Angel Olsen made many of the media’s ‘best of’ lists last year with her incredible album, Woman. She tells Ed Power why she’s looking forward to playing it in Ireland
ANGEL Olsen is the indie heroine we desperately need. The Missouri musician harks back to the great alternative rock bands of the 1980s and ’90s, with songs that blend vulnerability and a bruised outsider perspective. To these classic underground values, she adds a quintessential Millennial determination not to be put in a box — or to let other people define her.
In person, this rising star is a surprise. As a songwriter Olsen seems classically angst-ridden. However, speaking to the Irish Examiner, she is reflexively witty, her conversational laced with wry chuckles and self-deprecating inflections. I tell her I was expecting someone… glummer.
“Everyone who is an artist end up being regarded as a cartoon character,” she says in her soft southern accent. “I want people to know it’s okay to have a sense of humour. I don’t wake up every day and see white fire in my head… It’s important to let my fans know that it’s alright to laugh.” Olsen, 30, has become one of the singular voices of her jilted generation. Her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was a confessional fever-dream that channeled childhood traumas (she was adopted age three) and grown-up angst. Cue a deluge of rave reviews and a top 10 placing in the American indie charts.
For those old enough to have fallen for alt.icons such as Pixies and Throwing Muses first time around, the record felt like a gift from the alt.pop gods.
She was, it transpired, just getting started. Olsen soared to even dizzier heights with last year’s Woman. The choruses were bigger and catchier, the guitars heavier and more strident. A previously diffident artist had, it appeared, grown into her status as outsider pop’s most potent new force. If Burn Your Fire was her calling card, Woman was proof that this was a special talent — as acknowledged by its end of year rankings in Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. (The Examiner listed it as its 10th favourite LP of 2016).
So it is surprising to hear that a not insignificant percentage of fans were initially wary of her new confidence and the direction in which it led. They wanted the old jittery Angel. Woman was ready to take on the world — an ambition prompting tuts from certain quarters.
“When Woman first came out everyone thought it was a synth album,” she says, speaking from her home in Asheville, North Carolina. “I thought ‘Wait a minute — I’m seeing the ugliness of the audience as well as their own limits’.”
She hadn’t, as it happened, made a synth album. However, she reserves the right to one day do so, should she wish. That’s the point of being an artist — you get to frighten away your fanbase if that is how you are inclined. Pandering to strangers isn’t part of her job description.
“It revealed to me in this weird way what people want. That record was me taking control again.”
SHE seems genuinely excited about her upcoming Irish tour, which will see her performing in Cork and Dublin. “When I’ve played Ireland I’ve had a sense that you guys are paying really close attention to the lyrics,” she says. “Some audiences are just there to rock out or whatever. In Ireland it’s different — it’s like you’re engaging with it at another level. Which makes you want to do justice to the songs.”
Olsen was raised in St Louis, Missouri. The city once hosted the Olympics but has for decades suffered from industrial and cultural decline. However, it was never quite the artistic wasteland of popular portrayal, says the singer. She points to its long history of progressivism (unlike the rest of Missouri, St Louis voted strongly for Hillary Clinton in the election).
“There hasn’t been a scene in St Louis since the ’30s,” she laughs. “The funny thing is, because it’s a pretty depressed place… that makes it more authentic in a way. When I was a kid there was nowhere for bands to play.
“If you left your car downtown there was a good chance it would be robbed. I remember going to these venues and they would smell of urine, they were so awful. But it felt completely punk rock. All of that made it much purer in a way. From there I moved to Chicago and was struck at how snobby it was by comparison.”
In Chicago she fell in with enigmatic songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and played as part of his Cairo Gang backing ensemble. Oldham is an inscrutable force, who rarely speaks to the press and elicits an almost maniacal loyalty from his fans. He is a sort of alternative rock Bob Dylan — and Olsen was there to reflect in his glory and accede to his artistic whims (just for the sake of it, he once arranged for his entire troupe to tour in onesies bought from an in-flight catalogue).
“I learned a lot about the industry, about touring,” she would later reflect of this period. “There’s pressure when you’re travelling in a tight space with others. It’s like having room-mates but you never leave each other.
Olsen can be eccentric herself. She laughs when I bring up “the wig”. In the video to her single ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ — a catchy rocker that deservedly became an alternative hit — she sports a bright sparkly hair-piece. Seeing this usually intense artist perform in an extrovert fashion for the cameras was striking — as she had intended. What she hadn’t expected was for her fashion choice to be embraced by fans who have started coming to her concerts similarly attired.
“It used to be annoy me,” she says. “Now I find it funny. It’s cool people care so much. You think that when you put something out in the world they are going to get it. What ends up happening is that often it’s the thing you do at the last minute — such as put on a wig — that gets noticed.”
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