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Angel Olsen’s Big Time

“Why am I so unafraid right now?”

WORDS BY MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK & REBECCA LASHMAR | ASHEVILLE | MUSIC

MAR 16, 2023 | ISSUE 10

Angel Olsen by Angela Ricciardi
Angel Olsen by Angela Ricciardi
Album Cover for "Big Time"

Big Time, the sixth studio album by singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, was released in June 2022 to much anticipation and even more acclaim. Released by Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten), the fiercely independent album is underscored by a creative concept that marks a new phase in the artist’s self-ballasted evolution. Big Time is at once ethereal and terrestrial. The ethereality that popularized Olsen’s unique sound is here ensconced in a lyrical realism set in the soil of the artist’s recent upheavals. At the age of 34, Olsen came out to her parents, the joy and courage of which was pruned by the devastating loss of her father three days later. Two weeks later, she got the call that her mother was in ER, followed by hospice care and a second funeral in an excruciatingly short period. This is the difficult terrain from which Big Time grew, an album whose title song explores the double entendre of “I love you big time” and how grief can expand into the size of a small planet that our lives must orbit over and over. 


Recorded in Topanga Canyon, California, the album’s soundscape is similarly spacious, spreading upwards and outwards in symphonic swells and digging down towards the rocky gizzard of memories. So compelling was the aura and atmosphere of this sonic reality that Olsen, an equally gifted actor and storyteller, created a companion film (Big Time Film) for the June release. In it, she relives the events and realizations that animated a few chosen songs, with scenes that seem to be connected by a time machine and cast in the dim memorial glow of a fading photograph. 


From her dazzling dreamscape that is Big Time to her appearance in the Karen Dalton documentary, In My Own Time, Olsen joins smART Magazine to talk about future aspirations in film and current creations in music. She also dives down into the aesthetics and influences that tie the visual universe of Big Time together. With a lot of growth and change in recent years, Angel uplifts the importance of embracing the difficult lessons that only grief can teach and the connections that she is forever grateful for.

sM | Your acting is terrific in the film companion for Big Time, is this something you’d be up for pursuing even more?


AO ─ I’ve had a few acting opportunities that I’ve turned down or that I shied away from. In music, I get to do it all. I get to act, perform, and then edit. I have more of an interest in directing and writing than acting. If I were to sign up to be an actor in someone else’s film, I don’t get a say in how something’s edited. So for me, the only way that it would work out was if I really trusted the vision of whoever I was working with. It doesn’t interest me to be an actor; I don’t have the patience for it. When I filmed Big Time, I had to be ready for every scene. It was the same amount of work for me as it was for the crew. The whole thing taught me how much I don’t want to be an actor. 


There’s a couple things that came up recently that I might have to do because they’re really interesting projects. That said, I’m a musician, and I’m a writer, and I like to edit. I like to be in control. It’s challenging for me to be in a position where someone else is in charge of how my identity appears in the world. I would love to write more films and not act in them.

sM | From the photo shoot to the album cover to the film, the aesthetic is very consistent throughout the conception of this album. Was this an aesthetic that came before you realized the songs on Big Time?


AO ─ I was going through a sort of sexual identity crisis during the time that my parents passed away. I consider myself queer. I went through this whole period of time where I hadn’t explored this part of myself, and I was wanting to celebrate it in some way. This material is an open wound, like my parents passing away was an open wound. I had all these dreams about time travel, and I had really vivid dreams, and I wanted to create something that seemed like it was right out of a painting. And that’s what we wanted to do in the film. I want it to feel like just out of a dream. 


There is this kind of like a synchronicity that happens when you’re creative, and you’re making something. A lot of times when I’m making films or making music or playing live with people, I think to myself, “Wow, what are we all doing?” We’re all just pretending that we know what this is. But the truth is, all that matters is that we’re here, and we’re connecting to each other. I love that. I love making art with new people and searching for a different way of seeing things with them.


sM | Last year you appeared in the Karen Dalton documentary In My Own Time as the voice reading her journal entries. How has Dalton’s work influenced you as an artist?


AO ─  I avoided her for a really long time. I had friends who were obsessed with her and they were like, “You’re the same.” And I hated that for a long time because I was like, no, I’m not as affected; it’s really different. She’s bluesy. It just hit one day; you avoid something like the plague because people are pushing it on you like a good book or a good song. But it finally just hit one day, and I was like, you know what, fuck it. If we sound alike a little bit, that’s fine. I like her. She suffered big time. She struggled with addiction and homelessness and living a really tough life. She struggled, but she knew how to keep finding beauty and looking for it and these dark places. And I love that. I have a soft spot for people who can’t avoid the fact that the veil was lifted in their life, and they do something with it. Who I think really sounds like her is Jessica Pratt, who I also really love, and she's also really different.

Angel Olsen by Angela Ricciardi

sM | One of the interesting things about this album is how it plays with time and how grief warps time. As someone whose grief has been so concentrated over a short period of time with the loss of your parents, how did that distort your experience of time during that period?


AO ─ I’ve changed a lot. I felt like I was going through puberty again when it came to my sexual identity and how I felt. And there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to change about the way that I live my life because of it. Starting with coming to terms with being a musician and capitalism, and how do I learn to share more with people? How do I learn to invite people in more, and how do I stay in? How can I balance the rapid-fire news that we take in every day without it eating my soul away? How do you step out for other people who can’t step out for themselves?


It was a lot of learning and relearning and unpacking political shit in my life. Trying to be more aware of my place in this world and how it affects people. As a musician, I feel more of a duty to just be aware of my privilege and find a way to connect with people. To be more honest and not afraid of being real with people. I didn't feel like, oh, I'm struggling extra. I think I was just like, everybody's losing. And the pandemic makes it worse, but I didn't feel self-pity about it.


I think the biggest lesson of loss and grief is that it forces you to face your own mortality. There’s a huge blessing that comes after the grieving part. You get to look at life like it matters again. Everything matters a little bit more and not in a bad way. I was on TV with bands a few weeks ago, and I remember cracking jokes with the host and I was thinking, “Why am I so unafraid right now?” And I think part of it is, we’re all going to die. Might as well have fun. Might as well be real. Don’t be afraid of the status or the situation. Talk to people, find out about them, learn about them.

Angel Olsen by Angela Ricciardi