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Angel Olsen Sets Folk-Rock Aflame

How the onetime Bonny “Prince” Billy collaborator pairs powerful songwriting with precise guitar work

angel olsen

Angel Olsen

Zia Anger

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WHO: The Missouri-born singer-songwriter released her debut album Half Way Home in 2012 after having toured with musicians such as Emmett Kelly and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Her latest record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is a haunting and fervid exploration of forgiveness and loneliness, alternating between electric rock and softer folk melodies.

STUDENT TEACHER: “I didn’t really like the idea of being told what to play in order to learn how to play,” Olsen says of ditching guitar lessons at age 16 in favor of teaching herself, a practice she says she’s stuck to since. “If I was going to make something calculated, I wanted to do it myself,” she says. “There was this pleasure in finding it on my own that was really cool.”

ALIEN ELECTRICITY: Olsen’s pairing of powerful songwriting with precise guitar work — whether it be a hushed, Townes van Zandt-evoking acoustic melody or a dreamy, Mazzy Star-worthy electric line — can be an experimental process. “It’s fun for me to hear something go from a shitty demo to it being like an alien in front of me,” she says. “That’s what cool about making something electric after making something intimate. The first time I played ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ solo my friends were like, ‘Oh this sounds like something.’ So I thought, I’m going to put this to an electric guitar and see what happens.”

NOT THAT GIRL: After performing as a solo artist on her previous records and tours, for Burn Your Fire for No Witness Olsen teamed up with bass player Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Josh Jaeger to form a full band. But she’s already tired of hearing one reaction to her frontwoman transition: “I kind of hate when people say, Oh, she’s making her way from ‘girl with a guitar’ to ‘girl with electric band’,” she says of critics and even friends. “It’s like, dude, that’s not nice. What does that mean? Am I just a girl? I put a 100 percent of myself into my record and so did my band and it felt like a change that felt most natural to me at the time.”

THINK AND FEEL: “I kind of feel like I’m half of a person who just wants to perform something beautiful that sounds appealing and be in the background and phase out with people,” Olsen says of bouncing between what she describes as more instrumental “feeling” music and “cerebral” lyric-driven music. “The other part of me has all these thoughts and they could be important to somebody out there, I’ve articulated something here and I want to share it. I’m starting to be more open about those two sides of things and just let songs be what they are because that’s what music should be — it shouldn’t have boundaries.”

In This Article: Angel Olsen

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