Her Bright Materials
Imagine if you were one of the best young songwriters working today, with a catalogue of songs that are beyond genre - and yet people still sought to attach labels to them?
If you’re Angel Olsen, you simply don’t worry about it. She’s got much more important things to focus on, such as her next musical steps, playing her biggest shows to date and not least, her new cat. “I told my manager ‘I’m done with music, I have a cat now, the next record is all cat!’"
Olsen’s last record MY WOMAN makes nonsense of the idea that her music slots neatly into a box. Its songs shift their shape throughout, from the spiky guitars of “Shut Up Kiss Me”, the elongated blues of “Sister”, to the heart-breaking piano lament “Pops.”
Each Olsen’s records - from 2012's Halfway Home to 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness alongside last year's MY WOMAN - have been an organic development on their predecessor, underpinned by impeccable songwriting. With each album she continues to walk her own singular path, adapting the music as she sees fit.
It's nine months since MY WOMAN was released and Olsen is touring it until the end of this year. Rather than being daunted by playing larger venues she instead talks about the stop/start touring schedule the release date prompted, sounding impatient to get re-enter the fray and play her songs live.
“It’s strange to release a record in September, it’s holidays in December and January and everything dies down. I’m ready to get back into it, performing these newer songs and writing some new ones. I worked really hard on mixing the record, making the videos and doing the promotional… whatever, the stuff.”
Ah, ‘the stuff’. Olsen has occasionally been portrayed as a spiky interviewee, seemingly for having the temerity to baulk at questions male artists would rarely have to deal with. Yet far from being prickly, her razor-sharp wit, contagious laughter, fondness for self-depreciation and penchant for withering sarcasm makes an hour in her company fly by.
"I don’t like it when people try to get you to react to something, that’s a really shitty and cheap way of being a journalist.”
She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. One interviewer especially piqued her annoyance after asking whether the title of her last record would alienate her male fans.
“I wish I remembered who asked me that so I could know not to work with them again. I was like, ‘Really? Are you fucking asking that question right now?’ It could have been cultural differences, but to me it’s always the tone of voice that people use. I don’t know if he was trying to ask an earnest question, if he’d asked it in a difference tone, maybe I would have been ‘Here’s some information that you could use…' I don’t like it when people try to get you to react to something, that’s a really shitty and cheap way of being a journalist.”
Do you get that a lot?
“No, that was a really rare thing. I have lovely conversations all the time in interviews but sometimes they only use one fourth of the conversation, that’s what people go away with and even that bugs me” she says “I’m just ‘Whoever’s asking you to do the job, cover all the topics you need to, but don’t waste my time if you’re not actually going to include some of the other topics.’”
The questions put to Olsen often follow a set pattern. “It’s always ‘the wig, the video, ‘knowing yourself and your image through people’, when you worked with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy…’ I don’t mind repeating myself, but if you’re bringing up the same topics are you really doing something as a journalist that’s different?”
"I make music, I can’t control how people are going to interpret it or what genre they’ll think it is."
It brings us to another erroneous assumption about Olsen, namely that her songwriting adheres to a set genre. When she released “Forgiven/Forgotten” from Burn Your Fire For No Witness the narrative was that she’d ‘gone grunge’, with MY WOMAN’s “Intern”, she’d ‘gone pop’. Whereas Olsen used to take umbrage with being labelled, she’s learning to shrug off what people latch onto.
“I make music, I can’t control how people are going to interpret it or what genre they’ll think it is.” What she finds more annoying is when “big publications who are known for reviewing music title it as something, so they can pursue an audience to believe that.
They’re supposed to be the people that listen to the record all the way through and know the styles an artist is pooling from. Going to one song to name an artist’s style is a lazy thing to do as a person who works in the business of critiquing, looking for style and influence” she explains “but at the same time I’m not going to say ‘I’m not inspired by country’ or ‘I’m not inspired by grunge’ or ‘I’m not inspired by pop music’, because I’m inspired by a lot of different things.”
Olsen jokes she should write her own dissertation about MY WOMAN, before adding “which I won’t, because it’d be fucking stupid. I should just make art and not care. Sometimes I wish people were intellectual about it and then other times I’m like ‘Somebody thinks it’s folk music? Good for them, I hope they come to the show and hear the rest of it.’ It kind of annoyed me to hear a phrase like ‘Country Glam’, but I was like ‘Whatever, that’s fucking insane.’”
Did someone actually write that?
“So many people say that. Whatever hierarchy there is, they come up with this term of words and everyone grabs it.”
Olsen describes the current musical infrastructure as one where “everyone can be an artist, a photographer, a critic, everyone can do anything. So you have to look at it like that and realise that because everyone can do anything there’s just as many untalented writers as there are musicians and there’s nothing that I can do about that.”
Olsen’s happy for people to think about and take whatever they like from her work “and I shouldn’t really care you know? If they want to call it something that’s fine, I’m going to keep making music, playing songs and performing live. The point of it isn’t to make music so that I fit into a genre for somebody else.”
Is it frustrating when the songs are put into a box of a specific genre?
“Maybe because it’s not in my face as much right now it doesn’t seem to bother me anymore. I don’t know why, even the box thing, I’m like ‘Go ahead.’ I could write my own review, but that’s not my passion, so why do I care? My passion is to make music and to touch people, hopefully emotionally and intellectually. But if I don’t do that, if they think I’m ‘too country’ or I’m ‘too pop’ and only listen to one song, that’s not my fault, that’s not my problem.”
As with the evolution of each of her records, as an artist Olsen never looks back or rests on her laurels. When we talk about some of her older songs, she mentions some recent personal events that made her aware of their importance in other people’s lives, including her friends.
“A couple of things happened this Spring that made me realise and backtrack on the whole ‘I’m mad at everyone for thinking ‘I’m only this.’ We’ve lost some people in our lives and what I realised is that with my songs sometimes, especially some of my old ones that I don’t perform anymore, because I don’t really like the style of them, I have to re-invision them or just let them be the style they were.”
She mentions that her band encouraged her to play one of her older songs, “and I’m like ‘I hate that song.’”
She doesn’t name which song she’s referring to, “I think it’s better as an example, but it’s talking with fans or friends of mine who’ve listened to songs and not told me that they cared about them and then later on people being sick and affected on these levels that are beyond my control in really heavy ways.
“I’ve got a catalogue of music, some of its upbeat, a lot of it’s really slow. Finding the right slow songs to play and where they should go has been like a puzzle, it’s just finding the spots for them, whilst also still working on performing this new-ish record. A lot of people haven’t seen them live yet and I’m excited to play them.”
Watching Olsen play at London’s Roundhouse shortly after we speak was to witness a peerless performer and songwriter. Rather than open with one of her faster songs, she opted for the slow burn of MY WOMAN’s “Heart-Shaped Face”, with her voice leading the song over a beautifully understated musical arrangement. With the set interspersed with songs from her formidable back catalogue, her fluid songwriting style was more proof, if it was needed, of how she doesn’t write to a formula.
Such fluidity is mirrored in Olsen’s approach to writing the songs themselves, which leads her to the best arrangement for each of them rather than being driven by stylistic considerations. Consequently she doesn’t have a set songwriting method at play, but describes it as ‘a really personal process.’
Olsen started writing songs in her childhood, a point in her life when she describes herself as “very obsessed with music and writing.”
“I had this ‘dictionary of dictionaries’. It had a thesaurus, a dictionary of names and words that rhymed. I’d go through all the rhyming words to see the context and memorise the words. I excelled in English because of that, but I was just really interested in learning words.”
Reflecting on her first songwriting attempts she explains “the context never made any sense but the words rhymed, eventually I was ‘I need to work harder at this.’ It’s about the beats, a lot of poems are like that, they’re designed in ‘8, 4, 3, 8, 4, 3’… it’s a very mathematical thing.”
At this formative stage Olsen learned that as long as she landed on a certain beat with a word, it didn’t necessarily have to rhyme. “Or it can rhyme in a different rhyme. I became obsessed with starting with structures and once I had them memorised I just thought about a subject and came up with some lines for it.”
Nowadays Olsen finds she often doesn’t consciously think about writing a song, she’ll be humming something “and all of a sudden the words come and I’ve got an entire song. I’ve got the melody and words and that’s when you feel the best, it’s a feeling that’s almost like an epiphany… a fluid epiphany of creation.”
Not all of her songs come as quickly however, often she’ll write a melody or lyrics and months will pass before they form part of a finished song. “Sometimes it becomes a bigger song than you thought, or it was just for fun, but a lot of my process is getting the songs to a point where I’m working on them. They start off very raw and I work on them every day until I need a break, clear my head and see what’s missing by having distance.”
Olsen describes the process as “super-weird, sometimes it’s very frustrating, but it’s like anything you do. Sometimes it comes very easily and that feels like raw talent, as a person you’re like ‘this is talent!’”, which prompts a burst of laughter, before adding “If you want to do something well you have to work hard at re-editing and revising it.”
She says she’d love to write a book, but doesn’t think she has the right skillset. “I could talk a book, I’ve thought about doing that because I talk a lot, but I’m better at refining smaller, quaint little packages, versus trying to write a novel or a story.”
Olsen jokes about an idea she has for artists who need to get a book out their system, where the Drunk History TV show format would be reframed as “Drunk Short Stories” but jokes that if she was to do it herself “I don’t know if I could get away with that, I’m already too earnest! People would take it too seriously.”
This misconception of Olsen as an earnest artist is reinforced further when she adopts a ditzy accent as she talks about some of the artistic suggestions that have been put to her. “I have people being like (adopts the voice) ‘You should collaborate with all these people, you should co-write for pop stars…
"I don't always just want to be a person who’s writing and intellectualising my own work."
“While that sounds fun and everything for some people, I’ve always written for myself and always wanted to play my own music. It would be really messy for me to get into that, it would be selling myself out a little bit. I’m very stingy and protective about the songs.”
Yet she says she “doesn’t always just want to be a person who’s writing and intellectualising my own work” and ponders if she’s too precious about her writing, before reasoning that if she wasn’t protective of her songs, she wouldn’t be where she is today.
“Maybe that will have its time and it won’t happen anymore. Maybe I’ll be less precious, but for me writing is about taking the time to live and be a person, to reflect, see the world and experience things. I can’t crank them out every six weeks and I don’t want to. I don’t think I would be critical enough if I did that.”
She does enjoy singing on other people’s songs however, “sometimes I really get into and learn a lot from the experience of singing a style of music that’s totally different to what I’m used to. Being a voice on someone’s record and singing their lyrics can be really fun and refreshing. I love collaborating in those ways.”
Despite her enjoyment in collaborating, even then she draws the line at writing for others. “When they ask me to do that I feel weird, it’s like ‘You’re famous, I don’t know if I should do that’. I’ve never done that, why would I do that now?”
Talk of collaboration brings us to a tweet Olsen sent to Danny Brown saying she’d love to sing on one of his songs. Brown, who had been tweeting about how much he loved MY WOMAN replied with “Deal!” Is that going to happen
“I’d just had surgery and was taking tons of pain relievers. I said ‘Maybe when I get better I’ll sing something with ya.’
“I just thought it would be fun to publicly wink at him you know? But then all these people picked it up and I was like ‘this is fucking ridiculous. I haven’t done anything with this person and people are being weird’” before admitting “I did publicly say hi on Twitter, so I guess I had to deal with that. I just thought it would be fun to say hi to someone on a totally different level and style of music than me. I don’t know if I’ll ever make anything with him, maybe one day.”
Olsen’s Tweets are hilarious, examples include “all this biz I said about my art & projection, the reality is that I'm literally in need of a dust pan. I have a broom but no dust pan.” Why?!” She seems to have great fun debunking myths about herself on social media?
“I do, but Instagram’s the only one where I see any comments or anything. With Twitter I don’t want to see how many likes it gets, I just want to Tweet it. Sometimes I don’t really want to be on there, people try and send you direct messages and stuff.
“It’s healthier to just live my life and not look at the Internet or get lost in a search of like ‘Oh man, we played awful that day in Toronto in 2012’. I don’t need to be doing anything like that.” She puts on her sarcastic voice again “Next to making records, Tweeting is pretty important, so I’m glad I haven’t given it up entirely yet!”
Months before MY WOMAN was released Olsen tweeted “Potential album titles for next record - "no one understands me", "finally home", "I ain't playing anymore" "depression cherry vanilla". As well as containing references to her other records and poking fun at her reputation, it also contained a nod Beach House’s Depression Cherry?
“I like her! I wasn’t stabbing her, I was just saying “Maybe mine could be called this, a different flavour!”
And the line ‘I ain't playing anymore’ is from “Pops”
“Yeah, but I thought it would be funny to say ‘the record is called "Look, I ain't playing music anymore”, which prompts another burst of laughter.
“Pops” is one of Olsen’s most beautiful songs, a voice and piano lament where the words touch on the nature of song-craft as much as they do an emotional narrative - “Don’t forget it’s a song / I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.”
It’s the only song from MY WOMAN that hasn’t been played live yet and Olsen explains that’s because she doesn’t want to replace the piano part with a keyboard. “It feels wrong to play a keyboard to “Pops”, soulless almost. We need to play it but you’ve got to rent a piano for one song. Maybe I’ll try to find a piano sound, but even if you found a keyboard that produced that piano sound, it still looks bad, it still looks like a keyboard.”
The evolution of Olsen’s songwriting means she has to incorporate more instruments into the shows, “the arc of the set has become really important to me as the band has gotten bigger and these new sounds are entering it.” She thinks she used to be spend too much time tuning up, but now wants to keep the set moving as slickly as possible, despite all the additional instruments. “When you’re a rock band and it’s one thing, you can talk and get involved and I like doing that.”
Olsen’s expanded musical panorama has seen her backing band grow to five members and she’s now joined on backing vocals by Heather McEntire, whom she describes as “incredible, our voices go together so well, she’s wonderful.”
Her booking agent suggested the pair of them should meet and Olsen says with more than a hint of sarcasm ‘I was like, sure, because all women singers should just hang out…’ When they eventually met they got on like a house on fire, “she was amazing and I was like ‘I’m an asshole’ basically.’ She’s got a really powerful voice, it’s really fun to be able to sing with someone who can belt it out like me and we can both belt it out together.”
Guitarists Paul Sukeena and Luke Norton have also joined the fold, replacing Stewart Bronaugh, who was a member of Olsen’s band and played on MY WOMAN, but amicably departed to pursue his own music.
When she talks about her current band it’s with an unabashed sense of pride. Whilst editing a recording of a show at San Francisco’s The Fillmore she wrote to them saying “’You guys, I know we worked really hard, but this is fucking awesome, I’m so proud of you,’”
The band have also been integral in transitioning MY WOMAN’s songs live. The recorded version of “Intern” featured just Olsen’s voice and three keyboards but playing it live prompted the question of how to incorporate the band into the equation. Sukeena suggested “Making the guitar sound kind of Frippy” (Robert Fripp, who pioneered the guitar sound Frippertronics that featured on Bowie’s “Heroes”) to which Olsen replied “Hell yeah!”
She says still hears her earlier, more stripped down approach in MY WOMAN, even in layered songs such as the seven-minute epic, “Sister.” “Even though it turns into a solo and it’s very electric, it’s an example of my solo based material continuing, because it’s a fucking long song.”
Olsen isn’t planning to make another solo record any time soon, but says it’s possible she may do at some point. “I’m not sure what’s next right now. I’m definitely investing a little bit more in synths and organs. I really like the sound of organs especially, I’ve been listening to a lot of Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes and stuff like that, very organ, prog-based '70s psych.”
She feels some of the new songs could go that in direction but ultimately the musical approach to her records will change each time. “And that’s okay, I don’t see myself writing a totally pop-synth record or a really crisp record, but I don’t know, maybe I will someday.”
The reason for this is her love of “very dingy sounding things, it’s hard to let go of records like The Velvet Underground. Growing up to those kind of sounds, stuff is a little out of tune sometimes, but so what? There’s more feeling in it sometimes when it’s not perfect, when you’re just playing it and not over analysing it.”
"I think my style will change, but I feel like I’m always going to try really hard to not let myself become too far away from my roots."
As a result Olsen likes to record quickly, with her ideal being a two week period in the studio, where the band are tightly rehearsed and ready to go. “We look at the songs, see what’s missing, what we can add and how to do that in a live setting. A lot of people go into the studio and have money to spend on (she puts on the ditzy voice again) ‘Just co-writing, or taking it easy one day and coming up with ideas with the producer.’”
“I know so many solo musicians who don’t have a band, but have this huge sounding record and I’m like “What are you doing with that? Are you just putting out records or are you going to perform that record?”
For Olsen it comes down to what a musician values and writing songs and playing them live are what she cares about. “Some people would just rather put out art and maybe get a band together for a couple of tours. I think my style will change, but I feel like I’m always going to try really hard to not let myself become too far away from my roots.”
In terms of her style, MY WOMAN was a step forward but retained her songwriting DNA. Several reviews viewed it as a treatise on femininity, but beyond gender, and indeed, genre, what’s striking is the universality of the songs. Surely the idea of putting it in a box as an album that only speaks to women is nonsense?
“Well I appreciate that perspective; there are a lot of people who have that perspective too. It seems to be a hot subject to be a woman now and to talk about femininity, especially during the election.” Olsen didn’t write it as a political record “but it very quickly turned into this political, ‘Stand up for your rights’ sort of thing.
Instead Olsen says she was “just being cheeky on several levels” and mentions nodding to other artists, including Stevie Nicks, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and David Bowie.
“I don’t want to deny that I’m transparently influenced by eras, but I like to write songs that could be from any point, that could have been created now or earlier, but when I write them I add something that’s mine. To me, taking a line from another song and putting it in mine and changing the context of it is something I like to do.”
It’s an approach that’s not just growing in popularity with the public, but also her peers. As well as Danny Brown, Florence Welch, as well as a host of other artists shared their admiration for the record. Did the reaction to MY WOMAN surprise her?
“It was curious, it’s very strange how many factors go into that. I don’t know if it was because it’s the third one, so I’ve got more of a cult following and more fans spreading the word, or if it was a more adult record,” she explains “It makes me happy that people are getting it, but at the same time, how do I know? Maybe those pop artists only listened to “Intern”? I don’t know and that’s the point I’m saying, I’ve just got to keep doing my thing. Maybe they won’t like it next time, maybe they will.”
Olsen feels the themes of MY WOMAN continued those of her previous records, but were also a step forward “not so much about existential crisis, but more about love and complicated language in love, understanding how you see yourself and other people and how they see you. The time that passes and how some people come back around and become close to you when you’re least expecting it, those are subjects that I wanted to talk about.”
When she compares MY WOMAN to Burn Your Fire For No Witness and Halfway Home Olsen says she’ll always be someone who criticises her previous work, “I’m sure there are things on this record that I’m going maybe try to avoid next time, but so far I’m still excited and happy with the way it turned out.”
A standout on the record is “Woman” - the title track of sorts - which features one of Olsen’s most brilliant lyrics, “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman.” When she played it at The Roundhouse it was a line the entire audience sang along to. Did she realise it would resonate so strongly?
“It’s about a subject that’s so important - equal rights, being a human, trying to understand each other when we’re in love and trying to share our perspective. I think that’s the bottom of it, the song is from my perspective as a woman, but “I dare you to understand” is something that I’m sure a lot of people are feeling. It doesn’t only relate to a woman’s perspective.”
She adds the caveat however that “it’s the one time I feel I’m very blatantly talking about the difference between a man and a woman, or at least my perspective as a woman so openly and I thought that was very powerful.”
Olsen didn’t think “Woman” would attract the level of attention it’s received, primarily because of its length and the fact it’s so different to her other songs. “I never thought it would be a big song or important to anybody. I just thought it would be ‘Hi, this is a seven-minute song if you feel like listening to it.”
For Olsen as a writer, the tempo of songs like “Woman” give her a counterpoint to the immediacy of a song like “Shut Up Kiss Me”, “that’s why I like the slower stuff, it kind of balances it out the immediate pop stuff that’s in your head.”
She was going to title the album “Woman”, “and then I thought it would be funnier if it was MY WOMAN.” Olsen was reading a lot of Elena Ferrante novels (who wrote My Brilliant Friend) at the time “and all her titles start with ‘My!’”
“I also thought, ‘Oh well, you know, it’s kind of like degrading or whatever’, no woman wants to be owned, I think it’s both funny and serious. I’ve had friends who’ve said ‘My woman would never do that’, they go into character and I’m ‘but that’s a real thing! That’s a real problem.’ I thought it was both degrading and funny and so I thought it would be perfect as a title.”
"The whole world is sucking right now. If you leave your country you see that we’re all connected to the same issues."
The word degrading leads the conversation to the new US President. Olsen contributed the song “Fly On Your Wall” for Our First 100 Days, a project where artists put out an unreleased song for each day of Trump's first hundred days in office. Does she even want to talk about him?
“Oh man, I don’t know if he deserves my time, but I will say with the election and everything that’s been happening, there’s been a very real reaction to it, even if it’s slowing down a little bit now, people are still trying to do things about it.”
Olsen recalls the last time she was in UK, when the country was coming to terms with Brexit. “Everybody was ‘Well it happened to us and it’s about to happen to you.’ In every interview it almost felt like people were becoming nationalist, ‘I know our country sucks right now, but yours is about to suck too… again!’ And I kept feeling ‘No, actually the whole world is going to suck if this person becomes President.’”
Instead of country specific issues, she feels there’s a bigger political problem at play, that affects everyone regardless of their nationality. “The whole world is sucking right now. If you leave your country you see that we’re all connected to the same issues.” Olsen is passionate about getting this message across, particularly to her fellow countrymen and women. “I don’t think a lot of people in the States realise how connected we are, how important that is and how much the world is watching. We’re in this weird point where it feels like we’re on the brink of losing our basic human rights and it’s really scary.”
Olsen compares the current political climate to that in Mike Mills' comedy 20th Century Women, the story of a young boy raised by women in a liberal household in 1979. “It’s weird, it’s the same stuff that’s about to be taken away from us. It’s political, family-based and really funny and sharp. I thought it was fucking incredible, Annette Bening was amazing. It’s a great movie, especially right now.
“They go over subjects like birth control and having the right as a woman to go to a place privately to see a doctor, but it’s worked in a way that’s not pushy, over the top, or over sentimental.”