by Francesca Padilla
It's Pride 2022, and the world is seriously fucked. Thankfully, this Pride brings new music from Angel Olsen. Her newest studio album Big Time is out this month, with a title track that explores queer love as well as pain.
Last Pride season came in the wake of Olsen announcing “I’m gay!!!” via Instagram story, along with a post that further explained "My beau, I'm gay" in reference to her partner Beau Thibodeaux. The decision was random and joyful and came as a delightful surprise to her fans. It also poked a bit of fun at the media, to whom she’s always kept at arm’s length.
Since then, the post has been deleted and Olsen later clarified that her queerness more accurately can be described as pansexual, rather than gay, in that she’s attracted to people regardless of gender. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t seem too emphatic about the label.
WAY MORE PERSONAL—AND WAY MORE QUEER
Since her first album, the EP Strange Cacti (2011), Olsen’s music has been short-handedly described as “indie” or “folk,” with vocals that veer between the styles of rock, country, soul, new wave, and even yodeling. Every album has seen her mixing it up in some way, blending her unique voice with experimental sounds, like the 6-minute-plus song “Lark” on All Mirrors (2019), which isn’t her longest piece but definitely one of the most epic, with a 14-piece orchestra complementing Olsen’s rich vocals. Her deeply personal lyrics about love and pain continually strike a universal nerve in an ever-growing audience.
Big Time, though, has Olsen getting personal in a way she hasn’t been before—not by a long shot. That’s mostly because, despite the consistent rawness of her storytelling, Olsen is clearly the kind of artist who prefers absolute privacy.
The singles and accompanying videos in the lead-up to Big Time’s release are entirely about real-life queer love. The first, “All the Good Times” is about Olsen’s first queer relationship and breakup, which happened earlier in the pandemic. The video shows her in a flannel button-down and jeans and driving cross country intercut with tender reenacted scenes with the now-ex. This is a big departure from earlier videos, like the one for breakout song “Shut Up Kiss Me” to which she brings an undeniable charm but remains coolly distant from the viewer.
The next single and video, “Big Time,” shows Olsen in the same flannel as in “All the Good Times.” Her travels find her at a Lynchian speakeasy, where she magically transforms into a singer at a rural dance hall with old-timey clothes, hair, and make-up. It’s a celebration of love after the destruction depicted in the last music video. Not only does the song reference the partner Olsen has now, Thibodeaux, but they also have co-writing credit.
A GAY AMERICAN TALE
Intertwined permanently with Olsen’s coming out and her most recent opus is the death of both her parents in 2021. She came out to them just a handful of days before her father died, followed soon after by her mother. She described in interviews an experience that turns out to be a common for people hit with sudden and significant grief: complicated emotions, including love, eclipsing her art and everything else in life. Coming out to her parents so close to their death added a layer of another kind of grief, for all the time she’d spent not living as fully herself.
This intertwining of death and love is not much of a surprise to queer people all over the world. It might have something to do with the hiding of ourselves, whether of our own accord or because of society’s rules and projections. Queer people risk death by just existing, so it’s devastating but not surprising that revelations of love and death would somehow coincide.
Add to this a Christian upbringing in the Midwest—as a teen, she was in a Christian band and went to Christian rock shows in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri—and you have a quintessentially gay American tale (however, according to Olsen, this may or may not have much to do with the formation of her craft).
NO SUCH THING AS VACATION
Angel Olsen is so private. How private is she? She became notorious with press folks for distributing "fact sheets" (no, I was not able to find one) which addressed frequently asked questions she was tired of answering. These included such matters as her adoption at age 3, songwriting process, and inability to read music. Even the writing of this article risks courting her contempt.
Despite introvert tendencies, she’s been on tour at every available opportunity for over a decade. Most of her non-touring time has been spent in Asheville, North Carolina, where she moved in the early 2010s during the steep rise in her music’s popularity around release of albums My Woman (2016) and Phases (2017). At one time, she was touring the country and abroad nine months out of the year and not performing while at home in Asheville, to the disappointment of her fans there.
The pandemic upended this entire dynamic. Like everybody else, it changed Olsen’s relationship to social media, meaning in particular the connection with her fanbase and other humans. Olsen, used to being on the road and performing pretty much all the time, pivoted to virtual concerts and social media performances, which audiences faithfully attended.
In addition to having to rework performances, the pandemic also brought her first queer relationship, the subject of the aforementioned breakup song “All the Good Times.”
Fast forward to the release of the studio album Big Time (2022). Olsen readily admits that in the midst of her grief over her parents’ passing that she kind of winged the recording. But early glowing reviews imply that it’s perfectly in line with her previous records, in that it gives us something we haven’t quite heard, taken to the depths and back. And this time, it’s unapologetically queer.
If you get the chance to see her live, make sure you bring your EARPEACE Music earplugs. Our concert earplugs are hearing protection designed to enhance your music experience.
Francesca Padilla is a queer Dominican-American fiction writer born and raised in New York City and currently based out of Rochester, NY. She is a past recipient of a Walter Dean Myers Grant from We Need Diverse Books. Her debut young adult novel, What’s Coming to Me, is forthcoming from Soho Teen on August 2, 2022. For more information and updates, visit www.frannypadilla.com.