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Identity Changed Me and I Changed Identity

I discovered my identity as a woman when I was eight years old. I was obsessed with the movie Tarzan and loved the idea of running wild with all the animals and just being free in every way. I would run around my house in my ballet skirt and bare chest so I could be just like him. I had no concept of “girl parts” and “boy parts,” so I didn’t see a problem with what I was doing. I was just being a kid and imitating my favorite character from one of my favorite movies.

I have two boy cousins who are like brothers to me. When we were little, they would always come over to my house. One day, I was doing my usual thing and pretending to be Tarzan when they came over. As soon as they walked into my room, they were horrified. They wouldn’t look at me and I didn’t know why. I was so confused. I saw them walk around without a shirt on all the time and I was never shocked or mortified by it. I asked what was wrong, and my older cousin told me that girls aren’t supposed to walk around without shirts, that is only a guy thing. This really struck me. I never understood a difference between girls and boys, or between me and my favorite cousins.

After that, I began to see how differently I was treated because I was a girl. I couldn’t play in the grass for fear that I would get my clothes too dirty or that my hair would get too messy. For the first time I realized that I would not be able to do all the things that the opposite sex could do. I fully realized my identity as a girl, and understood how this identity would affect my life every day after that. I began to change my behavior to fit this “girl standard.” I changed my favorite movie from Tarzan to Beauty and The Beast, and instead of playing around outside I started to paint my nails and do other things my girl friends did. I wasn’t trying to be a “tomboy” before—I didn’t even know what that meant. I never knew there was such a clear distinction between being a boy and being a girl.

My aunts and uncles began to judge me based on my appearance while my boy cousins would get away unscathed. “Wow, looks like you’re gaining a little weight,” and “What are you going to do with your hair?” were things that I heard more and more often while growing up. I know these things weren’t intended to hurt me but, somehow, they always did. Commercials, TV shows, and movies that reinforced the idea of femininity were constantly shoved down my throat. I began to doubt myself a lot and I was no longer the confident, strong girl I was when I was little. Where did that girl go?

I was so sick of struggling with my identity that, around age eleven, I began to really question who I was. I would ask myself, Do I have to be a girl? Is there any way out of this?  I wanted to escape me. I was constantly craving acceptance from people who expect so much. It took me years to figure out that my gender identity doesn’t completely define what I like or who I am. As a girl, I can still like Tarzan and Harry Potter, have messy hair, and be myself without being heckled or told that who I am is wrong. I should be able to strut around, pounding on my chest without being judged or accused of “not being girly enough.” I could also like American Girl Dolls and painting my nails because material things don’t define me. I define me. After learning that, I accepted myself. I was at peace. I could finally rest.

EXCERPT: But It’s Just How I Feel: An Interview with Angel Olsen

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Angel Olsen conducted by 826CHI’s Teen Press Corps at the 2017 Pitchfork Music Festival. The team also interviewed Kweku Collins, NE-HI, Weyes Blood, American Football, Pinegrove, WebsterX, Priests, and Jeff Rosenstock as part of And the Rest is Noise, a music journalism Workshop designed and led by 826CHI staff and volunteers.

. . .

CJ [826CHI]: Before we get any more into it can you to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Angel: I’m from St. Louis. I’ve lived there since I was nineteen, and I moved here with a friend when I was nineteen, almost twenty, and I started playing music at DIY shows [Chicago independent music scene] right away. And . . . my friends who hosted those DIY shows in Chicago opened a cafe across the street from the house they used to host [those shows] in called Cafe Mustache, and that’s where I performed last night. They are sort of the reason why I could even play in this festival. The first show I ever had here was at this place called Ronnie’s . . . it smelled like urine. And I wasn’t even of age when I played there––I had to go in through the backdoor. But nobody cared about it because it was such a craphole anyway.

CJ [826CHI]: When you made your move from St. Louis to Chicago and started developing your music did you feel any type of discouragement?

Angel: Yeah. Chicago is one of those places where you learn how to hustle for what you care about. No one gives you too much credit when you’re here and you’re doing it, but it kinda propels you to challenge yourself and work with different kinds of people. And I’ve been all over the world––I’ve been to New York, I’ve been to LA . . . and those cities are great and I like what happens in those cities and I haven’t spent seven years in those cities but what I will say is there is something really special about the way people make things together here. People from different scenes of music––people from the jazz scene and people from the avant-garde scene and people from the theatre scene are gonna be at your shows sometimes, even if they aren’t immediately interested in what you’re doing. That kind of community exists here and it doesn’t exist as intimately in those bigger cities, and I really appreciated that when I left.

Kacie [826CHI]: You write your own music, correct? What would you say you write about the most?

Angel: Ah, well some of it is really based on personal experience or stories I’ve come across in my life and things that have moved me and made me think and . . . perspectives that I’ve had. If I’m gonna write a song and sing it out loud it has to be something that I care about––it has to be something that will be relevant to someone else, not just me. That’s why I’m doing it. I know I have a voice, even if it’s not everybody’s taste. And I’m fine with that, but I’m not gonna sing my heart out about something I don’t care about. It’s weird for me to sing other people’s songs but sometimes I do . . . [I do] a lot of collaborations, and I can learn different things about my voice in that way. I can see how other people work as well, the way they think about writing and that process and I think that’s great, but I am very protective of writing my own songs for sure.

Kacie [826CHI]: What made you want to be a musician and sing your story rather than just write it down? What made music special for you?

Angel: I always loved singing without words. I always loved singing and playing music in general from a very small age, and it wasn’t until later that I developed an interest in writing. I guess it just took me a really long time to realize they were both equally important to me. As a kid, I wanted to be a popstar. I loved dancing in my room, and I would use this Panasonic tape recorder to record myself. I would record myself singing with people on the radio. My parents would be like, “You need to do your school work.” [laughs] They were mad at me because I would stay up until like three in the morning writing songs and my parents would be like, “What is happening with our kid? Our kid’s a freak.” I was the youngest child in a very large family. I was also adopted, so I was very alone . . . in a good way. I felt very independent. My parents were much older, so I had a lot of time to just play music and be creative. I put all of my aloneness into that––it’s not as sad as it sounds! Really! It’s actually what makes me feel most comfortable. As an adult, I love being alone. I love it! As soon as I get back from a tour, I shut the door . . . I’m like, taking a shower, and I’m like, Cool! This is great! This is what I wanted! You know? And I think I like that so much because I was so used to it as a kid, and then I had to grow up and learn to like . . .

CJ [826CHI]: . . . socialize.

Angel: Yeah, like, interact with people!

Kacie [826CHI]: You learned really early on that just because you have to be alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely.

Angel: Yeah! Right. Exactly. You can take that loneliness and make something creative out of it. You can do something with other people for other people instead of being so selfish and sad about . . . wherever you are. I didn’t feel sad [growing up]. At home I spent a lot of time writing and really listening to music. I was obsessed with it. And so, it wasn’t until much later that I started to listen to independent music, and that really changed my view on music in general. I was really snobby about pop music––I didn’t really like it. And now, over the past few years, I like to look at the whole spectrum. I can see the value and the quality in all of it and it’s been really nice . . . because the moment you limit yourself and say, “This is really not my style,” is the moment you reach your own boundary––you’re not challenging yourself to understand it. So, I’m really trying to open my mind to stuff that I think is simple, to really understand why the simple songs are powerful in how they can reach people in a good way. And I think that pop music can be really simple and really profound. I went through these periods of time where I only listened to jazz, and I was really snobby about that. I had a boyfriend that DJ’ed, and he was like, “You only need to listen to these [songs], and you need to work on your songwriting, because you’re not sounding [like them].” People would give me this feedback and I was like, Screw it. I’m just gonna be myself, and if I fail at it, I fail at it, you know? But I’m doing alright.

. . .


My mom would always make the soup while I was being the sickest child probably ever. Me sitting watching TV on my bed, waiting for my soup to be ready. Right when my mom would say, “Leah, your soup is done,” I would run to the kitchen, give my mom a big hug, thanking her, and run back to eat calmly in my room. Sometimes my mom would come to my room and lay down next to me and watch TV. My mom would eventually leave to start making dinner. I would fall asleep on my bed that makes me feel like I’m sleeping on clouds.

Almost Poem 1

T. Rex out on the prairie
chewing rattling cattle
lead laughs & T. Rex
falls down dead

His body is a rotten jelly
It melts away

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And the Rest Is Noise

Interviews & Reflections From The Students Of 826CHI’s 2017 Pitchfork Music Writing Intensive

by the 826CHI Teen Press Corps

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