Though Angel Olsen's music is often dubbed folk or indie rock, it is too diverse to fit neatly into such broad categories. Whatever it's filed under, her music, especially her latest album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is informed by a delicacy of feeling that allows her to channel deep wells of emotional content into warm, luminous and earthy expressions. If you talk to Olsen, though, she's reluctant to give away too much when it comes to her songwriting.
"I guess that in a lot of ways, my writing is more of a character to me than something that I feel personally attached to," she says. "So sometimes explaining each song and what it means to someone who asks about my music kind of kills the surprise, you know? And I feel that it's better for people to find their own meaning in it if they find meaning in it at all."
On her second album, 2012's Half Way Home, Olsen played with Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang, who also produced the record. The Gang subsequently took Olsen on a tour backing Bonny "Prince" Billy on guitar. Half Way Home was a shift away from the more polished-sounding Strange Cacti, from 2011, in that Olsen left in some of the kinds of imperfections that would occur in the live setting, a quality that lends the album an intimacy and immediacy that wouldn't be possible with a more sanitized recording. "I wanted to make a recording that sounded more like an unharmed live performance, if you were to hear it in your living room or something," Olsen explains. "I wanted it to be more about revealing a kind of humanity and to expect that it's not always perfect."
Since the release of Half Way Home, Olsen has worked with Brooklyn-based filmmaker Zia Anger on her three music videos, including a clip for "Hi-Five," from Burn Your Fire for No Witness. "I feel like we have a very similar sense of humor, just dry," she notes. "At least in her work, I feel there's this need for celebrating transparency and to not be ashamed to be transparent. The reason we met was because she wanted me to act in a film a few years ago, and I said I couldn't do it, but I said she could use one of my songs in her film if she wanted to."
The comedic sensibilities shared between Olsen and Anger is evident in some of the song titles on the new album — "Unfuck the World," in particular. "I was on tour last year, and I saw it on a sink in, I think, a bathroom somewhere in Philly," Olsen remembers. "And I thought that was a genius thing. I found it hilarious that they chose to write it there.
"It's like the reverse of saying 'Fuck you,'" she goes on. "It's like saying, 'Man, just forget about it.' I wish I could just forget about it — I wish I could take it back, you know? I feel that in some ways, it doesn't really relate to the song. Instead it's more about this feeling of 'Just forget about it, I'm doing it myself.' I thought it was appropriate because of that."
Despite the singular name applied to her musical project, these days Olsen tends to tour with a live band, and says she often prefers the natural camaraderie of playing in that context. "It's more exciting," she declares. "When you change something on stage [when you play alone], everybody notices it, and if you keep playing it, it's like you won something. There are things that happen when you're playing with other people, even if you're messing around, and it's just so much nicer to share that experience and to talk about it afterward and talk about why. When you're alone, you're just kind of doing the same thing over and over again. I feel like sometimes I can get away with changing stuff solo that makes that exciting. Like, 'Oh, I skipped a verse or changed a chord in a song.' With a band, it's just more fun to interact with them."
As a result of her broad range of experiences as a touring musician and songwriter, Olsen has garnered a great deal of perspective on the realities of the music industry and the mindset it takes to stay motivated and evolve, but also to thrive as an artist — things like maintaining artistic purity when it comes to licensing your music.
"I still feel like many musicians wouldn't do anything like that, and I totally support people for having that opinion," says Olsen. "I understand it a little bit more when you're getting a little bit older and you're creating this work. It's almost like you put so much energy into it that if you wanted to get a normal job, it probably wouldn't work out.
"Maybe it would," she continues, "but it would take a lot of time to do that other job [when you might be] creating something. So it becomes this sort of struggle to do what is right. I don't think that people should exploit themselves. But I feel that there are ways to submit your music to different things if you know the context of what you're submitting it to. It's also pretty amazing to figure out that a lot of the time the artist is the last one to get paid. I wonder how many artists are out there who are completely uninsured, and they're aging, and things in their lives are changing, and they need that extra paycheck."
In an interview with Nashville Cream in August 2013, Olsen talked about the need for self-reinvention when you're burned out: "Being around a lot of negative people...and being fristrated.... You put two negative people together, and it's like, 'Come on, man! One of us have to realize this is bullshit. We have to do something else.' That's something I realized, or what I think I realized, from being around that a lot.
"If, you know, all your life you're making films or whatever, and somehow along the way you lose meaning in whatever you're doing when you're making the films, they're just not the same as they used to be to you. That doesn't mean your life is over; it just means maybe go try to live a different life.
"Go and experience life the way that someone else might experience it," she concludes. "Maybe you'll find meaning in a different corner of your brain. The fact that it changed doesn't negate the fact that it ever mattered."