Earlier this summer, when Angel Olsen released videos for “Intern” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” — the first singles from her new record, MY WOMAN — fans and critics alike rushed to praise the songs … and to remark on the sparkly tinsel wig Olsen wears in both. Olsen was amused by the attention the wig garnered. It was, in part, a tribute to David Bowie, but mostly it was pragmatic. “I was the producer and the actor and the director [of the video], so I didn’t have time to do my hair … and it ended up being the statement everyone thinks I’m making.”
For Olsen, who spoke to City Paper from her home in Asheville, N.C., it’s a perfect example of the way unintended meaning is often ascribed to art once it’s witnessed by an audience.
The title MY WOMAN is another example. “When I finished the material and looked back on it … I was kind of like, ‘Oh, it looks like a soul record, and oh, My Woman would be a funny title,” she recalls. “But what ends up happening is everyone is like, ‘She’s making a feminist statement!’ And though I’m not ashamed of being a feminist, it’s not like everything I’ve ever done or ever write is ‘feminist’ in that way.”
All that is explained in a press bio, which notes that “it would be easy to read a gender-specific message into MY WOMAN, but Olsen has never played her lyrical content straight.” Olsen doesn’t expect to control every perception, but, she says, “I want to be clear. If I have to repeat the exact same statement in an interview, I will. Because that’s the only way to have it eventually published.”
Olsen, who grew up in St. Louis, started drawing serious attention with her 2012 record, Half Way Home. She had the exquisite warble of ’40s torch singer, a flair for drama and some truly heartbreaking lyrics which made it easy to relegate her to the category of sad singer-songwriter.
The 2014 follow-up, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, had its share of devastating lyrics, but was grungier and poppier than Half Way Home. With tracks like “High Five” — an upbeat song about battling loneliness with convenient romance — Olsen offered plenty of proof of her musical and thematic range. MY WOMAN, Olsen’s most dynamic work yet, has the feel of a uniquely talented artist fully embracing her power.
On her own time, Olsen listens to lots of classic soul and mostly avoids modern stuff, and her own sound is still retro in a not-totally-pinpoint-able way. And yet, in the minds of some listeners and journalists, she’s still a weepy folk singer.
“I think [that’s part of] why I wanted to create a music video where I’m being cheeky as fuck,” she says. In the video for the aggressively catchy “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Olsen sets her sass level to high as she lounges around an old Mercedes and skates around a roller rink. “It’s me saying to my fans, and myself, ‘Look, I know that I write sad music. But if you just said [those sad lines] a different way … what might seem on the surface pretty dark and emo, or something, when you’re saying it with a smile on your face … it could be hilarious in a second.”
This record has marked Olsen’s first foray into making her own music videos, which has become a powerful way of maintaining a fluid aesthetic and vision. “I wanted to be able to … create my own image that I signed off on,” she says. “I didn’t really know or value that until I started to see that people really pay attention to videos and [give] them a lot of credit as far as how they identified the [musician’s] vision. … I don’t have any control over what people think of the videos I make, but at least I can create my own character in my own image, and I can create an even stronger statement by doing so.”
In late August, Olsen released the video for her Laurel Canyon-folk-meets-Fleetwood Mac epic, “Sister.” Shot at Joshua Tree National Park, there are no wigs and no obvious story line. Olsen wanders the gorgeous landscape, goes swimming, cries a few cleansing tears. It’s more than seven minutes, and by the time the triumphant guitar freak-out finally hits, you may be shedding some cleansing tears of your own.
“I don’t expect people to watch it as much [as the other videos],” says Olsen, adding that, though she’s often seen as ultra-serious, she feels that it’s easier to latch on to the cheekiness than to the sincerity. “It’s harder to be genuine with what you do; it’s easier to be a comedian.”
But Olsen has a knack for balancing those extremes. When she’s onstage, she spends a lot of time joking and having fun. And afterward, fans will share stories with her. “Which,” she says, “I think are really beautiful and wonderful. And I don’t want to disregard them. But the stories are always so heavy. And it’s just a reflection of how heavy they think I’ve been.” She gets it: “I’m pretty good at describing pain,” she says with a laugh. “But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t just watching Louis CK before the set, and having a beer and a laugh with my friends.” She likes writing about sad subjects, but she also likes to have fun, and wants the same for listeners. “The thing is to realize that’s not a full-spectrum human,” she says. “A full-spectrum human doesn’t sit around all day and just listen to depressing songs.”