Her solo debut, the 2011 EP Strange Cacti, was bare-boned, acoustic and raw, and highlighted by the singer’s ability to carry a song by pushing and stretching her vocals near the breaking point. In those songs, her voice cracked and vacillated across sprawling melodies, moving from a whisper to a howl in the span of a single syllable.
Now with two full-length albums under her belt, including the freshly released Burn Your Fire for No Witness, the 27-year-old Missouri native continues to explore and transform her music. Switching a few years ago from acoustic to electric guitar and bringing in a full band to back her, Olsen sounds more at home than ever.
“I always sang,” she says by phone while driving with her bandmates toward a tour stop in Nashville. “When I was little, I sang all the time.”
Growing up, Olsen taught herself to imitate a variety of vocal styles by listening to everyone from Roger Miller to Mariah Carey to Tina Turner. After moving to Chicago at age 19, she gained attention by playing quiet solo sets at house shows around the city. In time, she caught the eye of eccentric singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who brought her on tour as part of a deliberately enigmatic project called the Babblers. While the mysterious group members would often hide behind sunglasses and hooded one-piece pajamas onstage, Olsen’s haunting voice left audiences mesmerized.
After she toured and recorded with Oldham for nearly three years, Olsen’s perspective on her own work began to shift.
“Singing in someone else’s band, you use your voice differently than you would for your own music,” she says. “So you learn how to use it in different ways. You realize that you are capable of using it in certain ways that you normally don’t.”
The results are obvious on her new record. Burn Your Fire for No Witness is a dynamic collection, fluctuating between energetic full-band tracks to minimal, deeply personal songs. Recorded in less than two weeks with producer John Congleton (the Walkmen, the Mountain Goats), the album feels robust and vibrant and, at times, fuzzy and rumbling. On “Hi-Five,” an upbeat and sarcastic song about loneliness, Olsen channels Hank Williams at his most rollicking, evoking him directly in the opening line: “I feel so lonesome I could cry.”
Other times, the album feels like an audio diary—emotional and solitary—with Olsen singing as if she’s letting someone in on a secret. Two months ago, Olsen left Chicago for Asheville, N.C. She had been contemplating the move for the last year, and many of the emotions surrounding that decision went into the new album. “White Fire” comes in stark contrast to “Hi-Five,” with Olsen singing over a sparsely pulsing electric guitar, bringing to mind the poetic, conversational tone of Leonard Cohen. The songwriting takes a much more serious turn as well. “I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth,” she sings in a near-whisper. “I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt.”
Having struggled in the past to find an appropriate musical identity, Olsen sets aside all reservations on this record.
“There are songs where I want to play music, and I want to just sing,” she says. “It’s fun to use your voice in a louder way, especially for me because I’ve been playing quiet solo stuff for so long. It’s a break for me to not have to do that all the time.”
In these songs, she’s simultaneously louder and quieter than before. Her writing is hard-hitting, personal and simple. She sounds comfortable and balanced. And like her album title suggests, Olsen’s musical fire is blazing, and it feels like it’s burning for no one but herself.
SEE IT: Angel Olsen plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Cian Nugent, on Wednesday, March 5. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.