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Angel Olsen and Dallas-based producer John Congleton delve into darkness

The singer is translating her latest studio effort to her tour, which comes to the Granada on Nov. 8.

The first song on Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors is a surprise trip to hell in the best way possible. Strings flit around as if tuning before a show, and then flourish as Olsen’s deceptively sweet alto comes in. Her voice breaks into a tortured shout as drums and synth pulse. The 12-piece string section grows more unhinged with each line. “Hiding out inside my head, it’s me again, it’s no surprise I’m on my own now,” Olsen sings, an invocation for a new phase.

In addition to Angel Olsen, producer John Congleton has worked with St. Vincent, Sarah Jaffe and many others.
In addition to Angel Olsen, producer John Congleton has worked with St. Vincent, Sarah Jaffe and many others.(Jeaneen Lund / Domino Publishing)

“Lark” is an unmistakable milestone for Olsen, and for her collaboration with producer John Congleton. The owner of Elmwood Recording in Dallas, Congleton produced Olsen’s sophomore breakout Burn Your Fire For No Witness in 2014. Congleton has also worked with St. Vincent, with whom he won a Grammy for her self-titled album out that same year; fellow Dallas-grown artist Sarah Jaffe; and many others.

There have been few connections between Congleton’s work on other artists’ records and the particularly sinister, haunted strings in the noise-pop he made with Dallas band the Paper Chase from 1998 to 2010. On All Mirrors, Olsen and Congleton share a penchant for ominous soundscapes, particularly on “Lark” and “Impasse.”

“Angel was the one who really wanted those songs to be dark,” Congleton says. “And of course, for me, that’s ‘challenge accepted.’"

“Those were the mean ones, I feel like,” Olsen adds. “‘Mean Angel,' now.”

Fans of Olsen may have imagined her on a 1960s bandstand even when the material had more of a pastoral feel. Her voice, classic and full, is often the center of the timeless songs she writes. All Mirrors keeps vocals lower in the mix at times to make way for sweeping arrangements that call back to Sinatra balladry, but warped, with layers of dissonance.

“I feel like for me, or for my records, [Congleton] has had to embrace certain parts of words, and let those be what they are without adding a bunch of [expletive] to it. Some people would say this is a really big, dynamic record and it’s very produced, but it’s like, well, it had to be because there are these crazy strings on it,” Olsen says.

“In my mind, what I hear are those moments that are quiet and my voice is sticking out. I feel like for my music and my songs, [Congleton] pays attention to the lyrics and makes a point to underline them.”

Olsen and her live band are translating the All Mirrors sessions — recorded mostly at noted bassist Gus Seifert’s home in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown — with painstaking effort. Having front-of-house sound engineer Scott Cornish join on tour is the key, Olsen says.

“We’re so lucky to have a sound engineer who cares, and who is just as much a part of the performance as we are. Not just making sure the levels are right, but pushing effects in certain parts of songs for different instruments. That’s an added musician, you know.”

Angel Olsen says she unleashed "Mean Angel" on some of her new album's darker songs.
Angel Olsen says she unleashed "Mean Angel" on some of her new album's darker songs.(Pitch Perfect PR)

Cornish sought counsel from Congleton on how to apply effects to Angel’s voice that would retain the textures on the record. At times, three members of Olsen’s band will play three keyboards or string pads at once. Olsen added two new string players, equipped with effects pedals. She plays organ during part of the show.

“I feel like I’m more comfortable playing keys, playing guitar parts now that I would hand off to somebody else to play,” Olsen says.

This setup gives songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Sweet Dreams” a new life on tour. Still, Olsen stresses, crowd favorites will keep their bones.

“The Beatles did it, the Rolling Stones did it,” Olsen says. “Why can’t we add strings to rock songs, you know?”

Angel Olsen plays at the Granada Theater on Nov. 8. Doors open at 7 p.m.

Lyndsay Knecht|Special Contributor

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