Angel Olsen resists pigeonholing. The singer and guitarist, whose career began in the Chicago DIY scene and who is set to release her third full-length album My Woman on September 2, describes her love of the French director Agnès Varda as something she can’t quite explain. She speculates that this uncertainty may be why she likes Varda’s work so much. When she she tells me that she wanted to make listeners think she’d turned synth-y rather than folk by making “Intern” the first single from the new album, it strikes me that Olsen revels in things that throw her, and others, off.
Somehow, though, Olsen’s music puts me at ease in a way that few other musicians does—even when her songs aren’t necessarily oriented toward making the listener feel calm. On My Woman, she controls the mood while maintaining a cohesive sound throughout. Organized with quick upbeat songs on the first half (the A-sides) and the slower, more contemplative songs on side B, My Woman has a way of ushering you through a rainbow of feelings, from the dancy, urgency of “Shut Up, Kiss Me” to the long, oozing ballad that is “Sister.” She has also begun directing her own music videos, including those for each of the three singles released so far. With this album, Olsen has taken her image into her own control.
We talked about her desire for further creative control, her favorite films, and visiting a psychic.
RACHEL DAVIES: What drew you to organize the album in the way you did with A-sides and B-sides?
ANGEL OLSEN: Well, it had a lot to do with the lengths of the songs, honestly. There are songs that were cut because of length and those’ll be out later, I’m really sad we couldn’t fit them. I know that people make playlists now and the order I put them in doesn’t really matter, but for me, if I’m being nostalgic and I want to listen to them on a record player I’d want to listen to all the slow stuff at once and I’d listen to all the fast stuff on the A-side when I’m in a different mindset. And I wanted “Intern” as the opener ’cause I wanted it to mislead everyone into thinking it was a synth record. [Laughs] So, that was very intentional.
What made you interested in directing the videos for this album?
I really loved making videos with my friends before, and I really liked their aesthetic. My friend was making videos with Jenny Hval and a bunch of different artists at the time, and I wanted to work with her because I really liked her attitude and background—she was so DIY about it. I met Ashley [Connor], the DP who worked on a bunch of different videos with me, through [Hval]. Ashley is from a different background, still punk but definitely has worked on more commercial stuff, and it was cool to have both of their perspectives, but I realized that I had visions of my own that I’d like to pursue, that are, to me, more relevant. No matter how much I love my friends, and how talented they are, if I have a vision for something I want to be in charge of the image I’m projecting. If I’m not happy with the one someone else is projecting on[to] me, then that’s my responsibility to go back and think, Well, I had a choice there. Also, I wanted to have fun. People see a wig and they see me becoming a different character—to me, it’s the first time I’m really showing myself. People get caught up on one aspect of the thing, and ask me what the wig means, but I’m like, let’s talk about what it means for me to write, direct, act, pay for all the food to feed everyone, and edit the video, let’s talk about that instead ’cause that’s more interesting to me. I wore the wig for a reason, and I’ll wear the wig again but it wasn’t an intention to create a character for my stage performance, it was for the videos.
The videos were really fun, I really liked them!
Yeah, and they were fun to make! I was reading about how things are supposed to work—everyone has a different standard for how you’re supposed to make stuff. You read about how you’re supposed to have a 20-person crew, with a stylist. All those things will be fun if you have them, I’ve done fashion shoots that are really fun, but if they’re not with nice people, it can be really terrible. If people don’t want to be there, then you don’t want to make art with them. If you don’t want to be here, then let’s not do this.
I was reading about Stanley Kubrick, someone was telling me that he worked with the same eight people for all of his films, or most of his films, maybe. It just shows me by hearing about that that you want to focus in on those people. You’re basically dating them. You want to navigate their feelings and make sure that they’re present with you and that you’re all on the same page with the things you’re making together, it’s just that important. If you have these randos that don’t want to be there it’s going to affect the art and affect the vibe, they’re going to have their hands in there when they don’t need to. I feel very much like learning about this aspect of film, in the same way that I had about music. I don’t need big name people to be on my record, I’d like to make my own record, and start from the bottom. If it ends up doing well, that’s more important then being like, “Yeah and then we got 10 famous people on my record, too, so it must be great.” I don’t want to do that in music so I don’t want to do that in film, either. I’d rather hang out with people who are cool. If it sucks, then we’ll have that conversation, but usually if you’re checking in with those people and you’re being honest and nice and you have an intuitiveness with them, that’s why art is made and why it’s made well. Sometimes people change and their aesthetic is worse and you have to be like, “Dude, this isn’t going to work for me.” But I think [fewer] people on something is kind of amazing, it’s a great approach as difficult as that might be.
Totally. Would you ever want to pursue film as determinedly as you are currently pursuing music?
Yeah, I think now I’m putting myself in it because I’m a free actor, but it would be nice. I care more about editing and being in the [final] process of something. I’m just like that, I work like that, rather than to give someone my image and say, “Yeah, you can do whatever you want.” I would rather not be in it, or if I’m in it have control over it. If I’m not in the film, I’d rather be director or be overseeing it or something, rather than acting. Right now, I like acting in [videos] just as a symbol of the characters and points I want to make. I’m editing an eight- to 10-minute film that is a music video right now and I’m looking at myself and judging whether it’s an interesting shot. I’m embracing my own image for the first time, whether or not I look typically beautiful. It’s been a really cool challenge. Stuff like that has helped me embrace that part of myself. I think it will be nice to step away from myself as an actor and work with other people once I get used to the process.