Before the Coronavirus sent everyone home, Angel Olsen estimates spending about nine months every year on the road, away from Asheville, performing her music all over the world.
It makes the Coronavirus-caused cancellation all the more disappointing of her April 17 concert at Harrah's Cherokee Center in Asheville—part of an entire U.S. headlining tour wiped out by the pandemic. It would have been Olsen's largest home show to date.
“I’ve been up until now pretty protective of overplaying Asheville,” she said. “I live here and I want this to still be a place I come home to.”
If you’re not familiar with Olsen, you likely don’t read Pitchfork or Consequence of Sound or the other indie-rock journals that routinely shower her with critical acclaim. And despite touring internationally for the better part of a decade, Olsen still enjoys a relative obscurity that allows her to stroll into the Mothlight or Static Age Records and be a music fan just like anybody else.
“People who know my music know not to bug me as much here, whereas in Chicago I think it was getting to a point where I was riding my bike and someone would be like ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and I’m like ‘Do I know that person?’ And I realized didn’t,” she said. “I played so many shows in Chicago and I did so much press there, and my music was really starting to hit, and I thought I want to get out of here and be anonymous a little bit.”
Olsen grew up in St. Louis, moved to Chicago at 20 and had already released her debut album when she moved to Asheville, a little over six years ago. And while she played occasional local shows at clubs such as The Mothlight and found an early housemate in one of the co-owners of Harvest Records, Olsen never needed a local trajectory to propel her.
On her first national tour, as a support act, she recalls walking out on stage night after night to sold out houses of 250 people.
“I didn’t know there were people actively listening to my music. For me, it was like ‘Whoa, I just stepped out and there was an audience there,” she recalled. “I just didn’t think about how much the Internet worked at the time. People were sending my music all over and I had no idea this little cassette was something people listened to.”
Particularly on her earliest recordings, Olsen’s voice conjures images of torch singers from the 1920s. But her lyrics, bathed in moonlight and drenched in disappointment, have found contemporary relevance for audiences to hinge their sense of forlorn and abandonment.
“A lot of my songs are sad and one would believe nothing really ever worked out,” she said. “But for me to be able to write about them and speculate on my life, it’s a way of me saying I got through it.”
Her latest album, her fifth (including an album of outtakes and neglected songs), is titled “All Mirrors,” and Olsen regards it as both a musical and personal breakthrough for her. The songs are largely written from two vantages—hopeful aspiration and disillusioned aftermath.
Olsen first recorded them herself. Then, with hesitance, she turned them over to the musician Ben Babbitt, whose lush string arrangements changed the very nature of the music and inspired Olsen to relinquish some control.
“Eventually, it was just trusting the people and saying ‘Hey, this does need to be really different than what I’d imagined before, and let’s go there and see what happens and take it to a weird place,’” she said. “Also, this is kind of a dream, to be able to not just put strings on a record but make them interactive with the lyrics.”
Olsen also has a strong creative hand in her distinctive videos, as a director and as an actress, of sorts. And while this conversation happened well before the pandemic, it’s hard to envision this life-changing event derailing Olsen from her artistic path.
“I didn’t know it would be at this level, ever. Now I kinda feel I have enough material if it slows down or gets smaller, that’s fine with me,” she said. “I know I’ll always write, whether every record is a hit or not, and I know there will be people listening.”
A sampling of Angel Olsen videos: