Late in 2016 while on tour supporting her third studio album My Woman, Angel Olsen played a club with a distinct quirk. While most places announce acts via a marquee, or gig posters, or even flyers, this one had a sketch artist draw caricatures of acts that came through on a chalkboard inside. Angel was immortalized, or as immortalized as one can be on a chalkboard. But there was only one problem after she saw it for the first time. She was drawn with a giant frown on her face.
“It’s funny how the things you create will always be with you in some way that you cannot control,” Olsen said in the courtyard of Miami’s Blind Pig a few hours before her Red Bull Sound Select 3 Days In Miami set at 1306 this past February. “You become, then, some character that you’ve accidentally created that follows you around everywhere. It’s true, and then you’re like ‘Oh, this is me. This is this projected thing that is just following me everywhere I go.’”
Olsen asked if it was possible to have the frown changed to a smile, or erased completely, or better yet, with the face erased and only her hair remaining. Clearly the artist responded to something in Angel’s music, a piece of her in her lyrics, and the interpretation was a harsh frown. But like most caricature art, it was a distortion. It wasn’t the real Angel, just like last year’s stunning My Woman isn’t her either. It’s a part of her, sure, but it’s not her.
“You look, and you see yourself in the form of the ghost,” Olsen said. “Or the thing that you once were, or in some moment where someone caught you being a human, is now this thing that’s everywhere. I don’t know. It’s a weird life. It’s a weird thing to do with your life. I don’t know. I can’t stop doing it.”
There’s always been a bit of a disconnect between Angel Olsen the person, and “Angel Olsen” the artist. The Angel Olsen who can stand in front of a packed bar and mumble deadpan one liners. The Angel Olsen who donned a shiny wig in her videos without explanation. The Angel Olsen who carried her almost-possessed apparition of a voice across the main stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival this month like fog in a graveyard, sprawling and creeping and tumbling, leaving you disoriented and haunted. But, remember, that voice is not Angel Olsen herself.
One can’t exist without the other, and there wouldn’t be an Angel Olsen on stage, conducting her band unstuck in time as if it’s 1957, and 1977, and 2017 all at once, if there wasn’t Angel Olsen the living, breathing person filled with pain, and regret, and the frenetic untamed energy that’s inside anyone who is compelled to create.
The problem, of course, is in asking fans who engage with one — the performer, the recorded act — but don’t get exposed to the other. Much like an actor being bombarded with quotes from a cult classic he or she was in, people respond to the craft and the tangible thing that exists as an expression of that individual.
“Fans or people will come up to you,” Olsen told me, “And they’re talking about their lives with you, and it’s almost like you are a therapist or a medium for them in that way, and then you realize ‘Oh, you’re talking to my record right now. You’re talking to my record. I didn’t realize. Holy sh*t. I thought you were talking to me, but you’re talking to all of the things that I just put in a forty-five minute record that might have something to do with me, definitely have something to do with me, but are not 100 percent all of me, but you think that that’s me.’”
It’s only natural, and it’s humbling for an artist to have so many people connecting with their work. It’s only part of the story — and of the person — though.
“The thing is whenever you write anything with meaning, people think that you’re always trying to be super, super, deep about everything,” Olsen explained. “And that every single move you make, whether it be having a sense of humor in a video, has got some secret meaning that you’re not telling people. They just think it’s super existential or something. If you want it to be, it can be, but I’m not going to break it down for you anymore. I’m not going to do it.”
What Olsen is going to do is keep refining her tracks to be as good as they can be, until she’s moved onto the next thing. The songs on My Woman sound as good on stage tweaked and refined for the festival circuit as they did at 3 Days In Miami, altered slightly and made bigger.
It was a worry she had in February and something she addressed as she bounced between smaller and larger venues. Whether she and her band were at The Wiltern in Los Angeles or a 600-max spot at her home in Asheville, she tried to make the songs as accessible as she could for the audience, but still enjoy playing them in the process.
As the tour went on, the songs changed, but so did the setlist. Adding older songs, trying out covers, altering the change between keys to guitars and back to keys. What kept her going were the moments between her and the band, where she’d interact with someone in the audience who did make that connection — to a song, to her, it didn’t matter — and the experience elevated her above anything that was weighing her down in her daily life: Politics, grief, exhaustion, or otherwise.
“Even if you’re forgetting the lyrics, you’re just having that moment with people and your band,” Olsen said. “And everyone’s laughing, and it sounds f*cking amazing, and you know it does. That’s why you do it. That’s why you do it. And it makes it not feel like Groundhog Day when that happens.”
Few things have influenced Olsen as much as her move to North Carolina. While she’s quick to shoot down anyone who thinks she is a “country girl” now or “small town,” she loves the contrast between Asheville, a more reserved mountain town that’s growing at a rapid pace and filled with breweries and a robust art scene, to the constant go-go-go pace of Chicago.
Asheville feels like home to Angel now, and Chicago was a photocopy of a photocopy. It was home once, but that home is twisted and unrecognizable now. It’s different. It’s changed. It’s home for someone else now.
“I don’t need it anymore,” Olsen said. “I think that energy that was happening, maybe, had a lot to do with being younger and being in my early twenties… I always felt like I had to carve out a space for myself, and it just wore me down, especially when I was traveling a lot.”
While the songs off My Woman are home now, and they’re home for the fans who have watched her from Miami to Chicago, soon she’ll be vibrating at another frequency, and she’ll need new songs to call home.
“There are things you change about your style,” Olsen said of her new work. “And it’s only natural to be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to play in that style anymore.’ You change as a person, so you change as a writer, but the worst thing, I think, is listening to a song that’s changed completely. And then people are like, but this is a single, and I recognize it as this, and you totally f*cking changed it. I think that can really be disappointing for people. So, I try to consider that and just get into a zen.”
There will always be those songs that follow her wherever she goes, as the ghosts circle and enter her body and then dissipate for a moment of peace, but Olsen is committed to looking forward and gaining confidence in every move she makes, whether it’s songwriting or production, on a festival bill or at home in a benefit for a friend running for city council.
There’s one thing about Olsen that’ll never change: She’s always going to speak her mind, and she’s fearless about the mistakes she’ll make along the way.
“I’m always going to f*ck up on something,” Olsen said. “Whether it be a relationship, or with a friend, or music, or whatever. Something I said in an interview. I would rather be a bold person who takes that chance to feel bitter about not saying the things that came to my mind, and things I was worried about, or things that I cared about, even if they were crazy, even if they were insane. Maybe I’m just being vague, but I guess I mean taking a stand in anything. My music, any opinions publicly, or whatever. I don’t worry about the same things that I used to. Now there’s a whole new set of things that don’t necessarily worry me [either]. They just make me feel like I have to get used to some of them, and I have to find a place for them, and I think that’s what getting older is about. It’s finding a place for those things without them making your life difficult.”