Look Homeward, Angel Olsen

Photo by Amanda Marsalis

Angel Olsen isn’t in hiding — she’s just looking for a little break from human interaction. “I feel a little covert, because I don’t want to tell a bunch of people I’m here,” she says, calling from Chicago, where she lived for a stint before landing in the beautiful, haute-hippie mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. She’s been staying at her bassist Emily Elhaj’s house while she’s been in the city, and made sure to wear her sunglasses the other day while going for a jog. “I realized as I was running that I was passing some of my friends’ places. And I thought, ‘Oh no. What if they see me?’ But I just want to look at stuff instead of talking to people.”

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You could say that Olsen wanted some things to disappear in plain sight when she released the teaser for her third album, My Woman, this past summer. It’s a clip from the LP’s rather haunting opener, “Intern,” sung by Olsen — except not really. Wearing a silver glitter wig that reappears again in the video for “Shut Up Kiss Me,” it’s her and not her all at once. The bangs: they’re short and familiar to her usual crop, her face fair but not pallid. It’s not a disguise, but a way to trick us into looking and listening differently.

Olsen sounds different on “Intern,” too. The slow, solemn strum of the guitar heard on her 2014 LP, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, has been replaced by slow, solemn synth — recognizable yet morphed, just like Olsen in that silver headpiece, with her penetrating vocal still front and center. “It’s super misleading on purpose, which is always fun,” says Olsen. Indeed, My Woman isn’t entirely synth-dominated at all, but Olsen likes to tease and taunt. “I was trying to show the front side of the album by doing that, but I knew what people would say. ‘When is Angel gonna be folk again? I miss the country-folk Angel!’ But these are lyric-heavy songs.”

Of course, there was never really a “country” Angel Olsen to begin with, but since releasing her first full-length LP, Half Way Home, in 2012, it’s something that’s tagged along for whatever reason — and a comparison to Joni Mitchell or any other strummin’ female of the folk variety — because that’s just how the collective reflex seems to work when someone sees a woman holding a guitar. Things escalated when she released the single “Hi-Five” off of Burn Your Fire, which opens with this line: “I feel so lonesome I could cry,” evoking the title of one of Hank Williams’ most famous tunes.

“I eternally regretted picking that as a single,” says Olsen. “You make these choices and make an album, and I’m still processing it. With me, I kept getting all of these projections of what happened with the last record. I had no idea it was coming, and it was a weird success for me. But when I see a projected image of me as a cartoon with bangs playing country music, what is this perception? Is it going to keep being like that?”

Burn Your Fire was a critical darling, pinning the St. Louis, Missouri–born Olsen to the top of many best-of lists. That reception was welcome for Olsen, but, at the same time, she felt pinned down by those projections of the indie-queen, alt-country chanteuse with bangs, eternally dodging inquiries about her upbringing, mostly about her adoptive parents (who are in their 70s and 80s) and trying to focus the narrative on how she might have evolved as a result of those circumstances.  There were lots of questions from the media about things that didn’t matter: lots of digging into parts of her life only lived briefly, like a short stint as a member of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s band. Then there was the attention from fashion magazines and blogs, one of which described her as a “warbling beauty [with] the bangs that launched a thousand haircuts.” Even Vogue made note of her “enviably cool pixie bangs.” Olsen had to take a step back.

“I had to take two or three months off and reflect on what happened,” she says. “I just hung out in Asheville and went hiking and did normal things. Made salads for people. I didn’t really talk about music. I didn’t go to very many shows. I wanted to not hate it all, I wanted to see what made me interested and not be tired of the cartoon projection of myself.” Though the praise was appreciated, she felt crushed by how her evolving narrative sometimes overshadowed, or at least oversimplified, the work.

It took the sojourn in Asheville to refocus, and time back out on the road to re-inspire her creative muse — but that wasn’t the goal. On tour, she tried to enjoy the cities she was visiting, rekindle old friendships, focus on the joy of the live show. When she returned to North Carolina, she ended up quickly writing five or six of the songs that would become My Woman, listening to records like Brian Eno and Donny Hathaway, experimenting with new sounds and techniques. “I had no idea what was going to happen,” she says. “But I knew I was going to continue with several different aesthetics.”

What happened, exactly, was My Woman, with a title that’s meant to challenge listeners not to jump to any conclusions. It’s as direct as it is obscure: is it a feminist ode? Is it about herself? Other females in her life? That’s not a question she wants anything but the music to answer. “The concept by default happened,” she explains. “Titling it My Woman leads you to believe all these things.” So do songs like “Sister” and “Woman,” two softer-paced, seven-minute plus tracks on the B-side of the record, which is how she intends it to be digested, with “Intern” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” belonging to the “A.”

What Olsen doesn’t love is having to always explain and deconstruct every last nuance of every song or meaning — at one point, back in February, she tweeted this: “From this point on all future interviews will be answered by friend, hand puppet or drawing.” Today, it’s Olsen herself on the phone, luckily — the puppet is something she came up with jokingly while in the studio with her new producer, Justin Raisen, known for his work on albums from Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira and Santigold (i.e. women who are not, for the record, ever compared to country chanteuses or Joni Mitchell or Patsy Cline). They knew that the title and LP in general would incite some questions — so why not just whip out a hand puppet to answer the most egregious ones? “Sometimes the hand puppet will go up if you ask a rude pointed question,” she says, and she’s heard them all before. “It’s blessing and a curse to have to talk about [my music].”

Raisen is notably more pop-centric than her previous producer, John Congleton (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, War on Drugs, St. Vincent), though what he brings is more kinetic than genre-specific.  “He’s a very different kind of breed of person,” Olsen says of Raisen. “Naturally, he’s crazy like a fox, an energetic dude who wears different color Adidas tracksuits.” They recorded the album live to tape in Los Angeles at Vox Studios, pushing Olsen’s vocal capabilities to every possible corner: from big, haunting howls to chill-inducing whispers, accented by everything from piano to synth to her signature crunches of guitar. And if there’s one thing its not, that’s country-folk.

“There is something really soft and nice about a girl who plays acoustic and sings Leonard Cohen-esque songs,” she says. This will be her second album with a full band in tow, and she doesn’t anticipate reverting back anytime soon. “But it’s not something you can do album after album.”

What the bulk of My Woman is about is relationships — with lovers, friends, parents, herself. “I’m always obsessed with this idea of writing a song about an expectation or idea of someone that got totally destroyed or changed. I’ve seen that in my early songs. Who is my closest friend? Who are the people who are going to follow me through this life? It’s good to have goals and believe in people, but to have these expectations instead of working on your own happiness is a big deal.” She laughs softly, adding, “I’m not trying to do a self-help book.”

Olsen admits to spending too much time thinking about symbols in those relationships, something that can be both a negative and a positive when applied to other people, or even to songwriting. Maybe especially songwriting. Mostly, she has to remind herself, from time to time, that “not everything is a symbol.” “It’s a blessing, but it’s also a bummer if you are thinking too deeply about something,” she says.

Even so, she still ended up launching the album with a symbol of sorts: that silver wig. That vision of Olsen introduced in the video for “Intern” carries through the next for “Shut Up Kiss Me,” with some of the same motifs, like the telephone she is seen chatting on in one and glancing at in the other. Olsen directed them both, and enjoyed toying with that preconceived notion of her as a pretty girl with bangs, plaintively strumming the guitar. “It was a fight to break down that stereotype,” she says. It’s not about hiding — rather, forcing people to step aside from whatever assumptions anyone may have made in the first place. “I’m not trying to be Sia, I’m not trying to be Grimes. I just want to get myself out of that character.”

“Intern” itself is both in and out of character for Olsen — her disarming tone and assertive lyrics are fully intact, though pushed to seductive coos and shattering high notes — but that signature aggressive fuzz of guitar is replaced by dreamy synth lines. “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done,” she sings. “Still gotta wake up and be someone.” It’s a line that applies to interns, lovers, workers in the eternal grind and, of course, artists.

“You’re never finished until you’re not here anymore,” she says of the song, and that lyric in particular. “Even after your death, people exploit you. There is something to be said about that line — we all have to wake up and do things, everybody has to keep going. And it’s not easy sometimes.”

That same girl appears in the video for “Shut Up Kiss Me” except, this time, she’s off the phone and into the roller skating rink. The guitars are back too, and Olsen, is singing — well, demanding, actually — her lover to “Shut up kiss me hold me tight, everything will be alright.” The woman on My Woman, Olsen or not, can be strong as hell without pretending to not crave the attention of a man. On the dissonant grunge of “Not Gonna Kill You,” she’s unapologetic, on “Sister,” bravely vulnerable, and on “Woman,” she’s confined to femininity and well aware of its walls. 

“I’d do anything to see it all, to see it all the way that you do,” she sings. Olsen has had moments over the course of her career when she’s felt the crush of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, beyond just the hyper-focus on her bangs. “In every day situations, there are moments when I feel like people are withholding information from me, because of everything you grow up doing and absorbing as a lady,” she says. “And there have been some moments in my career where people have said some things that got to me — someone saying something about, ‘Oh, that guy doesn’t want to play music with you, he wants to be with you.’ And now, I just know to look out for it.”

Olsen is always looking out, always aware: whether in her music, or on that jog back in Chicago. It’s part of being a woman, and part of being her Woman, wig or no wig — hiding in plain sight from preconceived notions, and taking anyone who dares to hold them on a completely wild ride.

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