Angel Olsen's a heaven-sent mystery girl

Angel Olsen’s songs will resonate with the broken-hearted, but don’t expect her to dish up all the personal details.

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      Angel Olsen doesn’t give up personal details easily, making it hard to get a complete handle on her songs and how they might or might not be reflective of her life off-stage. Based on 2012’s debut full-length, Half Way Home, and the just-released Burn Your Fire for No Witness, it would seem there is no shortage of emotional turmoil in her day-to-day relationships.

      Consider her beautifully devastating breakthrough single, “Tiniest Seed”, where, over skeletal acoustic guitars, she poured her soul into lines like “I wish that somehow you knew just how much you mean/That I could be for you what you are for me.”

      No less powerful are the standouts on Burn Your Fire. The tombstone-grey ballad “White Fire” includes the lyrics “I wish sometimes I could take back every word I said” and “Everything is tragic/It all just falls apart,” while the broken-dreams lullaby “Iota” has her singing, “If only all our dreams were coming true/Maybe there’d be some time for me and you.”

      Reached somewhere in the middle of the Arizona desert, Olsen acknowledges that the body of work she’s building has led to questions from those who’ve discovered her. The challenge is figuring out how to answer those questions without giving too much away.

      “The writing sounds pretty personal when it’s out there,” she allows, speaking on a cellphone from the band’s tour van. “Because of that, a lot of people want to know if I’m reliving experiences every time I’m performing. Or if those experiences are true stories. For me, it’s like, ‘Well, I can’t lie—I am inspired by a lot of things that happen in my personal life.’

      “At the same time, I do think that, when it comes to writing, it becomes more about ‘Okay, this is something that I know about,’ ” Olsen continues. “Or that I at least think that I know about—that I feel I know something about. So how can I write this down in a clever way to a melody that might appeal to somebody else who might know about the same thing?”

      What she’s saying, in a roundabout way, is that her words probably resonate most with those whose love stories never seem to end on a happy note. Given the fan base that Olsen has built over the past year, there are evidently plenty of those people in the world.

      Interest in the singer was pretty much instant after the release of Half Way Home, a record that was marked by spartan guitar and gorgeously wavering vocals. Since then, there have been some significant upheavals in the St. Louis–raised artist’s life.

      “It’s been a really long year,” Olsen says, somewhat cryptically.

      Asked to expand on that, she responds with: “Well, there’s been a lot of change and very little downtime. But it’s cool to see that, when you work hard, and your friends are working hard, and everyone is constantly open to learning how to make things better, that it really pays off. Hopefully, people can hear that.”

      The critical adoration that followed Half Way Home enabled Olsen to abandon waitressing and commit full-time to music. And with that commitment has come an unwillingness to box herself in as a musician. So while the black-and-white, abandoned-farmland vibe of her debut is there in new tracks like “Enemy”, there’s a lot more going on this time out. Backed by drummer Joshua Jaeger and bassist-guitarist Stewart Bronaugh—both of whom played in punk bands in the past—Olsen no longer seems parked at the lonely end of the Lost Highway bar.

      What hits you first is that she sounds tougher, with the hard-driving “Forgiven/Forgotten” and the soaring “Stars” top-loaded with ragged proto-grunge guitars. Gorgeous little touches are all over the place, whether it’s the saloon piano in the dirtied-up hillbilly psychedelia of “Hi-Five” or the echo-bathed, whisky-slurred vocals that inform “High & Wild”. As for those who tear up at “Tiniest Seed”, rest assured that Olsen still does simple and subdued every bit as sublimely as mid-’90s Chan Marshall, which is to say that if you liked Half Way Home, you’ll love “Dance Slow Decades”.

      That Burn Your Fire for No Witness marks a different chapter for Olsen makes perfect sense. The album’s release finds the singer living in a new city. Formerly based in Chicago, she’s relocated to Appalachia’s Asheville, North Carolina, where she happily reports feeling right at home on the local arts scene, partly because life in the South isn’t lived at warp speed.

      “I think maybe what I meant by ‘a long year’ was that there were some life-changing decisions,” Olsen offers. “But not necessarily in a negative way. More that you end up confronted by all these different decisions, and hopefully it goes well.”

      Those decisions include retooling her sound on Burn Your Fire for No Witness. No one would have been disappointed if she’d made another Half Way Home, except for, perhaps, the singer herself.

      “Because I’ve sung with other groups, it felt really strange to be playing solo,” says Olsen, who has performed with acts such as Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang. “Especially with the kind of songs that I was writing. I guess I was ready to move forward and change things up a bit. What happens is that I wrote the song, and then we applied the electric vibe to it, and it became clear that everything was sort of working out perfectly. I think that playing with other people has also made me realize that I can open things up, and not be singing all the way through every song.”

      What remains constant, however, is that she’s touching fans with lines that suggest she’s crawled from the wreckage of a relationship more than once.

      “I get people coming up to me after shows, wanting to talk about how songs have affected them, and wanting to know what inspired me to write them,” she acknowledges.

      And how does she respond?

      “I try to be like Dali,” Olsen finally says after a pause.

      And that’s all you’re going to get as far as that question goes. If you want personal details, cue up Burn Your Fire and then use your imagination as to what the back story is. Angel Olsen isn’t terribly interested in revealing what’s fact and what’s fiction, but one thing is certain: if your personal life is a mess, she just might be able to relate.

      Angel Olsen plays the Media Club on Thursday (March 6).

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