Angel Olsen Isn’t Who You Think She Is

She doesn’t want to be your sad indie-rock poster girl anymore

“Look, Angel, it’s your trees again.”

Angel Olsen’s bassist, Emily Elhaj, is pointing to a poster for the musician’s show tonight at The Aquarium, a small bar in downtown Fargo, North Dakota. It’s mid-June, the third day of a short Midwestern tour for her upcoming album, My Woman. Olsen, her hair in a subtly Bardot-esque, beehive-y updo, wearing intimidatingly high platform clogs, looks at the poster beside Elhaj — a dramatic, abstract illustration of a hand rising beside a bird’s nest, outstretched into a stormy sky like a tree — and rolls her eyes.

“They always want to shoot me in nature, no matter where we are,” she says. The singer sneers in a fake voice meant to approximate a pretentious photographer, hands framing her face like a snapshot: “‘I just love the way the light comes through the branches and hits your face, can you go stand near these bushes over there?’” Not for the last time today, Olsen’s normally reserved demeanor breaks to reveal a sharp, deadpan sense of humor. It turns out that she has a lot of vocal impressions, which she’ll unleash throughout the day: YouTube commenters, old-timey critics, fans who are unhappy with her changing sound. And while they sound like jokes, you can hear Olsen’s very real frustration with the kinds of people she’s parodying, with the ways they understand her — or don’t.

The 29-year-old singer-songwriter came up as a touring member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s backing band in 2010, playing guitar and duetting with the eccentric folk and country hero (a.k.a. Will Oldham). Despite her increasingly prominent solo career, she’s often labeled as one of his disciples, posited as a protégé even as she has issued three acclaimed albums where her muse is wholly her own. That miscategorization has led to others: When Olsen began releasing her own stripped-back, mournful folk works — 2011’s Strange Cacti EP and 2012’s Half Way Home — she garnered comparisons to outsider artists like Sibylle Baier and Connie Converse. When she added a full-blown band for 2014’s breakthrough Burn Your Fire For No Witness — an ambitious album that was as much fuzzy, blown-out rock music as folk — the gloomy reputation followed her. Olsen, whose voice tends to ring out in a near-tears tremble, has been reluctantly framed as the weepy poster girl of contemporary folk rock, forever salting her wounds for the sake of her art.

The Aquarium isn’t so much a rock club as it is a small bar where bands play, located on a quiet street in downtown Fargo. The windowless, fluorescent-lit greenroom is painted a sickly neon lime and filled with a sparse setup of a few chairs and an ice bucket of beers. The venue’s tiny stage is a foot off the ground, so if you’re in the front row you could reach out and touch Olsen if you wanted to. At one point during sound check, her three-piece band wonders if they can fit onstage comfortably. They’re told that apparently the band Whitney and their seven members all fit on the stage for a show recently, which, OK, sure.

“I think people are like, ‘Where do we put Angel Olsen? Oh, let’s put her in a venue and get some folding chairs up, because this is gonna be a quiet show,’” she tells me earlier in the day over coffee in Fargo’s sleepy downtown. She leans forward in a shabby sofa chair; a tall, milky espresso drink she ordered because its name was “Hard Times” sits on the table next to her, discarded after a single sip. “It angers me, because I’ll always have those albums that represent that character and that part of my music, and I can’t really get away from it. Even if I were to make all electronic music from here on out — which I won’t — but if I did, I’d still come up in some article as folk rock or country.”

My Woman, which arrives on September 2, is an unexpected departure for Olsen, her most diverse record yet. It’s not quite synthpop, at least not all of it, but from its first song, “Intern,” she might have had you fooled. Olsen directed and stars in the video for “Intern,” where she plays a tortured, “super famous” pop-star type in a silver wig and Britney-esque headset mic, singing along to moody chords fit for a Julee Cruise ballad. “I don’t care what the papers say,” she croons, turning to the camera as she ignores a sheepish, young interviewer. “It’s just another intern with a résumé.” The song was an anomaly in Olsen’s two-year-long recording process for My Woman, a onetime studio experiment that just ended up fitting. “[I thought], How funny would it be if it was so misleading?” Olsen says. “But what I realized is if I used different instruments like synth and piano, and went away from my guitar for a minute, I could sing differently. It opened up all of these opportunities to use my voice more, to be less preoccupied with trying to be super clever with my lyrics.”

Many of Olsen’s lyrics in the past have focused on paralyzing, unrequited romance. Her work is often about feeling unable to voice something properly — she makes confrontational songs that struggle with the limits of their own confrontation. “I feel so much at once that I could scream / I wish I had the voice of everything,” Olsen sang on Burn Your Fire’s “Stars,” her shrill voice hitting like a balled fist. My Woman is her richest confrontation, taking on lovers, friends, and those who have underestimated her. It is also just fun. On songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Never Be Mine,” she sounds like a rough-around-the-edges ’60s pop studio star in the vein of Nancy Sinatra or Dusty Springfield, singing over timpani and jangly guitar. On “Not Gonna Kill You” and “Woman,” Olsen’s rock morphs into ’70s psychedelia, her voice descending into echoing moans and howls. “I dare you to understand —” she sings on “Woman,” the inspiration for the album’s title, “— what makes me your woman,” cooing the first wo before throwing the man into a wail that sounds like it could shatter glass. This Angel Olsen plays with what sounds like newfound confidence, like she’s kicking any wallflower pose straight to the curb.

Olsen almost, almost, sounds like a stranger on a first listen of My Woman, and it’s mostly because of her voice. Where her vocals once hung in her lowest register, masked by the crunchy, lo-fi production of her last album, here they often rush out in a gushing, energetic falsetto, all squeaky at the edges. “Funny how time can make you realize and make you realize and then realize,” she sings, like several decades’ worth of sadness are resting on her shoulders. “I always sang in different styles, because I used to be a backup singer,” Olsen tells me. “I like using my voice in that way — and I knew that it was still part of me.”

Back at The Aquarium later that day, the bar is filled with the sound of Carly Rae Jepsen’s voice. “I Really Like You” is playing at an extremely high volume, thumping through the cool, dark room of the venue. Olsen is seated by the venue’s wall, with her head resting on a table. “Scott plays this song every time we sound check,” she says, referring to her sound guy, Scott Cornish, who’s currently fiddling with The Aquarium’s systems, moving around the floor to get a feel for the way the sound moves in the room. She sings along sleepily: “I really, really, really like you.”

Olsen is a dry, funny conversationalist. One of the first things she wants to talk about when we sit down to chat is actually marmots, a large type of rodent, similar to squirrels and beavers, that lives in the mountains. The night before our interview, she tells me, she and Elhaj got high — “maybe too high,” she admits with a smile — and flipped on the National Geographic channel, which was showing a program about the furry creatures. She reaches for her phone and finds a video clip to show me, laughing all the while. “We also got really into sloths for a while,” she adds. She can be a goofball, especially around her bandmates: the curly-haired, sarcastic Elhaj; guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, whom Olsen describes as a “skater boy”; and drummer Joshua Jaeger, who is revealed to be a skilled interpretive dancer in an old tour video laughingly passed around the table at lunch. All four of them make immediate inside jokes out of local signage and riff off each other in silly, cartoonish voices. It feels like the sort of cabin-fever humor that can only be the product of spending weeks at a time packed into a van.

As we talk, Olsen’s disdain for press is palpable, whether she’s citing specific instances where journalists have been unacceptably rude or imitating male music critics who ask her if she’s afraid she’ll “alienate men” with her album title. She frequently mentions anticipating negative backlash to the changes in her music on My Woman. “It’s always funny to hear what people think, because they’re like, ‘She’s just trying to be Sia,’ or, like, ‘Are you Grimes now? Who are you?’” Olsen says, noting her most recent music videos, where she roller-skates in glittery outfits and cries into a telephone in a silver wig. “I’m still me,” she adds. “I’m still writing my music. I just want to have fun just like everyone else.”

Last month, Olsen tweeted, “And don’t forget to add ‘complicated mess of being a woman’ to your article because your editor told you to” — a cheeky reference to the album’s press release and the gendered boxes she feels forced into. Before you interview her, you’re given a fact sheet on which “She has never listened to Joni Mitchell” is the first thing printed. Olsen isn’t the sort of artist who welcomes just any interpretation of her music. The wigs, the fake-out “Intern” single, the album title — Olsen pairs them with preset reactions, like she’s beating fans to her own punch line. She rarely talks about her music without also talking about what other people might think of it. Her determination not to let a single part of her art be misconstrued is admirable, even if it can sometimes sound a little paranoid.

In 2014, Olsen left Chicago, where she had lived for seven years, for Asheville, North Carolina. Chicago had become too small a pond for Olsen: She mentions feeling trapped in a scene crawling with journalists and musicians aggressively “elbowing their way up the ladder.” In Asheville, she says, “The vibe is just more relaxed. I go there in between tours, and it’s super quiet, nobody’s in my face. And sometimes you go to a coffee shop and someone is dressed like Zelda.” But moving didn’t solve the problem entirely. By the time Olsen was almost done with Burn Your Fire For No Witness, she was sure it would be her last album. “I just thought, I don’t know if this is my gig anymore, I don’t know if I’m gonna be making music forever,” she says. “I don’t know if I like everything involved in the process of it. I just got really bitter.”

Burn Your Fire took Olsen’s career to new heights, but she says it changed or severed some relationships. “As upset as I can be about what friends have thought I had become because of success, I’ve also seen people in my life show their true colors and be good people despite what has come,” she tells me later. “I lost some friends, and I also realized some people were really valuable to me.”

There are flashes on My Woman where Olsen seems to deal directly, for the first time, with her place as a public musician. “You can go on home, you got what you need,” she sings in the album’s last song, “Pops,” her smooth voice intensifying over a simple piano figure. “Take my heart and put it up on your sleeve, tear it up so they can all sing along.” Listening to My Woman, I’m frequently struck by how weary Olsen sounds. The musical palette she explores on the record, and even the visuals she incorporates in her videos, seem to echo a much older version of very American glamour and rock and roll: the rushed, Ronettes pop of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the antiquated gender roles of “Woman.”

After finishing Burn Your Fire, Olsen went on a traveling festival tour where she met musicians like Mac DeMarco and St. Vincent. She recalls bonding with her tourmates in typical touring ways — getting “shit-faced” and having fun — but also talking about the nitty-gritty aspects of being a professional musician. “We would talk backstage about our managers and what everyone gets paid, just kind of breaking down the trajectory of everyone’s careers in different ways,” she says. “It sort of reminded me that, oh, I’m not alone in this process.”

When she sat down to write new material in 2014, she found herself parsing through those feelings about the music industry. “I felt like I was developing relationships with people and music and thinking, This is something that I need — I need to relate to people like me, because when I go home [from tour], people think I was just on vacation,” she says. “And sometimes I am in, like, San Sebastián eating oysters and excited to go to a show. But sometimes you don’t want to play a show, and people are dying to talk to you about your songs, and maybe they’re not dying to talk to you. Maybe they hate you.”

Olsen was born and raised in St. Louis, adopted as the youngest of eight kids. In high school, she played in a ska band while she began to write solo material on the side, discovering indie music like Neutral Milk Hotel and Broadcast through the internet. “I decided I wanted to write music with meaning and all that blah blah blah,” she jokes now. “I’d be in the back room of my grocery store job, chopping fruit and listening to Can.” It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago at age 20 that Olsen’s music career began to take shape. She went to shows, asking her St. Louis friends about who to hang out with, and eventually formed a crew of people that would become her backing band.

She met her drummer, Josh, at the “shitty café” she used to work at, met Stewart through Josh, and then met Emily through a roommate. Olsen would practice music in the basement of a local vintage store: “It was like a dungeon,” she says. “If the door shut, nobody would find you there.” One early manager housed her in touring conditions that seem foreign to her now. “We would stay with punks who were, like, also marine biologists, and the toilet would be black and the bed would have bedbugs,” she says, laughing. “At one point I just said, ‘I don’t care if I’m not cool, I need hotels.’”

When I ask Olsen if she wishes she’d made different choices in those early stages of her career, she goes back to her formative experiences working with Will Oldham. In Chicago, Olsen’s music made its way to Oldham through his collaborator, Emmett Kelly; from there she embarked on her first world touring experience with his band in 2012, absorbing how to handle festivals and interviews. When she thinks about being in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s backing band, she remembers how hard she was trying to emulate the sort of “raw folk voices” she says Oldham wanted, like Meg Baird or Joan Shelley. “I wish I had spoken up, but I was just thinking, Well, this is what he wants,” she tells me. “I wish I had put my own style or merged my own style with his production. I hear that music and wish I tried harder. Part of it was being 22 and absorbing all this information, but also part of it was being in a band of seven older men.”

A few weeks later, when she comes through Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we meet up at the Roebling Tea Room. I ask her what she thought being a musician would be like when she was younger, and she laughs, stirring her gazpacho. “I thought it would be a lot easier,” she says. Olsen shifts in her seat away from her food to talk to me straight-on when I ask how so. She pauses. “I didn’t realize so many people would be behind my records, and, suddenly, I accidentally opened a business. I didn’t realize I would have to work that hard at being human, and being not just the artist, but being a businessperson, you know? It’s not something you think about when you’re first starting off.”

Back in Fargo, an hour before showtime, the band moves in and out of the greenroom, nursing beers. Nobody is sure who the hell in Fargo is coming to an Angel Olsen concert. Justin Bieber, after all, is playing in town the same night at the Fargodome. Olsen mentions that she’d like to check the ticket presales to see if she can just sort of “jam out.”

By the time she gets on stage, a modest crowd of about 50 people has formed. A girl who served us coffee earlier that day is in the front row. On stage, Olsen is chatty, cracking jokes about Game of Thrones and engaging the audience. At one point she lies and says it’s Elhaj’s birthday, and someone in the crowd brings over a shot of tequila. Yet she’s an unmistakably intense performer; the quiet, older songs that Olsen talked about wrestling away from, like “Windows” and “Tiniest Seed,” play perfectly in this intimate space. The band is still learning how to perform the songs from My Woman. “This is a fun one,” Elhaj says before the band starts the new garage-rocker “Give It Up.” The energy in the room rises. “Why is it you think I need everything? It’s not true,” Olsen sings, pausing between words, each one its own little island.

Olsen may not need everything, but she needs so much more. She wants you to see more of her too, hear more of her, and on My Woman, she demands it. The album doesn’t just feel like a turning point for Olsen’s sound, but also a turning point for her larger role as a creative person. She’s a businesswoman, a music video director, and the frontwoman of a band. There’s so much more labor and skill to Olsen’s music that seems to be unacknowledged, and on My Woman, she emboldens these parts of herself as much as she can — highlighting the versatility of her singing voice, her ability to dabble in different genres, the maturity of her songwriting. It’s less a newfound transformation and more a cultivation of talents Olsen has always had.

The years after Burn Your Fire, Olsen tells me later, were “the first time I realized that art is how people see you, and how strange that experience can be — just seeing a fraction of a person and feeling like you’re familiar because you’ve seen it over and over and over again.” She turns in her seat to look at me. “But you get all kinds of responses as an artist. I can’t be upset when I don’t get good ones, you know? It’s all part of me. It all fuels me trying to make it better.”