It’s rare to come across a voice like Angel Olsen’s. When you watch her perform live, you immediately become overawed with calmness; an air of composure that is harmonized effortlessly through words aching with despair. It’s a sentiment that lives throughout her second studio effort, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but it’s amplified to a degree that leaves the listener speechless. In just 11 tracks, Olsen claws through a range of raw alternative and achieves a balance of delicate disposition and immeasurable strength – the latter being heavily attributed to her voice which she still sees as a formidable challenge.
“I think I’m still trying to figure out what my actual voice is,” she explains in a phone call from a few weeks ago. “I’ve always felt like it’s my weakness and also the thing that makes whatever it is I’m doing feel strong as I’m always trying to do a lot at once.” With the addition of a full band – bassist Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Josh Jaeger – Olsen has progressed with a new sense of precision and a more comprehensive sound that translates throughout Burn Your Fire. Noticeable singles such as “Hi-Five” and “Forgiven/Forgotten” maintain a cohesive tone that’s easy to pick out in a club or a church, but they’re heavily accentuated by Olsen’s desire to explore the heights of her trembling expression. Such is the case on the album closer “Windows”, a recording that challenged Olsen to fully discover a new take on her voice. It wasn’t a pre-medicated idea or one that was ripped from influences and tested with sound. In her own words, it was a song that “just came out” and one that had invited a vocal style she had never used before.
It’s clear the Missouri-born songwriter feels a tinge of uncertainty when it comes to her overwhelming acclaim, but Olsen embodies that “it” factor – that ease of expression that many so desperately try to mimic – and it’s just so natural for her. It might come as a surprise, but her personality is strikingly down-to-earth. So much so that during our conversation, I had to continuously remind myself I wasn’t chatting with an old friend I had known since grade school – reflecting on new music, what it’s like to travel the world, and how you can cope with the pressures of interpersonal relationships. Even when HBO’s Girls came up as a topic, she didn’t hesitate to discuss the character she would play: “I would probably just be a preferred version of myself on one of my more depressed days. Like ‘I have so many interviews today and I haven’t done my laundry and I’m just, ugh… tired’.” As she openly admits with a laugh, “That would be my most embarrassing moment – complaining about my life as somebody who’s on tour all the time. Like my life is so hard.”
Burn Your Fire For No Witness has received a great amount of praise from musicians/peers such as Sky Ferreira and Mac DeMarco. Has that affected you on a creative level?
It surprised me. I haven’t really thought about working on anything with them – maybe in the future I could as that would be kind of fun. Their interest in what I’m doing is really cool and it makes me want to keep an eye out for other artists that I might like that are coming out. I kind of dropped off at some point in regards to finding newer music, but I’ve gotten a lot of new stuff that I like from this year. It’s a new thing for me, but I’ve gotten into artists like Cate Le Bon, Jessica Pratt, and Blood Orange. I’ve spent a lot of time at festivals this year so I got to see Sky and Mac and other people. I spent some time talking to them about what was going on and it’s cool to get everyone’s perspective.
What did you think about Mac’s cover of “Lights Out”?
I was on vacation at the time and it was surprising to see it blow up everywhere. It was kind of funny and really sweet that he did that.
He sounded pretty amped to be covering the song.
Yeah, definitely. When he was talking about Stewart’s part in the song… like I don’t know, everybody loves Stewart! He plays guitar with me and Mac had met him at a show and was like, “Stewart and I are going to get married!”. He was like, “Say hello to my boy for me, Stewart!”.
Your voice makes it somewhat challenging to cover your songs as it’s been described as “sexy, gritty yet melancholic”. How did you discover it and when did you realize it was so unique?
I think I’m still trying to figure out what my actual voice is because… I don’t know. I’ve always felt like maybe it’s my weakness and also the thing that makes whatever it is I’m doing feel strong as I’m trying to do a lot at once. That’s not something that always works. With performing, I definitely have certain things that I want to go into a set with and then there are nights when I’m like, “Fuck it. I’ll let someone else do their thing”. It’s crazy because when I recorded “Windows” for example, that was just one song that just came out and I was like this is a voice I don’t ever use and I don’t know why I don’t ever use this voice. We have been trying to do more stuff with my higher register and it’s interesting to go back to those recordings. I’m not trying to imitate anyone or do anything differently; I’m just trying to think in a different way. I think I’m still discovering what it is that I want to stick with and I think part of that is what makes it fun for me. I’m always trying to find something that makes me keep an interest in music, especially now that it’s presented to me in this way that’s like, “You are a product”.
There’s also a distinct contrast on Burn Your Fire… as it dramatically transitions between songs that are hauntingly quiet to more lively statements. Was there always a detailed vision for this particular album or did it come about naturally?
When I listened to the final versions of the tracks, I felt like it was the way they were recorded and the time of which they were recorded that made them all make sense to me. But I guess I didn’t really want to start the album with like, “White Fire” or “Enemy”. I wanted to start with something that reminded me of my past. I thought about it and I thought about the riffs and how it would play out on the album because I wanted it to be presented as a whole because it is such a rare thing for people to listen to an album as a whole. I wanted to create something that would be distinctive on each track, but would often start with something extremely dark. So, I sent it to a bunch of people and the label and friends of mine and said, “I don’t know where I should start”. Then I came up with a list of ways it could start and I decided on it and was like, “Alright this is the way it’s going to go”. Then I just went with it. There was definitely a lot of back and forth of not wanting to start off the album with “Enemy” (laughs). I was so afraid for some reason of starting it off that way, but my label is pretty lenient with me.
I was worried because it’s not like “Forgiven/Forgotten” and it’s definitely not a track that someone could dance to. It takes a minute to think about it (laughs). I don’t know what people want or what people expect from me – like if they want something that is easier or if they prefer when I’m by myself. Even when we recorded it with the band I knew that they weren’t going to be able to play on all of these songs and that’s okay with me. I like to play solo sometimes anyway and I hope I can continue to do that.
You started your career as a part of Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Cairo Gang ensemble. Are there any experiences or words of wisdom from Oldham that shaped the way you approach your own work?
When I recorded with him, I never really wanted to offer my opinion. I felt like it wasn’t really my place to do that as I needed to let him be the one who was running the project. So for this album, I started working with Stu and Josh since we were already together when I was writing. During that time, it kind of spoke to the style I was going for and complimented their personalities too. I think when we went into the studio it was very straightforward, but I definitely had a plan for each song. I listened to each one and there would be a certain way I wanted the drums to sound – well not necessarily the drums, but the way it’s recorded. People will spend hours obsessing over a recording and how it should sound and by the end of it, you’ve listened to it so many times that you can’t really hear it for what it is anymore.
Who were some of the artists you grew up listening to?
I listened to a lot of different artists and genres. I listened to Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, K-Ci & JoJo, Boyz II Men. I grew up listening to a lot of R&B, but you know, later on I started getting into indie music for a minute, as I listened to bands like Broadcast and Pedro The Lion. Then when I was 20, I started getting into jazz and like, old school records. I try my best to listen to current music, but like I said, I don’t like to listen to too much new music because I don’t want to continually hear what I’m doing outside of what other people are doing.
While promoting your new album, you’ve been able to visit Europe and perform in Spain, Germany, and France. What has it been like to see the world while touring?
We played this show in Brighton and it was incredible. Stewart got up on the speakers and he was shredding, and then at one point Josh was making fun of me and he threatened to leave the stage. It was a very interactive show and I wasn’t expecting that many people to be there since I’ve never played in Brighton before. Then my friend Jaye Bartell – whose an amazing songwriter, performer, and poet from New York that had previously toured with us – played that night. It was cool. He invited me up on stage to sing some songs with him and his songs are like very… I don’t know, I would hate to place him in any specific category. But his songs are very, very dark and his lyrics are extremely captivating and super real. You would have to check him out, but when he was playing, he was like… amazing. After that show, we hung out with some locals and went to a bar across the street. We just stayed up to drink with them and walk the streets of Brighton.
But you know, we have had good times and bad times on tour. That’s when we have some of those moments where people are mad at each other. I’ve cried, I haven’t showered in a week, there are crumbs in my lap and oh, we have to play this show and I have to do a photo shoot and I look like crap. You know, that stuff happens all the time and it’s funny because we have talked about this kind of stuff with other artists, where we’ll be like, “Well when’s the last time you shaved your armpits? Cause were gonna go out tomorrow”. Living in a van and having that experience is just strange and to be able to relate to other people about it is rare and very cool when it happens.
Ultimately, your band is your family. You have to find a way to work together and at the end of the night you have to play a really good show. So if you don’t resolve things by the time the show starts, good luck cause you’re in trouble. I’ve definitely had some weird moments. It’s not easy because you’re trying to be original about everything you do. There are moments when you’re jealous of other people and you just wish you could present it nicely. Things happen in real life that you can’t really control and you can’t always present songs in the same way they were recorded. But I also wouldn’t do anything else because there is nothing more real than sharing that experience.
It must be really difficult to be in such close quarters with the same people for so long and have to go through so many different emotions and experiences.
If somebody bites their nails or even has a weird tweak that they do, you immediately notice it. You would have never noticed it before and it would have never bothered you, but you spend all this time together so you start to pick on each other. It’s kind of like a family.
My best friend and I do that a lot.
You just get to a certain point in your friendship where you get a bit more comfortable telling them what you really think about them.
Do your lyrics stem from such personal experiences?
Looking back on this album, I don’t exactly know what circumstances inspired certain songs, but I do know they are real thoughts that have happened at some point and ones that I wanted to express. I didn’t feel like I had gotten something off my chest; it was like I got to share something. Sometimes you think you’re explaining something clearly and then you’re actually not. It was really cool to see people listen to the album and have it all make sense to them because to me, it’s just writing. Their reactions left me with a feeling of gratification and in that way it was kind of cathartic. When I perform certain songs it’s not like I’m reliving a certain moment in my life, but I do try to get lost in it. I definitely try to portray that when it’s happening and sometimes it gets broken by a fucking crowd of people that are acting badly.
There seems to be a misconception surrounding female artists who embody a darker tone and sound; that they themselves are broken individuals. Do you have to be in a dark space to craft music of that notion?
I think it’s hard to measure happiness and unhappiness. Like, you have to go through those experiences as an adult to really understand the effects. You can take whatever you’ve learned from that process; you don’t even necessarily have had to learn anything if you’ve definitely felt it and seen it and experienced it and related to it in different ways and understand it. I feel like the way I think about things is very challenging. I have really high standards for myself and for the other people around me, and I have to work on that because I’m a control freak. It’s tough because I am very dependent on my friendships.
Your music video for “Windows” was recently released and in it, it appears that you portray a mother who seems to have a desire to escape from a mundane reality. What was the inspiration behind the visuals?
I honestly had a very brief conversation with the director Rick Alverson. I actually wanted to make a cinematic video – one that was more along the lines of film and less along the lines of a lip-sync video. He and I talked about it and he decided he wanted my face to be painted and to have it be more about tone. I wasn’t really sure how he was going to make it work, but I trusted him. I thought it was such a pleasure to be able to work with him and do something totally different, and to let him come up with his own plot. I kind of took inspiration from the Richard Gere movie Days Of Heaven. It’s about this couple from Chicago and they go to a farm and pretend to be brother and sister, and the man who owns the farm falls in love with the woman. The ending of the music video sort of reminded me of that movie.
I didn’t know what the “Queen” thing was about and I never asked him. I wasn’t like, “Hey, is that like a Queen Mom?” I like the idea that maybe she isn’t even their mother. Maybe she’s a character in their life, like an aunt that watches over them. Maybe she lives in the house and the kids are just running around her, and they don’t even belong there and she’s daydreaming about a character – her other life. I love the way it turned out. Usually I’ll want to edit things, but I was just like, “No, keep it the way it is”. Keep it the way it is because it’s cool.