The Bare Bones of Angel Olsen

Seattle Weekly chats with the reflective singer-songwriter ahead of her Seattle solo show.

Angel Olsen is an archivist of sorts. Her music reaches into the depths of her own emotions and vocal range, delivering sonorous croons that belie her understated persona. After breaking onto the national scene with the slow-burning sorrow odes of 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness and following it with 2016’s universally lauded My Woman, the North Carolina-based singer-songwriter now dusts off her older music in her first solo U.S. tour in four years, unearthing keepsakes from a treasure chest of lived experiences she’d long forgotten. An old soul with a penchant for 1960s country pop, doo-wop, rockabilly, and grunge, the walk down memory lane has surprised even her.

Seattle Weekly talked with Olsen ahead of her solo show at The Moore on Friday, Sept. 14, to discuss how she’s evolved as a musician and performer, and the sense of freedom that comes from revisiting old work.

I’ve read that you started performing as a teenager in St. Louis. When did you realize that focusing on music full-time could be a viable career?

When I was playing and singing with Will Oldham. I was a backup singer, and I just kind of got to see how things work through that setting. So that was kinda when it started to become something more real. Before that, I was just playing DIY shows. I did a few out-of-state shows, but mostly just played shows around Chicago.

How has touring alone been different from performing with your usual bandmates?

It’s been really surprising and fun. On the first tour, I was really scared there wouldn’t be any fans of my early work, because I hadn’t really played it. I mostly just jumped into band-world, and started touring with a band immediately when I started touring professionally. So this is the first time the people got to see my earlier work, and then other stuff stripped back. And it’s been really fun.

Has there been anything that you’ve learned playing alone that you hope to take with you to future band performances?

I guess in the future it’d be nice to be able to focus on both: playing with the band and playing solo shows throughout the year, to kind of just keep myself on my toes and continue to play that old material that I never did with the band. When you play some of these earlier songs with the band … you’d just have to change the song completely for it to work because they’re so lyric-driven. They weren’t created for guitar solos and all that. But we usually do take a few of the earlier ones and reconstruct them, and see how that goes. We’ve played “Acrobat,” we tried “Lonely Universe” and “Unfucktheworld” and stuff like that, but it’s been mostly like I’ll play with the band and then come out for a few solo songs. I don’t want to give up playing with a band because I feel like it’s more interactive and it’s challenging in a different way, and it’s fun for people to watch in a different way. I really enjoy being able to change the song, or stretch it out, or change the tempo at any point in time.

And when I’m playing solo, I feel like I connect with the audiences more because you’re just the only one up there. You gotta tune your guitar, and there’s no one else there helping you battle that space. So it’s been really fun to just kind of check in with people and talk to them like a real person, not just be performing the set in the character in the way it’s expected.

So what’s the process of restructuring music for solo performance?

For the solo sets, I’m not really restructuring [songs], it’s more stripping them back, if anything. But with the band, if I were to play that older material, we would add a space where there wasn’t one before or add melody to just kind of change the vibe and spread it out a bit more. For example, “Drunk and with Dreams,” which is on my first EP called Strange Cacti, that was just me on guitar, singing. And with the band, there’s a whole guitar break and an added second chorus. So we’ll do stuff like that with the older stuff sometimes.

Your sound and your message has evolved so much throughout the years. When you’re playing music from say, your 2012 debut LP Half Way Home, does it still resonate with you, or do you feel like you’re reading old passages from your journal?

I don’t really remember what inspired certain things. For other songs, it’s very clear. But for the most part I’m not revisiting any weird past. It feels like I’m covering somebody else’s song, you know? Because my style has changed a lot. For whatever reason, when I do covers, I can let go a lot more and sing out a little bit more without feeling strange. So yeah, it’s kind of cool having been separated from them for a long time and then going back out on tour and singing them like they’re mine. Because they are mine. But I’ve been so detached from them that it’s like covering somebody else.

Are you able to see the passage of time and your personal growth when playing the old music now?

At the time it was first starting, I was all really, really word-heavy. Sometimes I’m playing it and I’m laughing because it’s just, like, of that era. Like there’s one song called “California” that has, like, doo doo doos on it. I made a comment the other day that was like, This is really like 2007. Yo La Tengo and all this stuff was coming out at the time … everyone was adding kind of twee-style little singing parts to songs. So sometimes when I’m singing that song, I’m like Oh, yeah, that was definitely of the time.

Do you feel like you’re able to resolve any inner turmoil or issues you’re dealing with through your music?

Usually by the time I’ve written a song, whatever it was that inspired it, I’ve already been through, and I’m over it, you know? In some way I feel like they’re realizations. “Heart Shaped Face,” for example, that was a reoccurring theme for years. It didn’t matter who I was with, there always comes this point where the person with me and I have to work on seeing what is there and being full of it. But also, some songs are less literal. Like “Sisters” is not about my sister; it’s not about a girl, really. It’s just about the positive side of thinking you see someone, and seeing something else later that you didn’t notice. I like that sorta theme too.

I think about these things a lot, cause I get home from going on tours and then I have nothing. All my friends have normal jobs. When I get back from a long tour, first it’s cool, because I can take a shower and have personal space and all this stuff, but then you get into this mode where you’re like I have to do something throughout the day. I can’t force myself to write all the time. So you end up just reflecting on every single thing you’ve done in your life and career and whatever. Even if you’re not a writer, and you’re someone who is a player in a band, it can get really spiritually disconnected from people, because your life and your job and your work is so different and so up-in-the-air. But at the same time, when it’s happening, it feels so real—like the most powerful thing ever. And then you go home to normalcy. Like, Did I just do all that? Is that real? Is that part of my life? So you just end up thinking a lot about those things, and I think too much sometimes. Maybe that’s why I started writing stuff down.

It sounds like your system goes through a lot of shock being on tour, going back home and being in silence or back to normalcy. So how do you balance those different aspects of yourself and your life?

Usually I just try to go out with friends and see what they’re up to. I keep myself busy doing normal things like going on hikes with people or going to the pool, seeing movies, going to shows—catching up with my friends I couldn’t see because I was on tour all the time. Because of traveling, I’ve had to spend extra energy reaching out to people and making sure those relationships remain close and good, because in the beginning, when I started touring, I’d just drop off because it’s so exhausting and there was so much to learn. But even though you’re with your friends [in the band] you sometimes just get tired of each other. You’re like roommates, you know? So you find yourself texting or reaching out to people that you’ve known throughout the years. And by being gone and by being someone who is just kind of here and there, you can kind of weed out people who aren’t important in your life.

Have you had a time in your music career when you felt that things really weren’t going the way you had anticipated, but you found resilience in that?

There have been a lot of little sections of tours or the way we marketed my music that later on was like there’s nothing we can do about it. I think for me, the hardest thing was accidentally creating this character that I am responsible for—that people who are my fans think I am—that isn’t me, necessarily. Also, whenever you put a song or video or anything creative out into the world, and you play it 150 times or more, by the end of it you’re looking at that video and are like, What is this crap? What was I thinking? You kind of have to just like accept that, and I think sometimes there have been images and promotional stuff—for example, taking photoshoots at the very beginning. I just thought, Oh the stylist and all these people, they know what’s best for me because this is what they do for a living. But the truth is that no one knows what is best for you except for you, and the great thing about being an artist in a situation like that is you should have control, and you’re not a model and you can say what you want and say what you don’t want.

And I think that in the beginning, I didn’t know that I could have that option. I looked back at some of the stuff that I did and I was like, Ugh, that’s so tacky. Why did I let that happen? And it’s because I was new at it and I thought that’s how it worked. And I think when I see other up-and-coming artists coming out with certain band photos, I’m like, Oh they don’t know they can change that if they want to. And maybe they want that, but you can kind of tell when artists are like fully giving everyone freedom to do what they want, and it’s like, Well, you’re going to realize that’s not what you want like a year from now. And that’s gonna bum you out.

But that’s a lot of image-based stuff, and it wouldn’t matter to me if image-based stuff wasn’t how some people heard music. But that is how people identify you and your music and what you stand for in your music, but they’re just part of it. And for me, from the beginning, it never was. I was just like, What? It should just be about music. So it took me a while to even care about that, and then when it really went the wrong way, I had to develop an interest in creating it. Which is why I tried to start doing more stuff on my own, like making my own videos. Just so that I could be like, Well, at least when I’m embarrassed, I know that I okay’d all of this. [Laughs] Later on down the line. It wasn’t someone else.

Some of your proceeds from the tour are going to Direct Relief. Why did you feel it’s important to use your platform for humanitarian aid?

Well, I really feel like it should’ve happened a long time ago, with the band shows. It was just like we were constantly busy, and sometimes it’s hard to get a conversation going with people when you’re just so busy, you know? Just doing radio and doing all this press around the tour, it’s hard to sit down with someone who is a representative of an organization like that.

I had some time off, and my manager and I were like, How can we be active politically without it being all that I’m about? PLUS1 is a great organization for artists at my level, where they’re making enough money to donate something like $17K at the end of the tour to a specific organization like Direct Relief. You have the option of choosing Planned Parenthood or community-based organizations in that area where the show is in. But I thought it would be cool to work with an unbiased, no-politics organization that send funds to families all over the world and all over the states that need medical care and basic everyday living stuff. But then I went home and I met someone who is working on opening this gigantic women’s shelter there, and I was like Man, it’d be cool to doing something for them, or something that’s more community-based in the future. ButI think it’s cool because it shows other artists who are on my level that they can do that as well, and it’s just a dollar on top of the ticket. It’s not like you have to take the lump sum of your publishing advance that you might use for funding your tour; instead you just do it gradually over your shows. And by the end of it, you can come up with a lot of money for something. It’s been so easy that I just don’t know why I hadn’t done it sooner.

What are your plans for the future? Do you want to expand outside of music and maybe explore other art forms?

Yeah, it’d be cool to do stuff in film, and also I’ve been keeping journals this year and, I don’t know, a lot of my artist friends have come out with essay books and novels, and I’m like, Damn, it’s not that difficult to write about all the crazy shit that’s been happening. There’s a lot of it. When you’re traveling and you’re doing something that on the outside looks like it’s so easy and it’s just a vacation to a lot of people … taking it and finding those little stories that happen along the way, it’s so easy, and I don’t know why I haven’t done more of that yet. But I think in the future, maybe when I’m a little bit older, it’d be nice to write a book or write about certain things that happened along the way. That would be something I’d be interested in.

And what about on the music front?

On the music front, I’ve done my share of collaborations with people and I really really love to … you know, I’m working on another record, but I’m also into the idea of singing backup in a band for a few tours or doing something that isn’t so self-oriented; something that is maybe like a duo record with someone else, classic country style, you know? It’d be fun to do something like that, but right now I’m just focusing on replaying these older songs and focusing on playing newer songs and seeing what they need or how I can change them while I’m traveling. So I’ll be playing old material, new material, and a few songs from the recent record that make sense, like “Heart Shaped Face.” That’s sort of what a person can expect at the show.

Angel Olsen

Friday, September 14 | The Moore | $29–$33