As singer-songwriter Angel Olsen started to put together the songs for her latest album, Big Time, she realized a tune she wrote in 2017 would fit nicely on the album. That song, “All the Good Times,” didn’t fit well on any of Olsen’s previous albums and was a musical orphan.
“Well, it’s weird. I wrote that song so many years ago,” she says via Zoom from her Asheville, NC home where she was in the process of emptying out her basement before hitting the road for a winter tour. Angel Olsen performs on Feb. 2, at the Agora. “I always thought that if anyone wanted it, I could maybe do a collaboration with a Americana artist. I know my fans wanted that, but I wasn’t interested in leaning into that part of my writing yet. It’s not country but more influenced by outlaw country than what you would hear on the radio right now.”
As she started to write the songs for Big Time, Olsen encountered a number of tragedies. Her parents passed away, and then, the pandemic hit. Those things impacted the songs in various ways.
“When my parents passed away, I didn’t have the support system around me for that,” she says. “That was my own doing. I had burned some bridges. It was a tough time for me to get support from people I knew. I thought I could just write and self-reflect and go to the studio. I had friends tell me I could wait, but I needed to work, and it was important to get back to work in any capacity.”
Olsen, who says she listens to classic rock acts such as Brian Eno and Neil Young more than up-and-coming indie artists, took meetings with potential producers before settling up Jonathan Wilson (Benmont Tench, Dawes) and deciding to work at his Fivestar Studios in Topanga, CA.
“I had met [Wilson] before briefly, and the whole vibe was really magical up there [at Fivestar Studios],” says Olsen. “It was very open. There are some people who are hands-off, but I like to talk with everyone about the arraignments and allow them to take it where they feel they can without micromanaging things. [Wilson] was so fast and intuited when something was too much. We were all listening with similar ears.”
Olsen and Kimberly Stuckwisch, who'd previously worked together on the video for the Sharon Van Etten duet “Like I Used To,” conceived the idea for the film that accompanied the album.
“When I worked with Kim on ‘Like I Used To,’ I was just blown away by how cool she was — even in pressured situations,” says Olsen. “It’s inspiring to see another lady who clearly works here ass off. Justin Hamilton is her cinematographer. They have a super tight understanding of her style and what will work with her plan. The film was mostly about my struggles and fears, but there are some of hers in there too. The fire stuff is more her than me, but that’s a theme on the record. She is one of those people who has had something like 10 life-threatening experiences. I think that can really change a person.”
Olsen's tilt toward Americana comes to the foreground in a new, twangier version of “Big Time” that she cut with Sturgill Simpson.
“I met Sturgill before the pandemic, and we talked about doing something together at some point,” says Olsen. “He blew up really fast and wants to be more remote now. But when I asked him to do ‘Big Time,’ he was really down. It was cool. He really brought it to life. As he was singing it in the studio, I could feel myself just smiling because he just changed my song.”
For the upcoming show at the Agora, Olsen will have a six-piece band in tow.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]