Local Current Blog

She’s seen it all: Angie Carlson’s career as a publicist/writer/rock star

courtesy Angie Carlson

When I first met Angie Carlson at the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival last July, I knew her as the Indigo Girls’ trusted publicist (watch the folk-rock duo answer Three Quick Questions at the Current Haus here). At the festival, I saw Carlson coordinate meetings and guide her musician clients to interviews. What I didn’t know: pre-PR, she’d been a musician herself. She’s even been a music journalist. Carlson has seen several sides of the business during her impressive career.

To find out more about her past and present music pursuits, I recently met Carlson at Snelling Avenue’s cozy Mirror of Korea for tteokbokki (also known as Korean rice cakes). “Wow, this is so cool!” Carlson exclaimed, and I learned one thing right away: she’s always up for adventure.

These days, Carlson works for Red House Records in St. Paul and also owns Propeller Publicity, a small company that tailors each of its media campaigns to a unique artist (it’s through Propeller that Carlson represents the Indigo Girls). Red House is an institution of a folk label; the way they explain it, their company predates Americana’s status as an official genre. Red House’s current artists include the Pines and Charlie Parr, and they’ve just signed the Cactus Blossoms. Carlson has served as the label’s director of publicity since 2013.

Carlson got her start in the field at the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. As a college student in the Twin Cities, she “would read the rock reviews and think, ‘Oh my God, how cool to do this.’” Not too much time passed before she was doing it; writing under her full name, Angela Carlson, she met and covered landmark bands like the Replacements and Gang of Four.

In the Daily‘s Dec. 8-15, 1983 issue, she wrote about interviewing Rifle Sport, an ‘80s/’90s post-punk band based in Minneapolis. Carlson made me recoil (in a good way) with her description of lead singer J. Christopher’s vocals: “Although his voice does have an uncontrolled, wavery quality reminiscent of David Byrne, it can also be a raucous yelp, as comfortable as a foil gum wrapper on a filling.”

Elsewhere in the paper, Carlson was laugh-out-loud funny, panning Duran Duran (“the band had the combined stage charisma of a bunch of garden salads”) and ripping Shawn Phillips’s 1984 live show to shreds.

In an April 1984 Daily issue, Carlson interviewed Echo and the Bunnymen. Just a couple of months later, she reviewed R.E.M.’s album Reckoning, making the good point that “R.E.M. only cops ideas from themselves, a sameness of sound repeated throughout their recorded work.” All this predated the next chapter of her career: being on guitar, keys, and vocals for ‘80s band Let’s Active, which has actually toured with both bands mentioned above.

A 1995 Billboard article reported that Carlson was once a “big fan of…North Carolina alternative pop band Let’s Active.” After interviewing them for a City Pages piece, she “struck up a correspondence with its founder, Mitch Easter, who brought her into the band in 1985—and married her.”

At Mirror of Korea, Carlson explained her entrance and Let’s Active’s name: “I joined a band in the ‘80s that was signed to this label, I.R.S. Records, that had R.E.M. and stuff…the band was called Let’s Active: kind of a play on bad Japanese translations. Like, ‘Let’s have fun! Let’s active!’”

Near the end of Let’s Active’s lifespan, Carlson and Easter joined Don Dixon and Marti Jones on “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It),” a song Dixon wrote for Heathers, a 1988 cult comedy movie. After Let’s Active broke up, Carlson stayed in bands for some time. Grover, a North Carolina trio, “sold a few records” but never took off. Eventually, she moved on.

Still in North Carolina, Carlson returned to music journalism, serving as Indy Week’s music editor for almost two years. She brought a casual, saucy tone to the alt-weekly, covering music during the White Stripes’ and Strokes’ rapid turn-of-millenium rises (read her 2001 interview with Strokes guitarist/keyboardist Albert Hammond, Jr. here). She considers an Indy Weekly interview with Bob Moog (the late genius behind Moog synthesizers) as one of her favorites of all time: “He was a super rad guy.”

When it came time to switch jobs again, she had a home at Yep Roc Records, a young, North Carolina-based label that’s released music by Ryan Adams and Robyn Hitchcock. Carlson explained, “Yep Roc Records called me up, and said, ‘Would you ever consider trying to do publicity?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never done publicity.’ [But] I was their first director of publicity.”

The move did make sense after working as a music journalist. “I [was] used to writing on deadline all the time, so I [could] write all their press releases. From getting millions of press releases from my years at the independent weekly, I knew what they looked like—what professional ones looked like, and who handled what music.”

Since then, PR has provided her a more reasonable income than other avenues in the field, and she still gets to contribute to the industry she enjoys.

As a PR person, she said, “What I’m trying to do is get press.” She amplifies her artists’ work whenever possible. The “main thing” is checking that writers received certain music; she’ll prompt, “Have you heard the record? What do you think?” It’s all about facilitating communication—making it as easy as possible for journalists—and showing her artists in their best light.

Actually, she credits her time as a reporter with some of her PR skills. Before the Internet, “nothing was a click away,” so she spent hours scanning liner notes and calling labels for information. She spent as much time at shows as she could, which helped her hear about upcoming events, bands, or news stories. Keeping a finger on the pulse was a “full-time job.”

One product of Carlson’s career has been the inevitable overlap between work and life. “My work and life crossed over years ago,” she said, and one of the first things she does in the morning is check her iPhone for the day’s meetings, contacts, and general tasks. As a publicist, she’s in constant communication with any press members who might be covering her artists. She’s also the one with all the phone numbers. After all: “If I’m out with my friends getting dinner, and somebody doesn’t get on the guest list…I’ve got to deal with it!”

Although she doesn’t generally tour with bands, it’s helpful if she attends particularly packed events. At major festivals, “you might have a press day for people that’s really tight. Like, ten minutes with this person, fifteen minutes…you have to be keeping up with it in real time.” She’s been to the AMAs and to Austin’s massive music festival, South by Southwest. In fact, she says, “I’ve gone to South by Southwest probably twenty times—I mean, a lot.”

She has plenty of favorite bands stockpiled from her years in the business. “I love all the classic stuff like the Stones, Hüskers, Replacements, Joy Division,” she said, also mentioning the Wombats and Ty-Segall-style garage rock. She’ll tune in to The Current to find out “what’s going on in my town—to see who’s playing, to get news.” And working at a folk label was no accident: “I like Americana stuff a lot. Jason Isbell is amazing.”

Carlson also has advice for fledgling bands: “Have a really good website or Facebook page. Make sure your dates are up there—that they’re really clear. [Make sure] that there are a couple things that best represent you to listen to.” After that, she thinks “stuff will bubble up if it’s good. People will find it.”

Now, Angie Carlson’s passion for music (and those who support it) seems as bright as ever. Through the good times (huge success with Let’s Active; opportunities from several newspapers and labels) and bad (band break-ups; poor pay), Carlson has kept her sense of humor at the forefront of everything she does. Thinking about working in music, she had to pause and smile. “It is just fun, you know?”

Cecilia Johnson is a server and freelance writer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. Her favorite things include book recommendations, cà phê sữa đá, and even Duran Duran.