What’s So Wrong with the Light?
Angel Olsen’s Demeanor Deceives Her Sound
Considering the heartrending lyrics that drive her intensely emotional turn of folk, Angel Olsen, as a person, seems almost apathetic – about the inspirations behind her work, about the work itself, about life in general.
She isn’t actually a cold or indifferent person, though. But after hearing an album as poignant and stirring as her recently released third effort, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, you could fully expect Olsen to be a reflective sort; a person prone to melodrama, moping and a generally tortured attitude. It’s a common misconception, really, that pensive, delicate music must be downtrodden in content. Still, the reality of Olsen’s disposition – temperate, calm and levelheaded – comes as a bit of a shock.
“A lot of people, at least listening to it at first, can be like, ‘Oh, this is really sad.’ But I don’t really feel that way about the writing on the record,” Olsen says. “I can understand that there are certain points in it that are dark or whatever, but I think that the resolve isn’t negative.”
One of those more melancholy moments is found in the opening cut, “Unfucktheworld.” A subtle brittleness to the production matches its disheartened mood: “If all the trouble in my heart would only mend/ I lost my dream I lost my reason all again,” Olsen sings. But it’s followed by “Forgiven/Forgotten,” a brisk alt-pop number about love, although a slightly warped variety. The rest of the collection, however, fits comfortably within Olsen’s claim.
The St. Louis native, now 27, spent a good chunk of her early 20s as a member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s touring band, and also played in The Cairo Gang and collaborated on several other projects. It wasn’t until 2010 that she struck out on her own, debuting modestly with a cassette of covers, then a echoing, at times haunting six-song EP called Strange Cacti. In 2011, she presented her first full-length, Half Way Home.
“The tables have turned quite a bit,” Olsen says. “I feel like when I was working with Bonnie, I didn’t write as much as I should have, but I started writing a lot at the end. And then a lot of that material made it on Half Way Home. I feel like I was sort of gathering information about how to do it; [figuring out] if I really wanted to be playing music like that for a long period of time. So, in a way, I learned a lot about it, and then I started getting offers to play shows in all these places.”
While her latest platter inarguably showcases Olsen at her finest, those initial offerings are by no means throwaways. With a vocal range that swoops from hearty lows to striking, heavenly highs, Olsen’s croon is frequently compared by critics to that of Joni Mitchell. The barebones, almost wholly acoustic backdrop further justifies the similarity. Also validated by that disc is Olsen’s naming of Leonard Cohen as a lyrical inspiration: “Always Half Strange,” for one, bears a bittersweet romanticism akin to Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”
“I think if you can describe something that’s complicated in a simple form, then you’ve done something good. But, also, sometimes it’s really the simple things that we’re missing in our lives that upset us the most,” she says.
If she wanted, Olsen could, like Cohen, successfully publish poetry or prose; a collection could easily be made from the words penned for Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Holding the inevitable book talks, however, might be an issue. Olsen’s explanations repeatedly belie what are seemingly obvious allusions in her songwriting. In the press notes for the album, her label, Jagjaguwar, relates “White Fire” to Olsen having been raised by adoptive parents. The line, “I heard my mother thinking my right back into my birth/ I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt,” supports the claim – but Olsen doesn’t.
“Everyone wants a story,” she says. “And I think they were just trying to draw information from me. That was true information that they put together for themselves.”
There is a meaning behind that gorgeously languid, minimalistic number, though.
“It’s not really about me being adopted. It’s just about the idea of thinking about if you have a mother which, everyone has a mother, thinking about the idea of like, ‘Oh, I wonder what my mom was doing the moment I was conceived,’ and wondering what that means and where you actually come from. At what moment were you actually made? I think it’s a really interesting idea that I got kind of obsessed with when I was writing that song,” she says.
Maybe that hypothetical book talk wouldn’t be completely worthless but, rather, a little different than the norm. Concrete clarifications would be unlikely. Instead, everything would be up for discussion.
“I feel like each song is like a different pinnacle of a different feeling of a moment. That’s how I feel about it. I didn’t have a plan for the album; I didn’t sit at home at a desk and think, ‘Oh, I’m going to write this album, it’s going to be called Burn Your Fire for No Witness and all these things are going to happen in it and it’s all about heartbreak. It was only that I allowed a friend to listen to it who described it back to me like that, that it was about heartache and transformation,” she says. “I was like, ‘OK, if that’s what it’s about, I guess that’s what it’s about.’ For me, it’s about many different things, and I think it’s important for the listener to gather their own information about it, of course.”
Again, it’s not that Olsen is blasé about her songwriting; she just isn’t coming from a dejected place. “Hi-Five,” a strummy, twang-tinged cut, is exemplary of her ethos: “Are you lonely too?/ High five/ So am I,” she sings. There’s a chin-up, things-aren’t-so-bad sentiment embedded in that number. At times, she’s even hopeful, albeit with a dash of cynicism. On “Iota,” she pleads, “If only all our dreams were coming true/ Maybe there’d be some time for me and you/ If only all the world could sing along/ In perfect rhythm to the perfect song.”
After living in Chicago for several years, Olsen’s been calling Asheville home as of late. The town’s slower pace and smaller social circle were part of its allure, she says, adding that she was significantly affected by the decision to move, as well as an increased acceptance of her always-on-the-road lifestyle.
“I mean…there were things that break my heart every day,” she admits. “[But the album is] more about the idea of change and how, in my life and my friends’ lives around me, people are changing really rapidly, at least right now. Maybe it’s because we’re all getting older, but you know, people are sort of branching off into their selves and it’s really cool, but also as a person who is traveling, I think that I’ve lost contact with a lot of people in my life, just because I’m not around. You know, you can’t always be there for your friends in a way that you were if you’re gone all the time. And what I’m doing, to be gone, is very self-indulgent. It’s difficult to say that my life is difficult; it’s weird to interact and relate to certain people. It’s taken a lot of out of me, in some way, but it’s also given me new friendships and the understanding that comes with territory of someone who’s gone all the time. I think that has a lot to do with it, but also I’d been living in Chicago for so long, and I was really tired of living there. I liked the city, it was just kind of…it just got exhausting after a while. I was ready to leave. I think that was, before I had actually left, that was happening in my mind, and I was saying goodbye to all of my friends already. And saying goodbye to the self that I was. I think that a lot of that comes out on the album.”
Olsen is a woman who mulls only briefly, then moves on – not unchanged, but certainly not dispirited. The collection closes incredibly appropriately with “Windows,” a breathtaking, moving track that doubles as a near-perfect summary of Olsen’s overall angle. She’s light as air, yet utterly piercing, with her ponderings: “Won’t you open a window sometime?/ What’s so wrong with the light?”
Photo by Zia Anger.