5:11 PM CDT, August 14, 2013
Angel Olsen is leaving.
She is 26, a St. Louis transplant who has lived in Chicago for a few years, and now she is moving on. She would not say where she is moving to (on the record), but she would say that she needs more calm in her life, more nature. Which is understandable: The past year has been busy for Olsen, who gained a national reputation as an emerging singer-songwriter of unusual gravity, possessing a wise-beyond-her-years lilt — think Joan Baez meets Roy Orbison, and they jam on Gram Parsons. She's landed on National Public Radio and at the Pitchfork Music Festival; she's backed the indie favorite Bonnie "Prince" Billy and released a well-received, little-heard record, "Half Way Home." On Friday she begins a fall tour with a show at Lincoln Hall.
But first, before packing — before packing her apartment for a September move, before packing for her tour — she found a moment of calm last week to discuss music videos. Basically, she needs some.
She has already recorded her follow-up to "Half Way Home," and before it comes out in the next six months or so, she would like a few more videos to post on YouTube, to send around to the big music blogs, to simply make. Her friend, Zia Anger, a filmmaker and former Chicagoan, flew in from New York to spitball ideas.
Sitting at a communal table in a Logan Square restaurant, Anger, who is 27 and a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, pulled out her phone and called up something they had shot the night before: It showed Olsen unclogging a tub. Not music video-ready, Anger said, but who knows, they might like it.
Plus, it wasn't the worst idea they had.
"We won't shoot anything for three or four months," Anger said to Olsen, "but if you asked me what I'd want to shoot right now, I'd say, oh, like: a video of me making out with six different people and you shoot it, then we'll send it to my ex-boyfriend Randy — who's in Europe on a Fulbright (scholarship) — and he edits it!"
"Which is the worst idea I've ever heard," Olsen said.
"Probably," Anger agreed.
Olsen is petite and moon-faced, with perfectly straight bangs she cuts herself. Anger has thick black hair and talksamileaminute enthusiasm. They met two years ago through that said boyfriend, Randy Sterling Hunter — another SAIC grad, who shot Olsen's first video, for her song "Tiniest Lights" — and, despite being in Austria, he has remained a collaborator with Olsen and Anger. The way it works is this: Anger and Olsen shoot the footage, then send it off to Hunter, who edits it into something curious. They call the process "a transatlantic epistolary exchange." So, no surprise, perhaps: They make videos that are more experimental than conceptual, fluttery 16-millimeter collages that feature Olsen singing under spooky lighting, in ghostly triple exposures.
Olsen likes that splintered image; she calls it a "confrontation of selves."
"I had an idea for something different, but Angel said 'No,'" Anger explained.
Olsen sat up, bemused.
Anger continued: "I saw these video GIFs online of people tripping at electronic dance festivals and" — they convulsed in giggles at the thought — "these people are all in neons, and Angel has this song where the person in it is alienated, so I liked the idea of getting a camera and putting you, Angel, in the middle of the crowd of trippers and shooting them in slow motion while you walk though this crazy crowd of neon people."
"That song is like an Everly Brothers song. Nostalgic, dreamy, yet this scene is so 2012-2013," Olsen said.
"Yeah," Anger said.
"I thought you were joking," Olsen said.
"I was actually psyched," Anger said.
"Maybe later," Olsen said, rolling her eyes.
"It could be seen as you being insensitive to the freaks," Anger said.
"It could be seen as me making fun of them."
Olsen first attracted attention around Chicago playing casual shows in friends' apartments and basements. Her music, which has a mournful pang, occasionally pegs her as depressed, she said. But she's not. She's serious-minded. Shooting videos with Anger has made her more conscious of that image, though, Olsen said. She is aware many people will construct an idea of her through her videos; so she would like to come across as much like herself as possible — though the images within the videos still shouldn't be too literal.
In short, arty but not too arty.
"I think about music cinematically all the time," she said. "In a lot of ways, that's how I write (songs). I think of images first." She turned to Anger: "I would like to dance in a video. I know it sounds dumb, but I want to dance!" Anger smiled, unsure of where Olsen was going. "Play bongos," Olsen said, "light candles and dance."
Anger took a bite of food from Olsen's plate: "If Angel wants to dance, Angel will dance."
"But dancing with a friend, maybe," Olsen said. "And we're wearing masks, so it's not necessarily my face. It's my body, but, I don't know … depends technically what we can do. What matters is someone dances."
"Or a group of people."
"But who are these people? They're randoms. Are they even related to my music?"
"What you've described to me in the past was it's more about physical movement, anyway."
"Yes," Olsen said, "but it's also about this idea that dance is happening. I was watching this movie, 'Orlando,' and Tilda Swinton is running through a labyrinth and getting older and older as she runs, and when she comes out the other side, she is this different self. I don't want to rip off (director) Sally Potter, but what a cool metaphor."
"So the video is about time? Then maybe we show faces? It's the easiest place to show time passing," Anger said.
"But it's super literal."
"Maybe it's more exciting in our heads than it would be to others," Olsen said.
Then, changing gears, Olsen said: "Oh, and there is this other video I have been thinking about, too."
Anger listened, eyebrows raised, expectant.
"I don't know if this song is even going to be on the album, but it's about water," Olsen said. "The lyrics are about a woman who wants to be pure. It's about purifying yourself. Wouldn't it be interesting to make a video for that about being dirty, running out of water? Something with soil? Sand or dust or something. Or burial?"
"Being buried," Anger said.
"And maybe showing the difficult labor of carrying soil up hills."
"So do these people see the person being buried?"
"That was my instinct, too! No, they don't see me — and it's me! I want to be buried alive!"
"You bury me alive!" Olsen said.
"And I want to bury you alive."
"This video should also make you very thirsty."
"It's romantic actually, because I'm not claustrophobic," Anger said.
"And I am! Which is why I want to do this."
"OK, so: You, dirt, deep in the ground."
"But deep. Like deep," Olsen said. "Like, someone has to dig me up."
"But don't say that then go off and get tacos with the crew!"
"I would never!"
Olsen and Anger stop and stare at each other for a moment, then break into laughter. "What am I even talking about anymore?" Olsen said. "I kind of sound crazy. Though, wow, like, what a video, right?"
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $13 ($15 at door) at lincolnhallchicago.com
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