Albums of 2014 (#5): Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
With her second album winning over UK audiences, Angel Olsen explains how collaboration is the key that unlocks her singular vision
The clues were there all along, perhaps: her 2013 debut Half Way Home gave notice of a unique voice in every sense of the word. Laid bare on follow-up Burn Your Fire For No Witness, that voice fuelled her best work to date. Supported by stark, elegant poetics and spectral melodies, it cemented her place in the hearts of UK audiences in 2014. With the sound suddenly fuller, and her live shows fired by a crack touring band, Angel Olsen became a hugely relatable artist. "It surprises me," she admits. "I feel like I haven't had much time to reflect on what's breaking through to people. I have been really busy working with the band and making plans for the future but I never know what to expect, even now."
The genre-hopping Burn Your Fire For No Witness resists compartmentalisation. Those keen to file Olsen away as nu-Nashville had their hopes dashed with her newly-electrified sound. Lead single Forgiven/Forgotten was as much Liz Phair as it was Loretta Lynn, but Olsen's fuller arrangements were arrived at organically: "Well I never woke up knowing what my next project would sound like, nor did I have a vision. I just found myself writing a lot following the release of Half Way Home, and by then I had met Josh [Jaeger – drums] and Stew [Bronaugh – guitar]. We started playing my older songs and Half Way Home live with some of the newer, not yet recorded, material and it synched really well. Eventually you hear their personalities brought to the songs in Burn Your Fire For No Witness. It was a very natural change. I wrote the structure and they would add to it." She's gracious about their contribution: "They gave my songs new elements."
"I want to exist on the stage inside these songs" – Angel Olsen
It is, however, fair to say that Burn Your Fire For No Witness is probably not for everyone. Olsen eschews the sugary elements that might have propelled her record deeper into the public consciousness. Where a lesser artist might bulk up the sound with warm keys and cheap strings, it's often spare, elementary, raw. Her voice – a remarkable, craggy instrument, all treble and vibrato – is upfront and exposed, often brutally so. Presentation and styling aside, the songs survive – bloom, even.
"I feel like each song was written and then recorded based on the style of the words or the point of the conversation it was leading," Olsen explains. "And so I was hoping to cover different tones through that process as well. I wanted to make something that could be listened to as a whole. I'm always writing words and melodies but not always at once. I've spent months in the past without writing one thing, but I've made the effort this year to keep in practice even when it's not for music. My dream is to have a room that I'm in for hours or days drinking iced coffee and recording with wires and microphones everywhere. To be at that point where I'm off the grid from everyone and I haven't answered the phone in weeks – because when I'm in the mode, it is the most complete experience."
It's the Olsen live experience, though, that best demonstrates her developing artistry. Her second UK tour of the year saw her audience grow and venues upgraded. Onstage, she's almost inscrutable – a serious and studied performer. At her Manchester show, there were catcalls from the audience, caused perhaps by a late start as much as by alcohol. It seemed to unsettle her on the night, but it's something Olsen now recalls with amusement: "Well, the man in the back told me he had a bus to catch, and I thought it was a very funny thing to yell out at a show. He then said 'Play Unfucktheworld!' so in a way, I was relieved. I try to do all I can to perform well for people who are coming to see me and my friends. I want to also give them an honest performance. I'm not going to play the album front to back. It's not how I like to do things. I'm not trying to replicate a recording. I want to exist on the stage inside these songs. But of course sometimes when people interact or we mess up, there's a bit of humanity and irreplaceable realness in that as well and I am not ashamed or afraid of experiencing that when it happens."
Talk turns to the future. A newly-expanded version of Burn Your Fire For No Witness seems the perfect entry point for those playing catch-up but Olsen is hesitant to claim the new material offers any clue as to her future direction. "The songs released on the extended edition don't necessarily follow any chronological order," she says. "May As Well was written the summer before Halfway Home was released." And with the album campaign continuing (US through December, Australia and New Zealand in the new year), will UK audiences get to her see her again? "I'm not sure. I'm gonna sleep a lot and think a lot and do some crazy shit with some friends. I hope to swing by!"