In this month’s cover feature, we catch up with Brooks Nielsen of The Growlers to talk touring, industry changes, and the band’s newest album, City Club. The Growlers play Roseland Theater on March 23.
If you’ve never been introduced to Angel Olsen before now, you’re meeting her music at a curious time. The album for which she was first noticed in 2014, Burn Your Fire for No Witness was likeable from every angle: It was moody, beautiful and raw. But it was, from Olsen’s perspective, immature. It painted a picture of Olsen she’s fought hard to change with My Woman, her most recent LP.
This new release is experimental, emotionally deft and powerful. Lyrically, most of the tracks from My Woman fall in line with what listeners expect from Olsen — melancholy and passion. Song titles, like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Never Be Mine,” offer an expectation for the tone of the release. What isn’t easy to ascertain from a cursory glance is the instrumental depth and experimentation from song to song. Olsen takes risks and pushes personal boundaries with piano, synthesizers and genre.
Beyond that though, this release was a challenge in how committed Olsen was to being part of every aspect of creating the album, from writing to release. That included starring in videos and directing them, recording the album and collaborating with producers to exact her vision. It seems this effort can be attributed to her maturation, both as an artist and an individual. Since the release (and significant national acclaim) of My Woman, she has expressed a need to present an image in line with who and where she is personally. Olsen’s success is tangible and it’s exhilarating to watch unfold.
In Olsen’s brief time off before the start of her tour this month — she has sold out Portland’s Crystal Ballroom for Feb. 17 — she made a little time to chat. From life on tour to the stress of being so involved with this release, Olsen’s perspective was deeply honest and inspiring.
Eleven: When you’re on tour, do you find time to write, or are you trying to focus exclusively on performing?
Angel Olsen: It depends. If I’ve definitely been getting into the groove of tour and I find some space to work on stuff, I definitely mess around and try to do some demos. But it’s hard with so many people in the van now. We’re on a bus, so we’ll use the back lounge sometimes to work on stuff. If you’re really inspired you find a way to record a demo or do a small version of something.
11: Now that you’ve been on several tours, do you find that you have any pre-show rituals you do to get read for a set?
AO: It’s different night to night. I know some people like to warm up. I like to drink a couple bottles of water before I go on stage. I always worry if I’m not hydrated enough that my voice will crack. But I don’t do any warm-ups.
I have practiced taking Vitamin C on tour every single day, even if I’m not sick, because if I get too tipsy and smoke a cigarette or do something I normally wouldn’t do I’m immediately sick. You’re just exhausted; your immunity is kind of low from drinking almost every night. You don’t even have to drink a lot. It’s just the fact that you’re tired already and then you’re about to perform.
Over the last year or so I’ve been bringing my running shoes with me and any chance I get, if we stay in a hotel or we’re parked near something safe, there are a few people in the band who will run with me. And we’ll run a mile or something and come back and do some workouts.
11: Nice work!
AO: It can be hard. Especially when you’re on the third week of tour. A lot of these first tours were super long, like months-long tours, which is great for getting to know everyone in the band, but by the second week you’re like, “Alright I give up. I’m not gonna do that anymore.”
11: There are a lot of musicians who really love the grind of tour life. Do you find that you’re one of those people? Or are you more interested in the songwriting aspect?
AO: I like performing. I like playing and being with my band. I like the intimacy you have with these people. It’s different than anything else in your life. It’s not normal. It’s like you’re at camp with these people. Nobody can have too much beef with anybody, or it at least can’t happen for too long because you have to confront it and play a show. But because of that you know how to keep your distance from people in a way that helps you tolerate each other.
You’re a personality when you’re on tour, and you’re a personality when you’re at home. And they’re very different. Just like you discover that you have friends who you love but never want to travel with again. There are some people on tour — I’ll be bunking away from that person. I love them, but I can’t see them every day or be their partner every day.
But I think I’ve developed more of an interest in tour because we’re getting to the level now where it’s a bigger crew and there are more people to go around when you get sick of each other. But I do like being home and being able to have a life. I feel like I get to a point where I don’t want to be a dirty person with ragged nails, you know? I wanna go see the girls and hang and stuff. But I have this whole month off, so I’m sure by the time it’s over I’ll be ready to get out there.
11: In regards to your new album, you were heavily involved in the entire process, from production to directing. I wondered if you could pinpoint what some of the most important things you learned from the process were, both technically and artistically.
AO: I feel like the person who’s mixing the record should in some way know about the style of the engineer who’s making it. I didn’t take notes on that stuff and had to figure out a lot of things after the fact. Which we did, but it took some work.
This experience has been really cool, especially for this record. Being live on tape has taught me that tape is great. It’s a little noisy, but I’m fine with that. Do we need it on every single instrument? I don’t know if we do. I think on vocals and certain instruments, it’s a huge difference. Listening back in the studio to a digital recording of my voice versus a tape, it’s like a hundred times better on tape. And listening to a high-end kind of guitar solo on tape is great because it manipulates the tape in a certain way. But if the instrument isn’t loud enough, the tape is louder than what’s happening. And that’s something I didn’t know about!
I’d love to keep working with tape, and you know you hear all these indie kids talking about it: “It’s the only way, man!” And it’s like, what does that even fucking mean? But when I’m physically hearing the difference in the studio, it’s worth the money and the time.
But for video, I think in the future, what I value more than a stylist — I can do my own makeup — is lighting. Or someone who is really great with a camera. I think [director of photography] Ashley [Connor] was really great with the camera, but we were really limited as far as help. She had to do the camera and lights with my friend Jethro [Waters] as an assistant. And we did it as a three-person crew. And the same thing happened with “Sister.”
I feel like there’s a lot that I learned in the process that happened on these videos that now I feel totally comfortable knowing what each role is and what it means. Like, what does it mean when someone is a producer? It’s the person with all the information.
For “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Intern,” I was doing all that work: feeding everyone and acting and directing. I was doing it cheap and the budget was still high. Not because we were trying to get tons of money, but what I learned is that it takes about at least 10K to make a music video. And that’s insane to me! And I don’t want to talk about money really, but it’s insane to think if you use proper gear and go to an editor, it costs money.
There are some videos [where] no one wants to get paid, and everyone is doing it out of the love in their hearts … good for you. But at this point in my career I have to pay people because I’d like to make bigger productions.
What I really learned is that if I have the money, I want to spend it on making a small feature or something. Something that has nothing to do with my music career. But that’s not going to happen tomorrow or anything.
11: So you felt inspired by the process overall?
AO: Yeah, I was exhausted and still mixing my record. I’d lost like 15 pounds because I was fucking stressed out, but there was something also about…I don’t know, kind of a raw energy that you have when you have a lot of ideas and for whatever reasons all these doors keep opening and all these creative people keep walking through them. And you’re like, “OK, so this is the time for all these things to happen.”
There were other times when I could have tried to make videos, but I didn’t know who to make them with or who to trust. But I think the thing I’ve learned that is paramount to any great production is working with good people. They can be really talented and big names, but as long as they’re people who are awesome and on your level, you’re going to make something good. Especially if they’re people who think critically and critique each other without insulting each other.
With Conor [Hagan], he co-directed “Sister,” we were back and forth on the phone and I’m like, “OK, I appreciate that viewpoint. I’m gonna look at the footage.” You treat it like a baby. You can’t be mad at each other for editing it a certain way. It’s the hardest process because you have to let go of your ego in some ways, and other people have to trust you with those decisions. There are a lot of egos in the process and navigating them — at a certain point you have to do what you think is right. That can be the hardest part.
Especially with making a record. I sent the band an email that was like, “Hey, I know that no matter what happens you’re going to hear stuff in this that you don’t like, but I don’t want to hear it. You gotta talk to each other about it. What’s done is done. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you feel this way. I’m happy that you care enough to feel uncomfortable, but I also think you gotta listen to it for the entire picture instead of hearing just your instrument.”
I think even making these videos was an exercise in forgiving my image. Like, I’m not the tiniest most fragile being ever. I have a medium-sized body and I’d think, “OK, I don’t look the greatest in that frame but this frame works really well for this time so we have to use it.” If I had just been editing it and I hadn’t been in it, it might have been a totally different experience.
11: The whole album was more experimental in terms of style. Did you find that there is any specific style that’s especially easy and enjoyable? And vice versa, any style you find challenging but rewarding, or challenging in a way you wouldn’t want to do again?
AO: I really enjoy playing piano, but it’s extremely challenging for me. I feel like I have to find pockets for my voice to sit well with piano because it’s such a cold instrument. You either have to play simple chords, or you have to sing the minor versions of chords in between them. It feels like that challenge was really rewarding to me because I hadn’t played piano in such a long time.
Am I going to make a piano record anytime soon? I don’t know if I am. But I feel like that sort of opened my mind to a different kind of writing. Using these different mediums has helped me challenge myself to write in a newer way.
With [“Intern”], it was more of a challenge. Can I write something that I think is meaningful? Something that to me I think is modern and sort of pop? Can I write something where the lyrics are still reflective of my writing and my style? And the things that I would normally sing about or write about but with this new thing added.
There were elements where I wasn’t ready to do a full synth record or anything, but it would be cool to do a short EP or something in that style. That is just me trying to write something that’s meaningful to that medium because it is so foreign to my voice, or it had been.
But playing it live has been really fun! And I have all these synthesizers now, so what am I gonna do with them? I’ve never really done that, where I try to sit down and write something that’s conceptual.
11: You said in another interview that you were ready to be in charge of your own image in creating My Woman, and I wondered how this project helped you portray the person you are or that you want to be to the world.
AO: I think in the past, especially with Burn Your Fire for No Witness, that record is low. I feel very strong about that record, but it felt like an angry teenager version of myself.
Whereas I feel with this one, as a person who’s getting older, I feel a little more self-assured and a little less bothered by certain things. I think there are still those arguments you’re going to have in your head your whole life, and I’m just trying to find something in my writing that touches on the themes I’ve written about before but in a new light. Something that’s a bit more positive and about overcoming them instead of just questioning them and stating that this is an issue, but finding a way to fight that issue.
Specifically with me, I can sit around and be bitter about people making decisions for me, or in the past trying to help me and me misinterpreting it as doing it for me. And I think as a woman a lot of the time you read into things and you have to determine whether or not you’re reading into something or if it’s actually real. Especially with the people you work with — you don’t want to be dramatic or overly emotional. You don’t want to fall into that role that people pin on women. You also don’t want to ignore that it’s happening.
Those were subjects I wanted to talk about. And I wanted to address them in this way that was like, you can still love those people as long as you address them. You don’t have to hate everything around you or quit your job. You learn how to confront people about it. But for me, learning how to confront people was learning how to just think, “Hey, I’m getting so upset about this and the way it’s done. If I really think I should do it better, I should try, and if I can’t I’ll be really humbled by it.”
And mixing this record was an incredibly humbling thing that happened. The whole process was extremely hard work. Making a video that everyone sees that’s over in five minutes or less, you spend hours and days on with people you love who deserve to get paid more, and then it’s just written about on blogs and it’s over. You’re supposed to feel the gratification in making it. And I think that’s the most important lesson to remember: If you can get lost in making it and enjoy yourself and the people who you’re making it with then it’s worth making.»
– Sarah Eaton