Angel Olsen talks feelings, feminism, and how not to hate your own music

Dec 6, 2017 at 1:00 am

When I tell Angel Olsen that I once stood outside of my boyfriend's house in a downpour while blaring her 2016 hit "Shut Up Kiss Me" from my parked car, she doesn't seem surprised. And when I tell her that I played "Unfucktheworld" from her 2014 record Burn Your Fire for No Witness on repeat for 72-hours straight the day after the aforementioned boyfriend broke up with me via email, her minimal response suggests that she is not much fazed by grand or sad gestures. After all, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter is more than well-versed in the art of soundtracking misery.

"Feelings, sometimes, are not based in reality and as a writer, I take whatever feelings I have and try to funnel them into my work instead of putting them into my relationships with people," she says. "You [try] to take your doubt or your depression or your happiness or everything that inspires you and make something out of it that is an example of the pinnacle of that feeling, you know?"

There is something about the way the North Carolina-based artist seems to speak without using any punctuation that makes it feel as though you're interrupting her, even though she has already answered the question with staggering detail. Yet even after a whirlwind year that has granted little to no downtime — thanks to the success of 2016's My Woman — Olsen seems far from depleted of things to talk about.

"You can write a song and it's cute and it's neat. And you can do tricks like double entendre and feel very proud of yourself," she continues. "It doesn't necessarily mean that whatever the event or feeling was was forever. It could have lasted a day. But in a song, it's supposed to feel like it's happening all the time. That's what you want the song to do."

The truth is, Olsen's songs do a lot of things. They have the ability to channel, say, the poetic lamentation of the late Leonard Cohen, or the contained warbled woes of a modern-day Patsy Cline. Sometimes they sound like the lovechild of Mazzy Star and Chris Isaak. But an Angel Olsen song is a work of her own design — to label her lyrical pulse as merely confessionary would be a disservice to the fact that much of what she writes is a marriage of tender diary entry-style reflection and melancholic cheekiness.

Her latest record, Phases — a collection of rarities, B-sides, and previously unreleased demos — may seem like a sprawling interim release for Olsen, but the record serves as both a deep-dive and a crash-course.

"I like those kinds of records, you know? I remember Smog coming out with a collection of B-sides. I hadn't heard those songs before and they were coming from these different periods of time," she says. "I would go and look at what records they were from and it showed me there was a different point in their career and their lives when they were doing something entirely different. I think Phases is a good example of the different eras of my writing."

Her most recent era was that of the glamorously visceral My Woman, which brought a chilling relevance and self-analytical grandeur to the narrative of 2016.

"I am not afraid to say that I am a feminist," Olsen says. "A lot of people thought My Woman was about politics or about feminism. I was just surprised because I thought everyone missed the point," she says. "But everyone was like, 'What does it mean? What do you think about Hillary Clinton and what do you think about feminism?' And I'm like, those things are all important to talk about, but I came here to talk about my record which was ultimately letting my audience know that I was making decisions and if they didn't like it, then they didn't like me and that was OK."

Less bonfire-soundtrack than 2012's Half Way Home and less fraught than her sophomore record Burn Your Fire for No Witness, My Woman acts as a playground for Olsen's previous experiences — and proves that she is in control.

"I dare you to understand/ What makes me a woman," Olsen commands on "Woman," an example of her ever-present swagger and profundity. The song goes on to reveal a commonly woven thread in an Angel Olsen story — sincerity, with a wink. "I'd do anything/ To see it all/ The way that you do/ Baby/ But I'd be lying / Baby / But I'd be lying to you."

Looking ahead, Olsen admits she can't describe the future, but senses she needs to go home in order to see herself more clearly. She assures that she will be writing in 2018 and already has a stack of demos, but can't say whether they are indicative of what her next record might sound like. Truthfully, she has no idea what to expect, but jokes that it could turn into a synth record.

"I'm going to take a long break," she says. I want to do something that isn't music for a minute. I want to not hate playing music. I don't hate it now, but I could. I really want to think about where I am in all this again."

Angel Olsen performs on Friday, Dec. 8 at the Majestic Theatre; 4140 Woodward Ave.; 313-833-9700;; Doors at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $20.