Angel Olsen Talks Phases & Revisiting The Past as a Foreshadowing For The Future
words by me; image courtesy of Kyle Coutts
Angel Olsen has had one hell of a year. Riding the wave of an album (that’s My Woman, for the uninitiated) that captured our attention from the get-go—not to mention landed on every “Best Of” list we can think of—, the singer now finds herself in the surreal space of self-reflection, with a brand-new record of works culled from years past, aptly titled Phases.
A follow-up to the punchy, blown-out folk of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, 2016’s My Woman was (and is) an electric rendition of Olsen at her most polished. Tracks like “Shut Up And Kiss Me” and “Never Be Mine” announced Olsen’s demands, and we listened—there was no backing out once she had us hooked. “Intern” shook up whatever expectations placed on her (in her own words, “It’s fun to fuck with people”), and “Woman”, the almost-title-track, set in stone what was by then crystal clear: when Angel Olsen has something to say, she says it in the most uniquely genre-defying way possible.
If My Woman was Olsen at her most polished, then Phases is the artist at her most self-reflective. Resurrecting old demos, tracks that never made it on My Woman(“Special” is a standout song under that umbrella), and several other never-before-released singles, the record opens a door to Olsen’s recording process, almost as if we’re reading a diary left open to discover on the windowsill of indie rock’s most beloved songstress. Like a thought catalogue of years past, Phases is a chance for Olsen to revisit the past in order to foreshadow what the future holds. We’re here for it.
So I feel you’ve been on tour forever—what’s it like seeing My Woman come to life on stage?
It’s a little surreal. It trips me out sometimes, because people start singing, and it’s kind of like distracting. It’s just so strange to me. It’s cool. And you never know how long any of it lasts, but it’s been a long journey.
I’m so curious because everybody is still talking about My Woman, and you’ve been on tour this entire year, so why release another record right now?
This is more just about hinting at older material if you’re a newer fan of my work, and you’re only familiar with the last two records. It’s a collection of different production, and different writing, different periods of my writing style. It’s sort of a window into the different periods of my writing. I feel like it’s a good time to revisit older stuff and I know in 2018, I’ll probably be doing more solo stuff, solo work. I haven’t been able to play some of those songs because I’ve been trying so hard to build this sound with this band, and focus on each record as it comes out, and play those records as they come out. In 2018, it’s kind of foreshadowing me revisiting material and we intend to play some of the songs on this release, on this next tour.
Do you feel like, because I know some of them are demos, or different old stuff and new stuff, it’ll be even more of an intimate look for your listeners than past records?
I think so, I think it’s a window into all these points of my personal vocal training, and my writing, and my different eras of my writing. It feels like if I were performing, “California”, it wouldn’t sound like the recording, in some ways, it feels like a diary I’m sharing with people, to show them how I came to be as a place of my woman. Not to say that it’s the final place, but if people are curious, to know about the timeline, then here’s this record that gives you an example of it.
When you play the older songs on stage or just listen to them on stage, are you taken back to that place? Like, do you feel removed from older versions of yourself or do you reconnect?
I definitely feel like I’m taken back to a place, but I don’t remember what inspired that specific song, or whatever. I know that with the newer demos, like “Sands”, or “How Many Disasters”, those were just kind of in between records. They didn’t really have a place on the record, but they were still important to me. I can remember writing them, and I think they were sort of self-explanatory. They’re about traveling or how it feels to constantly be going. “Sweet Dreams” we’ve played over the years. Hearing the recording versus the way we play it live is always interesting to me. And then, “Tougher than the Rest”, we played a lot on tour during the last few years, and have something like 25 demos of different songs to choose from. I had to kind of narrow it down to just these ones. I try to do an even amount of these types of demos, and have a collection of different things. Not just all b-sides. I know a lot of artists come out with b-side records, and I just wanted to do a bunch of different styles of production.
I was thinking specifically about “Special”, and how different the video is from some of the “My Woman” videos. I almost feel like I’m watching home videos, and I found it in someone’s attic, and it’s not even for me to watch because it’s so personal. Can you talk about why you made it that way?
Because the song is kind of about trying to be important, and trying to be thought of in a specific way. I have this idea of it being really languid, familiar at the very beginning, and then I thought it would be more special if I showed a day hanging out with me and friends, and sharing that with people, and capturing some stuff, like the back of the truck was intentional, and parts of it that are intentional, and a lot of the time we were just drinking and having a good time and sharing conversations about what’s going on in politics, in their personal lives, and I just wanted to capture what it meant to be down to earth, and be not special. Kind of the opposite of that, just be a random stranger, just hanging out.
Yeah, I mean I think it made me think about how sometimes people correlate special-ness with perfection, but maybe the most special things are also imperfect? Maybe more personal and lovely in that way?
For me, all these videos that I did, I think they went really well with the songs. I feel like I had a lot of inertia at that point, I wasn’t yet on tour, wasn’t touring the record, and “Special”, having it be so down to earth, I needed a video that was down to earth and just raw. Though “Sister” is raw in part, it’s still acting. There’s still planned efforts in that. I wanted to do something that was just the opposite of trying to be special. I’m really just being a goofy weirdo dancing strangely, in front of people. I wanted to people to see that, instead of seeing another video where I’m acting out a character. Which is still fine with me, I probably will for future songs, but I didn’t feel like it went with the song.
So with Phases, did you ever have the feeling of nervousness around putting something out there that is so intimate? Do you get nervousness around that, or do you not care?
With each new work, new record, there’s always that anticipation about what will people think. But, if I’m enjoying making it with the people I’m making it with, and I feel the feeling of cloud nine, we’re just making something that feels like we’re making history, then I feel like I have at least about this last record, I had a bit of confidence, because I was working with new people who wouldn’t baby me about stuff. It was very confirming also, to be playing more music in a record, and opening up more musical stuff and sharing it more with the band. In a way, opinions and thoughts and feelings about certain recordings were open, and it wasn’t just me carrying the weight of it. I think that putting it out there, knowing that we all contributed, it felt a little less, “all me”. But, I will say, that at this point, I wouldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t think I was kind of good at it. Even if I came out with a record, and I don’t know what people will expect, I kind of know that there are a few songs that will be relatable. At this point, I don’t seeing myself doing something so experimental, after doing something like this, that people wouldn’t be able to relate to it. I just feel like I’m a little more confident about stepping forward than I’m used to, and I know there will be those releases that people don’t get into, or are confused by. I know people thought “Intern” was going to be the record that people thought was exciting and angry, because I was like, “You’re all idiots!” It’s fun to fuck with people, but I also enjoy showing people that there are aspects of my career or my writing that have stayed the same. I’m curious what the next thing will be. I would love to do an EP or something really different, that isn’t Angel Olsen necessarily, but something that’s a little experimental that’s not a full-length record. I want to do some of that stuff for myself, because I get bored too. I get bored doing the same thing, and it being all me all the time is kind of boring sometimes. [Laughs]
Is there a balance of keeping the continuity of the foundation of your sound, and then experimenting with different records or EPs? Is there a lot of intention there?
I definitely feel like right now, I’ve written a few songs and I feel the relation to some songs I’ve already written, and I can see that without trying. It happens so often that I feel like I know my style, and I’m confident my style with continue to grow, but still stay the same or be similar to something before. As far as actively planning for a record to sound a specific way, knowing that they will do well, I don’t really think about it. But if a song gets stuck in my head, and it’s pretty simple but the words are still something I can stand behind, I feel like this might be a song people might listen to. That’s sort of how I decide if something gets on the record. If it gets stuck in my head, and over time the lyrics are still relatable, or if I can see them on different levels, it kind of becomes more important to be on the record.
You were saying how you have confidence in what you’re doing right now, and that things will be relatable and sound good. So I’m curious, if you could give advice to your younger self when you were starting out or whatever, what would you say?
For me, when I was doing Burn Your Fire, I felt really burnt out on playing and trying so hard, and I guess I would just tell myself that no matter how successful you are, you’ll always feel like you need to try harder. It’s better to appreciate it as it’s happening, and appreciate all the hard work that goes into it. I always feel that even now, with the record doing so successfully, I can learn how to make my own videos, and really push myself forward. There’s still parts of it, and I think there will always be parts of playing music, that are not rewarding, and make you feel like you’ve not made progress, even if you have. I think it’s important to realize you have, and think about that, and remember it. If you are your own boss, and your own writer of what makes the business happen, it is very rare that someone you know and respect will be like, “Hey, good job. I can see you’re working really hard.” Strangers say that all the time, but it won’t come across, but if someone you’ve worked with says it, it means so much. I think people just forget because it is such a self-involved thing where people just assume, “Oh! that person doesn’t need to be told that they’ve made progress, because they obviously can see they have.” I think there is always new levels, and you always feel like there’s more progress to be made. I mean progress by like learning how to do what you want, within the aesthetic that is true to your nature, without selling out, but by at the same time, trying to make an impact on a bigger audience. I think that’s the stuff that you just can’t learn overnight—you’re on your own. Even with a manager or a team that’s helpful, you’re the one who decides how things should go in the end. It can sometimes feel like you’re running in quicksand.
I mean it’s easy, even as a writer, to get lost in your own echo chamber, so to have people who really know you and are observant, and then vocalize when they see things going well, that’s definitely a good feeling.
Right, and you know, I guess the takeaway is that I would tell my younger self to be a little less sensitive. And to just appreciate the progress that I know I’ve made.