Angel Olsen, Down to Earth

Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen. Photo by Jacob Biba for Bandcamp.

I first met Angel Olsen in the summer of 2012 at a house party thrown by one of our mutual friends. We sat out on the back porch for an hour or two, drinking beer and talking about culture, politics, and playing music. She wasn’t A Musician and I wasn’t A Writer; we were just two people with a lot of common connections, shooting the shit on a balmy evening. I thought she was funny, sharp, and smart, and we friended one another on Facebook post-party, remaining in one another’s general social orbit. She was about to release Half Way Home, which I listened to with interest when it came out; the album’s elegantly-structured, bittersweet songwriting made me think fondly of Richard Thompson, one of my mother’s favorite musicians and an artist whose omnipresence in my childhood indelibly shaped the way I think about and listen to folk and rock music. I’ve watched Olsen grow from an excellent folk musician into a singular voice and force—much like Thompson. Also like Thompson, I see her slowly developing a legacy, putting out quality music for a devoted following, netting critical respect for her entire life.

The next long conversation Olsen and I had was almost exactly four years later, in August of 2016, by phone from both of our homes (she in Asheville, I in New York), and in the intervening years, our lives had changed drastically. We’d both quit our day jobs; she now plays music full time, and I now write and edit full time. I’ve seen her play shows since then, every one of them intense, growing in complexity and ferocity each time. We’ve smiled and waved to one another across rooms, but we haven’t really had a chance to talk. “You’ve kind of had a bird’s-eye view of my trajectory!” she exclaims.

Olsen, originally from St. Louis, moved from Chicago to Asheville a few years back. She loves the mix of characters who call the small and charming North Carolina city home (“You’ve got crusties, you’ve got Grandma with purple hair at Trader Joe’s, you’ve got metalheads making kombucha—you’ve got all kinds here. It’s the Berkeley of the South”). She also loves the fact that, at home, she has a freedom that she didn’t have in Chicago, where everyone seemed to have an idea about who she was. Her life in Asheville is lighter. “I don’t do a ton of press here, because I’d rather just live here,” she says. “I like going on hikes, I like playing shows when I can. I like to mingle with people who make music here. But I don’t make it my #1 aspiration to be well-known in Asheville. Like, my show here might not do as well as Chicago or New York. But that’s fine! I like that. It keeps me on my toes, to know that, ‘Where I live, people don’t give a fuck.’ And that’s awesome. This is where I go to not give a fuck, and to just hang out and be in a beautiful place.”

She goes on: “There’s something also very cool about living in a small town. It forces you to be accountable for yourself and your actions in a different way than if you live in a city and you can fuck up. You have to tip well, you have to watch your words, and watch yourself. It makes you more introspective and reflect more on your actions—not as a ‘known figure,’ but as a human. You know that, eventually, there’s a consequence to being an asshole to somebody. You’re forced to figure it out.”

Angel Olsen

That kind of grounded home base feels like a necessity when you’re a star on the rise. Though Olsen has been steadily attracting attention through word of mouth and critical praise since since her Chicago days, her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was so well-received that it raised expectations for what she would do next. Accordingly, the just-released My Woman is a step further into the spotlight, with all of the attendant late-night TV appearances and international media attention. Keeping an even keel while your fame is ascending can be a challenge, but it’s one Olsen is up for.

Rather than being the sort of ego-driven singer-songwriter who fills her band with competent ringers who’ll do exactly as she says, Olsen is, by nature, a collaborator. She appreciates the give-and-take she has with her longtime bandmates, who have become like family to her. “In some ways, I feel like I sacrificed being kind of unprofessional with the people I work with, because we all know each other,” Olsen muses, “and sometimes opinions aren’t wanted when I’m supposed to be making this decision on my own. Their decisions can kind of weed their way in. We can get into tiffs, and it can get weird. But I also really appreciate the moods that puts us in. And we bring that to the stage, and that sort of adds a flavor, a spice—that adds a realness to our group, and a humanness to us playing together.”

Angel Olsen

Olsen and bassist Emily Elhaj, a member of Olsen’s touring band who also appears on My Woman, met in 2007. According to Elhaj, the first time they hung out was “a double date at [Olsen’s] soon-to-be-boyfriend’s apartment.” They became friends, then roommates, though Olsen says they didn’t see one another much due to opposing schedules. After Olsen recorded Burn Your Fire For No Witness, she checked in with her always-busy friend, who was working full time at Reckless Records and playing in Mayor Daley and Implodes. She learned that Elhaj was leaving Reckless, where she’d been working for 10 years, to travel. Olsen thought the timing might be right to ask Elhaj to join her touring band. “I didn’t expect her to say yes,” Olsen remembers, “because Emily’s so cool, and she’s always so busy, and everyone wants her attention. I was just like ‘There’s no way she wants to play with me. She’s just the coolest chick, and there’s no way she wants to stoop to my stupid folk-song level.’ And I just was really scared and afraid to ask her. But she wrote me back immediately and was like ‘Hey, I would love to try that out and see how that works.’ And I thought ‘Oh, this is going to be amazing. A girl in the band!’ Because Stewart [Bronaugh, guitar] and Josh [Jaeger, drummer] are in a band [Lionlimb], and they were often a unit. So it was nice to have somebody I knew in the same way.”

Angel Olsen

Olsen started working with Bronaugh and Jaeger on Half Way Home, and with Elhaj on board, the group became a cohesive unit. “It all unfolded in a really natural and amazing way,” Elhaj says; both women describe their working relationship as sisterly. Some of My Woman was written in a short burst after the band returned from a bonding trip to Europe, where they spent a few days each in Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. “Romantically, I thought of it as, you know, [the way] the Beatles went to India? That’s the feeling I had with my band,” Olsen says. “We got to rediscover our values, and reset, and get to know each other again in these beautiful places. And then we came back, and I was so inspired.”

My Woman is a full reflection of that inspiration. It’s a remarkable record—not that the rest of Olsen’s catalog doesn’t shimmer with both songwriting chops and insight into the human heart. But her latest indicates a willingness to experiment and push boundaries with instrumentation and style, along with a new sensitivity to the nature of Olsen’s voice as an instrument at work and play with others. While Burn Your Fire… was still essentially a folk record, My Woman touches many genres: synth-pop, country, straightforward rock n’ roll. The first single, the dreamy and unsettling synth-based “Intern,” seemed like a major departure for many fans. “It just fucked with people, being the first single,” Olsen says. “People were like ‘Ooh, is this synth now? Are you synth now? I liked when you played folk music.’” But the experimentation of “Intern,” like the rest of My Woman, was mindful: “Synth is really warm, so sometimes it’s nice to have a lot of falsetto, and to go the Twin Peaks direction, and be a little creepy. And with the piano, it was hard to figure out, because it’s cold. It’s almost like a drum set, because it’s rhythmic in a loud way and cold in an instrumental way. So working around it with my voice, I had to open up my voice in a certain way to match the instrument.”

My Woman’s distinct voice and energy also derive from the strong collaborative relationships between not only the longtime bandmates, but new contributors as well, including guest guitarist Seth Kauffman (Floating Action), who Olsen had worked with on her contribution to the Red Hot Organization’s Day of the Dead compilation. Kaufman brought both a distinctive aesthetic sensibility and a new presence to Olsen’s family band, which allowed them to do their best work. “When you’re in an office,” she says, “and a new person is hired who’s really charming to everybody, and everyone wants to be on their best side, or on their best behavior—that was the feeling when Seth entered the room.”

Angel Olsen

Elhaj, who had been playing live with Olsen for years before she was able to appear on record with her, reflects on the process: “[Olsen] is willing to experiment and has a lot of trust in her band to introduce new material and allow for individual contribution. My Woman is a step up in almost every way. Being a part of the recording process has been a musical milestone and given me more confidence as a player.”

Olsen, in turn, is massively proud of her band, and is quick to note how integral they are to the sound and success of My Woman. “I feel like [My Woman is] less about my name slapped on a record, and more like… you can see [the band’s] personal growth in their ability to perform live, and to be performing on the spot. It sort of showcases their ability and their commitment to playing well, instead of it just being about my voice or my statement.”

Her voice swells with warmth: “So I really love the people I work with. They are salt of the earth people, and I know that when I’m playing with them—and this is the thing that I think is different for me, not every group is like this—but I know that when I’m playing on a stage with these people, that they know me, that they’ve seen me at my worst, and I’ve seen them, and we can share this gift together.” (Though he remains a close friend and collaborator, Bronaugh has since left Olsen’s band to focus on his own music; his guitar lines are handled these days by Paul Sukeena, of Spacin’, and Luke Norton.)

Angel Olsen

Control is something Olsen has consciously fought for, a skill she has developed to fine coordination. She is open to ideas and push-back—in addition to talking about how much her band and collaborators have influenced her, and how much she loves them as people, she also mentions how much their ideas, even if she ultimately rejects them, help her grow. She cares about artistic dialogue and mutual support—but she bristles, understandably, at the idea of being narrowly categorized, or having the narrative written around her by journalists go static. “I guess everybody needs an access point,” she reflects, “but at some point that access point has expired. You know? That’s my opinion, that the access point expires because the artist has changed.” This is not just the very human desire to not have herself misrepresented, but also the desire to not have her work misrepresented. “The more you give the point that [the artist wasn’t] making power, it’s like—you’re losing the actual thread of what you’re trying to say.”

Desire for control over her narrative is, in part, what led Olsen to video directing; she has directed all three videos for My Woman thus far. “I love my friends, and I love the videos that have been made already,” she explains. “But I found it more and more problematic that I had to take responsibility—full responsibility—for an image that someone else had created for my song. And I thought, ‘Well, why am I getting mad at other people about this? If I really have a vision, and it’s strong, I should just go for it. Even if it sucks, at least I get to make that mistake.’”

The videos for “Intern” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” were shot together, as part of one whole; they were inspired by a skating rink party held in memory of David Bowie that Elhaj and Olsen attended together in LA shortly after My Woman was recorded. “I was sort of trying to nod to David Bowie,” Olsen says. “Not just to David Bowie [as a person], but as a symbol, what he represented to me, which is the freedom to create a character. And to be yourself within that character, as well as that character.” The video for “Sister,” which was just released, was shot separately, as a completely different project, but it also finds Olsen inhabiting a character, though without the obvious visual aid of the wig from the “Intern” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” videos. “I guess,” she says, “if I had a wig on, maybe it would help people separate me more from me-the-character. And it is me [as myself], and it is me in character [simultaneously]. It’s just that I’m not wearing a wig. We’ll see how that works out—what statement I don’t know I’m making that I’ll make. But I’m really excited to make something that is different than those [first two] videos, even though I loved the process of making them. I made them with people that I have good relationships with—people who are, like my band, salt of the earth. People who are real. Not some hotshot director who’ll make me look good. These are people that I have known for a long time, who have made this stuff with me. And then, from the ground up, we can make something important.”

It should be clear that, despite her clear-headed and authoritative control over her own work and image, Olsen’s no dictator. If anyone needed any more evidence, it’s here, in the way she speaks about her future as a video director. “I know that I can’t have control over the whole image that I’m creating,” she says. “But what I know I can control, I’m going to. I’m going to step up to the plate, and I’m going to be making my own decisions, and I’m going to make sure that those decisions are 100% me signing off on them, instead of letting someone else be in charge of the first projected image. As far as the image that I project, that’s kind of out of my control, and I know that. I can’t do anything about that. But the parts I know that I can control, I’m going to. Because it’s important to me, to be 100% present in those decisions. And for me, that means directing. I don’t mean to say ’Hey, I’m a director now.’ It’s more like, ’Hey, this is me signing off.’”

“This is you, as a human, putting this out into the world,” I respond.

“This is me saying ‘That was me doing that. You can hate it or like it, but you know that was me,’” she adds.

Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen. Photo by Jacob Biba for Bandcamp.

We both pause, mulling over the weight of that statement. It seems like an appropriate place to end our conversation, so we say our friendly goodbyes and hang up. I feel inspired to listen to My Woman again, so I do. I’ve listened to it quite a bit, but in the wake of the phone call, it hits me in strange and tender ways I wasn’t necessarily expecting. And then I put on Henry the Human Fly, Richard Thompson’s first solo album from 1972. It was panned at the time—because, like Olsen introducing synth and the wig to her repertoire with “Intern,” Thompson had taken some creative moves his fans weren’t expecting—but critically beloved in retrospect. “The storming wind cut through to my skin, but she cut through to my blood.” Thompson’s young voice is plangent on “The Poor Ditching Boy.” It’s bitter, but not hard-edged; Thompson is as tired and as angry at himself as he is at the love who wronged him. It’s a similar feeling to the one Olsen evokes on My Woman’s “Never Be Mine”: “I would watch you look right through me, right through every word that I say.” Her words ring not just with the longing for a love to have worked out differently, but with the desire she so clearly has to be seen for who she is.

Jes Skolnik

3 Comments

  1. Millicent Souris
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you for being a real journalist who writes real articles.

  2. Posted September 19, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    The description of Angel’s work was enough to get me really into this album, and she has the talent to last a long time making critical music.

  3. Posted September 20, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Super excellent, thank you for this!

%d bloggers like this: