Angel Olsen and the Future of Music

Angel Olsen is a stoically intense creature. Ask her a question and the singer-songwriter will wait for what seems like precious seconds before answering; she nurses those moments, then bursts forward in a flurry of pointed insight. Her songs, largely of the lo-fi folk variety but also dashed with elements of jazz and psychedelia, function much in the same way: the North Carolina-based singer-songwriter lets them gently flow from her lips and drawing in the listener, only to suddenly unleash her mesmerizing though oftentimes chaotic vocals.

Olsen’s bent toward the raw and unfiltered crossed her mind when recording Burn Your Fire for No Witness, her stunning second album, due on February 18. At first, the singer says she tried to fight her natural inclinations, enchanted by the potential shinier production. Ultimately, though, as evidenced by the album’s bare-bones confessionals like “Unfucktheworld,” or even the more up-tempo country-style howl of cuts like album highlight “Hi-Five,” the 26-year-old went with her guttural impulse: pure, unprocessed passion.

“I was like ‘This is honest. If I have to keep trying to make it sound good then it will take away from the feeling,’” she recalls of the recording sessions for the album, which occurred last year with the help of seasoned producer John Congleton (the Paper Chase, the Polyphonic Spree) and, for the first time, a backing band.

Following 2012’s Half Way Home, her breakout debut solo album, Olsen, who was previously a member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s backing band, regularly drew comparisons to fellow songstresses like Neko Case and Joanna Newsom for her granular vocals. But as Olsen told Milk Made when she rang us up on a recent morning, she’s very much her own artist.

Milk Made: How long has this album been developing, and did you have a specific vision for the project?

Angel Olsen: [The songs] all kind of came together in the last year. I started to notice that some of them made sense together. I feel like now listening back to everything finalized I can see where they are related to each other and how you could make a narrative if you arrange them in a certain way. But I didn’t really necessarily have a set vision when I was writing them for how the album would go. My vision is more how I wanted to record them and how much I really wanted to be in control of the sound of those recordings.

MM: The album is at times extremely intense and at others quite soft. Do you have to get yourself into those varied moods before recording a respective song?

AO: I think I definitely had to get into different moods for each song, but what happened was we decided to do a lot of the louder stuff with the band first live and then I had developed a cold the first few days so I couldn’t sing. So I waited until my cold was better and then knocked out the vocals for the louder songs—anything that had a lot of the band stuff in it. Like “Dance Slow Decades" and stuff like that. And then at the very end I did “Iota” and “Enemy” and “White Fire"—the quieter stuff. We did some of those in smaller rooms so they were a totally different vibe altogether. The other thing is that usually for me is that I give myself so criticism in the process of it. But for some reason or another I felt really comfortable with the takes that I had and I was like, “This is honest. If I have to keep trying to make it sound good then it will take away from the feeling.” So we only did like two or three takes of everything. Some songs we only did one or two takes.

MM: It seems like the album’s producer, John Congleton, was quite flexible in letting you take the songs where they must.

AO: I was kind of stubborn with working with anybody. I felt like: “Why do I need somebody to come in here and make something good when I know what I want to do? Why would I pay someone to change my mind?” It ended up begin more an example of him helping me facilitate my ideas. We went back and forth a lot and it was really good. He did end up bringing his style to what we were doing but it wasn’t imposing, you know what I mean?

MM: This was also the first time you recorded with a full band. It’s not the first time you’ve played with one though: you previously played Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s band. Did that experience affect how you led your own band?

AO: I didn’t even know how to [interact with a band] until I worked with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I had to take a step back and see how people communicated with each other. I tried to get a band together before that experience, and it was a problem because I wasn’t ready to step up to the plate and tell people what I wanted; I didn’t know how to describe what I heard behind my music or how to have a positive discussion about what other people heard. I would flare up and get pissed off: ‘That’s not how the song goes!’ When I started working with them I took a break from my own music. I just came to a point where I was ready [to make my own songs].

MM: How does it feel to now have not only a band but also an entire team around you?

AO: It’s nice to have somebody else communicating for me—somebody that I trust. I think that’s really helpful. Other people would be like: ‘That’s so weird that you need that?’ Certain friends of mine are like: ‘Why do you need all these people?’ Well, I don’t know if I need them. But I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this, so in the meantime I want to enjoy it and this is the way I enjoy it.

MM: You’re one of the new freshest new artists we’re most excited about. Though I sense you don’t like to draw comparisons between your music and that your contemporaries?

AO: I don’t listen to a ton of music. I’m sure somebody out there is probably doing the same exact thing. I have no idea. Friends of mine are like, “You’re kind of like a more yodel-y version of Neko Case.” I don’t understand it. I’ve heard her play live and I don’t think I sound like her at all. I just happen to be a woman. I think it’s a compliment, but at the same time I wonder what it is? Is it just like the inflection [of my voice]? Sometimes I’ll just talk the lyrics instead of singing. That’s definitely something that I do that I don’t really hear very much in other people’s music. I listened to Mazzy Star growing up during high school so there’s probably some influence there.

MM: Are there any new artists that make you excited for the future of music?

AO: I listened to the new Cate Le Bon record and really liked it. But I probably need new music. I’ve been listening to like The Nerve and Kris Kristofferson. The Bats. Anything from Flying Nun records. But as far as females go, I like to study performances a lot more than vocals. Because I think that when people go into character onstage it’s pretty interesting. Tina Turner’s live footage of her in the seventies is insane. The thing is, I listen to a lot of old music and every now and then [band members] Stewart [Bronaugh] and Josh [Jaeger] will be like, “Hey, this is what’s coming out. This is what we like. We like Lorde or we like Sky Ferreira.” And I’m not really a fan of either. I’m just kind of like this is the song I hear when I’m in the mall with my mother and I really wish it weren’t stuck in my head. They played Kendrick Lamar’s album to me last year and I was like, “Who is this?” I just kind of tune in whenever I like something that they play.

MM: You’re worrying us by occasionally mentioning that you don’t know how long you’ll continue to be a musician.

AO: I feel like anything could happen in my life that would change things dramatically. So I never want to get ahead of myself. I also feel like it’s kind of nice to have that attitude because when I do continue writing it’s like, “Wow, I can keep doing this. That’s cool!” It’s really hard to say when and how quickly I’ll write the next thing. But it’s always a nice surprise when something happens. Even if it’s not something that I’m going to share with anybody, it’s nice to know I can still do it.

Photography by Zia Anger

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