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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. I 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.
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.
And what about on the music front?
On the music front, I’m 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.