Angel Olsen’s first experience on stage didn’t go as planned. Growing up in St. Louis, she was cast to sing the Les Misérables showstopper “On My Own” in her middle school musical. Halfway through the song, “I forgot one of the lines,” she recalls with a laugh. “I was so mad at myself that I started crying. But everyone in the audience thought that I was so convincing. They thought I was acting, but really I was upset.”
Many years later, Olsen remains a slightly unreadable presence onstage. After gaining attention as a vocal foil for Bonnie “Prince” Billy both onstage and in the Cairo Gang, she released a strong EP (Strange Cacti in 2011) and an even stronger debut LP (Half Way Home in 2012) full of harrowing folk songs about loneliness, heartache, isolation and romantic disaffection. Her voice is raw and disarmingly acrobatic, jumping from bruised to brutal in a heartbeat, but her lyrics are minimally detailed, more poetic than concrete. It’s not that she keeps the listener at arm’s length; it’s more that you don’t know where exactly she keeps you.
On follow-up Burn Your Fire for No Witness, her voice remains central, but this time there’s more electric guitar, plus a small but rowdy band backing her on most of the songs. There are familiarly spare folk tunes, like “White Fire” and “IOTA,” but the full-band tunes, especially the punk-ish “Forgiven/Forgotten” and the anthemic “Stars,” crackle with a dark tension.
From her new home in Asheville, North Carolina, where she moved after several years in Chicago, Olsen spoke to Stephen Deusner about singing lonely songs, recruiting the right people to back you up, and finding inspiration in film.
Why did you move out of Nashville?
I needed something to make me calm down, because Chicago is so brutal. There’s a lot going on there. There’s stuff happening creatively that I miss. And who knows? Maybe I’ll move back. But in the meantime, it’s nice to be somewhere where I can go for a walk. In Asheville, everyone’s smiling and concerned about the environment. Even the metalheads make kombucha. I feel like it’s a growing scene, and my friends here are cultivating a lot of change. It feels good to be a part of that. I already feel like I’ve been here for years, even though I’ve only been here for a few months. It’s slowed me down.
What was it like working with a band on these songs?
I had written a lot of material before meeting the band, and when I shared the songs with them, I realized that they could bring this drive behind the heavier songs. I had tried to get a band together in the past, but it wasn’t really the experience that I wanted. These guys just brought it, though. They’re in a band themselves [the Chicago group Lionlimb — Ed.], so they already had a way of communicating with each other about changes. In their band, they played mostly louder stuff, so they had to learn to be minimalist for some of the material. I think all three of us were together in trying to understand [our] different perspectives. On Half Way Home I was calculating, trying to build this idea of a band. They brought some life to older material, so I can experience those songs with new feeling.
Was there a song when everything clicked between the three of you?
Maybe “Acrobat.” Josh played this wavelike drumming rhythm, and I thought, “Oh my god, you’re really good at interpreting this song right now.” Some people play drums for a rock band, and they have no idea how to play like they’re in a jazz band — holding back can bring so much more to a song. Another big moment was Stuart playing “Sweet Dreams.” He was playing this heavier stuff, and I thought it was cool. I found it so easy on so many songs, which made me wonder, “Why I wasn’t doing this sooner?”
The songs on Burn Your Fire address issues like loneliness and the impossibility of sustained connection with another person, and in that regard they can be pretty harrowing. Does having a band on stage make performing them easier?
I feel like the songs are confronting a loneliness that isn’t necessarily a bad kind of loneliness. Maybe you’ll connect with someone, but it won’t be the way that you thought. Everyone’s idea of a connection is different. Sharing that in a performance isn’t difficult for me. While the songs seem vulnerable and confrontational, by the time I’m performing them, I’m not really thinking about what inspired them anymore. I want a performance to be natural, but I also want to play around with the idea that whatever I’m singing about might or might not be directly affecting me at that precise moment. I want to get lost and have fun with the material.
Is it accurate to say the songs are autobiographical?
Yes, it is, and no, it isn’t. In order to understand the material or articulate an idea, you must experience it — or think you experienced it. Otherwise, how could I explain it? [So] you take a thought or a simple feeling, and then you exaggerate it to a point. Some things are really very straightforward: Like, if I was giving another person advice, what would I tell them?
It’s not really about any one particular person or situation. It’s more like it’s inspired by a few different things, and then elaborated upon. For example, I don’t remember exactly who or what inspired the material on Half Way Home. I just know that the feeling I had about something turned into a song.
There’s almost a theatrical quality to your vocals. Do you write your songs vocally the same way you write them lyrically?
Sometimes it’s like the melody is in my head and the words are just there. If there’s more writing involved, then I will hold back on my voice. To put more power into [a song], I sometimes feel like it’s better not to do so many backflips with my voice. There are some songs that call for a catchy, straightforward feeling and other songs that call for less of a flowery, affected delivery. Also, I like the idea of using my voice as different characters and different perspectives. When I was younger, I always thought that I would be a director one day. But this way I get to be writer, director and actor all at once. That’s how I view these songs — like each one is its own turning-point in a scene in a movie.
Do you find much inspiration in film?
I like all kinds of film. I was into stop-motion animation for a while. I got into Peter Sellers, Agnes Varda, Éric Rohmer. When I was really young, I would watch movies and imitate them. My friends would come over, and I would assign them all roles and we’d have to imitate different scenes. I’m not sure if that was normal. Maybe that was something everybody did. When you’re a kid, you live in your imagination. After the Les Misérables experience, I never really considered the idea of performing in that sense.