Angel Olsen: Interview
“They really understand the sounds I’m hearing in my head. I feel like it’s kind of fucked up, actually.”
Recent Asheville transplant Angel Olsen and I began our chat communing over the abundance of trees in our respective locations. Then the psychological profiling began, which is really just a stuttering journalist with a notebook full of questions timidly asking Angel her thoughts on inspiration, characterization, and optimism.
Turns out, just like most of your favorite pop stars, Angel isn’t really singing about herself in her music, but that doesn’t stop it from being engaging and relatable, as evidenced by the addition of a full band and louder sound on the newly minted Burn Your Fire for No Witness.
We talk to Angel about her new bandmates, songwriting, and her dark humor.
When did writing Burn Your Fire for No Witness begin?
It began right before Half Way Home was released, as well as “May as Well,” which comes along with the album. It was written when I wasn’t touring for Half Way Home and a few more songs two weeks before getting into the studio.
Where these songs written with Half Way Home in mind that didn’t fit with the tone of that album?
I was just ready to write different stuff. Much of Half Way Home was old music, which was written right after Strange Cacti and I went on tour with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. And I even did a single called “Sweet Dreams,” which is very much like [Burn Your Fire for No Witness].
It’s this idea of going back and forth between that kind of music and a loud kind of music. A lot is written sporadically, but this year it just all happened within the same time period.
You mention loud music. Were you aiming to write louder?
After the release of Half Way Home I went on a solo tour and I realized I wanted to work with a band because I thought it would bring more sound to what I was already doing. I think it all fell into place. I was writing material that, in my mind, would go better with more musicians. Also, I was ready to share what I had written and figure out how to communicate it with people. Before that I wasn’t really ready to work with anyone.
Ultimately, I got the band together and that created that sound — we all created that sound.
I like to celebrate transparency. I like the idea of taking your life and, even if you don’t have a problem, creating a character or world.
Did you have anyone specific in mind when putting together a band?
Not really. What happened was [Half Way Home] came out and I was working at a café with a drummer (Joshua Jaeger) but didn’t know that he played music. So he wrote me one day and said ‘I play drums’ and I was like ‘You play drums?’
So we got some coffee and I wasn’t expecting him to be good [Laughs]. But we ended up playing music and he had already listened to the EP and the album and practiced along to the songs. To me, it showed he really wanted to play with me in a band and be a part of something musical.
Then Josh introduced me to his friend, Stewart (Bronaugh). I didn’t understand him at first. He was very quiet at first and kind of dirty. I was like ‘Who is this guy?’ Now Stewart and I are best buds. Anyway, they’re also in a band and had a communication down as far as playing together. We practiced a lot during the winter and went on tour in the spring for Half Way Home.
When I introduced the new material over time, they were ready for it and into it. Especially since it was a different vibe from the quieter stuff. They were open to the minimal stuff as well, but I think they were psyched to be doing something a little different.
What was their input into the direction or sound of the songs?
Josh plays organ on “Slow Dance Decades” and Stewart plays piano on “Hi-Five” and “High & Wild,” so some of [their contributions] were like that. Other things were we’d make a sound and Stewart would make that sound happen.
We would go back and forth. They would practice without me and then say, ‘We have to show you something.’ And I’d be, ‘That’s really cool’ or, ‘That’s not the way the song is going.’ We were all honest with each other about it. By the time we got into the studio we had pretty much figured out what the album would sound like and what songs wouldn’t have a band on them.
Speaking of “Hi-Five” and “High & Wild,” they seem to take a different tact than some of the other songs on the album. Was that influenced by Stewart’s playing or a specific sound you were trying to create?
Funny, after writing “High & Wild,” it reminds me of Lou Reed. I don’t know, maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. The vibe of it — it being dark and the fact that I’m not really singing at first — I hadn’t really written anything like it. I was entering a world of country mixed with… maybe… The Velvet Underground.
Stewart and Josh have a way of taking something I present to them… they play along to it immediately and get it. They really understand the sounds I’m hearing in my head. I feel like it’s kind of fucked up, actually. It’s cool to be working with these people who are growing with me and have a punk-rock kind of training instead of being, “We’ve worked with so-and-so.” They don’t have that attitude.
With a title like Burn Your Fire for No Witness and the imagery of isolation it presents, do you think there is a sense of isolation in the music though some of it has been a collaboration?
Oh yeah! The songs haven’t changed that much from the skeleton I presented them with. There’s still a lot of solitude going on and they’re pretty respectful of the songs. They were even like, ‘Dude, you need to sing that song by yourself.’ They were very encouraging and I think it’s cool that they are very supportive of that. I see there’s been a change in what I’m writing, especially with a band, but I feel my writing goes to both extremes. I’ll still continue to write quiet songs even when working with people.
That’s the fun part of writing something, not explaining it and letting people find their own story in it.
I like to celebrate transparency. I like the idea of taking your life and, even if you don’t have a problem, creating a character or world. I feel a lot of the songs are emotions coming from characters in my life, or characters that I’ve been, or characters that I’ve seen that are resurfacing as I reflect, as I’m living life.
Maybe this is a lofty thing to say, but I feel like in interviews, it’s difficult because people will ask questions and I’ll want to say something intelligent. But at the same time, I don’t want to talk too much about it because it’s not that big of a deal; it’s just the writing process.
I think it’s different for everyone. For me, it makes for reflecting and I don’t know if those feelings are real or if they are created feelings. And then I write a song about it.
So don’t overthink it.
Yeah. And sometimes later on I’ll realize that maybe it had something to do with me. Or sometimes I just don’t know where it came from. I think that’s true for a lot of writers. I read something the other day: A question was asked to some novelist: ‘Do you have a concept in mind for your writing?’ Though I feel like a lot of writers have a storyline and a concept that’s created, sometimes people just take something from the writing that the writer has no control over. That’s the fun part of writing something, not explaining it and letting people find their own story in it.
But I feel like the writing I’m putting out on this record and previous stuff is very bare, but I don’t feel like I’m the only one that’s ever written about it. And I’m never embarrassed performing it because I’m not attached to it in a way that it might seem on an album.
Are you trying to separate yourself from your characters?
I’m definitely a different person in my songs than I am in my daily interactions with friends. Those characters are different. What happens is I have an extreme thought and I put it into song and it has a power that can become a mantra — it’s like you’re repeating it over and over again. There are things I think about that are passing thoughts. They aren’t things I’m going to think about forever or even all day.
Part of it is just allowing myself to do what I just naturally do.
Do you save darker thoughts for your songs?
Yeah, I have a dark sense of humor and I think about dark things but I also think about happy things every day. I just think a lot and tend to put whatever it is that I’ve witnessed people struggling with, or what I’ve struggled with myself, into my writing. Sometimes it ends up in songs and then I’m like, ‘Wow, I don’t really feel that way anymore but it’s cool because somebody else feels that.’ I’ll share it. I’ll put it in a song.
Was there any purpose behind ending the album with the more optimistic “Windows”?
Putting all the songs together after they were finished, it made sense, but I didn’t plan it like that. To me, the song is different to the other material we recorded. There are four others songs that we recorded like it and they didn’t end up on the album — they have a similar feel to them — and I think “Windows” is the strongest of them. I thought it would be interesting to end on a note like that. Something completely different.
Is the theme of letting go one you are exploring more?
Maybe. A couple of songs that didn’t make Burn Your Fire for No Witness follow that theme. I hope to put them out on a 7-inch or something.
I’m already writing a lot of new material now and I can tell that it is a bit more upbeat stuff. Maybe it’s just what I’ve been listening to or my mindset has changed. I’m just changing as a human being [Laughs] and inspired by different things.
I don’t know what my next thing will be like. It could take me another three years to write something or it could be ready in a few months.