Beginning in the 2010s, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen were festival friends, labelmates on Jagjaguwar, and mutual admirers who’d watch each other perform and then have brief chats backstage before going their separate touring ways. The singer-songwriters and rock powerhouses grew closer after they both auditioned for a part on Netflix’s late, great The OA before its 2016 debut, a role that eventually went to Van Etten, and bonded over the “stupid stuff” that comes with being an indie-rock musician. They finally collaborated in early 2020 on a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” for the upcoming I’ll Be Your Mirror tribute compilation, but it wasn’t until June of that year that Van Etten got up the nerve to ask Olsen if she’d be up for working together on an original song — at last, the John Congleton–produced single “Like I Used To” was born and, eventually, released this May.
Through powerful-yet-graceful harmonies, they channel all the joy and weariness they’ve experienced as solo artists who’ve been performing for well over a decade, and experienced personal lows and highs along the way. Add in the isolating effects of the pandemic, Van Etten raising a young child, and Olsen announcing she’s queer in April, and the two dynamos have come together singing, passionately, about being happy on their own terms.
Should all go to plan, the gorgeous duet will be just one of many times the pair work together — if they’re not too busy opening a restaurant or something. Vulture recently caught up with Van Etten and Olsen during a rare break in both their schedules to discuss their first single, their blossoming friendship, what’s next, and who’d they enlist if they ever decided to turn this act into a trio. (Note: This conversation is best read by picturing both of them laughing easily and often, and occasionally coming close to outright blushing as they compliment each other. Trust us.)
So how, exactly, did this song come to life?
Sharon Van Etten: Angel and I had been texting off and on for a couple of years about how to feel inspired, about the touring-cycle, album-cycle struggles, and trying to be domestic while also trying to be musical. During that time, I had been asked to do a cover of [the Velvet Underground’s] “Femme Fatale” and I reached out to her to see if she would do some vocals with me on it. She very generously said yes and sent me something amazing back. Because of our exchange, I had the confidence to send her this song I had been working on that I secretly was afraid that I was ripping her off on, and I sent it to her to see if she would like it.
Angel Olsen: I was stoked about it. As soon as I listened to the demo, I was obsessed, like, “This is gonna be massive. I can already tell. Even if it’s unfinished right now, I know that this is huge.” It’s such an honor to be a part of something that she was writing. Also, I’ve never really done that before. I’m pretty precious about my writing and I would suspect anybody who’s been doing this as long as I have is a little bit precious, too. But I think it’s good to let go of that at times and just be stronger with someone else. This has been such a special thing to be involved in, to remember that things can be stronger together instead of just on your own.
Did the feelings of separation due to the pandemic have anything to do with your desires to collaborate?
SVE: I think if you’re creative, you figure out how to make stuff wherever you are, whether it be at home, on the road, in a closet — whatever it takes to get that out to be the person that you are. I definitely was craving connection. Like, I love my bubble and I love the handful of friends that we created our own safe zone with, but there’s that part of you that needs feedback, that needs a connection with someone that gets who you are and what you’re doing and [gives you] that sense of validation — that, outside of your bubble, what you’re working on is worth a damn. I knew there was something special to the song that I was making, and then I knew that I wanted to work on it with Angel.
As we finished writing it together, it definitely embodied that idea of connection and a return to normalcy and, I don’t want to say like a “fuck it” attitude, but the admission that we’re all trying the best we can in this crazy time. This is our way of connecting with each other as friends as much as connecting to the people that want to listen to it and feel the same things.
AO: On a more personal note, the song reminds me of how we’ve both been just going, going, going. I mean, you [Sharon] have been creating a family and doing other things with your life and your career, but we’ve both just been going for over ten years. This time has been a really interesting pause. It’s the first time in my life where I really got to think about all the places I’ve gone, the changes I’ve gone through, the people that were part of what I was making, what I missed out on, and what I want to change in the future. I really got to reflect on those things so, for me, the song is a little bit about that. But, I think it could be about a lot of things for people.
When I first heard it, the song was mostly done. I just added a few lines. I’ve heard Sharon’s music before, but this was standing out in a different way. And I will say, it didn’t remind me of anything that I’ve written, so it didn’t seem like you were copying my style. Maybe it was the energy of it or something, or maybe you had a psychic moment where you decided to ask me and that was part of it.
SVE: Literally, I had this narrative and I’ve confessed it to Angel. I had it in my head that I sent it to her and was like, “I have this, I’m ripping you off, I’m so embarrassed.” And I went back in my emails and I was like, Oh, I actually never said that. But, every time I sent it to her, I was like, “I hear your voice on this,” and I think my subtext was, “I think this is how you would sing it.” That’s what I wanted. Angel is the only person I wanted to be a part of it. And I’m so relieved, because if she said no, I don’t think I would have released it on my own.
AO: That’s so silly, because it’s a great song! It was fun to add my perspective to it, for sure, but I think it would have been great either way.
What are some of the lines that you added, Angel?
AO: I can’t even remember now.
SVE: I think it was “dancing all alone” and “lighting one up.” I actually have them all highlighted.
AO: I think, “taking what’s mine,” but I don’t remember.
SVE: “Giving it up like I used to.”
I’d wondered if “holding hands openly / rights to” were your words, Angel, or if it had something to do with your coming out this year.
AO: That’s Sharon’s line. Honestly, it could be about being queer, but it could also be about just not being able to touch people.
SVE: It’s funny. Before I knew this was something you wanted to do, you and I had been talking and I knew you had been going through a breakup. So, when I was thinking of “crawling the field,” it was about the hard part of playing the field: How am I gonna fucking date again during quarantine? What the hell is this? I was trying to write from her perspective without really knowing what she was going through at the time. Whether you’re in a happy family bubble or in this new single, dating life, there are struggles and celebrations on each side.
AO: For me, it has the energy of I’ve lost a lot and I’ve had to think a lot and fuck it, I’m going to get back out there and I’m going to do something else or I’m going to do the same thing better. I’m awake now. I feel that part of it, beyond the pandemic.
Do you remember the first time you heard the other’s music?
AO: Darius [Van Arman] from [Jagjaguwar] had asked me if I heard your songs and I think I’d heard one of them. Then I just always heard them in passing. I’ve seen Sharon live a lot over the years — we’ve been passing like ships in the night for a long time. Then we kind of had a heart-to-heart not too long ago, had some wine, talked about our lives for a little bit, and laughed about stupid stuff in the industry. It was a really fun night.
SVE: It’s very similar for me. I remember specifically that I’d flown into Indiana to shoot a video for “Magic Chords” and Darius picked me up at the airport and drove me to the location in the woods. He was playing me this new artist that he was about to sign and was like, “What do you think?” I was just tearing up like, “Are you kidding me? This is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.” That was in 2011, I think. I’ve been to her shows and I’ve cried in the audience and we’ve high-fived at festivals and had like after-show cheers’. I feel like every time we tour, it’s at the same time and I’ll miss her by two days in different cities around the world.
Given how much you admire each other, were either of you nervous about collaborating?
SVE: I felt like working on “Femme Fatale” was so easy. I was shocked at how quickly she got back to me with her vocals. And not only did they support the song and my vocal, but it also transcended what you think a backing vocal is. It made the song even better. Of course, I was going to be nervous sharing my own song but I had a feeling that Angel would respect the intimacy of a song that early on while honoring what it was and what she could add to it. So, I was nervous for sure but, I was like, At least I don’t have to see her reaction when she first plays it. I’ll email it then just put my blinders on.
AO: I was a backup vocalist for many years [Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang, and others], so I love the opportunity when someone’s like, “Hey, can you sing quieter? Can you sing in falsetto? Can you do this?” I’m like, “I’m down.” I’ve done a lot of collaborations where I just sing backup and it’s really fun. It was cool to be able to do both in this project. Thank you, Sharon, for opening your door to that. I know it’s hard because you just never know how you’re going to feel or what’s going to happen.
SVE: I definitely haven’t just given [someone] an unfinished song and been like, “Here. What do you think?”
What do you think it is about your personalities or experiences that made you click so well?
AO: I feel like we’ve both been through some shit [both laugh]. This is how I feel and maybe this is true for you: We both could do other things, but writing — it’s almost necessary. It’s part of our life now. It’s how I’ve dealt with a lot of things. It’s not just about making a living and “being a star” anymore. I’ve gotten past that aspiration. It’s nice to be successful and I would love that to continue in whatever capacity I can over the next ten, 30 years, hopefully more. But, for right now, I’m realizing, Oh, Sharon’s a legendary writer. You’re going to write forever, whether or not you’re playing music live. I can just tell. I feel like I’ll write forever, even if I’m not successful anymore. I think that I recognize that in you and I don’t recognize that in everyone.
SVE: Aww. Well, I feel the same way about you. I think that at the core of why we started — and why we’ll probably work a lot together down the road — is we connected as friends beyond touring and having it be industry-related matchmaker stuff. I’ve had great collaborations that way, but this has been the most natural. I feel like we’re still getting to know each other and it’s blossomed in this beautiful way. We’ve been on a parallel path — or the same path, different highways. We keep intersecting, and I feel like the universe is winking at us, saying, Keep going.
This is a tough question but if you were going to collaborate more and decided to add a third member, á la Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt), who would you want?
AO: We would have to sit down and talk about it because there are so many people I like. I love singing with Heather McEntire, who used to sing with me for the My Woman record. She just is a wailer. She was in a band called Mount Moriah and she’s been doing her own solo work and I just love singing with her, so I think I’d selfishly pick her. Onstage, she’s one of the few singers who I’m just like, “Sing as loud as me or louder. I don’t care. Just go for it.” Sometimes you want that in a song and sometimes you’re really like, [whispers] “Okay, chill out. This is my part.” She really brings it and it always works well.
SVE: She’s super sweet. North Carolina, represent! I would say Jenn Wasner — you know, Flock of Dimes, Wye Oak — because I’ve gotten to sing with her before. She sang on one of my records and we’ve played shows together and she’s someone that can support as well as meet you. She’s a hell of a multi-instrumentalist and can hang with everyone. She’s one of the best hangs. If you’re thinking of touring, you can be talented as all hell but if you cannot hang, that tour is gonna suck.
AO: It’s hard to hang sometimes. It’s not for everybody. Honestly, I don’t love being gone as much as I have been, so I get it.
What does creating your next collaboration together look like, ideally?AO: Well, maybe I’ll write a song and I’ll ask Sharon to write a verse. We might go on tour together. Who knows?
SVE: Well, that’d be fun. Maybe we’re opening a restaurant. I don’t know.
AO: Maybe we’re selling flowers, we’re selling sandwiches, we’re making coffee, we’ve got natural wines!
SVE: We’ll leave the restaurant to our partners, and then we’ll go on tour.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.