By Lauren Harris; photos by Sandlin Gaither on March 4, 2014
While it may sound incongruous, singer-songwriter Angel Olsen studied at the feet of ’90s R & B titans Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill. Cloistered in her St. Louis bedroom, an adolescent Olsen would record herself singing that era’s most popular songs, squealing the tape into blankness, mashing her digits across the raised buttons of record, rewind, play—replicating until the impersonation was perfect: “Until I was satisfied with the notes and how they felt when I was reaching them,” says Olsen. “I would imitate other people, but then step back and try to do it myself, in my own way.”
That a voice so inimitable was forged out of imitation is ironic. “In Her Own Way” could be an alternate (though lesser) title for Olsen’s latest, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, a record that still haunts you when it isn’t occupying your mind. With these 11 songs, Olsen does just what the title suggests, though in addition to burning, she shines and glows— and fortunately for listeners—with an audience. The title, taken from a line in the sonic lunar landscape “White Fire,” is a comment on the last several years of Olsen’s life—more a declaration than a directive. “That line addresses a lot of the same ideas in each song, which is the idea of a self underneath everything. Underneath everything there is a self.” She pauses for a second and continues. “I don’t want to be lofty about it. It’s just a character knowing themself outside of a situation.” And within a situation, one could argue. For Olsen, the album is a palimpsest; the sum of selves and the situations they have weathered.
It is that sense of self-knowledge that has been burnished for Olsen over the course of her career. When she was 19, Olsen moved to Chicago to pursue a career in music, initially struggling through the winter until finding her footing in folk open-mic nights that doubled as rooftop potlucks. While she immediately immersed herself in the music scene, she recounts her initial months in Chicago as lonely. “I definitely didn’t want to go back to St. Louis. I felt like I’d be forfeiting if I went back, so I wouldn’t let myself do it.”
Over the next five years, Olsen built up a following, connecting with nearby greats like Marissa Nadler and Will Oldham (with whom she would form The Babblers, a band whose repertoire consists solely of bizarro British bluesman Kevin Coyne’s Babble) and eventually signing with Bathetic Records to release Strange Cacti, a six-song EP that garnered rave reviews and a laundry list of likenesses (from Joni Mitchell to Malvina Reynolds). The following year, Olsen followed up with Half Way Home, a gorgeous meditation on yearning, belonging and dying; three acts that become inseparable by album’s end.
“Half Way Home was a leap of faith. Of confidence, really,” Olsen says. “As an artist you have to get used to the idea of everything being unpredictable. I never knew what the future would be like, and I’d save and think about what I wanted, but I didn’t really have the confidence until that point.”
It was while touring—rather, the brief periods of respite from touring—for Half Way Home that much of Burn Your Fire For No Witness came together. “I would get home from a tour and the last thing I wanted to do was go see people,” Olsen says. “Because I’d just seen so many people and not had any privacy.” As a result, Olsen’s latest effort traffics in the rending of relationships and the way geography can disappoint, but ultimately lands on an Emersonian self-reliance.
“Being someone who is gone all the time, you find out who your friends are pretty quickly. And then you come back into town, and you have to make an announcement: ‘I’m here. Does it matter to you?’” she laughs. Spartan album starter “Unfucktheworld” strums absence into a presence as her voice twins itself, a reassuring echo, while “Enemy,” a winding acoustic ballad, leaves space for the ambivalence of writing off a friend. Few people could get away with cribbing one of the most famous refrains in recorded history, but Olsen opens “Hi-Five” with one of Elvis’s better known phrases, imbuing it with new meaning, her heartbreaking alto soaring upward while a heavily reverbed guitar ripples outward, belying the claustrophobia of being stuck with a wanting lover.
While Burn Your Fire For No Witness may not sound it, Olsen’s earlier heroes are right there under the surface, the influences of her youth just out of frame but readily called up, possibly even benchmarks for her own recorded output. As the conversation drifts into contemporary music, Olsen wrestles with the nostalgia that can sometimes impair judgment, but arrives at a decision. “You listen to Boyz II Men right now, and everybody I know would know all the lyrics to their songs,” she says, a hint of challenge in her voice. “Grown-ass men would know,” she laughs. F
This article is from FILTER Issue 55