Angel Olsen | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Angel Olsen

No One's Woman

Nov 30, 2016 Issue #58 - The Protest Issue Photography by Ray Lego (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

Angel Olsen‘s last album, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was the sound of her breaking free. Filled with brash songs and strong statements, a certain pent-up aggression present in even its softer moments, the album broke her out of the mold that had previously characterized her art. Until Burn Your Fire, Olsen was viewed mostly as a solo songwriter, a singer with a spectacular voice, plaintively emoting over acoustic guitar backdrop. With Burn Your Fire, all that changed.

With that change came success. Her base broadened. She went from playing half-filled bars and DIY spaces to theaters, performed 125 shows in a year, and topped it off with a performance on Late Show with David Letterman. But, as often is the case, with the intensity came questions, searching, burnout.

“I thought it was cool that I was successful and people thought that I was making all these statements and wanted to relate to me about my life as though the songs were autobiographical, but it was a little intense for me in that I felt isolated,” says Olsen. “Though I appreciate the songs I’ve written, I’d backed myself in a corner, having succeeded in making them a thing, so much that they’d become a mantra that I was tired of singing. I was losing interest in doing as much. I wanted to slow down. I was really like, ‘Is this for me?’”

So, as she did between 2012’s Half Way Home and Burn Your Fire, the former Chicagoan took some time off. Re-energized. Recalibrated. Refreshed.

“I lived in Ashville [North Carolina],” says Olsen. “I hung out with people who didn’t give a fuck about the music industry. I talked to people who were having babies, like my friends, and talked about their lives, as teachers, as people, and focused on different things than my music career. Of course, it’s always there hanging over my head, in both a positive and negative way. But I’d moved to a town where nobody really knew me.”

Additionally, the perspective garnered in talking with artists like Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy, members of Tame Impala, and others during shared festival dates, helped Olsen feel less isolated and ultimately led to what has become her new album. MY WOMAN is a very different work from Burn Your Fire. Though the songwriting is as riveting, the sharp edges are smoothed. Songs vacillate from pop numbers, to psychedelic-tinged rock, one track that sounds like ‘60s Motown crossed with Gram Parsons, and even some old fashioned singer/songwriter fare. For it, Olsen also returned to her first instrument, piano. Mostly, MY WOMAN shows a self-assuredness of voice and purpose not always seen on the more grasping, searching Burn Your Fire.

One issue that was picked up on by the press in early album previews is the sensitive topic of gender. One sentence in her extensive bio for the album contains a phrase, which has gotten undue, and sometimes exclusive, attention, specifically that a theme of the album is, “the complicated mess of being a woman.” Olsen goes on to state that the album is not a feminist statement, but the phrase had already taken hold.

“Unfortunately, they are trying to go with one theme instead of going with all of them,” responds Olsen. “It’s annoying, because they’re missing all these other themes by trying to have it be about this thing. You are being less unique by creating a slant on what I’m doing. You, as a writer, as a seer, as someone with a bird’s eye view, you’re just going in for one thing, and that, to me, is very transparent. And it upsets me. But I have the audacity to make music in the first place. I have the audacity to put myself on the cover in full color and name it MY WOMAN, so I’m not unprepared for those conversations.”

She goes on: “The themes I’m trying to talk about in these songs, if people are lyrically interested in them, are more about humanness and love, or the idea you have of people, and watching that love or that perspective be deconstructed.”

This Fall, Olsen returns to the road with her touring band, slightly different from the combo that recorded MY WOMAN-guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, bassist Emily Elhaj, drummer Joshua Jaeger, and new guitarist Seth Kauffman. With her new album, Olsen has taken more comprehensive control over her art and presentation, exuding more self-confidence in the studio, knowing better how to showcase her band’s strengths, and directing her own videos, careful to maintain a balance between the Angel Olsen she presents in her art and the totality of the person she is in real life.

“[With Burn Your Fire], I wanted to get out of the Americana/Folk thing,” says Olsen. “It was a bigger sound, more Velvet Underground-like attitude. For this one, it’s definitely got softer stuff happening. More like I’ve gone through some shit. To me, Burn Your Fire is like when I was 17 and first read Dostoyevsky. This album is when I actually experienced loss in my life. It’s actualizing whatever themes that I thought I understood before.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s August/September/October 2016 Issue. This is its debut online.]


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