Grant Olsen isn’t insulted when he’s told that “The Ornament,” the sweeping, harmony-drenched title track from his band Gold Leaves’ new album, sounds a lot like Fleet Foxes. In fact, Olsen takes the comparison to the poster boys for a blossoming ’70s folk revival as a compliment.
“I think I can hear the similarity in parts of the melody, as well,” Olsen writes in an e-mail interview. “I usually try to be pretty conscious of that stuff, but it’s fair. And it’s fine—whether it’s coincidental or unconscious, I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. Plus, I really like those guys, so it’s no insult whatsoever.”
It’s a backhanded compliment (“You sound like this really great band that sounds like Crosby, Stills, and Nash!”), but Olsen, former songwriter for the Seattle-based folk duo Arthur & Yu, has a history of earning those types of comparisons anyway. He understands that plagiarism, accidental or intentional, can be part of making great art.
“I’ve been wondering what it might’ve been like for those bands [in the ’60s] who covered each other’s songs and seemed a little less abashed to be derivative,” he says. “I know there was at least a lot more productivity. The fact that the abundance of material is still being sifted through is kind of mind-boggling. Obviously those guys were competitive, but I think, whether it be apery or open influence, it was probably the impetus for why the music morphed into what it became by the end of that decade. You know? Maybe. I dunno.”
The Ornament, Olsen’s debut under the Gold Leaves name, is one of the year’s most criminally underappreciated records. The sonic similarities to Fleet Foxes and their folkie ilk have led to easy comparisons, but every one of the disc’s nine sculpted tracks, with their glorious vocal parts, rich layers of organ and guitar, and walls of homespun reverb, bears the mark of a striking craftsman. Olsen is something of a perfectionist; the album took over four years to make, which is a really, really long time, especially for a struggling songwriter. But despite the album’s clear attention to detail and Olsen’s dedication to the project, The Ornament has been frequently saddled as a mere “side project.”
“I’m not sure it’s ever felt much like a side project, to be honest,” Olsen says. “Maybe just the second project. It’s very much intended to be something I can play behind for as long as it makes sense to do so. I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable releasing my own songs as a side project because it takes a lot of energy and time to get a record together. For me, at least. I’m a slowpoke.”
But through playing live with his sturdy backing band (keyboardist/guitarist Tomo Nakayama, bassist Chris Early, drummer Brian Wright, and guitarist Bill Patton) and transforming these relatively concise folk-pop tunes into something larger, Gold Leaves has grown into more than just a “side project,” or even a “solo project.”
“It’s already changed now, with the band, and that was my hope,” Olsen says. “I think most of the songs on this record have turned out to be pretty malleable and have taken off in different trajectories, depending who’s been playing with us. At this point, I have a band that I’m hoping will stay around a while and be a large part of the next recording. For this tour, we’re going to try to play a different set every night and leave some songs open-ended for improvisation. We’re playing some other people’s songs as well.”
Olsen says “the door is still cracked” for a new Arthur & Yu record. (Several new tracks are already written.) But his musical priorities are still focused on Gold Leaves, including a new “more collaborative” collection that should appear sooner rather than later.
“I’m pretty focused on Gold Leaves right now,” he says. “At least sitting here in the van with the band, heading to Omaha, talking about new songs. It’s hard to think about anything else.”
And as far as The Ornament is concerned, Olsen’s not worried about standing out from all those beards and flannel shirts and 12-string guitars in the indie-rock crowd. He’s just happy people, no matter how few of them, are listening at all.
“I guess this record is just a collection of embellishments and shabby ruminations,” he says. “And if any part of it’s relatable to any other average story then I think I’m happy with that.”