Angel Olsen on the Love and Loss That Led to Her Spectacular New Album, Big Time
Angel Olsen’s new album, “Big Time,” is the kind of rare, generation-spanning album that you could give to your sister, your aunt or your grandparents. Its 10 soulful, country-inflected songs recall everything from Dusty Springfield’s 1969 masterpiece, “Dusty in Memphis,” to Shelby Lynne’s 2001 Grammy-winning “I am Shelby Lynne,” from Tammy Wynette to Lucinda Williams — and at the center of it all are Olsen’s soaring songs and crystalline, versatile voice. It’s also a memoir of coming out, of the pandemic and of mourning her parents (who died within months of each other in 2021), without explicitly being about any of those things.
Like most working musicians, Olsen saw her thriving career screech to a halt in March 2020, after nearly a decade of constant touring and five increasingly critically praised and diverse indie albums, capped with 2019’s stellar “All Mirrors.” Yet she’d also been struggling rather publicly with her sexuality, with men-are-kinda-shitty-am-I-gay? musings in interviews over the years, and found the answer to that question in her relationship with writer Beau Thibodeaux, which the pair announced last spring. She came out to her mother shortly before she died.
“I think she already kind of knew,” Olsen says. “And about a week later, I was there with my partner at my dad’s funeral, so that was intense. But my mother was a very loving person and I think she found it in her heart to be understanding. She said, ‘I just want you to be happy,’ which was all I wanted to hear.”
While Olsen says all of those factors contributed to the bittersweet tone of “Big Time,” they’re front and center in the 28-minute companion film of the same name, which was directed by the singer with Kimberly Stuckwisch (Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour Prom” concert film) and released Thursday on Amazon Music’s Twitch, a day before the album (watch the film below). “It’s sort of an homage to my mother,” Olsen says of the film. “I had a lot of vivid dreams after she passed. When I saw what Kim had done with Olivia Rodrigo, I realized she was already doing short films around music, and I said I’d love to do something like that — where we talk a little bit about the fear of coming out and my mom’s death and all that. It allowed me to grieve in a different way. It’s probably the most personal work that I’ve ever made to share with the public.”
The album itself is less autobiographical, an exercise in audio vérité helmed by producer-musician Jonathan Wilson, who’s worked extensively with Lana Del Rey and Billy Strings and recorded a similarly vintage-sounding album (albeit evoking the 1940s) with Father John Misty, “Chloë and the Next 20th Century,” just before “Big Time.”
“His studio in Topanga Canyon is a really loving, intuitive environment,” Olsen says. “It was the first time I went into a studio without any rehearsal or any intense notes about anything. It wasn’t overthought, and Jonathan was really good at letting my voice steer the ship instead of making it all about doing backflips with production.”
Despite the horns and strings in the arrangements, the initial “Big Time” sessions were fast and fun.
“The studio is state of the art, but we’re in the woods — it’s funky out here, you know?” Wilson says. “I brought in my first-call band, people that I’ve collaborated with for a decade, so there’s a lot of joking and things are not too overly serious — and she fit in with it perfectly. She told me she had been doing the L.A. thing, meeting producers and seeing studios, but when she came here she said, ‘This is the spot.’
“And she’s just a fucking powerhouse when she gets on that mic,” he continues. “Some singers, you kind of have to struggle with getting in tune or getting the vibe and the performance right — it happens with the best of them. But with her, you’re just like, ‘All of these takes are good.’ She’s one of the best I’ve worked with.” (Also from the sessions, Wilson mentions “a whole collection of B-sides that are really great. Some of them are really jazzy, and one that’s a super rocker with two of us on drums.”)
Although Olsen has put a lot of herself into the public view — and will do so literally on her summer U.S. tour with Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker that launches next month — it’s a process with which she’s become reasonably comfortable. “I feel like, yeah, it is a big risk to share these really intimate experiences,” she allows, “but people are always looking at [art] through their own lens, so I feel like there’s some protection there.
“Plus,” she concludes, “there’s so much more to my life than music. It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, but I’m never bored by it. And for people to join me on that journey sometimes makes me feel a little less alone, and like maybe there’s somebody else out there who needs to hear this.”
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