Angel Olsen Bares Her Wild Heart, Readies Big Summer Package Tour
Nestled in the lush, winding hills of Southern California’s Topanga Canyon, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum was initially established by actor/musician Will Geer in the 1950s as a theater for fellow blacklisted artists to perform on his acreage and by 1973 he and his family formed a non-profit organization to host Shakespeare performances and concerts by artists such as Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. The idyllic, open-air venue was just the spot to host the first full-band performance of singer/songwriter Angel Olsen’s heart-stirring new album, Big Time.
Olsen recorded and mixed the critically acclaimed LP just a few miles away from Theatricum Botanicum at co-producer Jonathan Wilson’s Fivestar Studios, with the natural beauty of the bohemian community providing a refuge for Olsen as she explored her latest sound and grieved the recent loss of her parents.
The June 4 performance, which took place the day after Big Time was released on the independent label Jagjaguwar, was filmed for a livestream concert that will have tickets available for purchase via Veeps on July 19. Olsen’s show also served as the first event for Atlas Obscura’s Day Tripper series.
“We were excited to work with Angel Olsen because her music is deeply personal while also feeling universal,” Megan Roberts, creative director of brand partnerships at Atlas Obscura, tells Pollstar.
“She’s a phenomenal songwriter and constantly evolving as an artist, and her work and recording process tends to be inspired by and contain a sense of place – which is perfect for Atlas Obscura as a company built around place-based storytelling.”
Roberts adds, “The Day Tripper series is designed to bring people to unique and historic spaces for an intimate shared experience with an artist. We’re being very particular in bringing artists to spaces that have a natural connection or affinity with their work, so the setting is as much a part of the experience as the performance.”
Olsen’s Day Tripper featured pre-performance cocktails served in the theater’s Elephant Garden, crafted with local Topanga Canyon ingredients, along with event programs that could be planted and transformed into wildflowers.
Before launching into the first song of the set, “Dream Thing,” Olsen addressed the crowd made up of family, friends and critics and cheekily said, “Thanks for being here at our rehearsal.”
Sporting a turquoise jumpsuit and giant hoop earrings with her dark hair in a high ponytail, throughout the performance Olsen demonstrated her range and skill at switching between breathy, soft vocals and triumphantly belting out lyrics that matched the full band sound with a bassist, drummer, guitarist, keyboard player and violinist on tracks like “Go Home.” The performance’s intimate feel was enhanced by the way Olsen made eye contact, alternating between smiling to herself, seemingly lost in the music, and then locking eyes with the audience, her piercing gaze highlighted by bright pink eyeshadow that matched the vase of tulips on the keyboard.
With the theater surrounded by sprawling oak trees and plants scattered across the wooden stage, the show had a surreal, magical feel to it, complete with butterflies flitting about the area. If not for Olsen’s humor to keep the show grounded, it may have felt like the whole thing was a dream.
Olsen joked, “I’m going to a wedding after this, so I don’t even care what ya’ll think. It’s not my day,” and later inquired, “How are your butts?” in reference to the venue’s wooden seats. She added, “I just want everyone to feel very relaxed and comfortable.”
A few songs before wrapping the performance Olsen thanked Atlas Obscura and the Botanicum and then quipped, “And I just want to thank myself for putting myself in this position.”
Reflecting on having seen Olsen perform “dozens and dozens of times” since he started working with her nine years ago, agent Andrew Morgan of Ground Control Touring tells Pollstar that while some artists’ live shows seem extremely calculated, down to similar banter each night in between songs, every time he’s caught Olsen’s show “she’s doing something different onstage, saying something different.”
Morgan adds, “She doesn’t move around a ton on stage, but just the way that she reacts to the crowd or says something that makes herself laugh, it’s a very genuine, human performance. She’s very much herself and she is low key very, very funny.”
Big Time’s sound – which an ad campaign from Jagjaguwar declares “It’s Not Country … But It’s Not Not Country!” – is a sharp departure from Olsen’s 2019 chill-inducing, synth-heavy All Mirrors, but she has long experimented with different genres from indie folk to art pop as well as alternative country.
Olsen wrote the first track of her sixth studio album, the break-up tune “All The Good Times,” several years ago, around when she wrote the tracks that became All Mirrors and initially thought about offering it to Sturgill Simpson to record. Olsen explains that she’s glad she held on to the song because she “ended up writing a bunch of country-ish songs that fit the same genre as that one.”
Ahead of penning the bulk of Big Time, Olsen listened to artists including J.J. Cale, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Big Star, Neil Young and “of course” Stevie Nicks.
“I’m such a huge fan of Stevie Nicks and she’s such an inspiration on my writing and my voice,” Olsen says. “As I’ve gotten older, my voice has really dropped a lot. And now I can sing some of her songs really easily and it’s just fun. When I’m feeling like singing high, I’ll sing Dolly. And when I feel like singing low, I sing Stevie.”
Big Time is a stripped-down collection of tunes that documents a time in Olsen’s life filled with grief and new love. The 35-year-old singer/songwriter, who grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and now calls Asheville, N.C., home, started recording Big Time in Topanga Canyon just three weeks after her mother died of heart failure. Her father died in his sleep a few months before that, just a few days after she came out as gay.
Having already booked the studio time ahead of her tragic losses, Olsen stuck with the plan to head to Topanga.
“Angel wrote songs that are more simple in their structure and simple in their chords. She wanted to create a really interesting way to deliver those,” manager Christian Stavros of Other Operation says. “It doesn’t mean wildly intricate and strange string arrangements or massive instrumentation, it’s actually about pulling things back. A lot of classic country or country adjacent music is about keeping things simple. … And she wanted her lyrics to be first and foremost.”
Stavros adds, “Angel is someone who has not pulled the curtain back in the past to tell people what her music is about. That usually gets lost anyway in translation. But I think that this record was important for her to tell people what it was about.”
Olsen notes that it was pretty intuitive that the songs needed to stay simple and praises producer Jonathan Wilson for holding space for her opinions.
“In the past, I’ve always been kind of nervous around new people and feeling like I need to wear something [special because] I’m in the studio,” Olsen says. “I just looked awful (laughs). I was really depressed. And I was growing out a mullet. I was letting it all hang out. I think that my sadness about my losses overshadowed my fear of how I came off to people. It was a blessing because in the past I worried too much about how I came [across] to people in a way that I didn’t feel comfortable inserting my opinion. Nothing stood in the way of me just telling the truth in a loving, honest tone. (laughs) After week one, we were watching YouTube videos and cracking up and staying up and getting to know each other as people. And it was just a really special time.”
During her time in Topanga, Olsen had ample opportunities to hike, watch the ocean’s tide come in or just zone out and reflect. She says, “Nature is such a big reminder of how small we all are – and not in a bad way. I think that there is comfort in that, knowing that there’s something bigger than all the problems you could have and all the things that happened in your life. Whenever I’m feeling really lost or sad or whatever, I go into nature, even if it’s just an aimless drive, to get out of the car and stop at an overlook. It’s a reminder that everything passes and nature is still there.”
As for her grieving process, Olsen explains that it comes in waves: “You’ll be fine for months, and then you’re upset again. So it’s still a process. And I’m going to be dealing with it for years. Thank God that I have art, you know?”
Olsen will soon have the chance to show off her art with the launch of “The Wild Hearts Tour,” a co-headlining summer package trek featuring Olsen, Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker.
The tour was inspired after a collaboration between Olsen and Van Etten on the single “Like I Used To,” released in May 2021 on Jagjaguwar. Van Etten reached out to Olsen with a song she had been working on and asked Olsen to contribute, with the artists going back and forth on lyrics. Olsen notes that she wrote “a verse or half of a verse and part of a chorus” while Van Etten wrote the bulk of it.
“It was really sweet that [Van Etten] shared that with me because it was totally a song that she didn’t need anyone for, you know?” Olsen says. “The song is about just kind of getting back to your roots and getting back to the small things in life that you enjoy. It has a lot of energy to it, and I think it was exactly what we needed to be doing.
“In the past, I think I would have been more scared to collaborate with someone like Sharon just because the industry likes to pit us females up against each other or compare us. But I think now, at this point, we’re both established enough in our own work and we have our own distinct styles … I feel like I can have fun with it and not feel threatened or weirded out or worried and it’s just more open. Maybe it’s also just getting older and grounded in my career. It’s been fun.”
Olsen adds that she’s looking forward to getting to know Baker more, noting that they sang on a track together that will hopefully be released eventually. In addition to performing their own individual sets, the three artists plan on singing together every night of the tour and are currently discussing the setlist.
“I love three-part harmonies,” Olsen proclaims. “It’s going to be sweet.”
“The Wild Hearts Tour” begins at Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va., on July 21, with stops including Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Austin’s Moody Amphitheater, Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, Chicago’s The Salt Shed, Denver’s Sculpture Park, Boston’s Leader Bank Pavilion and Philadelphia’s Skyline Stage at The Man. Second shows have been added at the Greek Theatre, Toronto’s Massey Hall and New York’s Summerstage in Central Park. The trek features special guest Quinn Christopherson with $1 from every ticket sold donated to A New Way Of Life via a partnership with PLUS1, with will help support people rebuilding their lives after incarceration.
Though Olsen has played a few shows since the pandemic began, including performing at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival in September (which included a guest appearance from Van Etten) the trek will be her first since 2019. That tour included Olsen’s highest grossing show to date with a Dec. 7 gig at the Fox Theater in Oakland, Calif., that sold 2,884 tickets and brought in $100,980.
“Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of artists, if they’re going to be put to the test and go out on the road and tour, they need to really feel it’s worth it and it needs to feel valuable,” Stavros says. “And [Olsen and Van Etten] got together and brought Julien into the mix to make this an experience … a [sort of] summer camp, something really fun and special. … And I think it’s an important story to tell about three women going out and filling very large venues. This tour went on sale long before there was any new music announced from any of them.”
The tour fits with Stavros’ strategy in managing Olsen’s career in terms of finding new audiences while taking no shortcuts and keeping things as classy as possible.
“Angel has a very strong sense of what makes sense for her artistry. There are plenty of things that we end up saying no to that just don’t make sense. But in the long term of someone’s career who I think is going to be putting out records for the next 30 years, those short term no’s don’t really matter,” Stavros says.
Looking ahead to next year, Morgan says the team is planning some targeted festival plays for Olsen, along with booking some secondary markets around the dates if they can – “the things that seem realistic and the things that she wants to do.” He adds, “Now that the record is out, and the response has been so strong, I feel like next year is going to start falling into place pretty soon.”
For now, Olsen is counting down the days until “The Wild Hearts Tour” kicks off.
“I’ve been home for two years. I’m ready to go play some shows – I’m ready to feel the reaction on people’s faces when I’m performing, like I need to know that my music is doing something. And I think that’s why performing live is so important. You can release music and you can see social media as proof of something. But you don’t really know what people are experiencing. … There’s something about [playing live] that’s really fulfilling and really nurturing to the songwriting process, knowing that people are listening and that they’re affected and that you see it and you feel it from them. It’s a really big part of making music and I do miss it.”
She adds, “Every time I put something out into the public, it’s freeing and trapping because we’re always evolving, right? I think that that’s why artists continue to make art – they’re constantly trying to edify something or look at something differently and find a new way to share their feelings and thoughts. Sometimes I’m like, well, I thought I got it right on this record, but I don’t know if that’s it either. And I think that’s what pushes me to continue making art, is to keep looking and searching for new meanings – new meanings in my own life that are worth sharing with people.”
‘The Wild Hearts Tour’ Partners With PLUS1 For A New Way Of Life