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Interview: Angel Olsen

After mesmerizing us with her vocals and impressive lyrics in last year’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Angel Olsen is set to perform in Istanbul this month. Mehmet Ak chats with the artist about her music, experiences and even her last name

Your new album is quite dynamic; it resembles Bowiean folk, both musically and lyrically. It easily switches from ordinary to divine, from tragic to humorous, from confessional to storytelling. What was your plan while making it? Is there a cunning protagonist, such as Ziggy, behind the songs?
In some ways, yes, there is a character who is dealing with many situations and choosing or exploring how to react to each one – sometimes manically and confidently, other times with a bit of surrender.

The main material is, of course, your own life, your experiences and observations, but I think the album goes beyond that. What were the other influences on the songs? How was the writing process?
Looking back, I’m not sure if it was necessarily all my own life, and if it was, I couldn’t pin it all down. There was an unreleased energy in me, of thoughts and frustrations and scenarios that I had maybe dealt with and had never put into music – but it was never really centered around one thing or individual situation. In some ways, it was like I finally could put into words what I could see happening around me and sometimes to me. I wanted to make a record that was about real love and real loss and real aloneness – the kind of everyday, now-and-then aloneness many people can relate to, something that encapsulated all points of those experiences, no matter how manic or dark.

In my opinion, to be a great writer, a writer who can describe something well, you have to first understand a certain depth of experience. I did my best to project what I understood of my own experiences and to make them easy to process, to turn them into a play. I have been thinking in metaphors for a long time, and it gives me liberty to write but it can be messy for me, too. When I really care about something it is never a light matter, so I have to put heavy thoughts elsewhere and make them useful. I think maybe it is not everyone’s cup of tea to listen to music like that, but for this specific project, that’s what I wanted to do.

The mood of the album fluctuates until “Stars.” After it, we start a free fall and it gets sadder and sadder, but at the same time it turns into an enchanting experience. Who decided the order of songs? Because closing such an album with a song says, “We must throw our shadows down” with the saddest voice is, simply, peculiar. 
The closing song might be the saddest to you for saying, “We must throw our shadows down,” but to me, the last words are “What’s so wrong with the light?” – which is to say, “What’s so wrong with having a good day? The sun is shining.” I don’t feel sad at all by that – it’s saying get over yourself, today’s a good day.

Most of the time, female songwriters are considered to only be able to write confessional songs, nothing more. This holds true for a great number of artists, from Patti Smith to PJ Harvey, Joni Mitchell to Cat Power, as if female musicians don’t write their songs but give birth to them. What do you think about it?
I try not to think of myself as writing in a female style. I just write. I didn’t grow up listening to any of those ladies, and I don’t study their lives or try to write based on feminist complaints. My concern is to reach people, to make good music and to have fun. Many male writers have also written confessional or folk-based work – take Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, for example. If someone were to ask me what inspired my writing style, I would say, “all things,” and the term “giving birth to songs” to me has always been more of a metaphor for an artist’s attachment to his or her personal work. I’ve never thought of it as an insult or as a statement that implies only women writers can give birth to songs.

Your songs have been covered by various artists. How do you feel about it, and do you have a personal favorite?
It alarms me and makes me smile when artists decide to cover my songs. It’s like walking home to a surprise birthday party. I don’t know which one is my favorite… My friend Rodrigo Amarante covers “Unfucktheworld,” and I really like his version.

What was it like growing up in Missouri?
I grew up in St. Louis, which is north, close to Illinois. It’s a weird part of the state because it is actually the city, not the country, so it’s depressed in a different way. In the early 1900s it was the place to be, as the World’s Fair, public parks and museums and restaurants on the river were all booming. Since the ‘50s it’s been a pretty bleak scene. I’m not sure what happened – it’s probable that the city was in debt and it just kept getting worse, then people skipped town, so the revenue declined, too.

When I was growing up it wasn’t all that bad, there just wasn’t a large music scene. So I moved to Chicago when I was 20, and stayed there for seven years. That was when I began to play house shows and meet people in the DIY scene who made music or went to art schowol, and how I eventually began performing live. In some ways Chicago is where I grew up, where I learned about myself – how to hold my first job, have my first real relationships, that sort of thing.

Were you a big churchgoer when growing up?
I’ve attended many churches, but I can’t really remember the names of them. My parents were and continue to be pretty religious. I stopped going when I was in school. Sometimes I miss the people I’ve met. I never went to any great soul churches ’till much later, when I had a boyfriend who was really into jazz and gospel music. His uncle co-owns a label and record store called Honest Jon’s in London, and he was always sharing his uncle’s releases with me. One day he took me to see a live gospel group on the south side of the city, and afterward we had brunch. It was the most beautiful morning and one of the best live performances I had experienced while living there.

Where does the last name Olsen come from?
I was adopted at the age of 3, so my real name is actually Angelina Carroll. I was named after my Greek grandmother Angelina Bavelles. As far as the name Olsen, it’s not even my adoptive father’s real last name… His father’s real last name was Dam, but he stole the identity of a man named Olsen (who passed away), and then Mr. Dam took a ship to the U.S. So that’s how far removed I am from the name Olsen.

What have you been listening to lately? Is there anything that opens new directions for the next album?
I’ve been writing in many directions, so I couldn’t really say that I listen to one thing and then write an album. I will say I have been listening to Lionlimb and Alex Cameron quite a lot.

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