Angel Olsen is caustic and refreshingly candid. Coming off a relentless tour schedule in support of last year’s My Woman, the singer-songwriter offers the same honesty that has endeared her to audiences since her breakthrough release, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness.
Olsen will perform tonight at 1306 as the first artist featured in Red Bull Sound Select’s 3 Days in Miami program. New Times spoke with her about her involvement in Our First Hundred Days, a project of "100 songs that inspire progress and benefit a cause for change"; the inanity of posing next to trees; and the difference between ceding creative control and affirming it.
Angel Olsen: [Through] Jon Coombs at my label [Jagjaguwar]... We were all sort of devastated [the day after] the election.... It was a live video thing at a church. And I was miserable. I did one of my songs, “Give It Up,” which is usually a grunge song. And I played that in a church, and everybody there was kind of like, “What the fuck are we doing here? You couldn’t cancel?” And I was like, “Well, I would’ve canceled, but this is a big opportunity [laughs], and I didn’t expect this to happen." Coombs was there with me, and a lot of other label people were around, and I was just like [sighs], “Never again will I book any press on an election day. What the fuck was I thinking?” It was awful.
Coombs called me and was like, “Well, do you wanna contribute one of the songs we were gonna put out on seven-inch to this thing?” And I was like, “Yeah!” I was feeling conflicted: Is it my duty as an artist to be political now, now that everyone finds it their duty to be political? Because this isn’t why I write music. But I wanted to do something that was contributing money I was making toward organizations that would be defunded.
The song we chose was supposed to be one of the songs that was an alternative ending to the record, so kind of an interesting choice.
There’s another song that we’ve been performing live, and I’m always joking, like, “Well, I guess I should have put it out because I’m playing it anyway!” [laughs] It’s called “Special,” and it’s got a Velvet Underground kind of thing, and it didn’t really relate to the record. [“Fly on Your Wall” and “Special] were both sort of dreamy and kind of jagged-sounding in comparison to the stuff on the record. If there had been three or four more songs that were like that, maybe it would’ve been its own thing.
You've said My Woman concerns effectively communicating with audiences and tackling preconceptions about you as an artist. Having lived with the record for several months, is that still an issue?
Not really. I don’t really care anymore... In some ways yes, it was me being like, “I wanna get out of the trees that photographers throw me in because I am a girl with a guitar.” I do wanna get out of the trees sometimes. When you write sad songs and you write songs that you care about, that you want to have a lot of meaning, people are like, “You’re sorta like a trees girl, right?” [laughs]... Because of being a folk artist... I will always have the trees — the trees will always be around me. I just want to put other things around me too. Part of that is just having fun and showing people that I just want to have fun.
Have you used this “girl with a guitar in a tree” argument before? It’s pretty biting and on point.
There’s a site called Bands by Trees or something. It’s a blog, and it’s just photos of bands that are next to trees and artists next to trees. It’s the easiest — the brick wall and the trees are the easiest photography vibe... I was in Chicago. I was super-hung-over, and me and my friend were taking photos [with a photographer]. We’re outside, we’re in an urban area, there’s a statue there, there’s a beautiful staircase you can sit on — options. I’m looking around, and I’m like, “Here are some options. I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but… you know.” He was like, “Hey, can you stand next to this little plant that’s by this restaurant?” And I was like, “You want me to stand by a plant right now? You’re so desperate for a tree that you want me to stand by a potted plant.”
I’m not trying to be an asshole, and I know it sounds really shitty... but I was just like, “I don’t know if I want to stand by a plant. But you know what? I’ll stand by this thing over here.” [laughs]
You don’t want to be standing next to potted plants for the rest of your career. That makes sense!
No! Get me out of potted-plants zone! What the fuck are you doing? If this happened to you 100 times, you’d be emotionally affected by it. You’d be traumatized by plants [laughs].
But it’s their job to find something that’s like, “Don’t worry about the plants! It’s gonna be the leaf over your hair with the blurriness, and the focus will be on you!” The thing is, every photographer I have ever spoken to has tried that trick, and it is not original at all.
So that invites the question: What does your ideal photo shoot look like?
I like when people use me in format cameras and they know how to do double exposure; that’s really cool to me. But I also realize that not everybody is savvy like that. I like when people know how to use color theory and when they’re good at portraits and when they see something that’s interesting that doesn’t seem interesting at first, but then it’s there and can show me and is excited to show me.
But when someone puts me next to a tree and says, “OK, now, Angel, could you try smiling right now? Just try smiling. Oh, that’s great. Yeah, that’s not working.”... Fuck you! I could take a selfie that’s better than this photo. I’m not trying to get on a tangent here... It’s like if I tried to play jazz music [laughs]. Someone would do the same shit to me, and they’d be like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I don’t know — I’m going on a tangent here, but Artists by Trees, it’s everywhere. It’s not just to me; it’s a lot of other people. Check it out.
You played a gig with Will Oldham and Emmett Kelly at Sweat Records in 2011 and toured in North Florida. What is your impression of the state?
I haven’t played Miami beyond that 2011 show. I was supposed to when I did a solo tour. I did a solo tour, and then I did a band tour, and I played this place in Orlando, Will’s Pub. I was telling everybody when I go back to Florida, I just wanna play Will’s Pub. I don’t wanna play any fucking other place, I just wanna play Will’s Pub three days in a row [laughs]… I would rather play a grimy place that has a shitty PA that smells like yeast when you walk in than play some of these nicer places to an empty room because the tickets are gonna be higher and the vibe isn’t right. [My band and I will] play huge shows in the big cities but in Omaha, in Boise, in Lexington, and in Orlando, we’re gonna be playing the modest places, and that’s OK with me. But I don’t want to oversell myself just to be in a nicer place. I’d rather pack out the room and be humbled by the experience and have fun.
Given everything that’s happening in North Carolina right now, with the bathroom bill and attempted power grab by Republican legislators, what has living in Asheville been like?
Honestly, Asheville is the most liberal part of the state. I wish that people in bigger cities like New York could come see the reality of what is, on a daily basis, accepted in — you see Confederate flags everywhere. You know, the South is like that. It’s in your face and it’s not a big city, so there’s not a lot of people that can do anything about it. At the same time, I’ve been seeing so much change happen since this election. People really getting out — people who are not protest people — they don’t wanna carry signs, they don’t wanna go to meetings… it’s uncomfortable to them. I think Asheville is. I’m hoping that over time the blue dot gets bigger and bigger and just eventually eats up all the shittiness.
After the last year filled with misogyny, racism, and the like, what has the tour been like?
I feel like my record just ended up being subliminally relevant to what’s going on. I was never meaning to make some big feminist comment. But I think just the fact that it came out during this critical time, I think people looked at it differently. I think maybe women have looked at it differently, but I don’t know. I didn’t realize what I was doing was bold at the time. I just thought, Oh, one of my songs is named “Woman.” I like this song a lot, I want to be funny and call it My Woman. And then everyone was like, [adopts a pompous affectation] “Who is your woman? Are you trying to say," and I was just like, "Oh, shit."
To me, the record shouldn’t just be dated to be about this election, because that would be a shame. But at the same time, I want people to find meaning in what I’m doing and what we’re doing live as a band. That’s sort of the point of doing it. You want people to find something that is some sort of source of comfort.
You directed or co-directed every music video that was released for My Woman. How did it differ, if at all, from what goes into assembling a song or record?
Well, to me it’s much more organized and mapped out because it kind of has to be — you don’t want to waste anyone’s time. With recording, I learn the songs, and then I introduce them to the drummer because he’s sort of the band leader. He’s also my homie and the oldest band member, so I feel most comfortable being like, “Hey, I want some collaborative input from you. This is the structure of the song. Should I extend it a couple bars for a guitar solo?” Then the band would come rehearse and we’d talk about that for two weeks and we’d know the songs as though we could perform them, and then we record it.
For the video stuff, I had a vague idea of how to write a shot list. So I listened to the songs over and over and over again, and I had this idea — kind of immediately while we were making the record — to do a skating video ‘cause I really like roller skating. So I just was really excited about doing something in this roller-skating rink in North Carolina that is stuck in time. That was where we shot it, and I didn’t have a ton of resources around me. My friend Ashley Connor was the [director of photography] and did the lighting. Without her lighting skills, I don’t know how great those videos would have been. “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Intern” were pretty much done in one week, and this was like two days after I finished mixing the record.
And I called up all my friends and I was like “Do you wanna be in a video? Do you wanna help me?” [laughs] And it’s a long day, it’s like a 12-hour day. And we didn’t need everyone all the time, but it was just like — could I do that all the time? I don’t know.
Had you done any video production before?
It was just like I was picking my own character and then editing my own character. Knowing that I could edit this, I felt more comfortable just totally being myself and totally just going wild and being a weirdo. I think there was something to that and I feel like it’s the same in making a record. When you feel like you can be yourself and you trust yourself and people around you are super intuitive, then you can go wild. But when you’re working with strangers in a weird environment and it’s cold and you have no control over how its gonna be in the end and it’s promoting your music, I just think it’s fucking stupid. [laughs]
“Intern” was presented as a teaser for My Woman, so automatically there’s more presentation and pomp involved.
“Intern” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” were [interconnected]. Monday we shot for “Intern,” Tuesday “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Wednesday finish up for “Intern.” Then we all decided that it would be really intense and really fuck with people and be bold to release “Intern” as though it was a pop record. But then I was so happy when “Shut Up Kiss Me” dropped because it was like, “Psych! Fuck you, guys. You think I really would change my sound so much altogether, really? Go fuck yourself.” [laughs]
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“Shut Up Kiss Me” to me was like, "Oh, here we go! Here’s an actual video that isn’t a teaser. Here’s something that’s all of the moving parts." And then people will think whatever they want to think.
I was working with Phil [Spinner] and Conor [Hagen] on “Sister” and my friend Anthony [Restivo] over the summer, and it was one of the most intense, difficult videos to mix — and difficult songs to mix! Really hard song to mix; very long, lots of parts. It’s my name on it, but I still was like, “I don’t want the band to be upset if it was mixed badly. It has to be mixed well.” And it’s the same thing [for a video]. There’s so many emotions and ups and downs in that song that getting footage that was material of different kinds and getting enough of it was really important for that video. That experience of making that was… I just felt like we were all at the same point in our lives and we were just talking about life and I [felt like] whatever happens with this video, it’s really cool to make something with real people that matter to me.
With Charlotte Day Wilson and Bernice. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 23, at 1306, 1306 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-377-2277; 1306miami.com. Limited tickets available at the door.