad wasn’t the kind of guy who’d ever say ‘I love you.’ But he was more tender as he got older. We watched a lot of ‘Bonanza’ together, so I’d call him and be like, ‘What episode are you on?’” Olsen didn’t find out key details about her father — like the fact that he had a brother who died of suicide and that he was “stationed in a psychiatric part of the Air Force working with people who were kind of losing their minds after war” — until she was in her late 20s.

“It was such an example of people from that time just not discussing things,” she said. “We’re such a feelings generation, and Gen Z even more so. So with him it’s interesting to think: Did your trauma go away, or did it end up in your bad back? Did it end up in your high blood pressure? Sometimes it’s a little annoying how sensitive everyone is now. But I’m wondering if it’ll lead to less physical strain because people are at least trying to process more.”

When we met in Topanga, Olsen had been hitting the promotional trail hard — playing shows, doing photo shoots, attending film screenings, including one at downtown’s Grammy Museum. (Jagjaguwar, which has had significant awards success with Bon Iver, is “absolutely” thinking about the Grammys for “Big Time,” according to Coombs.) Now she was looking forward to going home to Asheville, where she moved in 2014, for some downtime ahead of a summer tour with fellow singer-songwriters Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker that stops at the Greek Theatre on July 28 and 29.

In Asheville, Olsen said, she tends not to talk much about her music. “I take all the makeup off and I don’t see people except for my very, very close friends,” she said. “I’m hanging out with my cat, going on aimless drives, checking on my house to make sure it’s not falling apart. Just normal-people s—.

“I really like that,” she added. “Sometimes I need to forget what I do.”