Angel Olsen: indie's dark star tackles 'the complicated mess of being a woman'

She made her name with angsty alt-country, but now is tired of being blue. The singer-songwriter discusses her new album and why it’s bigger than gender and sex

Of all the artists you’d never expect to find yourself interviewing in a bikini, Angel Olsen is up there with singing nuns the Siervas. A former vocalist for canonical alt-country artist Will Oldham, she made her solo breakthrough with the 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, which recharged old-time country with grunge and cloaked folk melodies in reverb. Her lyrics spotlighted angst with the intensity of soliloquies. Her song structures circled like incantations or climbed to dramatic catharses. Her voice, once praised by Oldham for rousing “a mixture of apprehension and satisfaction”, sounded like a seraph on day release. The indie world had itself a new dark lady.

Yet here we are, in Asheville, North Carolina, sunbathing at a municipal pool while eating pickles from a jar. From time to time, the 29-year-old adjusts a baseball hat that reads “Too gruesome to show”. If the tortured artist cap fits, Angel Olsen likes to wear it at an angle.

“When Burn Your Fire turned out so dark and fucked up, I became a magnet for weirdos,” she says of her last album. It’s a role she’s uneasy with. “How do I wrap my mind around connecting with people who are that lost? I myself am lost. I don’t want the responsibility of being the answer. So part of the new album was about saying: deal with the fact I’m not always fucking sad!”

That new album, My Woman, still has its share of echoey seven-minute meditations on love and isolation. But they increasingly coexist with simple, throwback grunge-pop, as on Shut Up Kiss Me and Give It Up. It’s the sound of an artist who still has a bookshelf bulging with the existential novels of Paul Auster, but has recently reacquainted herself with her rollerskates (the music video for Shut Up Kiss Me was even filmed at her local rink). The resulting tone is appealingly untidy.

Perhaps this is down to the fact that My Woman is the first time Olsen has written direct from real life. “The last album was where I picked up my first Kierkegaard novel and wrote a report,” she says of her literary, often anguished style, “and this is where I actually loved and lost and came through the crazy storm.”

Many of the songs engage with the “complicated mess of being a woman”, including the dilemma of loving unreconstructed men. The title is deliberately ambiguous: is it possessive, degrading, or a reference to being her own person?

Exclusive Options for the Guide - Angel Olsen Press Portrait

Olsen resents people zeroing in on the word “woman”. “I’m constantly being ambushed by it,” she says, fishing out another pickle. “It’s like I’ve used a naughty word. People roll their eyes; male journalists ask if I’m afraid of losing male fans. And I’m down to talk about women’s struggle, but I get a little pissed when people say I’m talking about these things only. Because, down to the bottom of the sea, it’s bigger than gender and sex.”

Well, quite. And yet. I tell her the most striking moment, for me, comes half way through the seven-and-a half minute track Woman. “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman,” she cries, the last word breaking with the force of a 12ft wave. What if to connect with the word “woman” on the cover isn’t to belittle the record? What if it’s to recognise its power and scope?

Olsen’s response takes us back to her childhood. When she was little, she remembers, “wishing I could grow up so I could have a woman’s voice”. Adopted aged three, she grew up in St Louis, Missouri, the youngest of eight who’d mostly left home. She credits her ageing adoptive parents with her love of 50s music, and her mother with her talent for “saying dark shit and then smiling”. Her birth uncle, meanwhile, had given her a little Yamaha keyboard at the point of adoption. She’d take it into the bathroom with her cassette recorder.

“I was always waiting for my voice to change,” she says. “I wanted to be able to sing like it was the last thing that was going to happen before I died – to sing with all of my body, like the soul singers in the Baptist churches, sing-screaming with passion for something bigger than themselves. But I was just a tiny body with very little experience in life.”

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 04: Singer Angel Olsen performs onstage at Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

When Olsen was 20, she moved to Chicago and embraced the DIY alt-rock scene. She played the free pianos at Harold Washington Library. She ran Everly Brothers records through a reverb pedal while getting stoned on her apartment roof. She “got into weird relationships”. In the distance from home, she felt her voice grow. A debut EP, released on cassette (“true to my roots”), found its way to Will Oldham. He was creating a conceptual covers band called the Babblers, and had thought of Cat Power or PJ Harvey to co-front it. Olsen got the part. It was a baptism of fire and, as it turned out, fur, as the Babblers performed in animal print onesies.

Olsen spent much of her early 20s touring with Oldham, singing his Bonnie “Prince” Billy material and covers of cult cow-punks the Mekons. She went in “the only female, young and shy, knowing nothing about being a professional musician”. She emerged, in 2012, with a voice capable of “multiple characters, like Meryl Streep” and a determination to “always give my opinion, to defend my vision”.

Three years ago, Olsen settled in Asheville, a hippy enclave of the American south. (She’s recommended Carrie Brownstein visit if she ever runs out of ideas for Portlandia.) We visit the record store, and the bench overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains where she likes to read.

She asks if I want to see the graveyard where author Thomas Wolfe is buried, and points toward the psychiatric hospital where Zelda Fitzgerald burned to death. Again and again we return to Olsen’s fear of being trapped. Trapped by a “tagging culture” that can’t compute creative complexity. Trapped by the emotional intensity of her fans’ responses. Trapped by the album title, and the silvery wig she wore in her last two self-directed videos, “just because I thought it would be funny and didn’t have a stylist – and now it’s all people ask about”.

She also muses about the “interesting predicament” of being an independent modern woman who sometimes just wants to be her traditional southern mum. “I keep thinking, could I adopt a child one day, could I be maternal? Could I learn to take care of a man? Should I be ashamed for liking it when a lover refers to me as theirs? I keep pushing myself into the box that I’m trying to get out of.”

Above all, Olsen fears being “trapped by my own art”. It’s a concern she’s recently found comfort in sharing with the musician Sharon Van Etten, and which has lasted us the morning coffee run. “Music is a wonderful thing to do with your life,” she concludes. “But it’s a fucked-up thing to do to your psyche. So I have to make fun of myself being sad and bummed out sometimes, and invite listeners to do the same.” Now, she says, as we reach her porch – did I want to visit the graveyard, or shall we go get our bikinis on?

My Woman is out on Friday via Jagjaguwar


Bella Todd

The GuardianTramp

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