Illustrated and Explained: Angel Olsen's Pedal Philosophy

Following the release of her debut EP, Strange Cacti, in 2010, Angel Olsen has continuously produced work that is moving, honest, and highly dynamic. Whether alone at the microphone or backed by a full band, Olsen traverses genre and expectation, creating timeless albums including the 2014 breakout Burn Your Fire For No Witness and last year’s masterwork, My Woman.

Slowly diverging from the lo-fi, sparse production of her early recordings, Olsen entered the realm of sonic experimentation seamlessly. Her songwriting is still at the helm, there’s just a few more effects in the mix.

Phases — a forthcoming (November 10) collection of B-sides and rarities — is a snapshot of each incarnation of the progression. Ahead of it’s release, we spoke with Olsen about her effects pedals, seeking out new gear, and her favorite guitar tones of all time.

Angel Olsen's pedalboard. Illustrated by Sunny Eckerlee

Which pedal in your setup do you rely on the most?

The EarthQuaker Levitation reverb pedal. I usually like to mix the short, warm reverb of the amp with this one. It starts out bright and long for quiet, spacey jams, and you can tone it back to make it less intense for the louder, fast songs.

Are effects an afterthought while recording or mapped out in advance?

In the past, I didn't think much about effects until I was in the studio. But being on tour for Burn Your Fire, I primarily used Holy Grail/OCD or Boss overdrive/distortion.

On this last record, I kept a mental note of sounds and pedals so that I could keep things somewhat consistent. In the future, I think I'll probably go in with some, but the purpose of using each studio is to take advantage of what's there, and it's definitely something I keep on my list of things required to rent said space. You gotta be open to changing it up. And I think a good studio should come equipped with drawers of fun pedals!

The guitar tone on “Those were the Days" from My Woman is so well-rounded. What combination of pedals are we hearing?

I'm not sure, really. Probably a mix of different things because there were three guitarists on the record. But I know I was probably using the EarthQuaker pedals. I never had a long chain of stuff with my set up because I'm playing rhythm.

What are your favorite guitar tones of all time?

  • Robert Fripp on David Bowie's “Heroes"
  • Brian Eno’s “I’ll Come Running"
  • Chris Spedding’s tone on “Time Warp" from Guitar Graffiti
  • The Cigarettes (not sure who it is) “Screaming Dreaming," the guitar line at the end

Which pedals in your chain are also used to effect other instruments? How so?

The Mel9 pedal I use to work with the Hammond SK2. For festivals, specifically, I used it in combination with the Yamaha YC mini organ.

Overall, do you see effects as a crutch for songwriters or as tools for experimentation and creativity?

At times in live performances, things have definitely broken and/or been super loud, and those moments always suck. But we usually jam on a song while it's figured out. I think that, in the end, it's really helpful if you can get in the rhythm of memorizing your dials and where they need to be for each song.

I play both upbeat and quiet songs — sometimes back and forth — so I always have to dial those changes in as quickly as possible. But hey, it's necessary. And I also know that if everything were broken, I could play straight into the amp and get through it and laugh.

I think sometimes people focus too much on fucking with their pedals (myself included) and there are times in writing and performing where you just need to stick with one thing and make it good and get lost in that one thing.

But on recording this last record, I really used quite a bit of new sounds — especially a mellotron. I'm grateful that I found the Mel9 and that, in combination with my SK2 organ and Levitation pedal, it solves the issue of touring without a mellotron.

Do you enjoy the process of seeking out new gear/pedals or is it more of a chore?

I have spent way too much money on pedals that basically had zero control and just looked cool. I do my research now, especially if it's a smaller, boutique pedal. I wanna know I can use that pedal in combination with another for more than a handful of songs. I wanna know that if it breaks, and I use another of the same kind, the sound is consistent. That's usually what I'm seeking.

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