'I want to be human.'
American singer Angel Olsen would be the first to admit she’s no angel. Her work is full of dark thoughts and unabashed fears, an ongoing reference to the heartbreak and isolation she endures.
It was when the world first heard her hit single, Shut Up Kiss Me, that we understood what that means – a welcoming blend of anxiety, anger and joy all strewn together. Using lyrics like, “Even if you walk around as though you think you’re right, At your worst you still believe it’s worth the fight”, helping us to see the intimate tension she creates inside her world.
Angel has amassed a legion of fans that hang on to her every word. Why? lt’s raw, and it’s real. And boy do we need real right now. Sometimes, it takes hearing an artist like Angel Olsen to remind you just how powerful the simple harmony of one voice and a guitar can be. Whilst the world’s problems rage on, Angel sits quietly in her room reflecting on these changes – see her Trump protest song she recently released, “Fly On The Wall” to give you an idea. We recently sat down with the North Carolina-based songwriter to talk about these paradoxes, her philosophy, and what it means to be an artist.
Your solo career spans three albums so far. How would you describe the major difference between each album and what in the process of music making is necessary for you?
They’re all from very different times in my life. I think they’re pretty reflective of not only my writing changing but also the progress my voice has made. I feel like I, in [My Woman], was really singing uninhibitedly. It was a very open and real experience and I was really relaxed about it.
I think mainly growing up a little bit has made me feel more relaxed about singing and has made me want to open up my writing a little bit. I think for the first time on My Woman, I was really trying to balance both, instead of just trying to make a statement. I think what was so frustrating in the beginning of my career is that I would put so much effort into my writing. I always thought I did a pretty good job at writing songs, making the words fit together, but my main critique on myself was allowing myself to relax and just letting it be.
In the beginning, I think I really wanted people to hear the words. For example on White Fire, now it’s not as uptight as it was on the recording. I think that’s just the natural progression. When you record an album the songs are new and they haven’t really been lived in. You haven’t performed them over and over again. They become just a little less calculated when you perform them live.
"I feel it takes me living first to write."
On not rushing the writing process
A lot of mainstream music, film and television tend to reflect the attitudes and lives of their audience. What do you think is the role of the artist?
When I’m writing a lot of the time I’m just reflecting what I see and what I’ve experienced mixed together with where I am. People around me are rubbing off on me, for sure, but I never try to write something that will reflect something for someone. I’m always surprised when people relate and it’s such a weird thing to observe because you put so much effort into songs that you think to mean certain things and then you put it out into the world and people see something entirely different. I don’t think it’s up to the artist to completely reflect everyone else. I just live my life and try to capture things that are real and hopefully, people can relate to it.
Your self-directed videos are gorgeous and very moving interpretations of your music. How do you balance your creative vision against outside influences and suggestions?
I had finally just saved money and had the funds to explore doing that. I had zero experience directing anything. I called my friend Ashley Connor and I was just trying to get her advice. I was like, “I have a shot list. Can you just take a look at it and let me know what you think?” She ended up being the DP.
She came to Ashville and we did it super low budget. I told the label, “I’m just gonna fund it all,” because I didn’t expect them to invest in me as a director. Usually, the label says, “this is how much we can give you,” and then maybe you’re bummed or maybe you’re stoked, but for me, I didn’t want money to be a thing that kept me from doing what I wanted to do. I was just gonna fucking do it. I’ll do it myself. I didn’t even want to have that conversation. So I just did it.
Then, when they looked at it, I think they were impressed. So I got all this money back, which was great. It’s not something everybody can do and it’s not something everybody should do, but for me, for this record, the title and the attitude and everything that was frustrating about the music industry in general; it was time for me to stop complaining about other people and money. I think I was just ready to take things on. It didn’t hurt that I had a complete map of how I wanted them to go.
I go through these months where I don’t write or think about anything creatively. Right now I’m just walking around and enjoying the sun. During that period I was mixing the record and I had gone to Portugal and tried to learn Portuguese songs. Then I came home and I just had these ideas. It was this weird state of, I don’t know how to describe, I just didn’t think of anything else, but making these videos. It gave me this energy where I would forget to eat. It’s kind of a like manic energy.
I was surrounded by really gracious people who allowed me to have my own for once. To have the final call felt really fucking good. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be a “director.” It just means I knew what I wanted at the time and I did it. I just wanted to take back what I thought had been taken from me, but had really been there all along. I just didn’t have the confidence to take it.
I think that knowing what you want really translates throughout your work. I think a lot of times an artist’s vision is not all the way there so they allow outside influences to either squander or squash it into this “cool” idea that has really nothing to do with the anything. On that note, are there any other creative avenues on the horizon?
I’m working on writing a book, but who knows if it’ll ever be available [laughs]. It’s new for me right now. It’s really hard for me to just write a diary because I’m a perfectionist when it comes to short-form, especially songs. I spend hours editing them and practising them. But writing a diary, that is naturally free-flowing and uninhibited, it’s really hard for me to do without judging myself.
I had someone film our shows on the West Coast and we did a short interview. So, I’m working on editing that. It’s a short film about being on tour. It should be interesting.
I’ve written a few songs for a possible release at some point, but I’m not pushing myself to rush into another record. I feel like so many artists just want to stay relevant and are constantly writing, they can write about anything. But I feel it takes me living first to write.
Your music is comprised of an honest perspective of the female experience, which is much more lonely, dark and isolating than what’s usually portrayed as female: glamorous and fun. Why do you think it’s so rare for people to discuss the female experience so honestly?
I know I’m female and I know there are experiences that are innately female, but sometimes I feel totally genderless. In my writing, I feel genderless. I’m not trying to relate to one or the other. It shouldn’t be about a woman or a man’s voice. It should just be a voice that’s heard. I’m not thinking, “I’m a female, writing from a female perspective,” you know? I’m thinking, “I’m a human being and I happen to be a person who exists in a female body.”
"I’m not walking through life preoccupied with how terrible it is that women aren’t treated a certain way. Maybe I should..."
On the universal experience of being female
I agree. I asked that question because I think you’re music allows women to feel like they’re more a part of a universal or human experience, rather than just one side of the coin.
Yeah. It’s complicated for us out there [laughs]. To walk into a room and not expect the worst or to have a job where you think, “Am I being disrespected because I’m a woman or am I not being disrespected because I did something as a human.”
Sometimes I’m just walking through life and I forget. I have experiences where I feel respected and I feel psyched about where I am, but then something happens that reminds me that people see things differently because I’m a woman. But I’m not walking through life preoccupied with how terrible it is that women aren’t treated a certain way. Maybe I should, but I try my best to see things from a human perspective and when those situations occur, I try to say something then.
I was wondering about the music video Windows. Did you direct that one? Or was it your idea?
Hell no! To be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant [laughs]. I don’t think it was a bad video, I just think it was irrelevant.
It does feel like that one, in particular, is speaking very much to the “female” experience whereas your more recent self-directed videos feel more universal.
If it helps, it was directed by a man. I really like him as a director, but I remember looking at it and not really understanding what it meant. I did meet some really wonderful people, but I can’t be bitter or upset with them for not going with my vision when I didn’t talk to them about it. So that was the beginning of me being like “okay, I’m gonna plan this out more next time.”
I mean it was a really beautiful video, but I’m glad there’s more to the story. That you’re not just a feminist or you’re not just a “sad girl.”
I’m ok with being sad. I write about some stuff that’s pretty dark, especially during Burn Your Fire, but I’m also not afraid to have fun. Everyone kept asking me about that. I really don’t care. People are going to put everyone in a box. That’s the truth. There’s nothing you can do about it. You have the audacity to make art and make a statement and sometimes you don’t even know what statement you’re making and people will think what they think of it. But you can’t be upset. Some people think it’s “sad” music and that’s fine with me.
Your songwriting itself feels very paradoxical. It’s fragile but tough, masterful but raw, feminine but powerful. Focusing on the latter—why do you think femininity and power are considered paradoxical?
I don’t think about it that way. I think women are extremely strong. I mean, they give birth. They can endure so much pain and because they can, when pain hits them, when judgment hits them, I don’t think they’re quite as weakened. I don’t think they’re better. I just think that they can handle a lot of physical and mental stuff. What makes us angry actually makes us more powerful. Yeah, I don’t really know why the world thinks that.
I think some people do respond to your work in that way though, correct me if I’m wrong, and perhaps it seems normal to you because that’s how you think, but it’s not typical to see these sorts of paradoxes, particularly throughout a female artist’s work.
I know what you mean. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. That’s the thing about interviews; I always feel that half of what I say is misunderstood. Especially talking about my philosophy. I really want to be clear. That’s why I like Ferrante and Didion. I can relate to those books. Those kinds of writers are really able to separate themselves while able to be fully in it. They’re writing from a human perspective. And I think that’s really important. It’s hard to find in writing.
"I try to write from a perspective that’s about human struggle and questioning the ideas we place upon people. Are we seeing something that we want to see or is what we see the actual truth?"
Angel Olsen on writing's purpose
Speaking from a philosophical vantage point, because when you think about the history of philosophy, there aren’t as many women who have been documented asking “why?” or living outside of that subjectivity and being the observer. Do you think your work is subtly aiming at transcending certain constructs?
As far as my videos and my writing, I try to write from a perspective that’s about human struggle and questioning the ideas we place upon people. Are we seeing something that we want to see or is what we see the actual truth?
If it ends up being that more females relate to my perspective, that’s cool too. It makes me happy that you would say that maybe by default I’m creating this thing, but it wasn’t my motivation. I didn’t go home and think “I want to write from a perspective of someone who’s truly neutral and I’m going to change the way people view women forever.” It’s just the way I see things. Maybe more women see things this way and don’t talk about it, but they’d like to.
Looking back at what I’ve written—I’m writing about being heard as a human. I want to be human.
Interview by Lilly Ball
Angel Olsen’s latest LP My Woman is out now on JagJaguwar
I’ve been revisiting him a lot, rereading some books. He did Sex and Death to the Age 14, Impossible Vacation. He’s done several monologues. He was kind of a sit down comedian. Before there was solo comedian stand up, he was sitting down at his desk and doing that, but it was always more monologue based versus one-liners.
Ashville, North Carolina
I’m really enjoying being home right now. Having space and reflecting, going on walks and rolling it up into having time to be a person, someone who’s not Angel Olsen “the musician.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been to summer camp as a kid, it kind of feels like summer camp here. Just being able to relax. My free time isn’t necessarily about people or anything cultural here, it’s not about the music or the art scene, it’s really just having a space that is really pleasant.
I’ve been really into this French singer Fishbach. I’ve been listening to her song Y crois-tu, this synth-pop song. I don’t even know how I found her. I think someone had taken a photo of her and she was smoking a cigarette while laying down on stage with a microphone and her hair was dangling off the stage and I was like “who the fuck does this bitch think she is?” I’ve been obsessed with her lately and that song and hoping to see her live in Europe when I’m there.