Indie singer-songwriter Angel Olsen broke through two and a half years ago when she released her bracing sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness. On that record, Olsen, now 29, displayed a staggering array of tools: versatile lyrical chops, a keen ear for melody, and most plainly, a powerful, crystalline voice. For Burn Your Fire and her debut, 2012’s Half Way Home, she applied her talents to magnetic ballads and rough-and-tumble alt-country.
But Olsen threw fans a curveball in June when she shared “Intern,” the lead single off her new album. The synth-driven song sounds like nothing in her catalog — which she says was sort of the point. “As an aesthetic, it’s just a tool to get to people that I normally wouldn’t get to and to create a message that’s just as important to me as a message that would have been on Burn Your Fire,” Olsen tells EW on a warm summer afternoon in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.
My Woman is Olsen’s most diverse album yet, but not just for its fleeting excursion into synth-pop. She drew on ’70s rock — she specifically cites Neil Young’s melancholy album On the Beach and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” as influences — both sonically and as a mechanism to process the expectations many had of her following her rapid ascent in the music industry. “People see you through your art,” Olsen says. “That takes a ton of energy.”
Olsen sat down with EW to discuss writing My Woman, the joy of recording live, and how Joan Didion and Elena Ferrante inspired her when working on her new material.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you start writing the songs for My Woman immediately after you finished touring 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness? What was the process like?
I hadn’t really been inspired to write for a long time. After working so hard for Burn Your Fire, it seemed that I couldn’t reap the benefits of my success immediately. I started to feel like, “You know what? I need a break from this.” I needed to take some time [off] to value it again. I saw myself as a kind of caricature — a cartoon version of myself — and I got tired of singing the same songs, even though I really cared about them in the beginning and still care about them. When you do anything enough, it just becomes a little uninteresting. I really needed space from writing, space from thinking about it in an over-analytical way. Even if I was successful at doing this thing, I didn’t want to regurgitate the same methods or the same formula. And so, for me, yeah, I needed a lot of time away to see certain things and to appreciate the process.
I bought a piano. I had played piano when I was younger, and I started to play it again and to see how my voice changed with it. I was challenging myself to find my voice with that instrument. Half of it was that my writing was changing and my singing was different. The other half was that I wanted to express my voice in a new way. When I wrote “Intern” I had been listening to a lot of synth music and I was like, “Am I forcing this? Is this me?” And then I looked at the lyrics: They’re still very strong and intentional, even if it’s in a different aesthetic that a fan wouldn’t be used to.
You did a lot of this album on piano, but it has some of the craziest guitar solos in your catalog.
The whole record was recorded live. Me and guitarist Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Emily Elhaj had been working together for years. We had developed a sound together. This record showcases the band that has been with me and how they’ve grown. You just can’t get a guitar solo if you’re just forcing it. [My Woman‘s] “Sister,” as an example, is like the mountaintop of the record to me. We were all in different rooms [when we recorded that song], playing it live. You can only imagine how stressful that is for everyone to not f— up. We listened back [afterward] and we all stopped at this one second together. There’s this point in the song where we all stopped playing — just like, psychically together. And I’m just like, “What the f—!” “Sister” might not necessarily be something you want to hear over and over again because it’s not as accessible as “Shut Up Kiss Me” is, but that song is representative of how I feel when I listen to Neil Young’s On the Beach or Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide.”
How did your experience touring Burn Your Fire influence this album?
The song “Intern” is a character expressing that just because [she] made something doesn’t mean that it’s finished. That is something that as an artist I relate to and that really affected me. It’s like, “So just because I did this thing, now I have to do more things. I have to. People are expecting me to.” It’s learning how to be patient. I’m talking about the pressures of displaying to a fan that you’re appreciative of them being there even if your whole life that day is crumbling.
Many of your lyrics are so candid. Do you sometimes find it tough to deliver them every night?
I am attached to them in a strong way and I want to perform them and get dramatic with them and have fun with them — but I also don’t relive whatever experience inspired that song. In the same way that a comedian would use material in their life and then take another look at it and see it from a comical perspective, I’m doing that with my writing. Or at least, I’m attempting to do that in my writing. Sometimes it is hard to take myself seriously when I’ve been in a really good mood and I have to sing a serious song. It does take a certain kind of energy, but I’m sure it’s not that different than having to display a certain kind of energy as a comedian — to have to be funny and have to regurgitate the same f—ed up material over and over and over again. And to then find time to go home and find new material on top of that!
Did any literature influence My Woman?
Joan Didion is really good at describing characters intellectually but also writing in a very neutral way as though she’s just watching it happen. And though I feel like I’m getting better or I feel like I can grow and become more descriptive in my writing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that my problems go away or that I’m a good person — or that I don’t have human struggles.
I really got into Elena Ferrante. What she had to say as far as character development and ideas and themes of friendship and themes of different kinds of love, I think she’s been a huge inspiration to my writing. [It was] a huge relief to me, to read her and to be like, “You are so f—ing good at revealing humanity.”