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Angel Olsen Is Learning to Let Go

On ‘My Woman,’ the singer-songwriter confronts the fear — and the joy — of other people

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this year, Angel Olsen had a strange dream. In it, she was in search of a strong drink backstage at a music festival (most of her dreams these days take place at festivals or airports, because those are the places where she feels she spends half of her life). Another performer at the festival, who she knew in the dream but not in life, casually strolled into her green room. “David,” she asked him with the warm familiarity of a friend, “do you guys have any liquor back there? All we have are these cheap beers.” He graciously obliged to help, and the next thing she knew, she was watching the recently deceased David Bowie mix her a gin and tonic.

“I woke up from that dream and I was like, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’” she tells me one exceptionally hot afternoon in early July over a refreshing meal of iced tea and watermelon salad. “I’d love to have a conversation with David Lynch about it someday.”

None of this is surprising, least of all the David Lynch mention. Olsen’s songs have the vivid, hallucinatory feel of dreams, and she writes like someone with a crisp telephone line connected directly to her subconscious. Listening to her new album, My Woman, is like entering a whole other dimension; it’s the kind of record that casts a spell on you and doesn’t let up until its haunting last words, which just so happen to be a truly quintessential Angel Olsen lyric: “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.” To even attempt to classify it by genre, you’d have to pair words that don’t usually go together; sometimes I want to call it “ambient country” or “agro-folk” or “zombie girl group.” None of those things quite get at the unique atmosphere of this record, so I will just settle for calling it really great.

While she’s working on a record, Olsen’s learned not to ask too many questions of her subconscious until the whole thing’s done. (The 29-year-old songwriter tells me she gets in such a flow state when she’s working on music that she has a ritual tradition now every time she’s gearing up to do press for a new album: She listens to it once, all the way through — preferably on a plane, where there are minimal distractions — and jots down what she thinks each song is about, because she’s never too clear on anything that linear while she’s writing. “It’s so I’ll be prepared to talk about it, just kind of getting that into words, before being asked.”) When her David Bowie dream stuck with her, she followed the thread and found herself “cruising the internet for, like, platform heels and glitter outfits” and, eventually, a silver tinsel wig. All of those items make appearances in the pair of striking and insanely charismatic music videos she released earlier this summer, first for the brooding dirge “Intern” and then the punk rock–Patsy Cline–esque “Shut Up Kiss Me.” They’re also the first two videos Olsen directed herself.

“It was less about trying to be like, ‘Hey, I’m a director now,’” she explains. “I just wanted to be more in control of [the visuals].

“The world is going to create a character for what you do no matter what,” she continues. “At least have fun with it. Learn to laugh about it and wear ridiculous shit. Because they’re going to say whatever they want anyway, why not throw some fun into it.”

All of which could be the M.O. of the “Intern” video. Towards the end, she gazes directly into the camera with a hands-free microphone atop her glistening, aluminum-foil-colored bob. “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do,” she croons, “Something in the world will make a fool of you.”

Might as well do it yourself.

A few days before our interview, I receive a list of “FACTS” about which Angel Olsen would rather not be asked. The first bullet point: “She has never listened to Joni Mitchell.”

It’s a joke — she says the fact sheet was inspired by her friend, the synth-pop performance artist Alex Cameron — but I sense it’s coming from an uneasy place. In the land of music criticism, it has become de rigueur for any slightly off-kilter female artist with an acoustic guitar to be compared to Joni Mitchell, the same way any slightly off-kilter female artist with a synthesizer will inevitably be compared to Kate Bush. (Early in her career, the electronic artist Grimes had to similarly clarify, “I’m sick of being compared to Kate Bush. I’ve never listened to her.”) Olsen’s music is personal and frequently eccentric, and it’s hard for some people to talk about female eccentricity without trying to qualify it, tamp it down, make sense of it by comparing it to something familiar.

Olsen is learning all this the hard way right now, because her mischievous subconscious had to make her call this record My Woman. There wasn’t any kind of provocative or statement-making intention behind the title, she says, it was just a matter of “looking at the material I had finished recording and going, ‘OK, I have a song called ‘Woman,’ I’m going to title it My Woman. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, there will be consequences for saying something so bold.’”

When we first sit down to chat, Olsen is agitated by a recent question from an older male journalist, who asked if she was worried about “losing her male audience” because she’d given her record such a feminine title. “I was like, are you fucking kidding me? What sort of question is that? Did you hear that come out of your mouth? I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s not creative. And unfortunately, now you’ve set the tone for the rest of the conversation by asking that question.”

I am suddenly nervous; the bar for my first question seems perilously high. Luckily, I will not even really have to ask any formal questions because Olsen is quite a talker. She admits she’s running on some exhausted energy (she ticks off a list of all the places she’s been in the last month alone — Amsterdam, Chicago, Iceland — and I become tired just listening to it). She also confesses that she’s become something of a “conversation dominator” in interviews, out of personal necessity. Like the decision to start directing her own videos, she sees it as a way of attempting to control her image and the way she’s perceived.

But of course, one of the glorious and terrifying things about making art is that you can’t control everyone’s perceptions of it, so she keeps trying to make sense of that interviewer who misunderstood the title. “I just happen to be a woman, you know what I mean?” she says to me. “So by default I have that perspective. I’m not a feminist just by writing an album. Am I eating a feminist salad? Am I drinking a feminist tea? When I go to the bathroom, am I taking a feminist shit?” She shrugs. “Well, I don’t know any other kind of shit I would take.”

Olsen grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and was adopted when she was 3. (That’s another thing she’s sick of discussing: “I’ve talked about it into the ground. I’m sure it affects my writing, but I don’t think it’s 100 percent relevant to everything that I do.”) Her parents were significantly older than those of her peers — they’re now in their 70s and 80s, respectively — and this upbringing perhaps accounts for some of her more retro-leaning affinities. “Because there are so many decades of difference between us,” she told Spin in 2014, “I became more interested in what their childhood was like. I fantasized about what it was like to be young in the ’30s and ’50s, more so than other kids my age.”

In that same interview, Olsen says that in her teens she “wanted to be everything: a dancer and an actress and a pop star.” In her early adolescence, “she would frequently pretend she was in an R&B girl group, recording herself singing along to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Destiny’s Child.” It wasn’t until high school that she became “quiet and introverted … [as though] a switch was flipped.”

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Her glammed-up star turn in the “Shut Up Kiss Me” video feels extra revelatory in this context. Mugging for the camera in an empty roller rink, she carries the entire video herself — she’s a total joy to watch. She says she was trying to channel one of her heroes, Parker Posey. “I really wanted to be cheeky in that way,” she tells me. “She has a super dry, make-fun-of-yourself-and-other-people sense of humor. She’s a huge inspiration to me, as far as comic relief.”

She tried to inject some of that levity behind the scenes, too, which is part of the reason she decided to coproduce My Woman with pop producer Justin Raisen. She was a little nervous when they first started collaborating, she says, because he suggested writing a song for her. “I was like, I don’t need anyone to write a song for me,” she laughs. “I can write you a song.” But as their relationship progressed, Raisen became a valuable asset in the studio — he was able to get Olsen out of her own head. “I really needed his perspective in that he had a sense of humor,” she says.

It makes sense that she’d place a lot of importance on who she chose to coproduce the record. At many points in our conversation, it becomes clear that Olsen is hyperconscious of the behind-the-scenes people who often don’t get as much credit in the artistic process. When I ask her about directing her videos, she’s lavishes praise on her cinematographer, Ashley Connor; when I ask her what she’s reading, she spends as much time gushing about Elena Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, as she does Ferrante. (“She’s a huge part of how it sounds in English, so getting that credit is really important.”) Olsen is also attuned to the artistic chemistry between groups of people: We talk about a long, career-spanning article she recently read about Fleetwood Mac. “From the standpoint of an artist who has changed and who has seen their work change [depending on] the people involved, it’s really cool to see what they gained and lost in different periods of time.”

Olsen’s music began from a place of solitude, and has become more populated over time. Her first release was the 2010 EP Strange Cacti, which she recorded by herself and didn’t think many other people would hear. (As she told Pitchfork a few years ago: “‘I’ll just put this out on a tape and it’ll be fine.’ And then everyone bought it, and I was like, ‘Why are you listening to this shitty tape?!’”) What followed was the slightly more hi-fi debut album Half Way Home, a collection of bewitching folk songs that quivered with plainspoken feeling, and finally her 2014 breakout, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, on which she fully fleshed out her sound. The themes of her songs reflect this arc, too: At first they were about solitude and learning how to be content alone (one of her most stunning early songs is called “Lonely Universe”). Now, she says, much of her writing is about navigating relationships, finding “that balance between standing up for yourself and truly loving someone.”

Olsen’s single favorite note on My Woman is actually a moment of silence. It comes in the middle of the album’s slow-burning centerpiece, “Sister,” and to her, it represents the intuitive connection she shares with her band. “Josh is about to play the drum beat,” she says, “and he stops and we stop and then we all go back into it at the same time. To me, listening back to the record — the peak of that entire record is in that pause. It’s that moment we’re not playing. We’re just floating.”

“Sister” just might be the best song Olsen’s ever written. It’s a long, slow tug-of-war between loud and quiet, passion and submission — between clinging to control and finally letting go. It builds towards an astonishing conclusion, in which Olsen chants the lyric, “All my life I thought I’d change” enough times for it to take on the power of a mantra. She begins it mournfully, as if to lament that she’s just stayed the same, but then the lyric contradicts itself, as Olsen’s voice evaporates and hovers in falsetto above the song. She is changing, and we’re bearing witness.

“There’s this consistency in my life as I’m getting older,” she tells me, “of being less worried about having the answer and what’s going to happen. I’ve gotten more comfortable with not knowing stuff.” She pauses as she stirs a straw in her tea, letting the words sink in. “There will be things I will live my entire life and never know. And that’s OK.”

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the title of Angel Olsen’s 2014 album. The title is Burn Your Fire for No Witness.