When Angel Olsen sings, her otherworldly voice soars: a room-filling, spectral wail that perfectly matches her melancholy but hopeful songs. Honing her voice singing along to her parents’ records and being in a funny “private school ska band” while growing up in Missouri, she eventually found a home in Chicago. During her time in the Second City, she released two stunning albums and many singles through Bathetic Records.
Now signed to Jagjaguwar and living in Asheville, NC, her new album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, reaches the affecting and beautiful heights she’s previously reached. On the LP, Olsen’s voice still soars but with added potency from a full band and John Congelton’s subtly muscular production. Recorded in an abandoned chapel, it’s a hauntingly intimate collection of songs ranging from the chugging, distorted “Forgiven/Forgotten” to the sprawling “High & Wild” and the understated yet cathartic “Enemy”.
Olsen recently spoke to Consequence of Sound‘s Josh Terry over the phone from her new home in Asheville. She discussed leaving Chicago, the excitement surrounding her new album, the inherent competition surrounding “sad songwriters,” and her own writing process.
Before moving to Asheville, you had lived in Chicago for seven years. Did the city not feel like a permanent home?
Yeah, it seemed like it was time to move on. A lot of my friends were getting jobs outside of Chicago. Whether they were opening businesses or getting married, everyone was changing. Moving just seemed like the most natural thing to do. It wasn’t like I hated Chicago. It’s more that I needed something else. I needed to be in a place that’s less like a city but instead had trees everywhere.
While you’ve always had a following, a lot of people are excited for Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Besides the move to Asheville, how did things change for you last year?
Well, I’ve been getting a band together within the last year, and I’ve been trying to get used to that. It’s a little stressful sometimes, just because it’s a totally different thing to go out there with a band than it is to write songs by myself. But I’m learning a lot about how it all works.
We just added a new member to the Angel Olsen band, which is my friend Emily Elhaj. She used to work at Reckless Records in Chicago and was a buyer there. So, she’s playing bass for us, and then Stewart [Bronaugh], who was playing bass, will now be playing guitar [along with Josh Jaeger on drums]. So, I’ve just been really focusing on working with others a lot, which has been cool.
Last year, you signed with Jagjaguwar after spending your formative years with Bathetic Records. While Jagjaguwar isn’t a huge label, how has working with them changed the making of the new album?
I still feel like I’m in control of my writing process. I don’t feel like they’ve ever pressured me to cut or add a song. I’ve always been pretty stubborn about what I want. And I think that no matter who I work with, even if they’re easy people to get along with, I put what I want out there so people know that I’m not fucking around [laughs]. But at the same time, they’ve been really awesome and supportive of my…stubbornness [laughs].
I didn’t even really share the demos with them until two to three weeks beforehand. I didn’t even send the demos to [producer] John Congleton until three weeks before recording. It’s kind of crazy, getting ready to go into the studio and not having sent the demos [laughs].
Speaking of John Congleton, the songs on Burn Your Fire have this powerful edge to them, but it’s not too far of a departure from Half Way Home. How was working with him?
I think a lot of people, or at least friends of mine, would say, “Wow, you really changed your sound.” But I wrote “Sweet Dreams” before I put out Half Way Home. It’s an old song. While I feel like I was kind of ready to write new material, I had all this old material that I never put out. Also, I went on tour with somebody else, and I focused on their musical career, dedicating my time to learning about that instead of writing.
With Half Way Home, it was kind of like, “Alright, I guess I should really do this and try to support myself and see if I can play this music.” And then, by the time it came out, I was already writing totally different kind of material. I think that the band kind of fell together and everything sort of came into place.
By the time I met John, it was very clear within the first few days that he understood what I was going for and the sound I was going for. I sent him a variation of different emails, describing what I wanted for each song, how some songs were just me and a guitar, and hoping that’d be fine. I wasn’t really used to working with somebody who had a name or anything. I’ve kind of always worked with friends of mine or people I definitely trusted. It’s always kind of weird putting yourself out there for a complete stranger. You’re gonna hang with a complete stranger to have them interpret what your vibe is! [laughs]
That must have been intimidating.
It was. It was intimidating because the demos were a rough draft, and I knew they weren’t going to sound like this. Because they were just of me and a guitar with some overdubs. Every now and then I’d send a shitty version of us practicing one of the new songs. They were just really badly recorded versions of the songs. But by the time we got in there, I think he understood what the band was to me and how I felt about their input on, like, drum parts. Everyone got along after the first few days and was really quiet and relaxed.
Though, I actually lost my voice immediately [laughs]. If I’m ever really nervous about a trip or whatever, sometimes I’ll get really sick and not sleep well. So, I hardly slept and got sick for the first few days, and I thought, “Shit man, I spent all this money, and now I need to use this time” [laughs].
And you guys recorded the album in only 10 days, right?
Yeah, we finished because I am crazy, I guess [laughs]. Two weeks before we went in there, me, and Stewart, and Josh listened to rough versions of the songs. I had introduced them to half of the [new album's] material earlier that year, and we had been practicing it in different ways. Finally, I said, “Listen, I want to come up with definite parts, and we need to talk about it. We should definitely practice and figure out what we sound like before we get into the studio and find what we want to add so we don’t waste any time.”
We ended up taking a week or so beforehand to record ourselves and listen back and talk about parts we might want to add. Stewart ended up coming up with a bunch of keyboard parts, I think one for “Stars”. I remember telling him, “Could you play the part for ‘High & Wild’ like this?” And he would replicate the sound I was making. [Laughs.] There were a lot of times where I would make a sound, and they would replicate it or come up with something similar. Then we’d think, “Let’s try it.” It was kind of a very organic and family experience for me. By the time we got into the studio, John jumped into that, too, but he didn’t take it over. He was very tactful about it so it was great to work with him.
Last year, in an interview, you mentioned writing songs in twos, songs that were like twins in your mind. So, how do the songs on the new album work together? They feel really cohesive both musically and thematically.
Yeah, I don’t know if it worked out quite the same way because what happened was I wrote “Enemy” before even Half Way Home came out, as well as a song called “May as Well”. Then, I wrote some of the material right before I went on tour for Half Way Home, and then a lot of the material over Thanksgiving and the holidays.
I had been traveling with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang for a really long time off and on. We had breaks and stuff, but for the first time, I really, really wanted my alone time. After I got home from tour and I moved into a new place, I was so psyched about it. I would hang out with friends and be like, “This is fun. I’m having fun. But I’m gonna go home now because I want to write things, and I don’t want to be around people.” And that just sort of happened to me quite a bit this year. So, a lot of the songs were written over time during the winter and fall. I wrote “White Fire” and “Unfucktheworld” last.
You wrote “Unfucktheworld” last? Because that song, along with “Enemy” on the new one, seem like the most natural successors to your earlier work. You know, there’s been a lot of talk about you changing your sound, but those two tracks seem related, in a way.
I guess I can hear that in “Unfucktheworld”. I like that it starts off the album, because you’re not going to expect it. But also I like some of the quieter jams towards the end, because people get the idea in their head that it’s a rock album at a certain point and then realize it’s something else.
Though, I think, ultimately, people in the record business and anybody who is interested in music wants to hear a huge change, or want to hear something entirely new and different, and want to hear that done well. I think the label was trying to promote that, but at the same time, it’s kind of like, “Man, sometimes I just like the song ‘Enemy’ the best.” And the rest of it is fine. I think that’s just how it is as a writer. You find things that are most true to you, and then you find people like the other songs more.
Lyrically, there’s a lot of diving into toxic relationships, loneliness, and trying to figure things out. What else were you trying to explore with Burn Your Fire for No Witness?
I’m not sure, actually. It wasn’t really a full concept. It was more just different reflections or ideas that I had. But, I guess overall, for example in “Iota”, it’s this dreamy song with not a lot of pitch changes. It’s not crazy, but, for me, the writing is pretty dark. For me, it’s like, “It sucks because nothing is going your way, and you can’t have everything you want, but then life wouldn’t be life.”
And I I don’t know if it’s something I’m intending to do. I’m not trying to write like a triumphant work, novel, or album. I’m not trying to write a piece about the human condition. It’s more about my human condition, what I experience in everyday life with my friends, what I’ve seen around me that I’ve somehow found a fault with.
You used to tour with Will Oldham and the Cairo Gang. Did they have any major effect on your songwriting?
It’s possible. I did spend a lot of time learning Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs. I didn’t think so at the time, but when I wrote “Tiniest Seed”, I look back on it and think, “Wow, I literally wrote it when I was in the van on tour with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.” [Laughs.] I think us working together and the different kinds of stresses and travel that we did together really inspired a lot of my writing and brought a lot of self-reflection. Part of me was, though, “Okay, I’m really interested in doing this because I’m learning in this van with these people, and I get to the travel the world.”
It’s really hard to say no to this, but I keep getting these offers to tour with them. It’s really difficult to say no when you’re happy with something. There was this inner struggle to say, “I’m writing, too, and I should probably do that.” And, so, I think the inspiration came from a lot of creative issues and self issues, things that I never confronted with anyone else that I only confronted with myself.
Also, there were just a lot of changes around me. Many of my friends were leaving town, and many of my friendships were changing a lot because I was gone all the time. I think when you’re gone all the time, you learn who your friends are very immediately. Sometimes that can be really sad, and sometimes that can be really great. Now, a lot of my closest friends are people who work in the music industry or travel places and move around a lot.
Also, a couple months ago, you played a show with Neko Case. That must have been amazing.
Yeah, that was really fun!
So, on future tours, who do you want to play with?
It’s hard to say. I don’t know. I’m open to anything, really. I kind of like the idea of performing with a totally different kind of artist, who plays completely different music. I like performing with people who play ambient rock or noise rock because it’s a totally different feeling.
I really love supporting lady friends and lady singers, but at the same time, there’s something sort of awful, without even realizing it, about the kind of competitiveness it’s designed to be like. You get three sad songwriters on the bill, even if they’re all male, it’s like, “Whose songs are the saddest?” It’s not supposed to be like this. It’s supposed to be an experience where everybody has a different thing to bring to the table, or otherwise it’s just a contest.
Though I really like playing with people like Neko Case, or even opening for Kurt Vile. It’s really cool, but I think I like playing shows where something unexpected or something more totally abstract is happening. I don’t know. That’s just me, though.
You start your own tour pretty soon. How are you prepping for that?
I went to Nashville to practice with the new band and hang out with my friends. So, we’re getting ready for that and going to get a big van this tour. I guess I’m just savoring every last bit of free time and relaxation that I can because it’s going to be a very long trip. It’ll basically be a month touring, then a week off, then a month, then a week off, et cetera. [laughs]
I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also not going to think or worry about it until it’s happening. I know there’s a lot of press and excitement surrounding what’s happening, but I’m also avoiding the Internet and avoiding anything that has to do with the album until I have to perform it. Because performing it is a totally different world. I’m psyched that my album’s out, but it’s also like, “Cool, I made an album, but now I have to perform it for like a year and a half [laughs].
Angel Olsen’s new album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is out 2/18 via Jagjaguwar.