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Singer/songwriter Angel Olsen skipped out on SXSW 2013. Though she's hardly strident or indignant about it, the industry showcase just doesn't speak to the sensibilities displayed on Olsen's gorgeous noir-folk LP Half Way Home, released by Bathetic Records in 2012. Those songs, like the wounded but sensual "Lonely Universe" and earthy "Tiniest Seed," featuring Olsen's voice sailing carefully over a country lilt of snare drum, bass, and guitar, demand more than a "Sponsored by Doritos" banner or a "Powered by Red Bull" advertisement.
Luckily, Olsen says that word of mouth has done its part. It helps that Olsen lists time backing Bonnie Prince Billy on her résumé, and that her records sink deep hooks in listeners. Her debut, Strange Cacti, ensnares; Half Way Home plants itself deep in the creepiest corners of your brain, where Karen Dalton and Roy Orbison play cards and trade drinks. It's an easy record to recommend to a friend, at least the right kind of friend.
"It's cool when things happen that way, instead of it being this thing where someone's like, 'Oh, yeah, I heard that song on three sitcoms and a car commercial,'" Olsen says of natural "got it from a friend" marketing.
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"I understand that part of it, too, but it's cool when things happen that way, more organically. I don't know what the future of my music is, but I hope I don't have to put it in a car commercial or something," she laughs.
It's hard to imagine a self-respecting car company who'd have her. Though her music is undeniably beautiful, Olsen knows her way around a menacing vibe. Hard to picture a Lexus or Volkswagen commercial featuring her spectral voice, though her latest single, the surging "Sweet Dreams," might work in one of those '50s public service films films about the dangers of driving while high or taking the curves of a moonlit coastal freeway too fast. "Sleep tight," she howls over distorted guitars.
There's a temptation to wonder whether the amplified song represents where she'll take her songs and voice next, but Olsen's not particularly ready to crank out another record. She knows that the business moves fast — and that the Internet creates demand the moment a record is more than a couple of months old — but she's wary of falling into hype-driven traps.
"I think so many bands get into this thing where they get signed and they feel like they have to come up with something and their albums end up dying out, or they end up writing the same exact songs because they think that's the pattern they need stick to with because that's what people liked in the first place," she says. "It's this psychoanalytical thing, and you're just like, 'Man, I don't want to be that [way]. I don't want to do that. I want to change, I want to embrace it, and write honestly and not worry.'"
She's making a living off music right now — even without sitcom placement and car adverts — but Olsen would just as soon take a break from recording and touring if it would eventually lead to better songs. After all, it has before.
"I'm trying really hard to humble myself," she says. "If there came a time in my life where I needed to take a break and do something else for a while, instead of forcing it, I just need to deal with that and humble myself and be prepared for it. I've done it before: I've gone back to working at a cafe or a restaurant. Having that thing that I'm doing outside of music always helps to inspire music. It's a weird thing to go from touring all the time to saying, 'Now I need to take a break and live a little bit, and if I'm not writing, people will just have to deal with it. I'll have to deal with it.' But it needs to remains an honest thing, because that's the most important part of the process."