Angel Olsen: Sea Change
The singer-songwriter talks her new album, shifting styles, and the challenges of a public image.
2014 is the year of reckoning for long-standing Angel Olsen fans. From the release of her 2011 EP Stange Cacti and 2012’s debut album Half Way Home, she's established herself as a presence of major proportions for the nü-folk scene and beyond. So the news that her sophomore record would be backed with support from indie label powerhouse Jagjaguwar (what up, Bon Iver?) was indeed big news.
For all the loneliness contained on her sophomore record Burn Your Fire For No Witness, which is out today, Olsen has drawn quite a crowd into her corner. She’s got one of those voices that never demands, but instead beckons, leading the listener toward its modest prophecies. On a foundation of a strong voice and prescient lyrics, she's built a small empire. But as the burdens of touring and releasing a new album left her with little time or energy, Angel opted to conduct our interview in writing. In some ways, this method led to answers that easily feel more literary in their responsiveness. We culled some of this exchange into an interview that appears below, in which she addresses the bolder, electric approach she’s taken of late and how she’s come to terms with her public image.
Noisey: Is the stronger, electric sound on tracks like "Forgiven/Forgotten" and "Hi-Five" a conscious decision you made, or more of a natural progression from your earlier acoustic sound?
Angel Olsen: By the time Half Way Home was released I'd already been writing new material for this upcoming record, and much of it was a mixed bag. For example, some of the more cerebral or quieter material like “White Fire” and “Unfucktheworld” were written last. Also, in the months following Half Way Home's release, I met my bandmates and we began to play old and new material on tour together. So that was a group of about 16 songs—which I thought worked with a backing band—plus additional new material.
How was producer John Congleton involved in that transition?
I'd say the sound naturally became more electric, but I also wouldn't say I'm going in a specific direction or that my sound has completely changed. I think John Congleton interpreted what was happening. I also gave him examples of drum sounds, and guitar sounds—a very descriptive idea of each song before recording/while recording. What I think we came up with was a mix of different kinds of recording styles—some that were raw and untampered with like "Half Way Home," and others which were in the style of the song “Sweet Dreams” or the EP Strange Cacti.
When I started hearing songs from the new album, it reminded me of the way Sharon Van Etten took Tramp to a more electric and, for lack of a better phrase, "rock and roll" sound than her past stuff. That made me wonder if both of you were just expanding as you had the resources. Like, recording Strange Cacti you didn't have the luxury of a studio etc.
So much of the reason my first release is what it is-is because I simply was like—"fuck it, I'll record it myself however I want, it's just me and a guitar anyway."
I think I was definitely doing what I could with my sound, and that meant performing with an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. I tried to get a group of people, mostly friends to play as a backing band for a while even before Strange Cacti was released. I tried recording with friends and I still felt like I had to hold back my opinions or that I didn't even know how to describe what I wanted in a band sound or a recording sound. Now that I've spent some time around musicians and worked with a group of people, I've gathered some ideas on how to describe sounds.
I saw you opening for Kurt Vile and it was very minimal with just you and the cellist to accompany you. How has the setup changed to accommodate your new sound?
As an opener for the Kurt Vile shows we agreed that less of a band would be more idea. It’s always weird to open solo, or as a duo, for a loud band when the crowd is anticipating a loud show. Feels misleading to play quiet stuff for that kind of crowd, but that was what I was working with. So I guess what I'd say is this: If I'm opening, it's probable that I'll play solo or minimal stuff, if I'm on tour I'm with the band.
The cellist you mentioned joined us last spring on the west coast as well and her name is Danah Olivetree. The band members that recorded on BYFFNW are Stewart Bronaugh on guitar/bass and Joshua Jaeger on drums and percussion. On these upcoming tours it will be those two, Emily Elhaj on bass guitar and me.
There’s now two covers from you and Marissa Nadler, "My Dreams Have Withered and Died"and the new Mickey Newbury cover "Frisco Depot."Have you considered doing a whole collaborative album together?
Maybe sometime in the future, but for now we both have our own releases to focus on, and I would like to spend time touring. I have a few ideas for collaborations with others-but I'm not sure about doing a full record at this point. I always feel like that's something you do later on in the game. I could be wrong, maybe I'm close-minded.
You've described your songs before as your children, does it feel easier to let go of them with each album or harder? Are you getting used to that tension between your private thoughts in these songs and their public existence?
What I mean by songs being children is that once you release them out into the world, you can't control how they will change or what they will do. I don't feel any tension performing these songs, because I don't feel like I'm reliving them, in fact I'm not even sure some of them are personal. Instead, I'd say some are derived from many sources, and that most are exaggerated versions of feelings or thoughts I've experienced. I tend to look at them as if they are scenes from different parts of a movie.
The cover art for the album is reminiscent of Half Way Home in some ways. Were they done by the same artist? What does the image convey for you?
There was an unplanned theme of black and white in the cover art of earlier works, so I thought it would interesting to switch the cover to something bright red, to break that trend. I chose an Asheville artist name Kreh Mellick, after writing to many other artists. I think her work is very dry and in a lot of ways it reminded me of the tone of the album. I wanted to make an original for the album so we put together what she had previously done and came up with a new version. I wanted one girl to be shouting and the others to be holding their ears or cupping their mouths. They may be several girls or just one girl making a decision. I guess you can take whatever meaning you want from it, but ultimately I feel very happy with this as the image on the record.
How has being on Jagjaguwar changed things for you, if at all?
I feel like things were going pretty well organically for Strange Cacti and Half Way Home. Jagjaguwar has been pretty hands-off about the recording process and my decision on touring. The distribution is greater so there is more word out there about my previous works. Now that they're around there is more of an opportunity to promote the record and do all that I can to get the word out. They seem to believe in the work too. Sometimes things don't go the way you want them to and as a friend of mine might say: "Buddhist divorce myself." I've learned to stop caring too much about an image of what I am. If someone finds meaning in the work that I believe in, all the better.
I read a bit about your thoughts on Beyonce in another interview, as far as sexuality and feminism within our culture, what is your perspective?
As far as the sexual revolution or whatever one might call it, I can understand on many levels why women feel the need to take back their bodies, or the need to prove that their bodies need to be taken back. Though, I personally find it unnecessary to do so by actually getting naked and making it an announcement. Whether or not a person feels they are making a point by getting naked, those closed-minded viewers will still just be seeing a naked body, not a statement.
It's totally fine if people want to get naked, I accept it, go for it, have fun, it's just a body after all, burn your bra and all your clothes, who cares. But I think there are other ways to be heard, to put your voice out there, and the body is only one fraction of whatever needs to be taken back, its not necessarily our bodies, but our decisions, our choices. As for Beyonce—I like the record a lot, it was really unexpected :)
Interview Questions by Caitlin White