Angel Olsen is not a perfect singer. Sometimes, she misses notes entirely. Take “Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow” from 2012’s Half Way Home, her second full-length. Like almost every other song on the album, “Can’t Wait” is a raw, minimal number powered entirely by Olsen’s vocal cords and plaintive, careful strikes on acoustic guitar strings. “I hope I can be somebody who shows you your heart/ The way that it weighs upon my own/ If only we could understand each other, I’d happily die/ Oh, I don’t care if I spend my whole life away,” she sings. On that “Oh,” her voice cracks, quivering as if she’s suddenly begun to weep and is a hair away from wailing.
This sort of flaw is something another school of singer-songwriter would swiftly fixate on solving, but Olsen doesn’t mind such blemishes. “Sometimes, I’ll hit a note, and sometimes, I don’t. Why not at least try?” she told Pitchfork this past February, and now elaborates on during our interview: “It’s not always about the melody in my mind. A lot of the time, my writing is more about expressing something as if I were talking,” she says. “In not necessarily making [a song] this pretty, melodic thing, it comes across as a statement. It’s very human and real.”
It’s an unconventional line of thinking from someone who already has led an unconventional life in music. As the Chicago-based St. Louis native was being adopted around age 3, her biological uncle gave her a keyboard. That instrument became “the first real thing that I became attached to as far as an object” and something she kept until she was 17. She has been singing and writing tunes since about age 7; her parents would share stories about her rising in the middle of the night and singing until they could coax her into falling back asleep. (Speaking of which, her parents listened to the Everly Brothers and the Righteous Brothers, so she consumed them in kind in her childhood.) In high school, she dropped out of cheerleading to join a Christian ska-punk band.
At around 12, Olsen began cutting her teeth as a vocalist by making mixtapes of herself singing over Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey tunes. She would record songs from the radio and add her own vocals to them. “I remember getting bummed out because I had this little girl voice and I knew it,” she says. She would wonder when her real voice as a woman was going to come along; in a December 2012 interview with the Chicago Reader, she said that she sometimes still wonders.
Now 26, Olsen heartily reps DIY-friendly folk. She recorded Strange Cacti, her 2011 debut EP, in her kitchen, and 2013’s Sleepwalker still very much puts that unvarnished aesthetic to work. Injecting her output with honesty is absolutely fundamental. “When I’ve written [a song], I hope that it’s something I believe is true. Otherwise, I just feel like you’re misleading yourself by singing these mantras that don’t matter to you,” she says. “That’s cool and hip and everything, but it’s just empty and void.”
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