In the space of just two albums, American singer songwriter Angel Olsen has transformed from indie folk darling to gritty, raw frontwoman. Adding a band to her act for acclaimed second album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, has resulted in a gutsy, energetic record that at times is a far cry away from the harmonic aura of 2012’s Halfway Home.
Olsen created her debut LP largely by herself, prior to meeting the musicians who would form her band while touring the record. The new team crafted her latest release, which Olsen says is meant to sound “as close to us performing live as possible”, together.
Music Feeds recently caught up with Olsen, who told us about how she’s extending herself vocally, her occasional inability to make sense of her own lyrics and about having to re-download her first EP off iTunes after she lost it.
Music Feeds: There wasn’t a lot of time between the first and second album yet the sound is quite different. Was that a conscious decision?
Angel Olsen: I think it just happened working with a band I feel comfortable with, and then also having written a lot of new material that worked out with an experience. It’s pretty limited being a solo musician. I couldn’t make certain sounds by myself. I think it was just a natural progress from what I was doing.
MF: Did you find your lyrics changed from the experiences you had writing the first record?
AO: Sure. I think there are similarities but, yeah, they have changed. For example Tiniest Seeds or Tiniest Lights — which is on Strange Cacti, which is the first EP I ever released — now listening back to White Fire, I can hear similarities.
MF: How are you finding meshing the two albums together in a live setting?
AO: Well, yeah, there’s a mix of all of it. We play a little bit of Strange Cacti and a little bit of Halfway Home but mostly the new album. You know, in performance, I always play a few songs solo so I continue a little bit of what I was doing before but also with an electric guitar.
MF: I read in an interview that you were not even sure sometimes what your lyrics meant, and so it was hard to explain to writers what you were trying to say. Do you always find that a difficult question to answer?
AO: Yeah, because it’s like, well, I’ve made the mistake of saying that I believe a certain thing and then someone brings it up and I’m like, “Fuck, I don’t know if I actually agree with that anymore. I’m not sure that’s true.” So I don’t wanna be a liar.
But I’m not surprised, for example, if you write a song with ‘mother’ or ‘father’ or ‘sister’ in it and somebody’s like, “Is that about your sister or what?” You’re asking for it in a way.
Watch: Angel Olsen – Forgiven/Forgotten
MF: Was the tone of your voice a natural development or was it influenced by artists you grew up with?
AO: Not sure. I’m sure I have imitated things a lot growing up but what I’m trying to do instead of that is figure out how I’m going to use my vocals and how I can strengthen them. When you’re getting older, your voice changes and the pitch you can reach changes.
MF: Were you trying to do new things with your voice on the second album?
AO: Sure. On the second album it was right after I’d worked with a band and I found I could use my voice in totally different ways. I needed to take what I’d learnt as a vocalist, as somebody who was in the background, and apply it to what I was doing.
MF: The new material sounds more energetic. Was that a result of playing with a band?
AO: We had played a lot of that material on the road. We started working together last year and started performing Halfway Home songs and after a few months I shared a few new songs that we recorded later on and performed those on tour. We performed them on tour before we’d even recorded them so they had time to breathe and change.
When we got in a studio we found we could share what we were doing. We were taking all these notes and we talked about records that we liked and sounds that we thought would work for specific things and why.
For the most part, they didn’t change their structure. It was more like, “How do we embellish what this is? We don’t wanna clutter it, we don’t want it to sound overdone, we want it to sound as close to us performing live as possible.” I think that we learnt a lot from that experience.
MF: Was the second album more thought out for you? I read you said the first album was done under a ‘fuck it’ type attitude.
AO: [With the first record] it was kinda like, “I don’t think anyone will like this because it’s going to be really dry and it’s a collection of songs.” I didn’t see any theme. I just put it in an order that made sense. And for the last one it was all written in the same year so I feel like it has much more of a drive behind it and it definitely is a different beast.
Watch: Angel Olsen – Hi-Five
MF: What’s your record collection like? I can imagine it has artists like Marissa Nadler or Sharon Van Etten. Are there any curveballs in there?
AO: Yeah, I like Robert Wyatt, Donny Hathaway. We were listening to Janet [Jackson] earlier.
MF: What about records you grew up with?
AO: Oh, yeah. The first tape I ever got was Mariah Carey’s Hero. 1996, I think.
MF: I heard you say when you recorded Windows, you felt vocally like Mariah Carey. Are you interested in experimenting with what other female vocalists do?
AO: Sure. It’s not something that I’m used to doing, like vocal embellishments. As a back-up vocalist it’s one thing, but as a person singing your own song it’s really weird. As a reference, a lot of pop singers do that with no fear so it felt like this was something like what those people do. And then it just feels out of character for me. But it was good to find I was capable of doing some of it.
MF: Do you think that recorded music should be faultless?
AO: No. But at the same time, I feel like there is always something that you could’ve done better. I think part of making a record is capturing the feeling as much as possible and then moving on. And then the performance is a totally different thing.
MF: Is listening back to any of your records a cathartic experience or is it painful?
AO: I haven’t listened to Halfway Home in a long time. Strange Cacti, I had to buy it off iTunes because I lost it. I almost downloaded it for free but I thought that was really wrong. When you lose a record because your computer crashes and then you’re supposed to rip it off line just because I can’t remember how a song goes.
MF: Have you got any plans to come to Australia?
AO: Yeah. I hope so. I’d really like to come this Summer. Your summer.
Angel Olsen’s sophomore record, ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’, is available now through Inertia.