Dance Slow Decades: Angel Olsen Interviewed

After a year of intense touring, Angel Olsen sits down with Jeremy Allen in Rouen, France to discuss vocal techniques, her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness and where she's heading next

Photo by Kelly Giarrocco

The train from Saint Lazare is bound for Rouen, and as we move towards the Normandy city aboard one of its carriages, the sun rushes through the windows. Everyone in the carriage is still like Tuilerie garden statues in dark sunglasses, and as Angel Olsen sings ‘Acrobat’ (from her 2012 debut Half Way Home) into my ears, I’m having a moment. It’s not Angel in person you understand, I have headphones in.

There’s something dreamily cinematic about Olsen’s music, and for a few seconds I feel like I’ve been transported into a film directed by Jim Jarmusch or maybe the Coen Brothers – a reflective moment at the denouement of the movie before the credits roll (Angel will later say that she imagines her songs as scenes from films.)

Burn Your Fire For No Witness is one of my favourite records of 2014. The songs veer from baroque country to punk, with Angel taking on personas and personalities, always thought through, never phoned in. One minute she’s playing the victim in a relationship, the other she plays the victor, and on ‘Stars’ she even threatens to become an immanent universal force communicating rage through God’s creatures on earth and the luminous, far away, shiny objects in the night sky. It’s a feast of the imagination.

Rouen has certainly seen some high drama in its time (including the burning of Joan Of Arc in 1431) though it’s difficult to imagine so on this hazily sunny day in a city that looks this, well, ordinary. Around half the city was burnt to the ground in June 1940, including parts of its historic quarter between the cathedral and the Seine, described as "one of the perfect gems of Middle Ages architecture in Europe" according to US newspaper the Eugene Register-Guard (reporting on the enquiry into the fire in November 1942). Thankfully a lot of it still remains.

The inferno was apparently started by a Nazi tank which attempted to force itself down a narrow street and was fired upon by a French tank. The doomed armoured vehicle nuzzled into a rubble and timber house spilling flaming fuel, ultimately setting the town on fire. This goes some way to explaining why in pockets of Rouen you feel as though you could be anywhere – in Coventry or Plymouth or parts of Manchester. There’s indeed still plenty to catch the eye, and it would be remiss to talk of Rouen’s architecture without mentioning the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, a histrionic 12th century high gothic edifice that looks like Beetlejuice’s wedding cake (for the record, Notre-Dame replaced an old wooden church that was also burnt to the ground by Vikings in the 9th century).

Unfortunately, at the venue it seems that Angel Olsen is unwell. ‘She’s sick and she’s losing her voice,’ manager Mark Capon informs me as I arrive at the venue while the soundcheck is still in progress sans-voix, before adding: ‘and when I tell her she has another interview lined up, I know she’s not going to want to do it.’

Horror on horror’s head! Angel and her band have been touring since February and it’s beginning to take it’s toll, while Angel herself appears to have picked up a bug during her UK dates that’s affecting her throat, calling tonight’s show into question. Olsen – who grew up in St Louis, Missouri, moved to Chicago and recently decamped to Asheville, North Carolina – seems to have been constantly on tour around the world for the last three or four years now. She started out as a backing singer with Will Oldham aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, before touring with him a solo artist (according to an article in Spin, the eventual parting was "amicable but awkward"). This isn’t the first time she’s been at Le 106 – an old warehouse hangar on the Rive Gauche converted into a concert hall – having visited with Oldham a couple of years ago.

Do you get to wander around the cities you play in?

Angel Olsen: Sometimes if we arrive very early, but load-in is usually 3pm, soundcheck is 4pm, and then you’re just locked in to it. I dunno, it depends how early you get there or if you have a day off. But usually you get to see a city before anything opens in the morning.

Rouen is where the English burnt Joan of Arc to death, so I’d personally like to take this opportunity to apologise for that.

AO: Haha, don’t worry…

So are you actually going to be able to play tonight?

AO: I think the plan is if I can’t sing anymore then I’ll play guitar as much as possible. I mean people paid to come to the gig, I can’t just not be on stage and perform in some way. What else do you do? I’ve never talked to anyone about it. What happens when your voice disappears? Do you cancel the show? Do you just walk away? It just seems unfair to the people who came to see you. They can at least see you. I dunno…

Has it happened to you before?

AO: It’s only happened to me as a backing singer and I felt pretty useless as I was being paid. It only lasted 24 hours, and I was actually drinking wine in Australia with everyone when I shouldn’t have been, and I guess the wine was really… or maybe it was the good company… but eventually by the end of the night I got my voice back.

Just get pissed then.

AO: [Laughs] Maybe.

I guess it was quite a brave thing for you to do to leave the Will Oldham arrangement, especially when you’re ensconced in a successful troupe and you’re being paid a wage.

AO: Yeah, maybe. The security of having a place in his band was cool, but I knew that it would come to an end. I knew it was a temporary thing because musicians change and artists change and they need other people to be involved in their work. So I understood that it definitely had a time frame for it, and also my album [Half Way Home] was coming out so it seemed wrong to stick around and say I was as fully committed as I had been, because then I’d be misleading myself. I think if I’d stayed then I would have been resentful that I hadn’t fully promoted my own music, resentful but mostly from a resentment that I’d created.

Did the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy association help you?

AO: I think it always helps if you’re working with people who are associated for promoters and stuff like that, and I’m sure people have found my music through him, but I don’t know…

It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll like it.

AO: Yeah, they could check out anybody’s music in the band and think ‘that’s okay, I’m glad they’re working together’. The first time it really occurred to me that I could go on tour myself was in Australia when someone was like, you know, riding Will: ‘does Angel want to play these shows while you’re here?’ and as much as most people would feel ‘this is an opportune moment for me’, I wanted to be respectful to him because I wouldn’t have been able to go there in the first place if it wasn’t for him. So I said ‘no’. And then the offers kept coming to me, or kept coming to John Hency who’d been running this tiny label [Bathetic], and he said ‘listen, you need to talk to someone I trust who was there for me when I really needed someone’. I met Mark a few months later who sort of organised everything.

If you’re your own artist and you write your own songs, you feel like a roadie playing for someone else every night, surely?

AO: You never want to put too much of your personality into it, and you just try and input your personality when it’s needed. And I definitely tried to hold back a lot when I was with them, because I didn’t feel I needed to sing it like I’d want to sing it, I wanted my voice to blend well with everyone else. I wanted to use it in different ways, and I think it made me learn that I could use my voice in different ways for my own music. At one show we’ll be in a really loud pub and I’ll play that song abstractly, and then in another place it’s a very respectful, quiet club, and it’s like a very polished version of the same thing. I think a lot of things change with each performance.

Speaking of performance, didn’t you find your drummer in a café you were working in?

AO: Well we both worked at the same café but we worked at different times, so we didn’t really know each other that well. And I’d heard that he played music but I didn’t really know what he was doing. I never felt inclined to say ‘let’s hang out’, you know. Then eventually I left for a New York tour and they said ‘are you coming back?’ I ended up not coming back because I don’t need to anymore – I want to spend my time doing this thing – even if I need to eventually come back to the café. But right now I don’t need that so I’m not going to.

You’re signed to Jagjaguwar now, and a cottage industry has almost grown up around you…

AO: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of weird. It’s hard to say how long any of it will last. You could be fortunate one year and then the next five years you’re struggling. I try hard not to think about it too much, or let it make me feel like I’m digressing as a writer or anything. But I think coming back from a European tour and selling out large venues with Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy to this crappy café where doctors order huge amounts of food and are rude to me and don’t tip is very much a slap in the face. At the end of the day you’re a person, and when somebody treats you badly you’ll recognise it. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in front of thousands of people at night and having to make a latte in the daytime.

Here in France it works better because the waiting staff are rude to the customers instead.

AO: I understand that people hate their jobs. I think there’s a certain kind of understand – especially in France – that people in the service industry are going to be as straightforward as possible. There’ll be no pretentious ‘welcome to our beautiful café!’

It’s the opposite to America isn’t it?

AO: In America it’s so annoying. You’re like ‘stop talking to me, I’m still looking at the menu’.

You’ve moved around a lot. You were in Chicago, and now you’ve moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Why?

AO: A lot of the people I’ve been working with have settled there. And as I was gone a lot on tour with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy my friendships became fewer, which I think was a good thing. I found out who my real close friends were being gone all the time. But also I didn’t feel attached to the city anymore, and if I wasn’t travelling I wanted to be in a place that calmed me and that was the opposite of the city, the opposite of constant sirens. I moved to North Carolina and I think a lot of people think it’s too hippy or you’ll get too lazy but I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll stay there forever but right now it’s the place for me. I don’t want a lot of activity when I’m home, and it’s really beautiful.

You come from St Louis originally. We Europeans don’t know anything about Missouri other than that it’s in the middle somewhere and that Mark Twain was from there.

AO: It’s bleak. It’s really bleak.

William Burroughs comes from there too, and that to my mind says if you spend a lot of time writing and a lot of time taking drugs then there’s probably not that much to do.

AO: There’s not a lot to do, and I think there are intelligent people working really hard at the things they love, but they’re not congregating with others. When I was there I felt this kind of acceptance… people just accept that they are given something in life and that’s it. There’s an acceptance that they’ll stay there and work in a factory or work in a grocery store. You don’t really go anywhere, you don’t really leave, ever. If you go on vacation it’s a five hour drive but it hardly ever happens because there’s no need. And I think that just growing up I felt really restless knowing that. I felt like ‘I want to get out of here as soon as possible. I want to travel as much as possible. I don’t know why but nobody here wants to leave’. But I think that’s the case with a lot of small towns, not just the midwest. The midwest has a specific kind of bleakness that I can’t describe. It’s almost like a ghost city, kind of like Detroit, but maybe not…

Not as fucked up as Detroit?

AO: I wasn’t going to say those words, but…

There’s a real country heart to your music. Does country music really extend as far as Missouri?

AO: No, I kind of feel the whole country vibe, maybe I developed it from Will, or maybe my voice just tends to go to those areas…

Your parents played country?

AO: They listened to a lot of oldies like the Righteous Brothers and the Everly Brothers and they listened to a lot of newer country that I didn’t like. Then eventually working with Will and also discovering older music, I got into Roger Miller. I never grew up listening to Johnny Cash and loving it, it was more like a mix of 90s music, indie rock like Yo La Tengo and then the Everly Brothers. It was this weird pot of stuff.

I think you can hear that more on Burn Your Fire For No Witness. There’s a melange of grunge mixed up with the country stuff at times. Would that be fair to say?

AO: Maybe [laughs]. I guess I don’t really think about what I’m doing when I’m writing. I don’t think ‘oh, I’ve got this song, it’s going to be a punk rock song’. ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ for example has got this edge to it, but maybe it’s just the attitude that makes it feel like it’s punk. I don’t know if that’s it either, I’m not sure.

I like the way the album begins with this show of strength in ‘Unfucktheworld’, which to me sounds like a really positive breakup song, and then the next track – ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ – is almost the opposite, with this codependent character who’d clearly forgive the subject anything. Are you playing different characters here?

AO: I think each song has its own character and scenario, or maybe they represent the same scenario from a different perspective. It’s like when two people are involved in a situation and one person has the story at the end of their life and the other person has a completely different story. Maybe that’s a really lofty way to describe it. I definitely feel like every song has its own attitude and a lot of them are addressing the same kind of thing. Something is missing, or I need to accept this is a good thing. I guess the character is confronting that something needs to be solved or something doesn’t need to be solved, there’s no need. But I think when I was putting it together I didn’t think about how related they were, they just fell together.

Is yours a brand of confessional songwriting like Fleetwood Mac or something where every song is the truth, or do you take an idea and maybe work from a character’s perspective?

AO: I think there’s a little of both in each. Because it would be a lie to say I would understand how to explain something in a song if I’d not felt it in some capacity. When novelists deny they have anything to do with their characters it’s like ‘but there’s a bit of you in all these people’. It’s extraordinary if you can imagine something so intricately that you’ve never actually experienced, but I dunno, I’d like to have more conversations with artists about that.

You have to draw from what you know, but in a genre like country you have carte-blanche to exaggerate tragedy to the point of high camp

AO: You think of it from your perspective first, and then you think, ‘wait, what if this were happening here in this place and there were these two people and they were coming from this place or what if this happened on a train?’ And you think about it and it changes the way you would sing it, or it changes the words you would use to describe a feeling. The initial thing that’s true is the feeling, and then when the words come it could change what the original idea was.

When did you start singing?

AO: I started singing when I was really young, when I was a little girl, and I started recording really young, and I always remember being like ‘I can’t wait until my voice changes’. Today I feel the same way [laughs]. I found some tapes of mine which I recorded when I was 16 or 17 and they’re awful, they’re just terrible. They’re the worst, but I don’t have the heart to throw them away. I don’t mind a little affectation on voices – I use it on different songs and different phrases – but when it’s the always the same way, this exact affectation, it bugs me. And when people say ‘I love this music’ and you say, ‘what is it that’s dynamic for you? What is it that makes the words stand out? Is it the way he or she is singing? How does it stand out if it’s always the same?’

You definitely seem to use different vocal techniques or characters for different songs. On ‘Stars’ – where you seem to want to take on omnipotent powers of destruction – it’s completely anguished, whereas on ‘White Fire’ it’s dreamlike but it also sounds like you’re on valium.

AO: Haha yeah, maybe I was. I mean it would be interesting to learn how to play all the songs in the same way or sing ‘Stars’ like ‘White Fire’ or vice versa, but I think different songs require different things. ‘Stars’ was more a feeling song for me, pushing this energy, whereas I didn’t really have much of a plan for ‘White Fire’ other than that I’d been writing this guitar part and I wrote this poem, and then I put them together and they fitted perfectly. It was kind of a puzzle that my mind made.

Are you writing your third album yet?

AO: I mean I’ve been touring since February with very little time off so no [Laughs]. But I’m looking at recording as soon as I can, at least for myself. I don’t know whether I’ll be releasing anything yet. I guess I’m not the kind of artist who’ll always be writing constantly and I’m not going to churn out a record just to do it. A lot of people are like, ‘I already made three records and they’re on the way’ and I’m like, ‘did you think about the stuff you’re putting out there?’ If you don’t spend a real amount of time with a series of songs and really think about them then you can get lost in the whole situation.

You can definitely oversaturate. I’ve seen it done…

AO: I’ve got a bunch of structures I’ve been working on but my writing’s changed and I don’t get to sit down and finish them. I was talking to another artist at a festival and they were like ‘what do you do when you’re on tour and you wanna write stuff?’ and I’m like ‘I dunno, do you record with your phone?’ And they’re like yeah. So you mumble your melody into your phone. It’s all you have.

Angel Olsen and her band play despite the challenges to her voice, though in between song banter becomes invariably about her inability to let fly. ‘It’s so weird to want to be able to shout but not be able to,’ she laments. Later she admonishes herself, saying ‘never tell the audience that you’re suffering,’ before adding, ‘you know what, I’m gonna come back here!’ The band will be touring until February with a 10 day break for Christmas, and they’ll be adding an extra date in Rouen if they can.

Jagjaguwar release a deluxe version of ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ in November 2014 featuring five bonus tracks

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