Image: Angel Olsen, press shot supplied by Inertia.
Everyone probably feels like Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Angel Olsen’s last album, was written especially for them. Understandable really. The existential collection is hard not to take personally. Songs, more than any other creative medium, make us the stars of our own lives, not just the participants and I’d argue that Angel Olsen’s music does it better than most.
Take for example Hi-Five – the breakout (and by ‘the’ I mean ‘my’) track from Burn Your Fire for No Witness – which gives the listener permission to puff out their chest in the name of sadness. In the slow-building guitars and unapologetic lyrics, melancholy isn’t something to move through until a ‘gratitude’ hashtag is possible, but a badge you should wear for as long as you need to.
Olsen’s new release My Woman is an amplification of that earlier, quieter defiance. Each song confidently aims for the gut: there’s the languid subversion of songs like Sister where as the guitar exploded, it felt like I’d been lured to the five minute mark under false pretences. That inimitable voice is bigger again on this release, shaking your bones to such an extent on Heart Shaped Face that your internal organs feel displaced by the time it ends. On Shut Up Kiss Me there’s more eye-rolling, more in-jokes, more roller-skating, all previously hinted at by Olsen and now realised in full. The ten tracks are over far too quickly and any gendered accusation of Olsen’s ‘wistfulness’ certainly won’t stick this time. Thank fuck.
Talking to Olsen over a crackling line her tone has the indignation of an artist who’s written an album that people won’t shut up about. Suddenly she’s having to justify a release that, as she puts it, she’s “still processing it, and I’m still kinda in it – if you asked me in two years I might have a different answer.” I’d sweepingly requested that she define the tone of My Woman when I’d already concluded one myself.
Like many journalists who have gone before me I feel like I’ve already shared something personal with Olsen before we speak. Our inclination towards intimate, teenage connection to performers is hard to grow out of. Born out of the stories, to lazily paraphrase Joan Didion, we tell ourselves in order to live and the sentiment has been complicated to some degree by feminism’s surge. Now, if the storytellers are women, we demand authenticity, both political and personal, in ways we never would from their male peers. As Olsen laughingly tells me “if I’d called it ‘My Man’ and I wasn’t on the cover, people would instead be asking ‘who’s your man?’” ‘Is so-and-so your man?’” It’s funny because, despite our best efforts, it’s true.
Creatively it’s a bind. Female musicians have to at once be aware of their femaleness whilst working hard not to be pigeonholed by it. A situation that is worsened when feminism is used as a branding device by bigger stars, with PR teams that are expensive enough to write the meaning in where there was none before.
By her own admission, the decision to name her album My Woman is not wholly innocent. “It’s sort of a game where my subconscious creative mind is fucking with me, and challenging me, so I’m having fun with it”. Still, the wording wasn’t carefully considered so much as stumbled upon – she simply loved Woman, a track on the album – to take it a step further. But as she’s discovered, in a world in which women can’t exist without eternal justification, you’ll have to account for mind-fuckery, whether it’s conscious or subconscious.
“I want to talk about being a woman, and being a musician, and being a writer – and I do talk about in some of the songs on this record, but what I’ve learned is that people think of it as a dirty word. They don’t like it when there are those two words together – My Woman – that’s like saying Fuck You as a title for a record.”
The position is frustrating and I’ve caught Olsen just as she’s started the worn fourth-wave publicity trail. She cites a particular story that will probably be the first of many, “a male journalist asked me ‘are you afraid of losing your male fans by titling your record My Woman?’” And I just laughed. Because first of all, do you realise how lazy it is that that’s your first question for your piece? Didn’t you want to save your shittiest question for last?” I take the anecdote as advice.
We’re – ‘we’re’ being the Royal We of Women – are all in this odd space together. By speaking out and up about the fundamental rights we’re entitled to, we’re required to define what we are in order to access them. Our personal experience has to be accessed in order to be, at best, understood, and at worst: believed. We are either victims or survivors, nothing in between. Olsen, like most of us, doesn’t know what else to tell you “I don’t have any other perspective. I’m a woman eating a salad. I’m a woman taking a shit. You wanna know about how that is for a woman? Sure! I’ll write about it.”
But if Olsen’s album must be considered feminist by inevitable popular demand, that is where it lies: in the in between. She speaks to the devastation of womanhood. A reality that is perfectly communed by way of sound. Rage that is hot and soft, romance that is raw before it’s poetic, quiet sacrifice and endless analysis of self. It might explain why so many of the songs on My Woman feel as though they’re they’re starting at the end, guitars slowing rather than building, her voice seemingly resolved. The beginning happens later on, when it’s least expected. As Woman, the song that inspired the album’s title, rounds out Olsen’s voice swells “I dare you to understand/what makes me a woman”.
“In writing you can kind of directly give information to someone. You can give a text to someone. Of what you’d love to be, but also what you are.” Olsen tells me it’s emailing her friends, the ones that really know her, that not only keeps her on her toes as a creative, but sane. The topics vary from serious conversations to the daily grind, and it’s neat way of maintaining, as she describes “an account” of how people mutate. After all, Olsen is ultimately interested in “humanity”, a word that crops up repeatedly as we talk. She’s quick to emphasise that, before it’s feminist, My Woman is really an album about “the struggle to accept another as human as you are, and forgive them for being human, and forgive yourself for being human.” A little on the nose, but I get it: her lyrics pull from the unarticulated mundane, which makes up the majority of our lives. There’s plenty of it to sing about if you know how to make it feel important.
Each track hints at a recognisable sameness we all, to varying degrees, fear: the monotony of ‘work’ highlighted in Intern “doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done/still got to wake up and be someone”, alongside the invisible, everyday labours of love revealed in the perfectly strained vocals of Not Gonna Kill You “I’m just another/alive with impossible plans/I’d turn the lights low/but we both know where we are”. The overriding sense is that we’re all in this together, but that doesn’t make it any less special. As a Gen X-er grappling with my own privilege, the closing refrain on Sister is one I repeatedly go back to “all of my life I thought had changed”. The effect is surprisingly comforting: Sure, things are shit, but it’s still worth making an effort.
Identity is a hard thing to maintain, especially in an age where the digital version comes first. Olsen keeps the rules pretty simple, though “the last thing I’m going to do is look up this article that you’re writing, as much as I might like it, because I don’t want to obsess over what people think.” While the artist is probably never far from the narcissist, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, take note Justin Bieber: “there’s something really cool about using the Internet as a resource versus trying to Google myself and see how my identity is going for everyone…I want to use it as a tool, but I don’t want to use it irresponsibly.”
Then there’s the David Bowie way, too. I ask Olsen about the silver wig she wears in the videos for both Intern and Shut Up Kiss Me, which she details as a small nod to the King of Personas “what he was doing was creating a character that he could speak through, and owning both his lyrics and his personality through those characters.” Oh, and yeh. She’s watching Stranger Things – that qualifies as responsible use of the web.
While she confirms the silver wig won’t be making an appearance on stage for her upcoming Australian tour, she does detail that rehearsals have begun and things are settling into place to perform the new material:
“It’s going be a challenge, but I can already tell that it’s going to be so much more fun to play live. SO much more fun. I cannot wait. And I hope that by the time we get to Australia we’ll be well, deep in it.”
Don’t miss Angel Olsen as she makes her way around Australia this December:
November 26 | Grand Poobah, Hobart TAS
November 28 | Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
December 1 | Lismore City Hall, Lismore NSW
December 2 | Brightside, Brisbane QLD
December 5 | Sydney Opera House Studio, Sydney NSW
December 7 | Grace Emily Hotel, Adelaide SA
December 8 | Badlands, Perth WA
Check out tickets right HERE.