Angel Olsen: Shedding the Past

Music Features Angel Olsen

Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
Current Release: Burn Your Fire For No Witness
For Fans Of: Sharon Van Etten, Marissa Nadler, Edith Piaf, Bonnie “Prince” Billy

The past had surrounded Angel Olsen. The commanding 27-year-old songwriter, who cut her teeth in Chicago’s music scene for roughly seven years, had grown tired of life in the Windy City. She felt stifled, rather than relieved, upon returning home from tours despite being near her friends in a comfortable place. She needed something to change.

“Everything there was just soaked in memories,” Olsen says. “Not necessarily bad memories. … But I couldn’t tap into it anymore. I started to feel the harshness of going back to a very busy place where everyone is trying so hard to be unique and trying so hard to be an artist.”

Olsen decided to move to Asheville, N.C., where last summer she made her latest record, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, with the help of acclaimed producer John Congleton (Modest Mouse, The Roots, St. Vincent). At the time, she joked with Mark Capon, her manager, and Jon Hency, the owner of her former label, Bathetic Records, about making the indefinite move to the west North Carolina city.

Months later, she ended up relocating to the 86,000-person town in the midst of a whirlwind year that included signing a new record deal; the release of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her captivating, melancholic new record; and a constant string of tour dates. In her weeks off the road, Olsen says she’s felt comfortable with the pace of life offered in the town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“I really enjoy and appreciate a place that isn’t about moving constantly and isn’t about trying to be distracted with all of these things on a day-to-day basis,” Olsen says. “Maybe people here have a different experience than I do, but that’s how I see it right now. It’s teaching me that I don’t have to do anything quickly. I don’t have to write if I don’t want to write. Part of my writing is living well.”

Those milestones occurred in rapid succession for Olsen. Because of her achievements, the St. Louis native hasn’t had much uninterrupted time in her new hometown. Last February, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her debut album with Jagjaguwar, marked a sonic expansion from the stunningly sparse melodies on her 2012 record, Half Way Home, into a fleshed-out band effort that explores themes of heartbreak, loneliness and metamorphosis. The album so far has proved successful enough to allow her to travel the world, sell out shows and engage with fans—all with her trusted band that’s comprised of guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, drummer Joshua Jaeger and bassist Emily Elhaj.

On the day of our conversation, Olsen happens to be at home for a brief refuge before heading back out of a series of West Coast festivals. During these kinds of brief reprises the road, she’s learned to take advantage of her quieter surroundings, partaking in hiking or camping. She’s able to do that all without the constant artistic scrutiny of a larger city’s music scene.

“That’s been a relief for me in a way,” she says. “Being surrounded by people doing completely different things than what I’m doing. There are still musicians and artists here that I get along with, but it’s not as overwhelming.”

That’s not to say Olsen never appreciated the benefits being close to musicians in Chicago. Instead, she thinks her move has helped her gain a greater perspective on her work’s larger meaning. To a certain extent, Olsen has carved out a built-in distance between her personal life in Asheville and professional life on the road. And that difference has made her re-examine the ways in which she approaches her craft as a songwriter.

There’s often a frenetic pace associated with the constant motion of album cycles. Despite that pressure, Olsen remains hesitant about forcing her creative process, especially as she turns toward writing another collection of songs. Likewise, the songwriter remains grateful for her past opportunities, including the chance to tour alongside Will Oldham, but she’s still trying to figure out how reconcile the difference between creating music she loves and meeting fans expectations. That’s the tricky part for her.

Olsen is currently able to make a living off of her music. However, she’s not sure if that will last forever. In the past, music has financially supported her creative endeavors. But she’s also had the humbling experience of returning to a job at a café to pay her bills. Given her past experiences, she understands the necessity of making music that enamors her above everything else. There’s hardly anything else that matters.

“Even if I love it, approve of it, and believe in it, who knows if it will be as easily accessible to others,” she says. “… I have to be okay with my art being what it is without people seeing it or being something that allows me to tour around the world. There’s nothing else I would rather do, of course, but there are eras for everything.”

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