Angel Olsen got her wings (ahem) honing perfecto back-up vocals for alt-roots acts like Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang, but soon enough struck out on her own with her first solo record, Strange Cacti, in 2011. Well, “struck out” is a bit too aggressive a term for the lilting, distant, mountain music ghosts that float around her folk strolls. But after some acclaim, strengthening her tour road legs, and cobbling together a working band, Olsen sets out a little stronger on her new third LP, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar), as she and producer John Congleton scoot organs, fuzzier guitars and some more miffed lyrics into Olsen’s aura, amping up a touch the ’50s melodies and garagey ramble of her new whole-band leanings. Raised in St. Louis and then moving to Chicago, Olsen’s music has the weathered spirit of someone who grew up dealing with too much weather. Maybe that’s why she recently moved to Asheville, North Carolina.
I’ve gone around North Carolina, but I’ve never been to Asheville. I hear it’s the got largest amount of vegetarian restaurants per capita in the United States.
No way! It’s got to be in Portland.
That’s what I’ve always heard, and that’s why I want to go visit.
Well it’s possible. For the size of Asheville, I think it’s got a lot of vegetarian restaurants. So yeah why don’t we talk about vegetarian restaurants!
Sure! Are you a vegetarian?
No, but I love vegetarian food!
So what do you think of Asheville so far?
Well, the people are nicer. They’re hippies, I mean it’s calm. I see people playing bongos in the street, and you’re slightly annoyed at first. But then you’re kind of like, “Wow, I live in a place where that can happen.”
So you move to Asheville and claim that it’s more calm, but your newest record is a little more fuzzy, anxious, a little less calm—is that correct?
Sure, yeah. It is not very calm.
How do you think that worked? Now you have to be extra anxious to make up for moving away from Chicago to a calmer locale?
Maybe. I think wanting to move probably inspired a lot of that anxiety, and now I get to enjoy being in a different place and learning about it. And now, also I’ll be traveling a lot of the year, so it’ll be nice to come home to a place that’s very very slow.
What is your touring lineup like; and did that have anything to do with moving?
I think I was just ready for it. To my band I was like, “Sorry, I’m moving away,” but then I ended up moving, and the drummer moved to Louisville where he’s from, and Stewart moved back to Nashville.
So you just get together to practice when you can, like right before a tour?
Yeah. They are awesome. We’re all of the mindset that if you make a mistake, it’s part of the performance. We practiced about a week ago in Nashville for ten days because we just got a new bass player.
Do you have a little more of confidence when you’re playing with other people than when you’re up there just by yourself? Do you feel a little looser, like you can defer sometimes?
Yeah, definitely! I think too, with a band sometimes, the more minimal songs are the most challenging because the changes are very subtle, and I often will change things while I’m on stage, which is frustrating for most people. But I don’t get mad at them if they can’t follow when I change something because that’s the rule: if I change something, they don’t know where the fuck I’m going, so we are going to fuck up at some point. But a lot of the time, if we’re kind of listening in on each other and looking at each other, we understand what will happen and it’s fine. And I much prefer that to a calculated set. I really hate when you go to see a band and the album is really great, but you see them live and it’s like, “Wow, they practice a lot, they’re really good, but there’s just no feeling in it.”
Lyrically when you change things and you say the others just have to go along with it, do you feel like you still really stick to your lyrics?
I pretty much stick to my lyrics. Sometimes, with the bigger band, it’s cooler to have more breaks. In performance, they’re not meant to be the same. But I never really cut out verses, unless I feel like, for some reason, the song is half-assed or something. But then I decide the song is half-assed, so I don’t do it. If I feel confident about something, then I’m going to perform it and I’ll sing it and share it with them, and if I don’t then I won’t. So yeah I feel like my lyrics have a lot to do with the way things are designed in the song, and they kind of always will be. But now I am more open to having more just music happening.
Like on your new album. I don’t want to say it’s “bigger production,” because that always sounds like there’re horns and string sections. But I guess I mean there’s more instrumentation, more reverb on your vocals, etc.
John Congelton’s work is in there, I think he has a style of putting drums and bass kind of up front, and I really like that. But I knew what direction I was going in because I’d been working with my friends in this band all year, and so I knew my sound was changing. Maybe nobody else can know that, maybe some people have only heard me with them. But I know the difference, so I was like, cool I’m ready to try to record something that is a combination of the dryness of my previous full length and the drenched dreaminess of the first thing that I put out.
Do you feel like this is more of a band sound in a way?
Yeah, we recorded a lot of it live. I didn’t record my vocals live because I actually was sick for the first few days. But for the most part, I feel like it’s not over-produced, there are just more people involved in the sound. And the sounds that I wanted were kind of a landscape of those really different spaces for each song. Like the first song, Unfuck The World, is very much like the very first thing I ever put out, and then the second song is like, “Woah, this is very different than everything else.” I think John and I both got that idea, we were both connecting on that level. We were like, “Every song is going to be a different scene.”
You have a really dreamy quality about your voice, but when you need to you can really belt it out, like you actually like to sing. And I know that sounds obvious to say to a singer, but there’s so much—especially just in the general, current indie rock world—there is so much over-reverb on everything, and lyrically and vocally it’s sort of a wash. And to me a lot of that is just covering up, like maybe you just can’t sing and you’re using effects to try make it interesting. Call me crazy, but I like singing! I like people who try to sing and belt out things and hit notes. Some songs on your new record, High and Wild and High Five particularly, I feel like there are moments where you’re really trying to project something, genuinely, and I think that’s perfectly fine to say. People think I’m talking like I’m some huge Judy Garland fan, which I am, but do you feel like it’s okay to be proud of singing? And is that a really important thing to you? Because you hear a lot of half-assed indie rock singing these days.
Yeah, this is my struggle with myself and my writing. The way that I write sometimes doesn’t always give me the opportunity to use the voice I want to use. And so, when working with Will or singing as a backup singer, I discovered all these things about my voice. It was just like, “Holy shit, when I sing other people’s music, I can really do this thing.” And sometimes I’ll hit a note, sometimes I won’t, but because I’m doing it for someone else I’m working a lot harder. Then I started to realize that I wanted to take the way when I was maybe imitating someone, like if I was listening to Candi Staton and I was like okay, I can’t sing like her, I’m not going to try to sing like her, but if I’m joking around with a friend and I know I suddenly half-ass it I’m like wow, I’m almost there! So why can’t I do that when I write my own songs?
It’s almost like people are afraid to admit that. It’s like that line in The Simpsons years ago where the kid’s in the in the crowd at Lollapalooza or whatever, and as he’s watching Homer take the cannonball in his stomach, the “slacker” kid says, “Oh, that smacks of effort.” And I feel like that’s this feeling that like if you admit that you’re trying to really do something well, that somehow people don’t think it’s “authentic” or something? It’s weird.
I think that if they’re trying to absolutely replicate something that’s one thing. But if you discover how to use your voice, and what your most competent pitch is, you use it well at the right time, and you learn how to write, it’s all about finding what you feel most comfortable doing and practicing that. I like to think about vocalists a lot. Think about Don Covay and his singing, and how much Mick Jagger sounds like Don Covay. And it’s kind of funny because the Rolling Stones covered a lot of Don Covay’s songs. At first I was pissed! I was l like, “Man, why are they trying to steal a song?” But everybody was kind of trying to have a soulful sound then, everyone loved that kind of music and they went for it. You can’t be mad at them, they did it well.
Plus I think when you’re growing up and you’re just listening to records, you’re first inclination when you’re seven, eight, nine years old, or when you’re first starting to buy records, you sort of just naturally try to go and sing like that record. Because you don’t know who you are yet, you don’t know what your voice is yet, you’re just singing along to record and before you know it, boom. I loved Mick Jagger when I was a kid, and I liked Iggy Pop and stuff, so before you know it, it’s like, “Oops.” It’s just like the inflections and cadences you pick up, and then you find your own voice later in your teens and early twenties. And you can’t help…I mean Mick’s going to sound like other old blues dudes cause that’s kind of what he was listening to. You can tell it was blatantly just copying, that’s just obvious. But in the end you have to find your own thing.
I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I know that I can use my voice in a lot of different ways and I’m learning how to experiment with my own writing, to sing the way that I want to sing because I know I can do it, it’s just that I’m so focused on making sure that my writing is getting across. But it’s not always about the writing…
Where do you think you are now? Do you think you’re a better lyricist or singer?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t want to be arrogant, I think no matter where I am I think everyone has room to learn something else about their voice, or their writing if they’re a musician. And I think there are some songs that are definitely focused on only the writing. The song, Enemy, I’m like, “Okay, that was a writing song.” To me I don’t hear that song and think, “I want to hear this everyday.” Like if I were a listener I would probably skip that song sometimes. It’s heavy, and it’s like a long letter or something. Whereas something like Forgive/Forgotten is like two minutes and thirty seconds, so it’s got a lot of power and that’s it. And it’s not very cerebral, and that’s cool too. I like playing songs like that, I like writing songs like that, and my voice sometimes comes out more in those songs.
Yeah I don’t know if this song would fall into that, but High Five to me was kind of like that. It’s one of the more, I guess you could say “faster” ones on your new album. But your singing on it is awesome. It sounded to me like kind of a country song. Who are some of your favorite country singers, and do you have the requisite disdain for modern country, or do you still try and keep an ear open to that?
I don’t listen to modern country because I think it’s all about cars, girls and muscles.
“Bro Country” I believe they call it.
(Laughs) Yeah! There was that one song, what was it, “Makes me wanna roll my window down.” Do you know it?
(Laughs) Sadly, yes.
I love it! I actually like that song.
There’s a really fucked up video for it, if I remember correctly. Speaking of modernizing, it seems like everybody inevitably, for good or worse, seems they need to do some dancey, remix, collaboration whatever. There’s nothing like that planned in your future is there?
Oh god no, no, not yet. Maybe in a few years when all of that’s like, done over.