Angel Olsen: I'm a humanist
Photo by Zia Anger
After stints in St. Louis and Chicago, Angel Olsen's wanderlust has swept the rising folk-rock singer to a life in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. Initially gaining traction as a weirdo member of Will Oldham's (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) pajama-clad band, Olsen secured a deal with Bathetic Records and released Half Way Home in 2012, building a real following to her anguished and moving artistry. Her career is on the rise again following the February release (via Jagjaguwar) of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, a folk-pop tour-de-force that vacillates between pained introspection and foot-stomping wit.
Ahead of tonight's performance at the Cedar Cultural Center, Gimme Noise checked in with Olsen about life in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the fleeting nature of success.
Gimme Noise: How was your experience touring in Europe?
Angel Olsen: Even though it was fun, you kind of feel drained. Everything is exotic and you get to see the different way that people live. You experience all of these different kinds of environments and interactions. At the same time, you get home and it feels really good to just go to the grocery store or talk to somebody who speaks your language. So I think it's good to be back for a minute.
The response to Burn Your Fire for No Witness the record has been pretty overwhelmingly positive. But it seems like all of the attention provokes a somewhat conflicted response from you. How do you cope with the speed of your own success?
It's hard for me to wrap my mind around it. I didn't expect [my last album] Half Way Home to do well, and I didn't know what to expect with this one. I'm getting used to putting out music and touring and changing and for people to watch those changes in my writing and personally. But no matter how successful you feel you are there is always gonna be someone who is like "I really liked you when you were solo and not very successful." It happens to friends of mine who are also artists, and I guess it is kind of a way of knowing if you have succeeded in some way, if somebody's like "Oh, you're too popular now."
As an artist, the biggest pressure is knowing that you can do something really great one year, but then the next year you might not have any idea what you're doing. You can become really successful for a period of time, and then ten years later you could be working at Whole Foods.
Did this mindset have anything to do with your choosing to relocate to Asheville, North Carolina, within the last year?
In a way, I guess. I needed a change, and a lot of my friends lived in Asheville and a lot of my other friends were spread throughout the country so I would see them on tour anyway. I really enjoy it because it's mellow. You can come home from a long trip and it's really quiet. The things that you do for fun are like, go to the movies, or a bonfire, or a hike. It's a different way of living. In Chicago you come home and it smells bad and it's loud and you've got bills and people contacting you. You go to the grocery store and run into everyone you know because everyone lives in the same hip part of town. I like not knowing everyone.
What went into the writing on Burn Your Fire for No Witness?
I really wanted to experiment with playing louder material and making things more musical. Putting a band together opened up a lot of possibilities. It's a very unique work for me to reflect on because it all happened within one year. I'm used to things being spread out; I don't like to force writing and I have no idea what would be next. I hope to continue playing with a band, that's for sure.
Is there a song that especially resonates with you?
They've changed so much in the revision process that I feel like they are living on their own. I really like playing "High-Five" and also "Enemy" because they are so different from each other. "High-Five" sounds so sarcastic and fun and it's kind of a reminder to me that I need to have a good attitude. "Enemy" is one of the songs that started from being disappointed by friends and then just exaggerating on that thought. For days I would go back to it and reword it and change it to say things I wanted to express. It's like I was fighting with a ghost. It was this problem that I created in order to write something that exists in real life. It's like all of the things you wanted to say to somebody when they pissed you off but you never got to say it. Like in High Fidelity when he thinks about punching the guy in the face and beating him up in all of these ways and then the only thing he can say is like "Hey, whats up." It can be cool to get into that mindset and just imagine that.
In a completely different realm, many people approach you and your music with the assumption that feminism is on the forefront, but as I understand that's not something you are trying to push.
It's really obnoxious. I mean it's all well intended, you know? So I happen to be a woman. It doesn't mean that only women deal with these issues or only women write about these issues. They are relatable to people because we're human and they should be. It's the same with books. The word feminism confuses me, and not in a negative way. It's just like why put yourself apart even more? It's always been a struggle, it's always been separate. I get that. But don't support it by separating yourself further. Live your life and be strong as a human being and if someone responds to some issue by saying "Oh it's because you're a woman" than they are just really narrow-minded.
Sure it can seem counterproductive, but to play devil's advocate some might consider that outlook a pretty strong form of feminism in and of itself.
Yeah, yeah. It's just unfortunate because there's no nice way to say it without appearing like you're not a supporter of feminism to some people. Yeah, I'm a woman, whatever; it's not about that. My music is supposed to be relatable to all people. I don't know. In some ways it's like we want to be heard and this is a way we can be heard if we all join together, I agree with that. I think everyone should join together and be heard. I just don't think it should have a name that takes it back to the beginning. I'm a humanist!
What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
As much as I enjoy writing and touring and all of that, I really look forward to just being able to have down time and live and go camping. I feel very pleased that I can work this much in the first place and that I am able to and people are receiving what I am doing and that it facilitates how I live right now. I can just keep going. What I've learned to appreciate in the success of an album like this is that I really like peace and quiet. That would really make me happy to just have a spa day and not see anybody and not even listen to music. It would be nice to have a few weeks to not even think about music or the image that's projected of my personality, you know, just like be a person. That makes me happy.
Angel Olsen plays at the Cedar Cultural Center on Thursday, May 1 with Promised Land Sound and The Awful Truth. $12/$15, 7 p.m. Info.
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