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Angel Olsen Undercover

The indie folk icon gets lost in the 80s.

by Brad Simm

Photos by Dana Trippe

It’s Sunday morning, just before noon, and Angel Olsen is waking up. Still in her pajamas, she apologizes for the bedhead Zoom call. The night before, her friends threw a party at a studio in Topanga Canyon where she’s recording. While close to Los Angeles, it’s far from the gritty hustle on the other side of the slope. Olsen’s home base is Asheville, North Carolina, tucked inside in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains so hanging out in the Topanga hills suits her just fine.

With a preference for a lush skyline and the organic life, it seems odd that Olsen’s latest project, Aisles, is a five-track EP of 80s synth-pop covers that include Billy Idol’s sultry “Eyes Without a Face” and the platinum chartbuster, “Gloria.” The album art for the EP’s cover also has a dramatic neon flair with Olsen done up in vibrant strokes of face paint; ready for the dance floor, ready for the night – a whole lot of Grace Jones without the revealing wardrobe. “I was trying to have fun with it,” laughs Olsen. “Kind of leaning into the clown inside. Also, 80s make-up is so overdone. The EP altogether is just a result of me being deeply depressed during Covid and everyone was so touching, including myself. I just wanted to make something that was purely for fun.” 

If the name of the EP, Aisles, doesn’t quite register as overtly 80s, Olsen explains it comes with a playful twist about being lost in the supermarket. “When I first sat down with (co-producer) Adam McDaniel I said, ‘I want to make a few 80s songs that everyone already knows.’ And also do some weird ones, the kind you hear in the grocery store when you’re just browsing. Top 40 songs you hear when you’re there, but nowhere else.”

Although, the inspiration to cover “Gloria,” Laura Branigan’s disco mega-hit and the first single off the EP, didn’t come from roaming the aisles at Safeway. Rather it sprung from a family Christmas bash that involved some serious dancing and drinking. Olsen, who’s originally from St. Louis, also learned, much to her surprise, that “Gloria” was the rally song for the St. Louis Blues NHL team. When the track came out, she got peppered with comments asking if she was giving St. Louis a big shout out? Olsen was equally amused and perplexed, and for good reason, because her version is nothing like Branigan’s fist-pumping party favourite. “The original is coked out. It moves just so fast. I thought it would be really fun to pretend she’d taken some Quaaludes and make that kind of version of the song.”

That Angel Olsen would take something and run in the complete opposite direction is not new. Expect the unexpected. After the release of 2017’s My Woman and its breakout with the upbeat single “Shut Up, Kiss Me,” Olsen’s live shows were rousing affairs full of searing, stratospheric twin lead guitars that were a notable tip-of-the hat to Neil Young. And then, as if the guitars had been tossed aside and locked in their case, her follow up album, All Mirrors, embraced a radical synth soundscape that was ethereal, orchestral, and way out there. Goodbye rock and roll.

“I’m definitely not done with that kind of music,” says Olsen on a reassuring note. “There’s always a few artists that I go back and listen to non-stop. The Beatles and Neil Young, pick any album. Fleetwood Mac, pick any album. And Brian Eno, pick any album. With Eno, I’ve been listening to a lot more of that lately. But sometimes I just get tired of lyric-driven or guitar solo music and go into different worlds.”

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Alongside Eno, Olsen put the trippy Montreal-based Organ Mood into heavy rotation and set out to explore, experiment and get weird, turning a set of 80s dance tracks inside out with a deep drive through the uncharted territory of synthetic splendor. Aisles is not only an opportunity to bend creativity, but a chance for Olsen to view different perspectives and enjoy the freedom of stepping away from herself. “I like covers because it’s so easy to sing and work on something when you’re not emotionally invested in it the same way. I really sing differently and confidently when it’s not related to me in the slightest. It’s also a way of learning about how I’m not accessing my own songs because however shy I feel about it or protective I feel about the words being heard. So yeah, it’s fun to push myself and sing in different ways.” 

Pushing herself in different ways is clearly par for the course. Even with the success of My Woman and its seductive pop sensibilities that opened up a whole new universe of admiration, Olsen isn’t comfortable with repeating herself to maintain marketability. “I know not everything I put out is going to hit the same because what I’m going through during that period of time might not be for the kids. There might not be a formulative pop song that’s sellable to the world,” she says smiling, but matter-of-factly. 

“Obviously with everything I put out it’s a little like, ‘What will people think of this? Will anyone be on my page, will anyone receive this or connect to this? But I don’t aspire to be someone like St. Vincent or Billie Eilish. I love that kind of music, but that’s not where I see myself.”

In addition to “Gloria” and “Eyes Without a Face” surfacing on Aisles, Olsen does weird and wonderful interpretations of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” “If You Leave” by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, and “Forever Young,” the ecstatic title track off the runaway debut by Germany’s Alphaville in 1984. “I really wanted to go for the cheesy ones,” reveals Olsen. “Like ‘Forever  Young.’ But then I watched the video and it was really sad and about the Soviet Union. I didn’t realize it was a song about what was happening in the world at that point in time (the European Cold War in the 80s and nuclear threat). Finding that out, I thought, ‘That’s kind of like where we’re at right now.”  

Yes, Aisles is a fun detour, but also one that reflects Olsen’s uncompromising multi-dimensional mind, mood, and dramatics. “I’m at the point in my career where I think the deep fans will still listen. It’s okay if I’m not making any new fans. That’s fine with me… I just want to do something from start to finish that is special.” 

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