A salt-of-the-earth folk singer tries out her Mariah voice
From the magazine: ISSUE 90, Feb/March 2014
Listening to Angel Olsen’s unearthly warble, it’s easy to imagine a folk relic from another time, a voice captured on an early Appalachian field recording rather than in a recent studio session. Her new full-length, however, paints a portrait much truer to life. A pretty, personable 20-something with expertly drawn cat eyes and a dark brown fringe to frame them, nothing in Olsen’s demeanor suggests an anachronistic or isolated existence, and the 11 expertly arranged songs on Burn Your Fire for No Witness range easily from soft folk to straight up-and-down rock. It’s an album that will surprise listeners who might have had trouble getting past the rough edges of her 2011 EP, Strange Cacti (initially a cassette-only release), and its 2012 followup, Half Way Home, and leave early fans scratching their heads while happily tapping their feet.
Olsen got her initial break by way of Will Oldham, whom she met through his longtimecollaborator Emmett Kelly, and got her feet wet touring with his short-lived backing band, The Babblers, and singing back-up on his 2011 album, Wolfroy Goes to Town. Of her standout solo on his “Time to be Clear”—essentially a wordless interlude that lands somewhere between an aria and a hum—Oldham told Pitchfork, “When something like that happens, I don’t know how to feel. It’s almost like I get hollowed out and then filled, but I don’t know what it’s with.” It’s largely this restlessness that defined Half Way Home. “I had to have that collection of songs put out into the world,” says Olsen. “I wanted it to have mistakes. I wanted it to be so close and personal that it upset people, so that it wasn’t easily digestible.” The album’s lead track, “Acrobat,” is a good example, with its languid opening line that swings precipitously into a gut-wrenching vibrato.
Burn Your Fire isn’t necessarily stripped bear of those disquieting moments, but it’s bolstered by a more substantial sound thanks to a newly assembled backing band and produc-tion from John Congleton. “There are a lot of alien invasions [on the album],” she says. “It’s like these different time pieces sewn together.” “Lights Out,” for example, was transformed from a mellow, “Grateful Dead-style” recording into “a bone-bare electronic song” during the mixing process, and “Windows,” the album’s ethereal closing track, sung largely in falsetto, wouldn’t have made the cut had it not been for Olsen’s bandmates. (She thought the song was lyrically flimsy). “Listening to them, and getting an ear for the kind of female singers they listen to, I was like, Oh, you guys kinda like high-pitched vibes,” she says. “When I recorded it, I was like, I feel like Mariah Carey right now, y’all.”
It’s all part of a larger effort to break out and explore her range while remaining yoked to her singular voice. “I hear people who are in their own bands, and then they play in a cover band, and the music is always a thousand times better because they give themselves the freedom to fuck up,” Olsen says, her well-worn wire-rimmed glasses set beside a half-drunk glass of whiskey, like a recently retired disguise. “My personality has so many personalities within it that I just try to use those selves to create.” Even “Enemy,” the penultimate song on Burn Your Fire, which plays like the raw, unadulterated acoustic Olsen of records past, ends on a note of bittersweet departure—I wish it were the same as it is in my mind—while encouraging us to make way for the new Angel Olsen—I’m lighter on my feet, when I’ve left something behind— whoever she might be.