It’s a rare sunny Friday on Market Street, and Grant Olsen has just been handed a Sharpie. But it’s more than just a mere pen: With it comes the invitation to add his signature in the most permanent of inks to an impressive who’s-who of noteworthy musical patrons, like Kurt Bloch and Robin Pecknold, whose tags decorate the bins of Ballard institution Bop Street Records.
Bop Street is a store for the serious record enthusiast—a Sur la Table for music geeks, a destination for those seeking rarities. It’s staffed by the kind of folks for whom the mention of a single record title can launch a 20-minute discussion about said band’s bass player’s various side projects. It’s a place meant to be visited when time is not of the essence. On this warm afternoon, Grant shares: “I’m always looking for [The] Pre-Cambrian Lightning Bolt’s Hard Heartsingin’,” a record that still eludes Olsen’s own impressive collection.
Proprietor Dave Voorhees, the lovable musical encyclopedia behind the counter, turns the discussion to psychedelic folk auteur Joe Byrd, his seminal band The United States of America, and of course talk of the various members’ side projects. The recommended USA record takes up residence under Olsen’s arm; after a respectable hunt, it’s accompanied by titles like Telstar by brilliant but doomed British producer Joe Meek—a character much like Phil Spector both in his sonic stylings and his unfortunate firearm handling. Meek is soon joined by, on the cover of Everybody’s Talkin’, a shirtless, suntanned Fred Neil, the epic songwriter whose credits include the well-known Midnight Cowboy track. Also under consideration is a collection of works by Jack Nitzsche, whose music can be heard in dozens of films including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When the fabled Sharpie makes its appearance, it’s almost a reward for Olsen’s flawless performance in a speed round of band-bombing. With such an impressive vault of musical knowledge, it’s easy to see why Olsen earned his pen.
The Ornament, Olsen’s debut under the name Gold Leaves, will be released by Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art next Tuesday, Aug. 16. It’s a record the likes of which you haven’t heard, because its sound is mined from a record collection that required near-fanatical discophilia. Like that of most avid collectors, Olsen’s life is filled with listening. “Most of the records I like tend to be old stuff,” he says, citing the Flamingos and the Tornados. “As for newer stuff, I’ve always been really into Broadcast,” a British band whose influence can be heard in The Ornament‘s melding of modern and retro tones. Olsen’s time is equally consumed by writing. “I’ve got notebooks, tons of scraps of paper,” he says. “For me it’s really a matter of honing and narrowing down.” The result of this honing is a record full of audio and intellectual exploration, touching on the themes of endings, renewal, and the dual nature of love.
The latter is a subject Olsen has ably navigated with his stunning band Arthur & Yu (Hardly Art’s first signees in 2007)—a project that still cooks on Olsen’s back burner, from which some of the songs that eventually became The Ornament were derived. But where A&Y was successfully homespun—an experiment born of Olsen’s own tinkering while he taught himself the ins and outs of low-fi production—The Ornament is a meticulous effort, four years in the making, helmed by Papercuts’ Jason Quever.
The result is rich, dense, and orchestral, influenced by Motown and the Wall of Sound and speckled with Americana. If you can wrap your head around Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson covering Gram Parsons, produced by Olsen’s most cited influence, producer Meek, you’d be getting close.
“I could have taken a lot of directions with this record,” Olsen says. “For a while I wanted to make an R&B record, real straight-ahead doo-wop, then I thought I could make a country record for a second; there was so much material, this record is where all those influences meet.”
It’s this ethos that makes Olsen and his beautiful Ornament much like that special bin at Bop Street: the most fun section to flip through, the one reserved for works so wholly individual they can only be categorized as “Cool and Rare.”