“It was a natural process, I guess. There was no secret plan or anything; I just wanted to apply my voice and my writing in different ways.”
If the above statements are surprising, then the firm manner in which Angel Olsen delivered them surely isn’t. Despite being little over a year past the release of her first full-length, Half Way Home, Olsen has already managed to both carve out a striking signature sound and forge a reputation for doing things entirely on her own terms. The sonic departure that her second record represents belies the organic nature of its conception, though; as markedly different as the end results prove on Burn Your Fire for No Witness, the gestation period took on a familiar form.
“In some ways it was the same. You know, sometimes I’ll write a song in a day and others I won’t get around to finishing it for weeks, or months. Sometimes it’ll be sad, and sometimes there’ll be a kind of sass that needs an upbeat tempo. I think it’s only now that I’m working with the band that you can see major differences in the songs, because of the way they’re helping me to really add some drive to my songwriting.”
The circumstances of Olsen coming to meet her collaborators – drummer Josh Jaeger and guitarist Stewart Bronough – would appear to vindicate her decision to drop anchor in Chicago in order to pursue a career in music, having been born and raised in Missouri. “Josh, I met when we both worked at a cafe in Chicago called The Bourgeois Pig. We worked opposite schedules, so I never really saw him too much, but after I quit working there, he found my last album and practiced playing drums to it. He contacted me to see if I wanted to play music with him, and for one reason or another I thought that maybe I’d try it. I’m normally pretty guarded about that kind of thing; you know, if it doesn’t work out, then it’s going to be pretty awkward, and I guess I’ve always wanted to avoid that.”
“We got together, and when I realised that he’d been getting into playing the songs without me being there, and done everything of his own accord, I realised how genuinely interested he was in working with me. He introduced me to his friend, Stewart, who he’s in a band with. As soon as we all got playing together, we clicked pretty quickly. A lot of that had to do with the fact that those guys have been playing together a while, and just seemed to be able to communicate ideas so easily, about beats, tempos, that sort of thing. I trusted Josh because he knew the record, and Stewart was amazing in the studio; he kind of read what I was doing with the guitars and offered me a lot of guidance, a lot of encouragement. It was just nice to be able to be so open to working with their ideas.”
John Congleton handled production duties on Burn Your Fire, and although his impressive CV includes numerous recent link-ups with St. Vincent, Olsen was reluctant to draw any comparisons; “I’m not hugely familiar with all the artists he’s worked with, but what struck me is that he had a knack for working with so many different kinds of music; that flexibility really appealed to me.”
Instead, it was Congleton’s relaxed approach and openness to Olsen’s new ideas that made him the obvious choice to sit behind the desk. “We had this really amazing conversation, and he convinced me that I was ready to take that step. I’m actually very particular about my vision and what I want out of my music, and I kind of made it clear that I didn’t want somebody coming in who’d want to take too much control away from me. I was worried about making something that turned out overproduced. I think some people can find that kind of attitude annoying, but it was helpful for John because he had a clear idea of what I was going for; when we got together, he knew how to approach the songs. I mean, he suggested things, obviously, but he did so very tactfully, and I really appreciated that subtlety.”
One marked shift from Half Way Home on the new record is a clear preference for the electric guitar, even on subtler, more subdued tracks where you might imagine the acoustic the be the natural first port of call. “I’ve actually not played acoustic songs for a long time,” says Olsen. “The only time I really tend to play acoustic is if I’m doing a radio show, or if I’m at a friend’s house and there isn’t an electric around. I’ve always played electric, even when it was just me on stage, and that was what made me think it was best for me to be in a band; I wanted to give the songs a little more power.”
Perhaps the other major left turn that Olsen’s taken on Burn Your Fire is her change in vocal approach. For the most part, Half Way Home’s vocals were clean, exuberantly delivered and created a fairly clear identity; this time around, they’re far more enigmatic, with restrained and often distorted turns helping to build a framework for the record’s themes.
“It was really more about creating the characters that each song represents. What I wanted to do was to take a little bit of what I’d learned from both of the albums I’d previously done – a little bit of the atmosphere from Strange Cacti, and a little bit of the atmosphere from Half Way Home – and sort of place them together in a sonic environment that I felt suited each individual song. We changed things at the very last minute, during the mixing process, but for the most part, the conceptual ideas I had for each song pretty much stayed as they had been initially. It wasn’t like I changed my mind after I’d demoed them.”
“The material was calling for that, I think. I just naturally adjusted to that. I might be singing louder and faster on some songs, and then on other tracks it wasn’t really too different from my older stuff. You know, the first song on the record (“Unfucktheworld”) is a good example of that, and “Enemy”, too; they’re very similar songs to my early work, but I feel as if they sound like a progressed version of it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve jumped from being a solo musician to being in a rock band because I don’t really view myself that way; what I did want to do was take what I’d learned from being in a rock band, and apply it to my writing, and my voice, too.”
As much as Olsen refers to characters and seems, at times, to take a detached approach to her own songwriting, her own experience over the past couple of years has clearly influenced her work, particularly in terms of some of the uncertainty and rebirth referenced on Burn Your Fire. “There’s definitely themes within it that are repeated. I think the overarching idea on the album is of ending one chapter and beginning another, you know? It’s about transformation, of some sort. Those were the ideas that were repeating themselves.”