Brazen, female, a bit saucy, and self-aware, Angel Olsen tells the whole truth of how it feels to write the breakaway song Shut Up Kiss Me, when the stars align and the fans take hold.
Episode 9: Angel Olsen - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: I was so impressed with Angel Olsen, still so young, remarkably accomplished, witty and modest, and quick to laugh. Both herself and the world she finds herself inhabiting, in a hyper-glossy sexualized music business, Angel Olsen retains a mystery to her I find remarkably intriguing. She’s like someone who belongs to another era, visiting the future. Check her out. Angel Olsen, I know you're hungover, but I really appreciate you calling in to speak with me today.
Angel: Thanks for having me.
Shirley: It is my absolute pleasure. Um, and I have to say I've been listening to you all week and I've become sort of obsessed by your smoky voice and your ridiculous songwriting chops, which I’m, I kept, kept saying to my husband, gosh she's such a great writer and then I'm looking you up. I couldn't find anything about where you actually like, how did you become a musician? It doesn't seem like you came from a musical background. Am I- Am I right?
Angel: No, I mean I was adopted so, um, my family, my adoptive family were always very encouraging of my writing. And as a small child I would write little songs here and there, and I was always very private about it. My mom would say, “is that something you are writing?” And I'd say, “what? Nothing. No, no, you didn't hear that. Just forget about it”. You know, I was very private about it. Even, even now it's difficult to perform in front of them even though I know they love it and support it. It's, it, it was always something that was private because I was working through it and I didn't want people around to judge it or feel good, feel anything about it until I had finished it and the saying, you know, the same thing with roommates, et cetera. So anytime someone would come home from, to an apartment or something, I'd stop. So yeah-
Shirley: So you felt shy?
Angel: I was really shy about it. Yeah, I was really protective of it.
Shirley: So has that changed?
Angel: Um, no. I think now if I'm on tour and I'm writing, which doesn't happen, usually at the very beginning of tours because I just am a freak about making sure we actually sound good the first few weeks. I'm just like, so we need to work more on this song I think. I think we're getting a little lazy here, you know, in my mind.
Shirley: So you really apply yourself to songwriting?
Angel: I apply myself to it when that space opens up. I can write anywhere, I can write at home or traveling. It's not about needing to be in a space alone, it's more, um, I need to be in the headspace to, to not focus on a bunch of things at once, you know, to be in a reflective head space and that can happen anywhere. Um-
Shirley: So when you said that you wrote songs when you were young, are you writing them in your head? Are you writing them on an instrument?
Angel: Um, I would write them on, I think I had like a Casio keyboard when I was really young and I, I had this Panasonic tape recorder. I grew up in this Victorian house and I'd sit in the hallway with the Panasonic-
Shirley: Cause of the acoustics?
Angel: Yeah, and record there. And then I started, I asked my mom for a double tape deck and started doing overdubs. And so I think I really got used to writing and learning how to sing and learning how it felt to sing certain notes by just recording and obsessing over recording, honestly.
Shirley: I noticed too that, that, you know, you talk a lot about being adopted.
Shirley: Which, um, I'm attracted to simply because my mom went through the same experience.
Shirley: Do you think being adopted has played a role in who you are as a musician and how you approach making music?
Angel: I wonder, I think sometimes in a way it's a blessing because, I mean, it seems like a sad story or interesting story, but the, the hardest part of it- or the continuous part of it is that you feel like a natural born survivalist. You were ready for anything in a lot of ways, ready for detachment, loss of anyone in your life. And I think, I think that that can be hard for people on the other end of it. But because I'm ready for that and ready to detach, I can go into that world of writing. I don't, I wouldn't say it's because of this thing in my life that I'm a writer, but it probably didn't hurt, you know?
Shirley: Mhm, and then when did you pick up the guitar?
Angel: Um, I picked up the guitar when I was about 15 or 16, and I had been in a band called Good Fight, and we were really influenced by like Gwen Stefani, and I don't know-
Shirley: Like everyone of your generation.
Angel: Yeah, we listened to a lot of dumb, you know, at the time just pop music. I love Gwen Stefani now. I was in a Gwen Stefani cover band-
Shirley: Were you really?
Angel: Years ago. It was really fun. She would, she would die to know this. Those songs are hard!
Shirley: Yeah, they're really hard.
Angel: And she's, she can sing!
Shirley: She can!
Angel: So stuff like that. Um, but yeah, I would just kind of like dance around on stage. And then I started to listen to, you know, indie music, and Leonard Cohen and I, something changed. I think I met a guy or met, uh, met a boy and he was like, “I made you this mix CD”.
Shirley: Oh here we go.
Angel: [Laughs] And it had like, and it had like, I don't know, like Stereolab on it, and Mount Eerie, and Leonard Cohen, and Conor Oberst and like, uh, some old Beatles songs. It was always like, it was a mix of indie and old school music. And it just opened up my mind and I realized- I got obsessed with Leonard Cohen. I got obsessed with a lot of, sort of emo music, or uh, writer-heavy music. And I told the band, look, I, I gotta do my own thing-
Shirley: And so you did.
Angel: And I did. I remember it was so funny, I think about it now, and we played at this place called The High Point in St Louis that, that was our last show and we were loading everything out. And I said, “you guys, I'm out. I gotta, I'm like 16”.
Shirley: I gotta do my thing.
Shirley: On this particular podcast we call it The Jump because we always want to talk about a song in an artist’s career where they feel like something has changed for them. So I was very interested that you picked Shut Up, Kiss Me from My Woman. What was going on in your life when you were writing Shut Up, Kiss Me?
Shirley: If you don't mind me asking.
Angel: I must have been listening to a lot of The Cars because I feel like this song was very inspired by The Cars. I must've, yeah, I must've been thinking in that wavelength. But I had been listening to a lot of power pop, The Nerves and The Cars and like all these different bands. And I also had just been, I think at this point where I wanted to tell people or express to people that I had a sense of humor and that I was having fun performing, you know, because I've always been sort of tagged as a sad girl songs, which now I'm just like, “Yeah, I'm fine with that. Whatever people want to-”
Shirley: I love sad girl songs.
Angel: Whatever people think, whatever they need, whatever they want to call me, it's fine. I don't care anymore. I just want to keep doing it.
Shirley: Take me through writing Shut Up, Kiss Me. So, where do you write traditionally? Do you have any habits? Do you, can you remember writing this song?
Angel: Yeah, I had been at the piano, I think first, trying different things. Just like fooling around. Sometimes I just sit at the piano and play and nothing comes. You know, I hate when that happens when you sit down to write something-
Shirley: Very depressing.
Angel: And you're like, “Okay, well I guess I'll go to the grocery store”. Um, but no, when I sat down to the piano, it didn't work. And then I picked up the guitar and right there, and I think I started at kind of like a country song first. A little bit of twang to it, and then I took the guitar in the kitchen and sat at the kitchen table, and I wrote everything down really fast. And I do this a lot where I'll write the first verse second, and then I'll swap it later. But when I came up with the bridge, I was like, “this is a song. I finished a song in one day”. That is insane.
Shirley: That’s exciting.
Angel: It's really exciting. There's nothing more fulfilling than doing that. It's like your brain has organized this little puzzle for you and it's just all up there waiting to be organized, and then you sit down and you feel like a god somehow because you channeled it all and made it all into something that people could sing to, and right away singing it, I knew in a way, maybe it's because I've listened to a lot of The Beatles or listen to a lot of pop music. I'm like, “This is something, this is going to be a good one”. There's going to be a guitar solo. And I thought about different instruments, and I think that was the first time I really thought about everything all at once in that way. And then there are other songs of course that take years to write, but it's really, it's really different when you sit down and you finish an entire song in one sitting.
Shirley: Is this- the recorded version very different from the initial writing demo?
Angel: Um, it's not very different. I think I even wrote the little guitar part for it and I called it the shit solo, [Laughs] because I'm not a solo guitarist and I sent it to a guitarist at the time, he was like, “I like it. You should just keep it this way”. I was like, “Really? You like it?”. [Laughs]
Shirley: Was this one of the songs that you worked on with Justin Raisen?
Angel: Yeah. Well, I had written, so I wrote all the songs and brought them to the studio. And Justin would come in and kind of like, we'd talk about how to make them bigger or how to make certain sections bigger. And he came up with this idea for me to sing the Oz over the end of the song. And I really felt like, we just kind of went wild. You know, he was really into just adding tons of vocals and I was like, “Yes”. But then what that meant is that I had to hire a backup singer. [Laughs] But you know, that's what happens.
Shirley: For live, you mean?
Angel: Yeah, and that's what happens for every record. You, you build a record out and then in order to perform it live, you have to kind of bring it live and in that way too. So, I used to be more afraid of adding all these things because I didn't have the band for it or didn't have the money for the band for it. And then at this point I was just like, “Let's go crazy and add a bunch of vocals and add a bunch of parts”. And yeah, I'm really happy that we did because it pushed me to make things bigger in a live way too.
Shirley: Where did you record Shut Up, Kiss Me?
Angel: I recorded it at Vox Studios and in Hollywood, so.
Shirley: And it was just you and Justin in the room, or?
Angel: Oh, no, the band- so we played the entire record live. That's a live version of the song.
Shirley: Oh wow.
Shirley: Is that exciting? Nerve wracking?
Angel: Both. I think, I think we really, I really wanted to showcase the band as like, as performers and so, so the band was really part of that process as well and, and uh, it was a really wonderful moment to have there, yeah.
Shirley: Who's your biggest vocal influence?
Shirley: I mean Gwen must have been a big one, is she-
Angel: Gwen was great. Yeah. I mean when I was a kid, now I, I love Timmy Euro and Helen Shapiro.
Shirley: When you sing, sorry to focus in.
Angel: No, no, no. It's okay.
Shirley: I love talking to singers, you can imagine.
Shirley: But when you perform Shut Up, Kiss Me live, is that a different experience for you? Or are you just trying to emulate the recording? Like do you see them as two different disciplines?
Angel: I see them as, I mean now I perform it and it's much more relaxed. It's interesting to see what people cling to, what, what they relate to. And the reason why I chose that one just to really talk about, I don't know, I don't think I've seen people freak out as much about my music until I heard that, you know. Until I heard them asking, or me singing that song over and over again live and seeing how much they wanted to hear it, you know? And of course, when you have a song like that, you're like, “Well, what about the other ones?” You know? [Laughs]
Shirley: And you're like, “Why’d ya like that one so much?”.
Angel: [Laughs] That one's boring, and I do that one all the time. But even though for me, it's not my favorite song ever. Uh-
Shirley: You certainly have got many, many beautiful songs and more complex songs. This is a very simple, simple song.
Angel: Yeah, I think it, I think it's, um, it's important to, to play the old ones, you know? And if I were going to see a concert and my favorite artist, and play the old songs, I'd be bummed.
Shirley: Yeah, I’d be too.
Angel: So I guess it's a lesson in- just appreciate that people can connect to your music, even if you've moved on, you know, because isn't that wonderful and special?
Shirley: Do you love performing?
Angel: I do. I love performing, but I don't love being around people all the time. So it's-
Angel: Um, I get more energy just being alone and just taking it easy. I think that part of being a band leader, and even when I'm not the manager and I'm not the tour manager, people are looking at me for-
Angel: Yeah. And, and I think that that is performing, that's performing all the time, not just on stage. And so for me, it takes a lot out of me to do both.
Angel: Um, but I love performing on stage. I think. Um, I think playing live is what strengthens my voice to be able to sing in the studio so comfortably. You know what I mean?
Angel: Um, and if I didn't do that and experiment with it, and how it felt, and how the reactions were, and how if I didn't practice those using those muscles, I don't think that I would be as comfortable in a studio.
Shirley: You strike me as somebody who likes to go up against the grain, who's comfortable going up against the grain.
Angel: Oh yeah. Yeah, I like to mess with people.
Angel: For sure. I, I would rather someone, um, get into a fight with me from stage than to have a silent audience that was too respectful that I couldn't tell if they were having a terrible time, a good time or just fell asleep. I was thinking of a time when I was in Manchester and uh somebody was like, “I've got to take the bus home, play on fuck the world”. [Laughs] And I was like, “Huh. Interesting. Interesting request.” [Laughs] But at the same time, yeah. I don't know. I think it just keeps me on my toes and I like, I like people getting rowdy.
Shirley: When you talk about this being a, a moment in your career that changed something for you, whether it's the way you think, and the way you move forward with your career. Is there, is there a thread between this song and a song on the new record? Or do you just feel that was that a moment and then you've moved through it, and you're done with that?
Angel: I don't know if I'm done with that. I think that there will be more songs. There will probably be more rock and roll songs in the future, but I feel like what happened in between that song just sort of pivoted me into this- that record and that song made me realize that people were really listening to me. And so when I was finished on that- finished doing that tour, and I had all this material that wasn't as exciting, maybe as Shut Up, Kiss Me. And in my mind I thought, I don't know who's going to relate to this material. It's so dark and it's weird and you know, if that's what they love and that's what people love. It was a little scary. But I think I just got to this point where I realized I have to make more music, even if people don't love it, even if there are fans for that record that aren't for this one, you know, and I hope that I can continue doing it. Yeah. I never know what's next or what, what something will sound like, but I think that there will definitely be an upswing again at some point, you know, for, for now. Um, I don't think that this record could have happened if I hadn't made that one. You know what I mean?
Shirley: Yeah. Well, you have an embarrassment of talent. You really do. And here's to more dark and here's to more weird.
Angel: Thank you.
Shirley: Lots of luck to you. Thank you so much, Angel.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
Shirley Manson talks with musicians about that one song that changed everything.
George Clinton describes his political groove, Chocolate City, in style.
Sharon Van Etten speaks on Love More, a song about a life-saving friendship.
Matt Berninger discusses Fake Empire and getting lucky in the music industry.
Jónsi explains how his tear-jerking song, Svefn-g-englar, brings him joy.
Alabama Shakes frontwoman, Brittany Howard, discusses writing Sound & Color.
DJ Shadow discusses creating Six Days and the dedication it takes to work alone.
Juliette Lewis explains what it is to be a Hard Lovin’ Woman.
Peaches discusses creating an empowering new sound through F*** the Pain Away.
Angel Olsen describes how it feels to write the breakaway song Shut Up Kiss Me.
Open Mike Eagle describes the real moments that make up his song, Qualifiers.
Laura Jane Grace explains how I Was A Teenage Anarchist continues to ring true.
Liz Phair discusses handling adversity for women through her song, 6’1”.