Angel Olsen wants people to stop thinking she’s depressed, and that her music comes from the same unknown – and therefore terrifying – place those feelings reside in. “I’m not trying to celebrate or to be a sad clown”, she explains, while sitting on a brown, vinyl chair in a similarly decorated hotel room in suburban Sydney, having her hair and makeup done. It’s the day after Laneway and everyone – well, Angel Olsen and I at least – are feeling a little worse for wear. There will be no under-eye liner.
Being tired and slightly hungover makes everyone more honest, and everything more black and white but somehow harder to understand. However, being tired and slightly hungover makes Angel Olsen easier to quantify because it’s kind of the space her music occupies: it’s brutal, but it’s buffered by the dreamy haze of another world that makes you less concerned about the current one.
In High Five, for example, a song from her new album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen repeatedly asks, “Are you lonely too?” before declaring “HIGH FIVE! So am I!” – exclamation points necessary. Her voice crawls up into the song from some period of time none of us were alive during – one with sorcery, with stone fireplaces, with gramophones (Downton Abbey with witchcraft) – which makes her declaration equal parts comforting and, well, completely deranged. Whatever it is, depressing is what it’s not.
During our conversation Angel Olsen touches on everything from discussing vaginas with St Vincent, to misogynistic radio DJs, but she always returns to how weird the last year has been – it’s the first one she’s spent releasing and touring an album with all.of.the press and promotional commitments attached to that. It’s good to be wanted, but it’s not good to be wanted too much, she argues. It’s all cool though, because Angel Olsen is really good at occupying that middle space.
Have you enjoyed Australia?
Yeah…The Internet is really strange. I’d never been on tour for my own music and then I came over to Australia with Bonnie Prince Billy and I hear someone on stage at a festival go “play Strange Cacti”, which is from the first EP I did and I was like “holy shit, people know what I’m about and what I’m doing”. It’s so weird!
How’s the Laneway tour been? I interviewed St Vincent the other day and she was in a hot tub, incredibly stoked that she was only playing once a week instead of every night.
Yeah, it’s pretty relaxing. St Vincent’s cool, we had a BBQ the other night and at one point we were like “nobody cares about our vaginas”, which was really funny.
Image: ASOS kimono, Karen Walker sunglasses
Ah haha, what do you mean?
Well, I live a pretty anonymous life for the most part, but I live in a small town now, and people know who I am, but sometimes you’re wearing the wrong thing outside and you don’t have makeup on.
I was just saying how awkward it is because I get a check-up at my doctor’s pretty regularly, and the last time I went in they were like “so, tell us about tour!”, and I was like “oh man, the last thing I want is my doctor Googling me during my pap smear”. St Vincent just turned to me and said “nobody cares about our vaginas”. We’ve just been repeating it over and over again – it was a funny moment.
Haha, nice. Do you think your music gets interpreted as sad and lonely when it’s not?
Yeah, I donno. I feel like some of it’s sad, I’m not going to deny that, but I’m also not sitting around thinking “everything is tragic” all the time. I think a lot of the time it’s interesting when you have epiphanies and they last for a few days and you’re like “this is how things are” and sometimes songs to me are like epiphanies that are passing – they’re perspective on what’s happening.
Image: Acne Studios jacket
So your albums are like moments in time or diary entries?
I have a very large imagination, and I’ve always had one. I’ve always been into fantasy – I had a really weird upbringing where I’d create things around me instead of interacting with what was in front of me. A bit of that stuck with me in the writing process: if I want to write about a certain character I want to feel what that character is going to be feeling.
I’m just trying to write well, and describe certain thoughts and feelings well.
I’m not trying to celebrate or to be a sad clown. I want to make music that’s real, I don’t want to sing about having sex with someone and how good they looked when they danced around me – that’s not how I make music. I totally understand if that’s how some people make music, but that’s not me.
To me, a song is something you put out to the world, and once you’re dead, it’s always there. I know that’s morbid, but it’ll be there longer than you will, and you kind of want to make that thing important. I donno, that’s just my opinion, but other people are very like “who fucken cares” and in some way I envy them for that.
Do you use music to search for meaning?
Yeah. Some people listen to music and it’s just part of the background, whereas if I hear something it takes up half of my thought process. I definitely feel like some people really do feel it, but other people don’t want that, and they don’t want to think about that. But, I donno.
Image: Vintage coat from C’s Flashback, Elke Kramer earrings
Once you’ve finished a project, do you feel like you come out of it better for having finished it?
I feel like supporting a record and talking about it a lot and thinking about it a lot makes you understand it better.
Also, I’m singing the same 12 songs over and over and over again, and I’m trying to make them as interesting as the first time I played them. I look at bands who are younger and are super psyched to be on stage and they’re doing it 200 days out of the year, and I have no idea how they do that.
I enjoy making music and I enjoy performing but I definitely like having my personal time – having my chill time. I like spending my down time being around people who, like, play baseball and are doing other stuff. After a while it can be exhausting and I don’t want it to keep me from wanting to make more and do more, you know. I don’t wanna be burnt out.
A couple of months ago I interviewed Lykke Li for Laneway, before she cancelled, and she kind of said the same thing: as soon as you find “success” in the industry, you lose perspective on why you got into it in the first place. Has that happened to you?
I just know I can always do what I’ve done better. I’m never gonna go back and say this album was perfect. Not that I’m on any trajectory, but I’m terrified that people are going to lose interest in what I do. I need to be focussed on writing music people are entertained by, but it needs to be real and not polluted by what people think I should do.
I definitely just like writing, you know. When I was a little girl I thought I would be a director, and in a way I can do that by writing a song – I can sing it, act it out and I can direct other people to act it out with me.
I’m already writing new stuff and I feel like it’s like, “oh yeah, this is a song I was waiting to hear”. When you’re making something, it’s really exciting when your own song is in your head, and then you’re like “am I that full of shit that my own song is in my head”? Well if my own song’s stuck in my head maybe someone else will wanna hear it.
Image: Angel Olsen wears Karen Walker coat, ManiaMania necklace
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