‘Hiding is boring and unemotional’ – An Interview With Angel Olsen

I think it gives me a sense of freedom – to push my awkwardness out there.Angel Olsen speaks to Ian Maleney ahead of her shows around the country this week.

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If you’re going to stand on stage and play an acoustic guitar and sing quiet songs about love and life, you’re going to have to be very good to stand out from the unimaginably large crowd doing much the same thing. Angel Olsen is very good and she stands out a mile. Perhaps the most immediate shock is her voice, controlled but raw, with a startling range. The way she twists words into melodies and knots those melodies around her chords is quite unlike anyone else.

Once you get over that voice though, the surprising depth in the songs begins to emerge, the odd, imaginative turns of phrase, the way a dark mood will be broken by a sly joke sung with a half-smile. You keep coming back to figure out a little more and then you’re hooked. Olsen’s last album, Half Way Home, is the pinnacle of her achievements to date, which also include the great, if relatively undeveloped, Strange Cacti EP as well as singing in Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s band.

These days she’s got a full band in tow but the bigger, full sound has not diluted the power of her voice, rather taking it to somewhere new and entirely unexpected.

You’ve said you think about home a lot and that’s really interesting to me. People’s ideas of home change so much, it’s like everyone has a different conception of the what that word means. What kind of things do you think about when you think of home? Has it changed now that you spend a lot of time travelling?
My idea of home has changed quite a bit since I’ve been traveling. I used to be a very social person and I used to think that being surrounded by a party of people I liked was necessary to feel at home. Now that I’m surrounded by many types of people and diving into this creative world, as much as I enjoy it, I really look forward to my time alone now. I still go out and have a good time when I need to and I have my true friends – they know who they are, we don’t have to be together all the time to re-enforce it.

The first line that really jumped out at me listening to Half Way Home was “I am silence now but I am always song”. This felt really good because I’ve been thinking a lot recently that creativity (in whatever form) is kind of a state of being, a way of living, rather than a set of discrete projects which are either successes or failures. It’s something you are rather than something you’re doing, in a way. What do you think?
I think you may be on to something there. I try to forget that I’ve put my music out there into the world, or on the internet. The internet is this totally chaotic alternate universe, I think it’s really important to maintain real interactions, to make real plans, to interact with yourself and others in a very basic straight forward way.

Anyway, writing doesn’t come from staring at a Facebook page (at least not mine), and when I write a song or something I really feel is true and raw, all of the world is far away and I am whatever that feeling is, and I know it. And maybe it’s false, maybe I’m tripping out in thinking that for once, for some 3 minutes and 20 seconds I really had something true and together – but the feeling of it being possible, it’s not the sort of thing you can express to someone in an email or in a text or on a blog or in an interview even. It’s all that hippie oneness shit that people sigh at, but is actually next level.

I never really know if a song I write will be something anyone relates to, but however brief or un-relatable the idea – it’s not buried. That idea, or failed attempt at a song has every thing to do with whatever takes part next in the thing I’m writing. A simple mistake could be the root of something very important in my life, in my unveiling. I don’t view unveiling as an embarrassing experience, it only means I get to live more freely if I find myself becoming so comfortable.

I read an interview with you where you talked about not wanting to get pegged as a lo-fi artist, because you didn’t want your songs to hide at all. The clarity of your vocals on Half Way Home is interesting to hear with that in mind. In this age of hazy, post-modern everything, it’s almost strange to hear someone who has the courage to put their words to the front of what they do. Was that a difficult step to take, coming from the relatively lo-fi (but not that lo-fi) Strange Cacti?
Haha! Well, like I said, I like to unveil myself. I think it gives me a sense of freedom – to push my awkwardness out there. Hiding is boring and unemotional, and you lose so much time to risk what? Nothing.

Kind of related to the above, you’ve said you’re quite a fan of performing other peoples’ songs. What do you find most enjoyable about that? Again it’s something people now seem a little afraid to do, when there is a pressure to present as a totally unique personality, a never-seen-before kind of artist just to catch peoples’ attention. Obviously few people have the singular personality required for that to actually work….
I like to take on characters, sometimes I even get lost in them. I think it’s fun to take on someone else’s song, I find it easier. I think because, well, I have this vague idea of what the material is about, it’s not super connected to me personally so I can focus completely on whatever small idea is there and roll with it.

How has your relationship with your band developed since you first started working with one? Has it had an impact on the way you write songs as well as the way you perform them?
Absolutely. I still feel inclined to write openly and quietly, even with a band, but I think I am more at ease about performing the upbeat material, it adds a fuller sound and I can sort of forget it’s my song when we perform. It’s this thing that I’m doing with people. We’re all making the song.

The internet is not providing me with any evidence for this but did ‘Acrobat’ come on when I was watching HBO’s Girls a while back? If indeed it did, how was that for you? Are you a fan of the show?
I’m pretty sure ‘Acrobat’ isn’t in one of their episodes, but now that you’ve told me I’ve found myself watching the show looking for it, and by mistake, kind of getting into the series. I probably couldn’t afford to sue them… No, no… They’re doing really really well. But, maybe we could work out dinner plans or something?

Angel Olsen plays the following dates around the country this week:

Dublin: May 2nd // Skinny Wolves presents Angel Olsen & Guests @ Whelan’s
Cork: May 3rd // The G-Man presents Angel Olsen @ Half Moon Theatre
Kilkenny: May 4th // Kilkenny Roots Festival
Kilkenny: May 5th // Kilkenny Roots Festival
Belfast: May 6th // The Black Box

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