Angel Olsen Has A Lot To Say Right Now
A long, honest talk with the woman behind one of the year’s finest rock records.
Angel Olsen had been speaking for hours. Over the phone on a day in early August, the singer-songwriter, 29, apologized for being late, explaining that her last interview — one of eight prior over the course of in two days — went a little over. Where most people might be ready for a little peace and quiet after this kind of conversational marathon, Olsen was far from sapped of subjects to discuss. When it comes to her forthcoming album My Woman, Olsen seemed to feel like she has a lot of explaining to do.
From her home in Asheville, North Carolina, Olsen spoke in a near-soliloquy about transforming her traditionally folky sound to a brighter, more pop-oriented style — while still letting her country roots unfurl jammily in places. (There are two songs on the record’s second half that clock in at over seven minutes apiece.)
My Woman, an album that name-checks gender and self-possession straightaway in its title, is Angel Olsen's third long player. After releasing a twangy freak-folk cassette called Strange Cacti in 2010, Olsen dropped her debut full-length, 2012’s Half Way Home, and then her breakout record, 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness. The latter established her as a thoughtful, poltergeist-voiced solo artist with immense writerly talent. On her most recent album, Olsen, a guitarist, chose to complement her normal means of expression with synths, piano, and a full band.
“Connection is the basis of all human rights, and of beauty,” she said of My Woman’s most prominent narrative theme, which is something like the RuPaul-ish maxim of knowing yourself in order to best know others. The album’s narrator is exploring how her autonomy behaves upon its collision with other people. On “Give It Up,” a plaintive want-you-back love song, she tries to forfeit her selfhood to a lover and finds she can’t, no matter how desperately she might be convinced she wants to. “Sister,” one of the meandering side-B blockbusters, features a list of demands beginning with “I want” that reverse motivations from selfish desire to generous love halfway through: I want...to know you, or, in the track’s most illustrative lines: I want to live life/ I want to die right next to you.
The desires that swirl through My Woman are difficult to pin down. Song titles throw uncautious listeners off the scent of their true subjects—“Pops” is a song about the music industry, if not other paternalistic forces. I dare you to see what makes me a woman, sings Olsen on the defiant, almost-title track, “Woman.” The thing is...for the first time, she really means it. Here, let her tell you all about it.
On My Woman, there are a lot of lyrics about wanting—you’re often demanding things, or giving instructions to the person who’s being addressed. The single “Shut Up Kiss Me” is probably the clearest example.
I have a lot of wants!
It seems like they boil down on the record, mostly, to love.
It addresses love in all different forms. It’s not always romantic—it’s about wanting to break down a connection. It’s a continued theme, if I look at older records. But much more than before, I’m focusing less on isolation.
What were you trying to express that you hadn’t before?
If you only paid attention to the title of the record, [My Woman], you’re gonna hear that it’s about women. But it’s not, necessarily, that it’s about the titles — it’s what these words convey to me. And the power of [putting] two words together, or [using] one word as a title. I’m addressing a lot of stuff that I’ve addressed before, but I feel like I can insert my personality a little bit more.
Is that what inspired you to direct and star in your own videos?
When this record was finished, the label was like, “So, do you plan on making videos? We have a list of people that we really love that we’ve worked with.” I looked at everything, and I was like, These people are all really talented, but what I keep finding to be problematic is that it’s just not relevant to my vision at all. I don’t want to be bitter at someone who’s just trying to make something beautiful. I should just do it myself.
The one thing people are asking me, over and over about both videos, in this pointed way, is, “Are you trying to create a character because you’re afraid of being yourself? What does the wig mean?” I love David Bowie, and I love glam rock, and I rollerskate a lot. I don’t feel like doing my hair — I don’t have a stylist — so I’m going to put a wig on my head. Maybe I’ve trapped myself by writing sincerely and writing words and putting a lot of intention behind my songs. People are afraid to realize or accept that I could have a sense of humor, or just want to have fun, or do something without wanting to put a bunch of meaning into it. In this way, I’ve trapped myself into being this person that has to feel responsible for my sincerity — or for the projected idea of my sincerity.
How does processing people’s responses to what you’ve made, whether in your music or videos, impact your feelings about your work?
I do want to connect with people, yet it is that balancing act of, “I’m not going to give you what you want all the time.” I know what works for me and what doesn’t, and if I push myself, it might be more worth it to me, and less boring, than using the same format over and over just because people like that. They like it when you’re a folk musician, when you sing country songs, and you play solo. They want you to stay that way. The first information that you had about that artist is the way that you remember them — I can’t be bummin’ on people for having an access point.
People might not want to go to side B, ever! But side B is where it’s at for me and my band — it’s where we get to be normal, and ourselves; that’s where we get to show people that I’ve changed and grown. Side A is where I show people, This is what I do, and what I’ve done well. These are new spins on the songs and styles I’ve written in the past. Then you go to side B, and that’s all changed. I don’t know if it’s going to be easy for people to digest.
Was it important for you to have elements of the things that listeners might expect to hear from you on side A in order for you to go long and weird on side B?
I didn’t have any idea or concept in mind when I wrote these different groups of songs. It was after the fact, once they were mixed, that I listened to them all together and obsessed over the perfect playlist in my head.If I were at a party, I’d listen to side A. Then side B comes along, and it starts with a fucking seven-minute and 45-second song. It requires a lot of patience for someone to sit down and listen to.
Recording each individual song, I didn’t know where they were going to fall on the record. It was a very final step. When people ask, “Was there a concept in mind? You titled the record My Woman — it’s obviously conceptual,” and I mean, yeah, it’s like, titles are conceptual. If you can look beyond that, it’s not just about the complicated mess of being a woman, it’s [about] addressing that, because for the first time I’m not afraid to just really literally address it. It’s about fucking time.
We can have a good time and still find meaning in it. I often think about this interview between Barbara Walters and Dolly Parton. Barbara’s asking her, “Why the sudden change to pop music, Dolly?” in her Barbara voice. Dolly says, very simply, “I just want to relate to more people. I don’t want to limit my connection with an audience. I want to reach people the way that I’ve been reached, and I want to do it in a fun way.” I was like, Wow, here are these two very different versions of feminism — Barbara Walters and Dolly Parton — and I’m seeing both interact with each other and reaching me. That’s what you want to do!
Part of Dolly’s generosity to her listeners is in how she presents herself with such humor and levity. Ending the record with “Pops” is a clever nudge in a different way — you made this record very collaboratively, and then pointedly end it by yourself. When else do you play around in your music?
When I’m onstage, and I’m under pressure. If I see people lip-synching with me, and I’m enjoying the attention, but I get caught up, and I’m trying to find the note, and I don’t hit it. In that moment, I feel mortified, and I want to feel embarrassed — Everyone just saw me suck. They saw it live. They saw the face that I made when I sucked. Which is why I want to laugh at myself, instead of being obsessed with those moments all the time. It’s why I never listen to my old albums. It’s like watching myself naked in front of people.
“Not everything I do is about my struggle as a woman. It just so happens to be something I understand a little bit.”
When you make something with the purpose of reaching people, does it make you feel more vulnerable, in case they don’t get it right?
When I’m in the moment in my apartment when there are wires everywhere and I’m sweating because it’s hot and I left my phone in the other room and people are texting me “What are you doing today?” or “You’re supposed to be doing this” or “I want to ask you a couple questions” — I’ve forgotten about it. I’m not on the internet, I’m not on my phone, I’m not even reading anything. I’m just in a weird-ass dark corner of my apartment that sounds cool, playing a song.
It’s just for me in that moment. It’s not even for my band yet. That’s the thing I want to keep when I write. I’m not thinking about how others will compare it to others because I played a certain chord. Because it’s real for me, it could be something that others can carry with them. There is a piece of it that is untold and uncaptured, which will always be mine: Me alone in my apartment, with no one there to take an account but me.
It’s the same with the videos. I know that, behind the scenes, one person and I talked about life and Charles Mingus for 45 minutes, and listened to Bruce Springsteen and almost started crying, and then we shot some more footage. You can’t put that into a video; that’s yours. To me, the side conversations are what creates the symbolism and beauty of the final product.
That idea of suggestion is a throughline on the record. You allow yourself to ask without always knowing what it is you want.
In my early 20s, I thought that one day I’d have it all figured out: my life, my career. I’ll have an apartment or a house, maybe I’ll have a family or maybe I won’t, but I’m going to have answers eventually. I do have some answers, but I find more joy in not needing them. Curiosity can be a source of fulfillment. It can be a freedom.
I’m talking very poetically to you in this interview form. I mean, after this, I’ll go get some lunch; I might get a smoothie and call a friend, and later on, we’ll get drinks and talk about other things. I’m not talking to every single person in my life about these aspects of my writing, and beauty, and answers. I still like to go rollerskating. I still want to go to a party and hang out and not have to explain my philosophical state in my life and career. It’s finding this balance of dissecting the process and realizing things while I’m saying them to you, but if I were somebody else, I’d nudge myself like, “Angel. ANGEL! Stop talking! Have fun!” You might even be happy with less information. But I love talking about it, and I have a lot to say right now. Maybe some of it doesn’t make sense. I just want to express it.
There’s room for all of it—like how you skate in your videos!
As a kid growing up, what got me into trouble was, I thought about symbolism in everything. It was beautiful — I could turn a piece of cardboard into a paper doll, and in my head, that doll would be the princess of Ireland. I gave symbols that I created power. But when I give certain people or events in my life too much symbolism, I can get caught up. Some things aren’t about that! Some things should be light, and represent only what they are in that moment. I’m attracted to a lot of my closest friends because they’re not like me, and will say, “You’re taking yourself too seriously! Let’s go do something fun. Can we stop talking about the role that you have, and just go out?” But this is my nature. It’s the nature of the beast.
It’s a vocational thing—being observant is part of your job. It’s not part of most other people’s jobs, and that’s okay. There are parts of other people’s job descriptions that aren’t included in yours, you know?
Work sometimes feels like a curse, even if it’s artistic work. You’re making stuff that’s cool, and fun, and hip, but you have to show up and be responsible to that work for a long time after, even if your writing or message has changed. You have to let go of your past symbolism. I’m not going to read this article. I’m not going to worry about it. I just hope I can get some of my message across.
What have felt you’ve most wanted to clarify about that message?
I got a question in Europe that was like, “Are you afraid of losing your male fans because of the title of your record?” First of all, why would you choose that question at the very top of the interview? Secondly, why would I ever worry about losing male fans because of an album title? Thirdly, if I lost them, why should I worry about losing the presence of those kinds of fans in my life in any capacity?
I’ve had to explain that, while I have feminist values and, on a lot of this album, I’m talking about the struggles of being a woman, it’s not, like, the reason why I make music. Not everything I do is about my struggle as a woman. It just so happens to be something I understand a little bit, because I didn’t have any other option. I’m in this world as a woman. I eat salad as a woman. I go to the store as a woman. I take a shit as a woman. I have a little bit of a different perspective, just naturally! With this record, I’m daring people to look beyond the title, and the tags, and the access points, and to see that the writing is not all about one thing. It’s about the struggle of connection, and how that’s the base of many other struggles.
People pick and choose who they want to be accepting of. Politically and culturally, these subjects come up over and over. Human nature is to conquer and separate, unfortunately. But we’re coming to a head. This is a different time. People are speaking out. They’re angry. Millennials, people who have been told they’re lazy and privileged, are speaking out about the things that they see. Fear is a polarizing factor right now, and it’s forcing people to realize what they stand for.
Who are some people that you admire, or political initiatives that galvanize you, in that respect?
Meredith Graves. Here’s this girl who’s a journalist for [MTV], a pop publication, but she’s got a message. If you look beyond how it can be paradoxical to be a journalist and be punk, you don’t have to be one or the other. I look up to comedians. We’ll look back on Louis CK 30 years from now. Even if sometimes he’s saying shit I don’t agree with that comes off as sexist, I’ve forgiven and looked past that, because he is an important reflector of our culture that I can’t ignore.
I also really love Susan Sarandon. She’s an actress, she’s very sexy and unashamed, and she’s a powerful woman. At this point in her career, she’s been focusing a lot of her energy on politics, versus trying to cultivate the image of the career she’s created. She’s taken her power and used it to shed light on something.
I’m not saying I’m the best writer or the most realized person, but I’m working on it. [On the record], I’m addressing that I’m not ashamed of being a woman. Being a woman and saying “my woman” on a record should not be dirty. It should be me living my life and making art, and the fact that it isn’t is a serious problem, and I’m not going to ignore it. But is it the main issue? There’s a deeper issue that we’re dealing with, with war, with money, with politics. The issue, to me, is human connection — seeing and valuing another’s perspective, no matter who they are or what they believe in, and sharing that.