How do you best describe Angel Olsen? From the lo-fi, sparse folk-melancholy of her 2010 EP, Strange Cacti, to the electrified, polished rock ‘n’ roll bursting from 2016’s beloved and acclaimed My Woman, Olsen has refused to succumb to a single genre, expectation, or vision. Impossible to pin down, Olsen navigates the world with her remarkable, symphonic voice and a propensity for narrative, her music growing into whatever shape best fits to tell the story.
(Photo Credit: Taylor Boylston)
Angel Olsen and Jess Ribeiro met in Ribeiro’s native Australia, when the latter supported the former on tour. Ribeiro’s third album, LOVE HATE, just came out, and to mark the occasion, the two friends had a chat via email about songwriting, life, and furry underwear.
— Josh Modell, Executive Editor, Talkhouse
Angel Olsen: Firstly, I love your new record! It’s perfect for stepping out into spring and starting a new chapter. (I know it’ll be the end of summer in Australia.) Right now, my favorites from LOVE HATE are “Stranger,” “Goodbye Heart,” “Dylan,” “Love is the Score,” “Lay Down with the Earth,” and the last vignette, which has a nice saunter to it.
Jess Ribeiro: Thank you, Angel. I remember where most of those song ideas were conceived — for example, “Stranger” came about while I was listening to a lot of Sonic Youth at home in Melbourne. I had a crush on a person I didn’t know at all, it was pure fantasy, and I was letting it consume me. It’s all I could think about. My daydreams were taking over so I tried to exorcise the feelings out of me through writing and making a song. I came up with the basic instrumentation and the chorus. I never showed the band the lyrics to begin with as I was embarrassed about it so it was an instrumental jam for a while. I focused on completing the lyrics later on when we went to record.
Angel: What are the vignettes about anyway? What made you decide to break it up like this?
Jess: The vignettes were little ditties I’d sing to myself acapella, imagining I was Dusty Springfield or Nancy Sinatra. Some were older than others though, like “Waiting for the Spirit in White” — I wrote that for Lou Reed when he died. I wanted to record them all in the same key with the same tempo, with different production and lyrics so they could be rearranged and remixed. I love dance remixes. On the record, I wanted them to be like daydreams that drift through.
Angel: How have you been since the end of our tour in 2018?
Jess: This year has been good. Life is starting to flow in a new way. After our tour together last year, I had some ups and downs. Some of my childhood friends died, three of them. Then I worked on an art documentary series called the “Unmissables,” which comes out in April 2019. It’s about artists creating works to help keep alive the memory of someone who has mysteriously gone missing. In my case, I made a song for a young woman who disappeared in the ’70s. I met her sisters, they told me her story, then I collaborated with musicians to compose and record a song, called “Wildflowers.” This project was very personal for me because my best friend went missing when we were 18 years old and I was one of the last people to see her. Last year was about death and healing for me.
Angel: You sent me some very nice furry panties in the mail, which I treasure. I didn’t get around to writing you back about them, but here we are now. They’re very soft and fitting so nicely so thank you!
Jess: You’re welcome. You mentioned wanting some after I flashed you backstage at the show we did together in Sydney. They are from Baserange. My friend Karina Utomo from the heavy metal band High Tension is the Australian distributor of Baserange. I work there sometimes. They are organic and naturally dyed velour. Love ‘em.
Angel: Where in New Zealand did you track the record?
Jess: Lyttelton, on the South Island, just outside of Christchurch. It’s an industrial seaport which seems to be in motion 24 hours a day. It’s a magical mountainous place.
Angel: Do you tour with the same band you record with, or does it depend on the material?
Jess: With this record I’m not touring with the same band I recorded with. Sometimes I wish I was because we made it together during a very focused amount of time but I always knew everyone would have to go and do their own things after we finished it. I tracked the songs with my old bass player Jade McInally (Jade Imagine) and also Dave Mudie (Courtney Barnett). It was a great pleasure working with them. That was the intention of the record. To create something playfully in the moment. Now I listen to the record and think, why did I include that song? I have to remember the intention behind it. I wanted to make something with people I trust in a short amount of time, and open to spontaneity. We achieved that. But because it’s been such a wait for the record to come out the intention starts to fade.
Angel: I really enjoyed watching the “Love Is the Score” video. Your spirit and your sense of humor really come across. It made me laugh and miss our day in the park wearing yellow. Tell me, have you continued haiku-ing?
Jess: The video was fun to make. I like that you get my humor. You’re a bit of a larrikin yourself, Angel Olsen. Do you know what a larrikin is? Don’t go googling it, just make a guess.
My Haikus are now non-fiction short stories based on growing up with an immigrant father in a small redneck town. My childhood. I like non-fiction the best. People’s stories are interesting and usually full of pain and suffering which is what seem to like. Ha ha.
Angel: I felt unsure about my heart on that trip, I was up to no good! It was so memorable and wild to confide in a new friend and giggle about how dumb it all is sometimes, how serious we take ourselves and others. How fleeting everything can be. How did the writing of this song come about?
Jess: How good is it to have a friend on tour?! Especially another woman to confide in. That was a crazy time. We were both up to no good but it could have been much worse. LOL. I liked our late night suppers… With “Love is the Score of Nothing,” well, I carried the song title around with me since I was about 14. Wrote it in a diary, thinking I was really smart. My Grandma was into tennis. She gave me all her old vintage dresses from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. I unsuccessfully tried to tie dye a few of them. Then 15 years later, it finally grew into something.
Angel: Do you remember which off the record was first? I always try to remember which was first.
Jess: “Goodbye Heart” was written really fast at Mick Harvey’s apartment in Berlin.
Mick produced my last record, Kill it Yourself. His family generously let me stay at their place to work on writing new material for this record. I recorded it with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten, one of Mick’s friends and music colleagues from the olden days of punk. We got Benjamin Wayne from My Disco, Adam Donovan from Augie March, and Ned Collette to come and play because they were the only Australian musicians I knew in Berlin. All the German musicians I’d met were banned from Alexander’s studio.I wanted to make a song like Alan Vega’s “Jukebox Baby.” Alan had just died, and he was friends with Mick and Alexander. The song of course is not like a Suicide or Vega song but the sentiment is there.
Angel: I kept journaling for a while during and after our hangs. It was one of my favourite tours I’ve been on. I had also just finished reading Please Kill Me and I was in this document-everything mode.
“March 28, 2018
Today as we were driving into town I was talking about my indecisiveness and my heart and right then Todd referred to me as a mercurial, capricious sprite. I had to laugh because I think he’s onto something there.
It’s warm today, I’m sitting on the lawn at the Quest Royal Gardens, also known as the Q.R.G. A few years back during Laneway Festival Mac Demarco, Marty Frawley, and Jaye from Pond were hanging out. Mac and his band were making a movie called “Homies.” I remember being pretty faded and meeting a lot of groupies and theatre kids. Everyone wanted to be in Mac’s big video. I don’t know why but the hotel staff didn’t make any effort to shut it down. It went on till 3 in the morning. Well Todd and I are back here, staying in that exact hotel room, room 30 Fl 1. I keep looking around for the evidence of that night, a cigarette butt, a pair of Vans, some broken beer bottles.
Tomorrow I will play another show at The Tote, Melbourne’s legendary ’80s rock club.
And when I say legendary, what I really mean is that the place is a carpeted, graffitied, broken, swamped-with-sweat shithole. Good luck getting on and off the stage—but damn if it isn’t the best place to play if you’re looking for a good time. I later found out the bar manager was in a band with my new pal, Jess Ribeiro. We had met earlier on this tour and played Sydney together. Everyone good seems to know each other.”
Jess: You read me some beautiful little bits out of your journal. You also sent me some iPhone recordings of some songs you were making up on the road.I wonder if any of those will be on your new record? Here, I made a Nico inspired song based on our time together:
I’ve been waiting for you for my whole life
I didn’t know it would be you when I found you
I’ve been waiting for you for my whole life.
We first met back stage in the dark
You held out your hand and gave me a
spark I showed you my pink fluffy
You laughed so hard red blood spilled down your legs
Angelina in my country
We use different words
Like ducted heating
Yeah, it’s a real thing
Let’s go out driving in my yellow car
I’ll pick you up later take you to the park
We’ll drink black coffee on the green grass
We talk about poetry
Talk about loss
Talk about unavailability and love
Talk about talk about talk about us
Angel: Do you find it helpful to put your experiences into songs or do you feel like you have to mask them in some way to perform them?
Jess: Yeah, making songs helps me to process life. I don’t mask songs intentionally, they just take on their own form and become their own being. Made up of my people, places and memories. So when they are performed I don’t have to pretend or mask them because they are already separate from me, even though they are made from me. OMG is that like childbirth?
Angel: What have you learned about the stages of love and how did they inspire this record? How is your heart now? I’ve been trying to take it slowly.
Jess: The stages of love are wild. But that’s life. It’s oceanic. With light comes a shadow. Lots of people don’t like to talk about the darkness, or the bits of themselves that they struggle with but I think it’s important to talk about and find ways to express the darker, more difficult sides of ourselves. I was at the end of a long-term relationship when I made this record. Making it was so much fun, despite some of the content being about not so fun feelings. Now, my heart is a bundle of smooth peach silk, tucked cozily inside the nest of my chest, beating softly until the next adventure.
Angel: Have you any plans to tour this in the U.S.? IF so, come hang in Asheville with me!
Jess: My dream is to tour the States with this record and you know I’m definitely keen to hang!
(Photo Credit: left, Nick Mckk; right, Taylor Boylston)