Music

Angel Olsen Isn’t Trying to Make You Cry. Really.

“I just want to write something that’s honest and that people can really feel”

by

By all means, go see one of Angel Olsen’s three big shows in New York City next week, but be warned that not everything is always as it seems: The thirty-year-old singer-songwriter is known for her boozy, tearstained country–folk rock songs and plainspoken lyrics, but, at least onstage, some of that whiskey weariness may come with a sly wink. “Sometimes, I’ll do the trick of filling a bottle of tequila full of water and chugging it onstage,” she says with a pert laugh when I tell her that she appeared to be doing some hard drinking the last time I saw her live. This admission is probably not a surprise to most Olsen fans, as she has long professed an interest in blurring the lines between persona and personality, and alluded to playing “Angel Olsen” as a role on her song “Intern”: “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done/Still got to wake up and be someone.” She has said repeatedly that Dolly Parton, who pairs authentic and vivid songwriting with a larger-than-life cartoon of an avatar, is something of an artistic role model. “Sometimes I have to meditate for a second and then go into being that part of myself. It’s not exactly a character that isn’t me, but I have to match it in a way,” she says. “Find a way to be a character and be myself through that character.”

Does it even matter what is real and what is fake when, at least from the audience’s point of view, the music undeniably hits this hard? Olsen has that rare gift — perhaps the gift that matters most in popular music — that only the truly profound talents do, of writing songs that are both specific enough to feel personal to her but general enough that almost anyone listening can sing along and think, ‘This happened to me.’ On the heels of her 2016 sensation of an album, My Woman, Olsen has just released a new collection of B sides, covers, and demos from throughout her career called Phases. Her shows — faux boozing or not — are known for a kind of intensity that can elicit strong reactions from fans, including a fair share of crying at songs that beautifully and poetically detail failed and flawed relationships and deep, existential introspection. “It’s scary to be responsible for someone’s feelings,” she says when I tell her that, at that same concert with the tequila bottle of water, I had my own very real and overwhelming emotions during her set. “I’m not trying to make people cry. I just want to write something that’s honest and that people can really feel. I try my best to get lost onstage. To pretend when I’m singing a song that it’s the first time I felt that thing. ”

Olsen was born in 1987 and, as a toddler, adopted by a couple in St. Louis that were old enough to be her grandparents; of the seven brothers and sisters she had, some were the age her parents would typically have been. “I kind of felt like I was raised by a group of people,” she says. She took an early interest in music, rifling through her parents’ vinyl collection — they loved the Everly Brothers and the Righteous Brothers — to try to bridge the distance in generations and get a sense of what the world was like when they were young. She credits this interest in the faraway past for the timeless quality her music has now, which pulls from 1950s pop, 1960s rock, and 1970s country in equal measure. “I developed a thing for nostalgia,” she says. “I was obsessed with music that they would have listened to.”

As a kid, she puttered around on the piano and began experimenting with recording versions of songs she heard on the radio. “I had a tape recorder and I would do overdubs of harmonies,” she says. “It taught me how to sing: trying to memorize how notes felt, using my voice, trying to make it sound different for different songs.” At around twenty, like so many romantic American figures before her, she felt the need to escape the limited world that was her hometown. “St. Louis was a dark place, and there was only a small music scene. The city itself felt depressed,” she says. “I really wanted to get out. I wanted to grow.” She had some friends who were playing music up in Chicago and, partly because it was only a five-hour train trip from her hometown, she moved up there and fell in with a crowd and started to play shows. “I was performing in basements and drinking whiskey with friends,” she says of that time. “We’d rehearse in the basement of this building — it was like a dungeon. There were delivery boys in the back, and I’m pretty sure they were selling weed.”

She linked up with the backing band behind Will Oldham, the rootsy musician known by the stage name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and was writing solo music but not doing much with it, still young and a little unsure of herself. “After touring with Will for a few years, I found the confidence to record some of these songs that I had held on to,” she says. In 2011, she put out a crackling and echoing EP called Strange Cacti that she’d recorded at home, just her voice and a guitar, sounding like old scratched-up 78 vinyl. The songs had titles like “Drunk and With Dreams” and possessed an intimacy that sounded like it was pulled right from her innermost feelings. “Know your own heart well/It’s the one that’s worth most of your time,” she sings on “If It’s Alive, It Will.” “My mom used to say I overthought everything,” she says. “Now I was using it and putting it into songwriting, instead of letting it torment me.” It was that powerful live show of hers, though, that she credits with giving her momentum; one night on her very first tour, the right people saw what she was capable of. “I was playing a hometown show in Chicago, and I’m leaving after the show, kinda drunk, and I found out that three booking agents were at the show,” she says. “I don’t think it happens like that for everyone, and I feel grateful.”

She released a pair of albums after that and moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2013 as a quiet refuge from life on the road. It was last year’s My Woman, a blistering, confident, boisterous work, that cemented her as a star. “People say it’s polished and I laugh. It was performed live onto tape,” she says. Still, the album was her most ambitious yet. It contained the raw, urgent DNA that her music has always possessed, but she pumped it up with a killer backing band and let it unfurl into songs that sometimes passed the seven-minute mark in length. “I just wanna be alive/Make something real,” she sings on “Intern,” the album’s very first track.

And that’s precisely what she did: The sprawling “Sister” drives along like the best 1970s California car rock and has something profound to say at almost every turn. “I want to live life/I want to die right,” she sings. It is punctuated by a haunting phrase that she repeats eight quick times in a row: “All my life I thought I’d change.” When I tell her those words have always stuck with me, even she seems a little perplexed by their power. “It changes every time I sing it. Sometimes I sing, ‘All my life I thought had changed,’ ” she says, before vaguely explaining that the lyric is about accepting the aspects of yourself that you cannot alter. “No matter how much change is going on, there’s parts that you grow into. I’ve always been a loner, and now I feel really grateful for that, because I think that’s why I reflect and write music. Going on a walk by yourself doesn’t have to be lonely: You can see the world around you if you aren’t so pitiful about it.”

Even at her scrappiest and most unfinished, she says a mouthful. “Sans,” a track from Phases, is a worn-out and simple guitar song about the most primal of American themes: a lonely life on the open road, in her case, touring the country singing at concert halls. “It’s describing being isolated even surrounded by people, even when you’re important, even when you’re with friends. When you’re always traveling you’re never fully able to process the things you are going through. Reflectiveness happens in weird moments. You keep thinking, ‘When I’m home I’m going to do all of these things.’ But you’re always not home,” she says. “It’s hard to connect with people. When people are crying at my shows, I’m reaching them, but I don’t know who those people are, and they don’t really know me. We’re connecting, but I can’t really be known through that experience.”

She turned thirty in January, and says it was anything but a crisis. “I had a mellow hang. I didn’t get too drunk,” she says. “I’m always going to be seventeen in my head.” As Phases is released, she’s also pleased with the level of success she has right at the moment. “I’m never thinking, ‘I’m going to play Madison Square Garden someday,’ ” she says. “Because I don’t know if I can get people in Madison Square Garden to cry so far away from me. I want to see the faces of the people.” After years of songs fueled by heartbreak, she’s happy where she’s at in her romantic life. “I’m finally at a place where I know what I don’t want,” says Olsen. She adds that an artistic reinvention (and even a stage name change) might be in the future soon, too, hinting that she’s been listening to a lot of David Bowie, who mastered the art of the alter ego with Ziggy Stardust. “Maybe I’ll write a synth record,” she says. And, most of all, Olsen is content in the relative quiet of her home base in Asheville after a decade of being on the road. “Being a musician is a weird thing to do with your life. I’ve gotten used to being a loner at home. I don’t get drunk every night like in my twenties. I wake up, get a coffee, feed my cat, take a walk. It’s pretty free,” she says, sounding every bit a natural woman. “I like the real world.”

Angel Olsen plays Town Hall on November 29 and 30, and Brooklyn Steel on December 1.

Most Popular