Heaven on Earth
Angel Olsen's stunning voice combines otherworldly effect with raw, emotionally resonant energy
Angel Olsen's voice packs a punch that's impossible to ignore. At times refined and raw, folksy and operatic, her internal instrument often transcends its earthly bounds, as wordless coos, tantalizing trills and bone-chilling moans assuming a life of their own.
Eccentric singer-songwriter Will Oldham, otherwise known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, first introduced Olsen to the wider independent music world as a member of his backing group The Cairo Gang. But it was Olsen's 2012 solo album, "Half Way Home," which combined stripped-down folk beauty with densely personal narratives and knife-sharp emotional performances, that truly began her solo career.
Since then, nearly everyone encountering Olsen and her phantasmagoric pipes — mainstream publications like The New York Times, taste-making music outlets like Pitchfork, vaunted indie labels like Jagjaguwar — has come away in absolute sway. On Nov. 14, Olsen announced her new album, "Burn Your Fire for No Witness," will drop Feb. 18. Folio Weekly talked with the Midwest-native-turned-North-Carolina-resident about her self-assured, disarmingly honest approach to life and art.
Folio Weekly: Why schedule just five shows in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi this November and December, typically a slow time for touring?
Angel Olsen: I've never really been on tour in the Southeast, so I'm really psyched to get down there. I had a lot of fun doing a bunch of free shows at record shows in Florida with Bonnie "Prince" Billy in 2011 and have always wanted to come back. This is my chance.
F.W.: Will you be performing solo or with a band?
A.O.: Solo. I'll probably be playing older stuff with a mix of newer, unreleased songs.
F.W.: Do you have a preference between the two formats?
A.O.: The newer material that I’ve been writing could be played solo, but also I like to do it with a band. It’s a continuation of [heavier, louder 2013 single] “Sweet Dreams” but also of very intimate solo recordings, too. Future tours will probably be full band, with me playing a few songs solo at the beginning and end. The real challenge is mixing it up. When I’m down in Florida, I’m going to experiment with playing things differently, which can be fun.
F.W.: Whether performing solo or with a band, nearly everyone who's seen you perform live in the last 18 months has marveled at your captivating stage presence. Did that take time for you to develop?
A.O.: It definitely developed while working with the Bonnie crew. We did a few cover band projects — of [Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Kraus' 1979 album] "Babble" and also of songs by [British punk wave] The Mekons — which turned into this theatrical thing that seeped into my normal material. I find it more entertaining to interact with some kind of fake force than to just stand there relaying lyrics without any feeling or direction.
F.W.: Many fans and critics have come away from your shows saying, "She stared right at me the whole time!"
A.O.: [Laughs.] I've been at shows and said that, so I understand. But I feel like I'm directing my performance to this source that's not there. It might seem like I'm looking at people, but I'm just trying to have a good time and make this material that's mostly old to me new again.
F.W.: As someone relatively new to music-industry success, how hard has it been to navigate the fine line between artistry and commerce?
A.O.: There have a been a lot of people in my face this year. There's so much to the music industry that people don't talk about: starting an LLC, doing your own taxes, hiring a business manager, and somehow traveling while you're doing all these things. There have been moments where I've been, like, "This is crazy!" But too much of anything — even a good thing — is going to stress anybody out. So it's good to take a break sometimes and not let anybody decide what you're going to do. With so many people involved in what you're doing, they can forget that you're a human being. You have to remember that — and remember to tell the people around you.
F.W.: Do you feel that when you do that, maybe you're not taking advantage of every opportunity afforded to you?
A.O.: It is difficult, because I want to be as busy as possible. I think a lot of musicians feel like they have to push themselves — exhaust themselves — immediately. But it's important that you take time for your family and for yourself.
F.W.: How about taking time to write? Has that process changed as your life has gotten busier?
A.O.: I think my writing's evolving in general. But I have come to a point where I just write wherever I am. I write a lot when I'm traveling. It's not like I sit at a desk and say, "OK, I'm going to write a song now." It's always been sporadic, which is unfortunate. I wish I could just drink some coffee or wine and then write five songs. I probably could — but they might not be great.