Angel Olsen keeps a firm grip amidst the whirlwind
Angel Olsen is chewing a Drumstick lolly as we walk through Camden.
Following the February release of her second full-length album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen has been interviewed by countless journalists on both sides of the Atlantic, all seeking to unravel the story of the St. Louis girl with the voice that shimmers and stuns. She’s just begun what is to be a full year of touring. She “barfed” after getting food poisoning on the plane on the way to the UK. And now we’re asking her to pose for a photoshoot.
“It’s a little bit exhausting”, she admits, “but the more I do it the more I get the hang of it. I definitely don’t want to be too distracted from the actual thing that I’m doing, which is playing music.” The process of touring is set to be a battle against distractions, whether they be past or present. When we sit down to discuss recent goings on, her frustrations with Interview magazine, who profiled her at the start of the year, burst out. “They changed my eye shape – it doesn’t even look like me. I straight up look like Avril Lavigne.
“They wanted me to wear a wig. My PR woman was yelling at them: ‘NO! Just let her be a person!’ And they were like: ‘Whatever, we’ve already decided who she is.’ I thought, ‘Just take someone else’s picture. I don’t even want to be in your magazine.’” This spiel is delivered in a laconic tone, but Olsen’s eyes blaze with ferocity. She clearly feels betrayed.
I glance down at my list of questions, all constructed around things Olsen has said in the past. She laughs to reassure me. “I think in common-day interactions with people, who aren’t even recording what you’re saying, there are still misconceptions and misinterpretations. So I try not to get too upset about it.
“It’s all just image anyway. The deeper I get into this, the more I kind of wish my personal name wasn’t attached to it. That I had a name like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Because it doesn’t feel like me.”
Olsen’s stint playing for Will Oldham (the American singer-songwriter behind the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker) in his band is well documented – she’s often cited, fairly or unfairly, as his protégé. She speaks about him as though reminiscing about an estranged, eccentric uncle. Now she has her own band to help project the fuller sound on the new album, but she’s thankful she watched Oldham so closely. “There’s certain things I didn’t understand. I could see sometimes he was frustrated and I’d be like, ‘we’re in Europe right now, it’s beautiful’. And now I’m with my band for the first time, there’s all these things that go wrong – I got food poisoning, the GPS doesn’t work. I’m like ‘fuck’. Everyone else is like, ‘This is so cool! They have different kinds of candy bars!’”
It doesn’t seem like the transition from band member to leader has been natural for Olsen. “It doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful, it’s just that you really have to be mama bear. And on top of directing everyone you have to save all this energy every night to perform like it’s the first time you’ve ever performed and it’s the best show you’ve ever had and it’s just like being in paradise.”
“It’s really weird how people wanna know your opinion on everything. But if I say one thing, a few months from now I could change my mind. If I express an insecurity now, later on I could have dealt with it but I’ll still be asked about that every time. The information is just always there.”
Paradise. That’s certainly where her fans seem to be taken by her voice – both smooth and warbling, she ushers listeners ever-closer to the speakers. She’s got the vocal version of ‘come-hither’ eyes. I ask if she thinks much about her voice when performing. “I definitely don’t think. The moment you start to think about anything, that’s when you fuck up.”
In the studio, Olsen also tries not to overanalyse. She recorded the album in Asheville, North Carolina, in an old chapel named Echo Mountain Studio. Olsen describes it as a “religious spaceship” which they filled with crisps, beers and the sound of Freaks and Geeks reruns. “But when we first got there I lost my voice,” she says. Thankfully there was a plan in place. Before the band went into the studio, they knew how they were going to play and exactly how the drums and guitars should be mic’d. “At first I thought I was being too psychoanalytical about the specifics but [producer] John Congleton actually found it really helpful.”
Olsen has previously spoken about being protective of her songs, almost to the point of stubbornness. After bringing a new band and new label (Jagjaguwar) on board, she worked on creating simple but concrete plans so everyone would know exactly how things would sound. “Stuart and Josh, who play with me now, understood where I was going. I felt really happy that I met them. They really added another layer. They dressed the songs up in their own personalities.”
Is there anyone in whose hands Olsen would be entirely malleable? “I’d probably work with [French filmmaker] Agnès Varda. That would be a dream. I’d say ‘just go with your thoughts and I’ll be in there somewhere.’”
Collaboration came naturally while recording Burn Your Fire For No Witness. The album feels harmonious despite the way songs leap from folkish and lonesome to anger-driven and grungey. These surprises have led to a music mag dichotomy: is she a folk star or a grunge musician? “I feel like each song of mine is representing a different kind of personality. Forgiven/Forgotten is like a bullet. It’s straight up anger and frustration. And then there’s Iota which is sarcastic and ‘well, who cares? That’s life.’ I feel like those two songs are not in the same category.
“You hear four songs on a record and someone says ‘that’s grunge’ because people don’t listen to the whole record any more. They just choose their favourite tracks and buy them on iTunes.” And yet onstage Olsen can hold a crowd for far longer than three singles. Which songs does she enjoy playing the most? “I go back and forth between Hi-Five, Forgiven/Forgotten, and High and Wild. And ultimately that’s probably why we chose them as singles. But I really like to play Hi-Five.
Hi-Five has a country twang and lyrics of heartbreak, punched through by the central hook that’s genuinely funny. Olsen sings quietly, “are you lonely too?” before the bold retort: “Hi-five! So am I.”
So do people give her hi-fives now?
“No, but I really want them to.” I grin and put my hand in the air. She meets it and laughs.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness is out now via Jagjaguwar