In the United States, the concept of “Americanism” is frequently tied to imperialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. But if we look through the lens of people whose ancestors built this country or migrated here to find a better life, we find ourselves asking: What does it truly mean to be an American?
This is a theme that Angelica Olstad explores in her forthcoming album, American. Out May 5 on Sonder House, the album encapsulates Olstad’s journey back to her most authentic self as she navigates a world that attempts to draw lines between who she is and who she wants to be. Rebellious at heart, the album is about self-discovery, reconciliation, and truth.
Olstad — a pianist, composer, storyteller, and multimedia artist — became keenly aware of her competing racial identities while growing up in the suburbs of Colorado in the 1990s. How the community treated her father, a white American, versus her mother, a Chinese immigrant, was noticeably different. For her fourth album, she was inspired to capture her story as a mixed-race child and investigate what identity means, independent of race.
“That’s kind of what the track titled ‘Church and Guns’ is about — this dichotomy and contrast of being raised Christian and with guns in white communities that don’t fully accept my family,” Olstad told me in our Zoom interview. “There’s just that micro-aggressive tinge of racism that I’ve always observed and experienced. That is such a huge, conflicting contrast of all these other things that are also uniquely American.”
The daughter of an immigrant, Olstad had a “traditional Asian-American experience” in her childhood, she told me. She began studying classical music at a young age, leading to rigorous piano competitions and performances with the Colorado Children’s Chorale, which quickly resulted in burnout.
Olstad decided to stop playing the piano at age 10, which was difficult for her mother to accept, given the support and encouragement Olstad had received from her teachers. But she continued to participate in choir and musical theater throughout middle and high school before eventually finding her way back to the piano in college.
“Everyone has an instrument that they’re drawn to,” Olstad said. “I think piano was always my instrument, even though I took an eight-year leave of absence, which is kind of a big deal. It’s like being an Olympic athlete, not training for your formative years, then having to enter on a collegiate level that’s very competitive with colleagues that have been doing it their whole lives.”
In 2004, Olstad enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado to become a choir teacher, but she soon realized she didn’t care for singing — opera, to be exact — as much as she thought she would. She was primarily a jazz and a capella vocalist, and she says she lacked a proper understanding of what getting a degree in classical music through a standardized program entailed.
When she tested out of group piano class, the head of the piano department encouraged her to start taking weekly private lessons again. “I just fell in love with the music,” she said. “With the support of my teacher, I got into a master’s program on a full ride with an assistantship. But it was made clear to me that, because of the absence that I took, I would never have liked a traditional performing career as a classical musician because it’s so competitive.”
For many music majors, not being able to pursue a traditional performing career would be the end of the narrative, but for Olstad, it’s where her story takes flight. She studied classical piano for two more years and started experimenting with deconstructing classical music and “recontextualizing it into modern, minimal-sounding pieces,” she told me. She moved to New York to pursue a career as a solo artist and released two EPs — Catalyze (2019) and Transmute (2021) — which paved the way for American, conceived at the height of anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic.
To create the album’s various “chapters,” Olstad used stories from her early years to explore what it was like growing up as a mixed-race child. “Each song is titled after a pivotal point in my formative years,” she said. “I had one song that kind of served as the tent pole. Then I started crafting songs that would make sense sonically and also start fitting into a narrative arc.”
With classical piano as the foundation for the project’s narrative, Olstad mixes samples of recordings made when she was younger with her parents’ voices, natural sounds, and light electronic synths reminiscent of the meditative quality of binaural beats.
The album opens with a recording of Olstad’s childhood voice, introducing her performance of a sonatina by the 19th-century Danish composer Friedrich Kuhlau. An 8-year-old Angelica delicately strikes the piano keys as a beautifully-mixed resonating tone suddenly transports us to the present day, her adult self reunited with the piano. There are similarities between Olstad’s work and the structure of Tejano and New Mexican corrido music, a popular narrative metrical tale that forms a ballad often about oppression, history, and other socially relevant topics.
Listeners are drawn into a world that feels like home, a home that is chaotic and messy, confused, yet somehow also clear-minded. The standout tracks that embody these energies are the familiar tones of “Radiohead” and the solemn, soft sounds of “Bedford Stop.” If there is a track that personifies the theme of the album, it’s the simultaneously jovial and menacing “Church & Guns.” You can picture Olstad’s family dancing between the safety and comfort of home and attempting to integrate into an unaccepting suburban community rampant with racism and discrimination.
While the title may seem overtly political, American is more of a hero’s journey than a protest piece. Throughout the album, the various arcs of Olstad’s personal life are interwoven more than any apparent reference to violence against AAPI communities. This doesn’t erode the overall message, but frames it more from the composer’s lens rather than from the plight of a particular group of people and highlights Olstad’s goal to discover who she is beyond her racial identity.
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