“I just want to be alive, make something real,” Angel Olsen sings on “Intern,” the first track from her third full-length studio album, last year’s My Woman. It’s a contemplative, synth-driven track that focuses on the tension between performance and authenticity — while also highlighting the loss of control that making yourself vulnerable to an audience can entail.
“Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do / Something in the work will make a fool of you,” she sings. No matter how much of yourself you put into art, the song suggests, you’re still at the mercy of others’ interpretations.
“I don’t really like the word ‘control’ because I feel like there’s no way to really control my image,” Olsen says, speaking over the phone in advance of her February 3 show at Saturn. “I don’t have any control over whether people think a certain thing about me as a musician, as a person, based upon the things that I’ve created.”
Weld: One thing that’s been notable about the reaction to My Woman is the variety of ways people have interpreted the album’s title. Everyone seems to have a different take on it.
Angel Olsen: Before anyone really reviewed the record, there was a little bit of hesitance from, specifically, a few male critics who were just like, “Aren’t you afraid that [the title] will veer people away from your music?” And I was like, “I don’t understand why it matters so much that I use the word ‘woman’ in my title. It’s not a big deal to me.”
It’s not about feminism if you listen to the record. It’s not a record where every single song is about feminine rights. It’s an attitude for me. It’s about a frame of mind… I am a woman, so some of the songs are talking about that and are a little bit about me being a woman. But my reach isn’t just necessarily limited to women. It’s not about inspiring young women. That’s not what my goal has been for my career. I think it’s great if I am, and it’s great if people interpret it that way, because there are those details are in there. But it just feels funny.
It is one of those situations where it does make you think about how much the package — and how much just a couple of words on a cover — can change how people think about you as an author or as a musician or as an artist. It’s definitely become a stigma, which I definitely didn’t intend for it to be.
When I came up with the title, I thought… the attitude of saying ‘woman’ seemed cool.’ But then putting a ‘my’ [in front] of it, it was kind of this funny way of saying, ‘I’m my own.’… But the last thing I thought was, “This is a feminist record and people are going to interpret this as me talking about women’s rights.”
Weld: In the music videos you’ve directed for My Woman’s singles, you appear as a sort of an exaggerated character. Was that intended to highlight the distance between audiences’ perceptions of you and your actual self?
Olsen: Well, I’m not afraid to be myself in the video and be in character also…. While I might be playing a character, I’m actually revealing my sense of humor and my real thoughts and my real prima donna vibes. I think it’s very revealing, my character…. I mean, I’m obviously wearing a wig, and I’m in roller skates, and I’m exaggerating certain things. But the attitude of the character is just me being myself.
I think it would be more [expletive] up if I wasn’t myself. It would feel really wrong. I go and see these musicians sometimes that have really made it, and they’ve got dancers and [expletive]. And I’m like, “I want to know what element of this is [genuine].” I have a hard time with the idea — I can see myself playing music with this band and things changing and merging, but I don’t know if I’ll be at that point one day, where I’m totally so far removed from everyone that I can’t show part of myself. It would feel soulless if that’s how things went for me.
But for other people, I feel like that’s how they overcome shyness. They have to become a character because they are super shy and they don’t want the world to know that, so they fall into character. And other musicians like myself, we make fun of these people because we’re like, ‘Damn, they’re so fake.’ But to me, in the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘Maybe they feel like they have no other choice, and this is the safe way to do it.’ So I’m not judging people for being that way, I just can’t bring myself to put on some totally fake thing.
Though we’ve definitely stepped up our game as far as attire… The band is in all baby-blue suits. There’s something about that, too. I was a little worried about the band being weirded out by the idea of some sort of uniform, but they have their ways of changing it up. Sometimes they wear hats and stuff. They’ll change their socks and tennis shoes and stuff like that. But for the most part, it’s easier because you don’t have to worry about what you look like. You’re all-in to the performance.
Weld: The image of a band in matching baby-blue suits evokes ‘50s and ‘60s rock in a way that your songwriting seems to hearken back to that era of music.
Olsen: I think I’m definitely embracing those aspects of my writing. I feel like I’ve had my own take on that era and that kind of writing. But visually, it’s been interesting to get excited about it, to change it up. I was afraid to make that stuff, because of course there was that fear of, ‘Is this becoming too much of a scene?’ or ‘Do we need to do this? Will this make some weird statement about us or me as a musician?’ But everybody looks really nice! It’s just like, ‘You guys look so good. I just want to take your picture.’ You see a band in suits and you’re like, ‘Holy [expletive], they look good. They could be totally [expletive] dirty and sweating, but if they’re wearing a suit it still looks great.’
Weld: You recorded this album live with a band to tape, and you co-mixed it. What was that process like?
Olsen: I think that [recording to tape] really changed the way that the record sounds. It’s not like, perfectly packaged into sections for each song. It’s definitely got that sound that it’s a thinner, a little bit far away because it’s a live album. But I knew that we could do it because we had rehearsed for two weeks. We could have played a show if we wanted to. We got into the studio and we had 17 days to record it, so a lot of that was just live performance… . I think this record was just really different because we all knew each other pretty well, and the new member [multi-instrumentalist Seth Kauffman] was on the same level with us. It was just very intuitive.
I definitely had a lot to learn, because I was mixing it with Collin Dupuis and it took a long time. It was stressing me out and I got an ulcer thinking about it. I was just like, ‘The band is going to be unhappy with this one part.’ I think that’s the hardest part of editing. You become friends with the people you work with who are contributing really good material, and you want to respect their wishes, but you have your own vision. Maybe in a couple of years they won’t ever have to play those songs again, but maybe you will. [So] I had to be like, eventually, ‘It’s my name on the [expletive] record. If they’re unhappy with it, it’s okay. We’ve just got to move on.’
Angel Olsen will perform at Saturn on Friday, February 3. Chris Cohen will open. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.