Record of the Week: Angel Olsen’s ‘Big Time’

“Out with the bangs, in with the twang,” Olsen taps into ’70s country influences on her latest full length.

Angel Olsen tells the story behind the making of Big Time.

Angel Olsen has carried the “sad girl indie” label for nearly a decade, despite how much her sound has evolved. She’s veered from the early lo-fi folk sounds of her 2012 debut Half Way Home to the synth-heavy approach of 2019’s All Mirrors, but one thing has remained constant — Olsen’s unique vocal style and emotional delivery. Her latest full-length, Big Time, is no different.

The album comes on the heels of tragedy; Olsen lost both of her parents months before she recorded the project at Jonathan Wilson’s Topanga Canyon studio. Wilson encouraged Olsen to lean into the sonic influences of Laurel Canyon, and she took the advice even further, channeling the twang of late ’60s- and ’70s-era country stars like Tammy Wynette and cosmic folk-leaning vocalists like Emmylou Harris.

Olsen teases that the title track “Big Time” was initially written as a joke, just to see if she could successfully write a country song. But that joke opened the door to an introspective collection of country-inspired tracks covering topics like grief, heartbreak and sexuality. Traditional country elements like pedal steel and honky-tonk piano fit Olsen’s signature yodel like a glove, and feel like a natural progression for her sound.

Big Time also marks Olsen’s first work since coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. While many critics have labled the record as a “queer love album,” she says her primary goal has always been to live her truth and connect with her fans through her music, regardless of her sexuality. And this record feels like Olsen’s most honest and vulnerable work yet.

On the Record: A Q&A with Angel Olsen:

Emily Young: You’re no stranger to melancholy lyrics and songwriting. From my understanding, the backdrop of this record is also quite heavy with the loss of your parents and processing your grief. Were you able to find solace in the making of this record?

Angel Olsen: My parents passed away kind of one right after the other, and it was maybe three weeks or a month afterwards that I recorded in Topanga. I’d already made the plans to record there before any of that had happened. And honestly, it was either go make a record or sit at home and be depressed. So it was really nice to put myself to work and put whatever I was feeling into just focusing on songs and finishing songs.

It’s so beautiful up there. It was so nice to go to the beach every day and hang out with Jonathan [Wilson]. He is just the nicest person. And his wife, Andrea, and him both have such a beautiful space. She would be painting her surrealist paintings while we were recording, and at the end of the day, we’d all have dinner together. They created an atmosphere that felt really warm and familial and safe. It was just very real with them. I didn’t feel any ego or airs or uncomfortability. Everybody was there to make a really great thing, and I think that changes the experience.

I’ve been in places where the studio is literally one room or two rooms and there’s nowhere to go to reflect. You’re just on top of each other. And then I’ve been in places where it’s so expansive that you don’t know where to begin with even instrument. Everything so sterile. So it was nice to be in a place that was comfortable and inviting to make music.

EY: Speaking of Jonathan Wilson, that brings me to my next question. The Laurel Canyon region is known for the cosmic country-rock and folk of the ’60s and ‘70s. Did he push you towards those country influences? Or did you already have that in mind when you headed out there to make the record?

AO: I’d already written the songs. So when I went up there to meet him and see the studio, I just played him what I was working on. It just so happened that he was also working on some Nashville artists. Erin Rae was one of them, and I really love some of the stuff he showed me. I was like, “Oh! This is kind of along the lines of what I’m doing right now.” It’s kind of the first time I’ve been admitting that I like country music and that I’m unafraid of exploring that genre. But also I really love, psychedelic music and wanted to work with someone who was also a fan of ‘70s country.

EY: We’ve touched on this a bit already, but let’s talk more about this new sound and the sonic journey we’ve witnessed throughout your career, from the stripped-down sound of your early work then the fuzzier feel of My Woman. Now Big Time is pushing you towards new territory as you’re dabbling in the classic country sound. The album features everything from pedal steel to a string section. Can you talk a bit about how those collaborations came about and what that looked like?

AO: Well, the pedal steel player wasn’t there with us. He remotely recorded a lot of stuff. It was just a buddy of Jonathan’s. Jonathan was really adamant about bringing in his own players. And I kept pushing for my people. I was like, “Well, what about my guitarist? What about my bassist?” Then I said, “My bassist is coming. Emily [Elhaj] needs to be a part of this record. She’s really important to me. She’s worked with me for over ten years.” Like, my parents just died. I need somebody who knows me there.

Finally, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to trust you.” He brought in the right people and there was a rotating cast of different characters. The drummer from Dawes came in and played double drums on something. Even the engineer Grant was played bells on songs.

He never brought anyone that felt unnecessary or weird. Everybody was there and did something and it stayed on the record, which I think is a testament to his vision too. I think that Jonathan is really good at being intuitive about knowing what’s working and what isn’t. And I’m glad that I trusted him to bring in his players, because it’s clear that he has a real understanding and language and bond with those people. I didn’t rehearse any of these songs, and I was depressed, so I let him steer the ship, and I’m glad that I trusted him in that. And I’m also glad that Emily came, because I feel like it was cool to show someone who’s been in my band for so long this process, to share that experience with someone else who’s going to be traveling with me and can remember how fun it was.

EY: Speaking of tour, you’re about to hit the road with Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker. Obviously, we’ve all been kind of shut down the last couple years. How are you feeling about getting back out there in front of your fans?

AO: It’s a little scary, but at the same time, I’m really excited to play in front of people. I know that people need to hear music live. I know that I have needed to hear music live, and I’ve put myself out there and taken my own risks to do so. And I think we’re trying to do it in the safest way possible. I’m excited to share the stage with Julien and Sharon, and it’s nice to not have to go back into touring alone. It’s nice to be able to share the weirdness with some other people.

I’m hoping that COVID cases calm down. I know that they’re rising again. And that’s exactly why we chose to do it like this, because we just never know what’s going to happen. But live music is important, and it’s important for me too. I can do livestreams and I feel their effect, I guess, in social media, but I really miss feeling the energetic effect of sharing music with people. I miss seeing in someone’s eyes how much they need to hear something. You can’t always get that from being in your house. And right now I’m just at a place where I’m ready to take the risk to feel that feeling because it’s so important to me.

EY: I’ve read some of your other interviews where you’ve talking about your queer journey and your coming out experience. I know you’ve been hesitant to label Big Time a “queer love” album, but do you feel like this journey and coming out and living in your truth has influenced what you’re doing creatively and who you work with?

AO: We’re evolving humans constantly, and I feel like I’ve always been myself. I’ve never felt like I was hiding until these things came to the surface. So when I was writing records before, I was writing about what I thought was true. It’s always about how I feel in my own feelings, so it’s hard to say.

A lot of the songs are a mixed bag. Some of them are about my queer experience, and some of them aren’t necessarily related to my relationships and my sexuality. So I’m only hesitant to say that because of that. If the record ends up being in a genre in a record store as queer albums to listen to, that’s totally chill with me. I celebrate it.

But the biggest thing to me always is to just be able to relate to people, all kinds of people, no matter how they identify or what their sexuality is. I’ve always been there. It’s always been my what I thought was my truth. It just so happens that now I’m 35, I’m older, I lost my parents, it’s been a pandemic, and my sexuality is open now in a different way. I’ve processed and I’m continuing to process, and I think I just feel ultimately more relaxed now than ever, and maybe my writing is a little bit more straightforward because of that. 

EY: I read that you hoped Sturgill Simpson might record “All The Good Times,” and because he is a hometown hero of sorts in Nashville, I have to ask, while you’re leaning into the “out with the bangs, in with the twang” aesthetic, do you have any dream Nashville collaborations?

AO: I am hoping to collaborate with Sturgill or text him and be like, “Hey, man, I’m talking about you in these interviews.” He knows. I’ve met up with him once before when he played in Asheville, and he just didn’t seem to want all the attention he was getting in that precise moment. But I love outlaw country, and I just think his voice is so classic in a way that people don’t sing that way anymore. Everyone is just so pop and it feels so like everything is manipulated in the same exact way. But when I heard his voice, I was like, “This is this is like Waylon Jennings. This is different. No one’s doing this anymore.”

I also really love Erin Rae. And my friend Madi Diaz lives in Nashville, and we’ve done some stuff together. It’s fun to just go there and work on a song or two with people and be like, “Ok what’s next?” That’s Nashville, you know what I mean? Part of the reason why I wrote the song “Big Time” was as an exercise to write my first country song. I did it as a joke and exercise that turned into my livelihood and a record. And it was like so meta.