Gold Leaves is Grant Olsen (Image by Kyle Johnson), who you may know from Arthur & Yu. This has been a busy and productive year for him, culminating in the release of his debut album, The Ornament, followed by a US and UK tour that he just recently wrapped up. On this album, Olsen conveys his knowledge and appreciation of an array of diverse music styles, from country to R&B. Olsen comes across as a crooner somewhere in between it all, in an honest and thoughtful endeavor that already sounds like a smooth, classic collection of songs that sound like a sunset.
Kelly Knapp: Your songs pull from many different elements, from doo-wop to country. What makes a good song for you? Do you feel you have to be in a certain emotional state to write a good song?
Grant Olsen: Hmm, good question. There are so many different pieces of music that fit under the category of a “song,” from some 20 minute tune like “Halleluhwah” by Can to a song like “Wooly Bully.” Or there are songs like “Milkshake” by Kelis, or “Rock Bottom Riser” by Bill Callahan. All of those songs draw from, or at least elicit, very different emotional states I think, but I probably think they’d all fit under the category of a “good song” in my opinion. And I think I’ll still feel that way about them in 40 years. There’s only so much you can do with 12 notes and a handful of different time signatures, so if you can make something stand alone and sound unique, that’s really quite a miraculous feat. I’m still really trying to figure out how to do that, but participating in the enterprise of the practicing artist has been alright so far.
KK: PItchfork’s review of Ornaments complimented you with having one of the “most flat-out pretty voices in contemporary indie rock.” Do you think of your voice as another instrument? How much do you concentrate on communicating lyrics within an arrangement when you’re writing a song?
GO: Well… I have a lot of work to do on my voice. I’d like it to wear it in to the right shape like an armchair or a shirt I feel comfortable in at any moment. I still don’t feel that way about it yet, but I hope it gets better with age. I think I’m wanting to write songs that would sound better with a wiser mouth, if that makes sense. I’m also thinking about taking some voice lessons this month to explore what all it is and isn’t capable of.
As far as communication goes, I do enjoy playing with emphasizing unconventional syllables or certain parts of a line in order for it to stick out a bit. What I feel is important to communicate sometimes changes night to night and I end up singing the songs a bit different every time. That can really mess up harmonies at times, but the guys I’ve been working with have been pretty patient and have learned to work despite of me.
KK: You began work on Gold Leaves about 4 years ago, but had to scrap most of the material when the bulk of it got stolen. Do you think you would have made an entirely different album had things been different?
GO: Yeah, I had a bag with a laptop and some notebooks and my cell phone with some sketches stolen. I’d hope that the best songs would’ve stuck with me, but I record a handful of ideas a week and lots of them in a stream-of-consciousness fashion and when I go back to listen to them months later, I sometimes have no recollection of what they are. So I really have no idea what most of that material would’ve been. I guess it doesn’t really matter now, but I don’t think those songs very stylistically different than what came out on this first Gold Leaves record.
KK: The Ornament was also crafted after you experienced several deeply meaningful events in your life. Was the creation of this album also a very cathartic expression?
GO: I was more of a relief to finally put out the record than anything. The events over the years ran the gamut of high’s and lows and weren’t extraordinary to anyone else’s normal life-stuff I wouldn’t think. I’ve been pretty lucky really. I do turn to music for catharsis for sure, but probably more as a listener. Heh, really the first thing that came to my mind with “cathartic expression” was a dude on a mountaintop with his arms out-stretched and the horrible 360 degreed helicopter shot. Like Creed or something. I’m not that comfortable with myself for a full cathartic expression yet. It’s always good to have something to look forward to I guess.
KK: Through the course of making this album as Gold Leaves, what did you discover about yourself as a musician? How different was the communication of ideas from when you were part of Arthur & Yu?
GO: Honestly, it showed me how much work I have to do as a musician. I feel like the songwriting aspect is coming along, but there’s so much I need to learn about music itself and guitar and piano and gear that will keep me busy for a while.
I’d say the communication of ideas was pretty similar to Arthur & Yu because most of this album was demoed first, with me playing everything, however shabbily. The big difference is that I had the benefit with Gold Leaves to go into the studio with musicians that were much better than I am and have some objective ears when beginning the recording process. I left a lot of the songs open in parts that I felt were more malleable and we were able to add some more improvisational touches.
KK: What aspect of the record are you most proud of?
GO: Besides Arian Behzadi’s art and the people I got to work with, I guess I feel like it’s a really cohesive record. I feel like a lot of what was in my head came through, and that’s the most I’ve been able to do that so far. I’d have to attribute a lot of that to Jason Quever for helping me make that happen.
KK: Any piece of music from another artist you’ve been listening to recently that you think is really inspiring?
KK: Nothing gold can stay – what does the future hold for Gold Leaves?
Ha. Well, I just got done touring for 7 weeks and am going to take a couple weeks off from shows for the holidays. We have a few shows in Seattle at the beginning of the year and we’re hoping to get back on the road a bunch in Spring. Other than that, it’s a goal to get the next record recorded in the first half of the new year. We’ll see. I have a bad habit of saying that.
Image by Kyle Johnson