Chosen One: Angel Olsen
Interview with Angel Olsen.
“This was the first time I’ve been writing songs that have space for music to happen. I’m really looking forward to having that happening more often. But it was also finding that right balance of having space for music to happen and still have the lyrics and words be just as important.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Gentle chords echo beneath Olsen’s mesmerising voice on ‘Dance Slow Decades’ as the Missouri-born song-writer sings “I thought I had a dream once / Don’t remember what” revealing an intimacy and openness that cuts deep into your bones. The beautiful clean tones of reverb-filled guitar flows like a river finding the sea, all-the-while Olsen’s voice forms ripples in a vast sea of emotion. Olsen’s lyrics evoke the deepest of thoughts from forlorn diary pages. Moments later, the lyric of “I thought I conquered something / And it took me down” transports me to the songbook of Sibylle Baier and her similarly affecting poetic song cycles. Much in the same way as Baier’s ‘Colour Green’ — the German songwriter’s timeless record — Olsen’s latest masterpiece ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ reveals a songwriting master-class of rare poignancy and depth that we have come to know from Olsen’s previous record, 2012’s ‘Halfway Home’. The song’s verse conjures up the heartfelt indie-pop sound of New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo, particularly as Olsen sings “I thought I felt your heart beat / It was just my counting” where a magical and organic feel permeates throughout. The song’s rise forms one of the album’s joyous climaxes as Olsen sings “I can hear you crying / And I am crying too” with gorgeous shades of Roy Orbison and Bill Callahan. ‘Dance Slow Decades’ is a deeply touching ballad, akin to a close companion, a song you feel you’ve always known. Hope and optimism overcome the depths of despair and darkness as Olsen sings toward the song’s illuminating close: “You might still have it in you / Give yourself the benefit”.
‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ feels like a culmination, following on from the kitchen recorded, lo-fi ‘Strange Cacti’ E.P and debut full-length, songwriting master-class ‘Halfway Home’. Every aspect of Olsen’s sound is heightened on the sophomore-release where a space is embedded within the eclectic batch of compelling songs. ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ can be seen as a band album but importantly Olsen’s deeply affecting song-writing remains as the vital pulse. Drummer Josh Jaeger, playwright and former colleague from Olsen’s cafe job in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and bass player Stewart Bronaugh, Jaeger’s bandmate in garage-pop outfit Lionlimb comprise the ensemble for ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’. It is clear an intuitive process ensued between the members, as Olsen’s illuminating songs were brought to the table, as previously explained by Olsen, the sessions were: “…very much like a band and I feel like I’m merging into this entity that they’re also creating”. The album was recorded in a deconsecrated chapel called Echo Mountain, in Asheville, North Carolina, over ten days in July. Producer John Congleton (St Vincent, Bill Callahan) was at the helm, after mastering in Dallas, the record was finished by the end of July.
The torch-lit ballad ‘Iota’ takes me back to the special solo-performance of Olsen’s life affirming concerts. Alone on stage, armed with a guitar, the songwriter transcends space and time, as the devoted audience becomes beautifully lost in her breathtaking creations. A rhythm section of double-bass and warm percussion (a la Giant Sand or Calexico) serves the heartbeat to this utterly captivating ballad. A sense of longing lies at the heart of Olsen’s endearing voice. The lyrics of the opening verse are sheer poetry:
“If only all our memories were one / We only had to blink and it was done / If all the world could see with in one eye / In perfect colour to the perfect sky”
A delicacy and fragile beauty is interwoven in the song’s rich tapestry, reminiscent of Karen Dalton’s soulful folk-blues. The refrain of “If only we could always stay the same” resonates powerfully, at times I feel the spirit of the central character to Agnès Varda’s ‘Vagabond’ seep into my consciousness that, in turn, forms “the perfect rhythm to the perfect song”. The song’s lyrics examines themes such as place and belonging. As ever, Olsen’s poetic words remain with you, embedded into the depths of your heart and mind: “If only we could grow wiser with each breath”.
The brooding, dark lament ‘White Fire’ — the album’s longest cut — represents ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’s harrowing centerpiece. A tower of song is captured here that epitomizes the sheer power and cascading emotion of Olsen’s singular works. A solo recording of the artist’s whisper-like voice and meandering electric guitar plucked chords brings forth an ethereal dimension to the album’s trajectory. The spirit of Leonard Cohen burns brightly throughout the embers of Olsen’s glowing poetic prose. ‘White Fire’ is the album’s title-track in many ways. The song comes from a dark place as the heart of a lonely hunter unfolds before your eyes: “Everything is tragic / It all just fell apart / But when I look into your eyes / It pieces up my heart”, Olsen sings on the opening verse. The vocal delivery of Olsen is nothing short of staggering as something deeply profound engulfs your every thought. A dream-like odyssey breathes every aching core of ‘White Fires’s poetic lyricism. I feel the song’s chorus serves the very essence (and vital pulse) of the album’s triumphant journey through the heart of darkness:
“If you’ve still got some light in you
Then go before it’s gone
Burn your fire for no witness
It’s the only way it’s done”
Album opener ‘Unfucktheworld’ is a fragile lament — containing Olsen’s guitar and vocals — that serves the perfect prologue to ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’s vital and captivating sonic exploration. Olsen sings “I quit my dreaming / The moment that I found you / I started dancing / Just to be around you” on the first verse that brings to mind fellow luminaries such as Will Oldham and Daniel Johnston. The words sung by Olsen carries a weight that overcomes any obstacle put in your way. The song’s intimacy is striking, such is the hidden pathways the listener is taken on. Later, Olsen’s voice rises as soaring emotion flows amidst the churning guitar chords, “I have to save my life / I need some peace of mind” evokes a helplessness and vivid sense of loss. A moment later, the refrain of “I am the only one now” bears infinite rays of strength and resilience.
‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ is a charged pop-garage anthem, reminiscent of The Breeders. In just over two minutes, trashing guitars and drums swirl amidst Olsen’s infectious vocals, in ways recalling Olsen’s ‘Strange Cacti’ E.P. ‘Hi-Five’ is an irresistible country gem containing Link Wray-esque guitars and shades of ‘Basement Tapes’ era Dylan & The Band. “Are you lonely too?” Olsen asks on the song’s chorus, with the response “So am I” adding humor to proceedings. The fuzz guitar combined with stomping piano creates a timeless rock ‘n’ roll feel (Buddy Holly) steeped in a contemporary country sound. Olsen’s voice is the undying spark throughout “I feel so lonesome I could cry” are the first words sung by Olsen that conjures up both the spirit of Hank Williams and the sounds of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The peerless musicianship of Olsen’s new-found ensemble and sprawling sonic canvas thus formed is laid bare here.
A wall of beguiling sound is released on the cathartic ‘Lights Out’, a breath-taking ballad that evolves into a haven of psych-tinged and reverb-drenched guitar notes (think Real Estate or Ducktails). A momentous feeling is beautifully arrived upon as Olsen’s deeply touching lyrics serve a guiding light to the dark skies; “The things we need the most / They seem to take a little longer” hangs delicately in the air. The song builds into a joyous and uplifting tour-de-force recalling the flying sparks of Low and Dirty Three. Similarly, ‘Stars’ is a glorious rock gem containing Olsen’s irresistible vocals and sublime backdrop of illuminating guitars and Jaeger’s drums. ‘Windows’ is the fitting close to a stunningly beautiful record. Olsen’s voice is falsetto-like that whispers closely to you (think Hope Sandoval). The musical telepathy between Olsen and her trusted ensemble is clearly evident, as a wall of sacred sound (Olsen’s voice is blended effortlessly with a plethora of gorgeous guitar tones) is emitted like rays of sunlight. I feel the spirit of Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’ drift by as Olsen asks “What’s so wrong with the light?”, a beautiful sense of rejuvenation comes to the fore.
‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ is available now on Jagjaguwar.
Interview with Angel Olsen.
I must say congratulations on the new album. It’s really amazing. I’ve been listening to it a lot during the last week.
AO: Thank you.
I was a huge fan of your last album, ‘Halfway Home’, and it’s wonderful to see how the new songs have progressed and how there’s a lovely new direction and also, a lovely range within the songs.
AO: Thank you, yeah, I’m excited to be sharing it with the band now.
It really feels like a band album, where it combines so well with your songs themselves. I’d love for you to discuss that whole collaboration between you and the musicians themselves?
AO: Well, I met them both a while ago and we started working together in February, or maybe even earlier last year. And then I introduced both old material at first and then newer songs when I started writing them. A lot of the newer material happened to work out with louder sounds. As we got to the studio, a few weeks beforehand we sort of practiced recording and listen back to what we’ve been playing live and think about what kind of guitar sounds would be appropriate and if different songs would lend themselves to drums and certain songs remain solo. We had a bit of time to play and record and really think about what we should add or how we should add to what I’d been writing.
I can sense that as well. There’s that real flow to the music. As you say about the guitar sounds, I love how there are certain songs, like the album closer ‘Windows’ and ‘Lights Out’, the reverb of the guitar and lovely echo: there’s a lovely build-up to the songs. Musically, there are so many sections going on.
AO: Yeah, I feel there is definitely. This was the first time I’ve been writing songs that have space for music to happen. I’m really looking forward to having that happening more often. But it was also finding that right balance of having space for music to happen and still have the lyrics and words be just as important.
Exactly. I remember talking with you before, it’s like the songs themselves and like any great song-writer — Bill Callahan, Will Oldham and so on — I love how your words themselves alone…you don’t need music in many ways. One aspect I love about this album is how the lyrics stick with you. For me, you know a Bill Callahan song, you have certain words that would keep on coming back to you in your head but it’s the very same thing that happens for your songs.
AO: That’s cool, I like to hear that.
I was interested to see that you went into the studio so soon after touring. It sounded pretty much like you were going straight into the studio?
AO: Yeah, so what happened was I had signed with Jagjaguwar and then I had written quite a bit of material at the time so I felt confident that by the summertime we would record. But in the meantime, I was still working with members of the band and we were working on old material. So it was like, we spent the upcoming months working, just trying to figure out how we all feel, just listen to each other and play the songs. In general, we played them live and we played a lot of the new material live, before recording it too, to kind of give it some time to breathe and also we ended up changing the way certain songs sound. After having listened back, it was really cool to be in a studio with them and hear ourselves the way we have been playing live: not critique but we had a better understanding of what we all wanted, we were in a box and we could all talk about it and we could all hear what we were doing and talk about it. That was a really cool experience.
As you say as well, Angel, it must have been really special to have all the different people’s input, you know how each member brings different things to the table.
AO: Yeah, definitely. And I mean, for the most part, it’s not a band, it’s me writing the lyrics and the structures of the songs but what happened is I’m opening the songs for people to write guitar parts and decide if something should be embellished in a certain way, you know. And I think that that is definitely showing on the album. Also, we recorded a lot of it — not all of it but some of it — live and then added things later, so you have the performance sound to a lot of the songs.
Yeah, you can definitely hear that, and actually it’s kind of cool, I was reading where you recorded in a chapel — it’s a lovely name — in Echo Mountain.
AO: Yeah, it’s a really cool space. They have a big room — like a cathedral but it’s a church — there’s a big room where all the pews used to be in. It’s used for a live performance, live bands kind of thing. On the sides of that there are these little rooms that used to be prayer rooms and they’re just like tiny closets. I don’t know, we had many options and I felt like, you know, we don’t have a piano live, so we got to use a lot of different organ sounds and different piano sounds that they had to offer there, so that was cool too. The place is really comfortable, it felt like being at someone’s house.
That sounds lovely. I think it definitely translates into the album too, you know when you’re listening to it, you can certainly hear something magical within the song. Actually, another thing Angel, John Congleton, who produced the album, it must have been lovely to work with him. I didn’t realize he produced some of the Bill Callahan stuff as well.
AO: Yeah, he’s done a lot of different projects. He’s really great. He was very quiet at first and we all kind of talked about him and thought he was like a doctor. He was just very observant at first and really quiet. And then, as the days went on, he started to open up, he was actually really fun to work with. He was very, you know, suggestive without being pushy and it seems like he always told the truth about what something sounded like. So, it was nice to work with someone like that.
There are certain songs on the album too, like for example ‘White Fire’, it’s the longest song on the album, it really reminds me of Leonard Cohen, it’s a really incredible song.
AO: Thank you. Yeah, that recording, I had recorded that song myself and I was pleased with the way it sounded. I was going to keep the sound of the original but we decided to re-record them in the studio. And, you know, that one, ‘Enemy’ and ‘Unfucktheworld’ are all just me and the guitar. So, it’s kind of nice to have that on the album too.
Exactly. I love that too, how there’s that kind of an aesthetic and feel to the album. As you say, some of the songs like ‘Hi-Five’ are more charged rock songs but it all fits together so well, it all just works as one, really.
AO: Yeah, well it’s weird to see the songs grow too because I had been performing ‘Stars’ totally differently: it started out like a country song and then it went into kind of almost like a latin reference song, and then it changed completely from that with the group. And then, ‘Hi-Five’ was also just me and a guitar. It’s pretty cool to look at all that information and see how much has changed. At the same time, it should not be like: “Oh well, that shouldn’t have happened” or whatever, or “that was over-done”, you know.
I remember Calexico would say similar things, you know the way with touring and how the songs live would change and evolve. It must be lovely to witness a song change depending on the space and time.
AO: Yeah, and I mean it’s fun to change things every now and then. And of course as a listener, some people would prefer the thing stays the same and I try not to think things like, totally different keys. Sometimes, you know, it’s nice to change things up.
Oh, definitely. Another song I love, Angel — well I love all of them — is ‘Dance Slow Decade’. It’s funny it was really getting to me, I was thinking someone came to mind but I couldn’t really think who but I just thought of it today, Yo La Tengo?
AO: Oh, really.
Yeah, it’s lovely, you know that kind of heartfelt indie-pop feel.
AO: I never would have thought of that, that’s really cool. I like that.
But again, I love how your words really stick with you. And I think you said before how writing comes to you in waves, but certainly this song, and others too, you really feel how it flows from you in one time, in one sitting nearly.
AO: Yeah, that one definitely did. Some of them don’t and some of them do.
And another thing, Angel, Marissa Nadler — who you collaborated with before — she said a cool thing recently. You know, I guess it’s about writing songs in a concentrated period of time, she spoke how she likes to “bottle things up so that there’s a well to drink from.” But it’s a nice analogy and I think there are similarities between you and Marissa?
AO: Yeah, I mean she’s definitely like a sister to me, in a lot of different ways. I feel that her music and mine aren’t going in different directions so that they are very much alike, similar. I remember writing to her in the Fall and just talking to her about how I was writing a lot and she’d been writing a lot and we were working on our upcoming albums. And I was pretty excited to talk about, you know, to be able to have that and share that with someone who understands what it means to go through a period of time like that. Like, you have the opportunity to go to a party or a bar but you’d rather stay home and write, or you’d rather just be alone just in case you want to write something. And I think it sounds really cheesy but sometimes it does work that way.
It must be like a sacrifice in one way, you know, the act of writing when there’s no set formula.
AO: For me, it either happens that I write a lot at once or that I start something and I finish it a few months later. Or, a few months will go by and I’ll write a song and then a few weeks and I’ll write another song and then, over time, they’ll be edited over and over again. And it’s different things, different kind of exercises and I wouldn’t say it always comes out, you know, I didn’t write all the album in one day but I did write a lot of it right after releasing the first record ‘Halfway Home’.
That sounds cool. Actually, I love ‘Windows’, it has a really uplifting feel to it. I love how it’s lovely and delicate but I love how there’s that kind of climax in the song.
AO: Yeah, that’s fun to play. Actually, I introduced that to everyone and I thought I didn’t really like the song, you know, because it’s so simple. And I think the best songs are cerebral and well-written and have a lot of lyrics but I learned that that’s not always true. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell what would be something that sticks with you, you know.
And as you say yourself, Angel, in the course of the next few months, as you’re touring you can see how the songs evolve over the next while.
AO: Yeah, definitely. I’m excited because it’s going to be an intense few months but I feel like it gives us an opportunity to play well and to learn how to play the songs really well.
I must say, actually, you introduced me to Agnès Varda because you mentioned, in the last interview, the film ‘Vagabond’. It’s amazing.
AO: Yeah, you love it?
AO: What’s your favourite scene in it? My favourite scene is when she’s sitting on the couch with the older woman. You know the part?
AO: And she’s having, like a bourbon and scotch or something. And the older woman, her family is coming to visit, her nephew thinks that he’s going to inherit her estate and the old woman whispers in the vagabond’s ears and says he thinks he’s going to have it but he’s not and they start laughing. And it’s like the next day the young girl leaves and never sees them again but she does hear one of the most intimate truths of a family she doesn’t even know. And I thought that was kind of interesting.
It’s really special isn’t it, there’s so much to it, you know. Or even the earlier scenes where she’s just traveling on her own. But I love, like how you say, she crosses paths with so many characters. I love the scene, you know, with a woman, she picks her up and they’re driving but you could sense how they really got on, you know, she really admired her.
AO: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
And is there any other particular films or books or anything that you’ve been enjoying?
AO: I can never remember names, I’m so terrible about it. An Italian author, she wrote this series. The titles in English are really pretty boring but it’s about these two girls growing up in Italy in the 50’s, they’re constantly trying to like outsmart each other — learning Greek and Latin and becoming the smartest of their classes — and one of them continues to go to college and the other gets married and has kids and they’re still competing to be like, you know more exciting and more intelligent and yet they remain really close friends. It’s a really interesting read, it’s called ‘The Story Of A New Name’. You should check it out. A lot of people think it was written by someone else, by a man, so it’s really interesting. Elena Ferrante is her name. And then, other than that, I’ve been taking a break from reading, I’ve read a bit of Paul Auster’s biography, he wrote a book about his life. It’s kind of unfortunate because right before the tour I got a bunch of books to read and then I left them all there.
Would you have favourite all-time authors, Angel, you know, people you’d always come back to?
AO: Yeah. I’d say Paul Auster is somebody that I always go back to. I mean it’s pretty simple writing but some of it I really hate but I’m always curious, you know. I feel like his books are written kind of cinematically and I tend to enjoy that. And then also there’s this other author called Carlos Ruiz Zafón and he’s a Spanish author.
Do you know the author Willy Vlautin?
AO: No, should I check him out?
Yeah, I think you should because he’s in a band as well but his novels are amazing. Like you said earlier, cinematic is one word to describe his work. He has a new one called ‘The Free’. I’d say you’d really enjoy his writing: it’s simple but at the same time it’s so affecting as well.
AO: Right. I like it when people are capable of writing something simply but at the same time it’s very hard, you know. It reaches so many people…I mean, if people are doing it, it’s reaching people, I feel like in a more impactable way.
Oh exactly. I think actually, just as you say that Angel, he said one time how he writes with the thought he hopes that someone who has just finished his or her long day at the factory might read his book in the evening, you know, that kind of way.
AO: Yeah, I must check him out.
One other thing, Angel, I loved the collaboration with yourself, Will Oldham and Dirty Three, the ‘Solemns’ 12″ release. I loved that. It’s that combination of your voice and Will Oldham’s and then also, obviously, Jim White and Mick Turner. It’s incredible to hear that connection between all the musicians.
AO: Yeah, I’d like to do that again sometime, you know. It’s always a privilege to work with different groups at once on a collaboration. And that one I feel like we were in Australia for a really brief period of time, we only had two days to figure out what we were really going to do in the studio. It was really interesting to see how everyone approached it.
‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ is available now on Jagjaguwar.
Angel Olsen performs at Whelans, Dublin, on Friday June 6th, Triskel Christchurch, Cork, on Saturday June 7th and McHughes, Belfast, on Sunday June 8th. For full US and EU tour dates, please see HERE.