The singer-songwriter talks about honesty, weird fan reactions, and the public and private lives of artists.
Angel Olsen is not the kind of person who bothers to hide anything. The Asheville-based singer/songwriter shared her love for Kristen Wiig, discussed a half-dozen opinions on her place in the music industry, and took a short segue into bank marketing in the first few minutes of our phone conversation. Olsen's honesty radiates on her latest album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, with raw emotional material that strikes to the heart of things. She brings that genuine intensity on Tuesday to One Eyed Jacks.
Olsen has an impressive talent for distilling feeling into disarmingly sincere songs. She balances that vulnerability with haunting melodies and the sheer force of her voice. But baring it all without qualms is a high-stakes move that involves some listeners in her personal life as much as her music. Though it's strange for her, she understands.
"People are always asking me how personal my lyrics are," Olsen says. "Even when I'm listening to a record, sometimes, I wonder what [that artist's] personal life is like. Is it good? What's going on with them? Is [the song] about their girlfriend or husband or whoever? You try to detach the artist from the music but no matter what, the artist is still attached, so you're going to wonder about their lives. Even if it has nothing to do with the material, people who make art are going to be wondered about."
It's hard to resist reading Olsen's lyrics as confessional or letting your speculation run wild. Her songs are alternately wistful, sly, enraged, lonely, and triumphant, but they're devoid of irony. Even on the rare occasion when a song inches towards a knowing wink (On "Hi-Five" she sings "Are you lonely too? / Hi-five, so am I!") there's a sense of solitude and yearning that grounds it. She's never trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
Olsen avoids softening her narratives with flowery similes or sly asides. On the meditative, haunting "White Fire," she opens by lamenting, "Everything is tragic / it all just falls apart." Her sense of drama is unapologetic, and in a song that seems to float somewhere in the heavy twilight over the swamp, it's fitting. Emotional access in her songs comes not from letting down her guard but from looking listeners straight in the eyes and consciously inviting them in.
Though she's wary of expectations placed on her music, she readily gives the songs up to the audience, to do with her music what they will. Olsen seems reluctant to buy into the trope of a tortured singer/songwriter, and she doesn't expect her audience to buy into it either.
"I enjoy playing ("White Fire") because it's on a different level than a lot of other material on the record," Olsen says. "If I'm in a good mood, it's always kind of hard to sing it because those first two lines always crack me up. They're so dramatic. And if you're laughing and having a good time with your band and you bring that on your audience, it's like bringing the black cloud in the room. I wrote this song so obviously I'm going to play it, but I don't expect people to listen to it all the time. I hope someone isn't playing it on repeat and crying to themselves and feeling so sorry they can't move, though I'm sure it happens all the time and I have no control over that."
Originally from St. Louis, Olsen has had music in her life for a long time. She received a keyboard from her uncle and biological mother as a parting gift before she was adopted at the age of three. Though she grew up in a large, adopted family alongside three other kids, none of her family members were particularly interested in the arts. She taught herself piano and guitar, writing and recording songs as a hobby.
As she began to work professionally in her early twenties, her audiences grew wider. She performed with Emmett Kelly's The Cairo Gang, touring with Bonnie "Prince" Billy. In 2010, she recorded her first solo EP Strange Cacti in her kitchen. From there, her public profile steadily increased, as well as the number of hands at work on her music. She exerts stubborn control over her creative output and was extremely cautious during the recording process of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her second LP. When someone suggested she collaborate with producer John Congleton, who has worked with everyone from St. Vincent to R. Kelly, she was hesitant. She changed her mind when he insisted that he supported her music and would interfere as little as possible.
"It's weird because this is a stranger you're supposed to pour your heart out to, and tell them exactly what you want and hope that they bring it," Olsen says. "He was really respectful and understood what I was going for and worked with me. He was like, Hey, I really like your work and I wouldn't work with an artist whose work I didn't already appreciate. I thought that was an honest approach."
The honesty that allowed her to trust Congleton is the same reason why audiences seem to trust Olsen. She recounted a few rare occurrences when fans--everyone from middle-aged men and teenage girls to recent divorcees and lone concertgoers--recognized her in a crowd and bared their souls to her. Olsen seemed shocked that people felt comfortable sharing those stories with her, and she's still puzzled by the instant, personal connection people feel to her. She's grateful, though, for the audience and accepts that people will experience her music the way they want to.
"Sometimes [at shows] you really want people to really pay attention and shut up," Olsen says. "And sometimes people are talking and it doesn't really bother me. It's cool that they're having a good time and this is where they're re-meeting their friends from a really long time ago. Maybe they don't really care about the show, but it's really meaningful for them in a different way. I think it's really weird that people are coming to see me, but I'm happy that it's happening."