Angel Olsen Knows Her Art Is Worth Fighting for

The songstress opens up about standing up for her music, learning when to give and "MY WOMAN."
Angel Olsen Musician Photo Indie
Angel Olsen © Kelly Giarrocco
By Bailey Pennick

The worst thing that happened to Angel Olsen when she decided to go all in on promoting “MY WOMAN” was that her friend from Los Angeles called and told her that her face looked big (“really, really big!”) on a billboard.

“This is the first record where I’ve been like ‘Okay let’s put up a billboard of my face somewhere in LA.’ I would never have done that previously,” says the singer from her home in Asheville, North Carolina. “I was so kind of set in a DIY world where it just feels wrong to be on TV! Over the years I’ve been reading about other artists — pop artists that I really respect — and I just think that it’s a different game when you start [really promoting your art]. It becomes this game you play with yourself, like how do I test myself and challenge myself and my own limitations? How do I play the game while still showing that I’m still myself?” She pauses, “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

On “MY WOMAN,” her latest full-length, Olsen successfully walks that industry tightrope. Some people have reductively said that she’s “gone pop,” but Olsen’s brilliance as an artist was never confined to one genre; it’s only confined to her evolving mastery of articulating her emotions and drawing you into her world. “MY WOMAN” is an album that you can’t listen to in the background. You can’t work while listening to it and you definitely can’t just throw it on at a party. It’s an album that demands your attention; it fights for it and wins every time.

You need to hear what the 30-year-old singer-songwriter is saying because she sings with conviction. She speaks about the album with conviction, too. There are artists who wallow in their pain through flawless vocal runs and swelling orchestration and invite you to wallow with them. Angel Olsen does not follow that pitch perfect path. She screams about intimate moments (repeating “in my arms and fast asleep” in “Give it Up”) as if the louder she is, the harder it will be to fade away. The strength of “MY WOMAN” is palpable.

Olsen’s been broken before, but with each rupture comes a new level of self-understanding and confidence to fight for what you believe in. “I was really angry and bitter about a lot of things when I wrote ‘Burn Your Fire [For No Witness].’ I’m happy about that record and that time, but I think, after that, I was kind of humbled by a lot of things and seeing different perspectives, seeing how a band changes over time and how people change over time,” says Olsen. “I was just kind of going through all these things after this kind of aggressive period, where I felt that I had been so shy that I kept myself from taking risks and that, in some way, I blamed other people around me for holding me back. But then I think there’s this perspective I gained — or am still trying to gain [laughs] — that people can try and hold you back, make you feel like shit and they can reinforce your shyness and take advantage of it, but it’s ultimately up to you to kind of figure it out and take risks on your own.” She pauses to think about how to try and sum up this endless road to internal truth. “It’s irresponsible to blame [things] on other people even though they [can be] rude or mean or whatever. It’s still up to you to push through it and make your own statement.”

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Olsen’s home for a much needed break sandwiched between releasing one of 2016’s strongest albums and two massive legs of touring, which will see her hitting the West Coast, playing major festivals like Primavera Sound and Panorama, as well as headlining 3 Days in Miami. She can’t really get back on Eastern Standard Time yet, but she knows that her jet lag will subside at some point. “I’ve been sleeping in quite a bit and I [keep wondering] ‘Am I depressed?’ I don’t feel depressed … but I think my body’s just telling me that I need to rest and not worry about it.” For once Olsen doesn’t need to be on guard, you can hear that relaxed tone as she talks about her favorite parts of Joshua Tree or the time she was Gwen Stefani in a No Doubt cover band — “Tragic Kingdom” era — last New Year’s (“I’m never nervous about forgetting my own words because I can kind of bumble through it and course correct, but when it's someone else’s music and everyone knows the words, even maybe more than you [laughs], it’s a little scary!”).

She also has time to reflect on writing, recording, promoting and living “MY WOMAN,” which is a luxury that she hasn’t been able to have with her previous albums. “I’d been doing a ton of press all year leading up to this record and was just anticipating this record for so long before anyone even heard about it,” says Olsen, who directed all of the LP’s music videos as well. “For the first time, I had time to focus on doing all of these [promotional] things and put creative energy into those things like making all these videos. Whereas with the last couple of records, I’ve finished the record and then had to go immediately out on tour so I didn’t really have the energy.” Because of this, Olsen’s reenergized about touring and connecting with her fans: “We’ve been hustling! We’ve been trying to tour as much as possible and I’ve been talking about it and making as many glittery videos and stuff as I can [laughs]! I’m really happy that it’s doing well, that it’s making the rounds and making an impression on people.”

From getting behind the camera to mixing “MY WOMAN” twice in Los Angeles’s Vox Studios, Olsen’s become a bit of an expert at stepping out of her comfort zone while still maintaining her authenticity. “I just felt a little bit more comfortable in my own skin and in the studio,” she says. “Especially [when it came to] telling people what I wanted and telling people that I didn’t want [the album] to sound a certain way … It was the first time I really, truly believed it and I wasn’t insecure about saying it.”

Along with that confidence that eludes so many other artists (and people in general), Olsen recognizes the creative significance of letting your guard down every once in a while: “It’s important to have someone there who’s outside your circle to give you feedback. And maybe you won’t want it, but it’s so important to see it from a different angle. On this record I had so many different people outside my circle, it was super challenging sometimes.” It was especially challenging for Olsen, who’s still learning how to actually hear the feedback and suggestions from the people around her.

“I’m just kind of a spicy person!” laughs Olsen. “Sometimes I say things that are not thoughtful, or are not nice, and I think I’ve worked on that a little bit more each year. I’m not just going to jump the gun and say what’s on my mind because it could be halfway in my head.” These mental breathers came from a lot of contemplation and personal growth. “I feel like, as a woman, half the time you’re questioning if [the issue is] all in your head or if its actually happening,” she says. “Because you don’t want to react to something that’s actually just you obsessing about all the things that have happened before, but it’s a hard anger that’s deep seeded and hard to ignore. Sometimes you just get a little spicy and say things.”

Angel Olsen Musician Photo Indie
Angel Olsen © Amanda Marsalis

Olsen’s keeping her spice level in check now: “I’m trying to wait now. If someone has an idea, instead of blowing them off and being like 'that’s a stupid idea' — well sometimes people do have stupid ideas, you just can’t help it — I’m just getting better at not saying that out loud. Now I just say we’ll try it this once, but if I don’t like it then it’s not going to happen again.” This dance of raw emotions, internal improvement and an eloquent presentation is present in everything that Olsen does — from the inherent power and pain of “MY WOMAN” to the semi-democratic way in which her band’s stage apparel was chosen. “We went back and forth on the color [of the suits] for a while,” says Olsen. “And then I finally just [decided] it was going to be blue … I like that they wear the suits and I can wear whatever I want [laughs], but they’ve told me that they love it because they don’t have to think about what to wear.”

After the successful one-two punch of “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” and “MY WOMAN,” Olsen is firmly in control of her own image, her art and is excited to keep moving forward: “In the beginning [of my career], I tried so hard to not take opportunities, to stand my ground and tell people what type of personality I was because I didn’t want to be a pushover. Now, I feel good that I’m opening myself to other ideas. It would be bad to just take full control over everything, but I think that, with directing the videos and coproducing [the album], at this point of my career I have the right to say I want to take the opportunity to do this myself. And everyone was really cool and into letting me. I don’t think that would have happened if I had two unsuccessful records. And I don’t think that it had anything to do with me being female or male, I was just on this successful track and I had a chance and I took it.”

Taking chances has afforded Olsen to land on a band that she loves and collaborates with. “I think with this new crew, we’re learning new things about each other and it’s been really good,” she says after she compares the beginning of recording “MY WOMAN” to the first day of school. “Maybe there was pressure during the first couple of days, but you know what? It’s your job to make a good record and establish that it’s not going to suck.” That doesn’t mean that everything was smooth sailing: “Sometimes it’s frustrating when people are honest and your friends and work with you and you’re also their boss. It’s a lot of hats, but we’re getting better at it [laughs]!

And it shows, not only in the bundle of “Best of 2016” lists that “MY WOMAN” has turned up on, but in the larger venues and longer tours that her and her band are embarking on. Olsen’s hard work isn’t just paying off; it’s paving a path for her future as an essential artist. “I was like this girl from Chicago and I had never toured really, not for my own music, so it was always cool to see that there was a little bit of a following [out there],” she says. “Now it’s cool to see that [the following has] grown and even though my music has changed, they are all still there and more people have come. “We’ve stayed with friends in LA that put us up through times when we couldn’t afford hotels and now I’m on a bus. I’ve got this whole big band of people that I take care of. It’s like watching your business grow or something like that, but in a different way. I’m surrounded by people who’ve been working with me for a really long time, it feels kind of like a family.”

With the record out and the world, literally, ahead of her, Olsen’s crossed another hurdle and became a much stronger person in the process. But don’t expect her to rest on her laurels anytime soon—she’s already two steps ahead: “I have a little time in the spring, so if I feel like writing maybe I’ll do it then, but we’ll see!”

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