Angel Olsen on the Success That "Made Me Want to Quit," Led to 'My Woman'

Angel Olsen on the Success That 'Made Me Want to Quit,' Led to 'My Woman'
Photo: Amanda Marsalis
On September 2, Asheville, NC-based songwriter Angel Olsen will release My Woman, the anticipated Jagjaguwar follow-up to her 2014 breakout, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Yet, as Olsen herself explains, her new album almost didn't come to fruition; so strong was the sense of isolation and alienation that came in the wake of her last album's success that she admits it "made me want to quit."
Over the phone from Los Angeles, Olsen tells Exclaim! she just "had no idea what was coming at me" when she released Burn Your Fire.
"I basically accidentally opened a business, and there were other elements that had nothing to do with the record that, because of its success, put pressure on me to think about the popularity of my thoughts in song, and make that a livelihood. To me, that's kind of a backwards way of thinking about making something you're proud of."
Being in the public eye, answering the same questions in interviews and touring constantly started to cause dissonance between the person she was and the Angel Olsen she saw being portrayed by media and fans. It was alienating.
"Because of an album that seems personal, people think they know everything that you are. It caught me off-guard. It was very, 'Oh wait — this is the effect of doing this thing?' There are huge consequences, and it's a great thing, but it is a complicated thing. Even the act of performing the same song over and over again — even if people are cheering you on and wanting to hear it, you yourself, as the writer, are far removed from that experience once it's been written and performed millions of times. So there were different things that were happening about the album and with that album that, with the success of it, made me wonder if this was something I was going to do for a while."
It was through talking to other artists, and knowing she wasn't alone, that Olsen was able to contextualize the album's success as a point from which she could grow.
"Since then I've taken time and I've gotten to know other artists along the trajectory that I'm on — people that are hugely famous, people that are trying to get something going — and we've talked about the isolation that they're creating by making a projection of themselves in this form. It really enlightened me. I got to know a lot of different people who felt the same way who also were inspired to keep going and keep writing."
Taking time off, she says, "was really helpful in seeing that 'Yes, it was a successful thing that happened, it was a turning point in my career in some way, but it's also just another thing I wrote in my head, from a different time. I can let go of that now, and I can move forward. The last thing I wanted to do was to force an album or use the same exact formula because the last one was successful."
The break strengthened her focus and renewed her confidence: "I took enough time away from thinking about my work that I could allow it to be what it is."
My Woman, Olsen explains, is "not as digestible" as Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Rather than evolving in a linear fashion, the musician's new album finds her branching out two ways: the first side comprises a series of more accessible, efficient, pop-leaning songs that "Intern" and "Shut Up Kiss Me" both hinted at; Side B features a series of longer, more "difficult" songs that are more sprawling and unkempt.
"In making the sequences on the record, it was really hard to just throw [the nearly eight-minute] 'Sister' at number two or three, you know? Or to have 'Shut Up Kiss Me' be an ending track. Then it all kind of fell into place and I was like, 'You know what? If this [the more pop-oriented songs of Side A] is what people want to hear, that's fine, there it is.' But if they feel like turning it over — because in my head, they're buying a record — it's going to be something else, a totally different thing.
"Sometimes it's better not to over-think it and try to psychoanalyse every single lyric and have it be all lyric-based," Olsen says of her self-assured decision to push My Woman into bolder, more challenging and sprawling territory. "There's a balance happening on the last record, but looking back I'm like 'Wow, I have all these important subjects that I'm trying to elaborate on,' and I'm happy with them, but it's also just like, 'I'm exhausted.' I want there to be more of a break where I can just hear music for a minute, you know?"
Olsen likens her reconciliation with her career choice to making peace with grief.
"I like to think of it like this: Burn Your Fire was like when I was 17 and I first got into Dostoyevsky, and I'm smoking clove cigarettes reading Dostoyevsky; this record is like I lost a friend that died, and now I've learned all these things about life that I like, and that I hate, that I don't have time for but I want to make time for. Then I go back to Dostoyevsky and I'm like 'Dude — isolation isn't everything.'"
Watch the video for "Shut Up Kiss Me" below.