Angel Olsen understands the risks of playing solo, acoustic sets in large concert halls.
"I remember in the U.K. some guy was like, 'Play "Unfucktheworld." I'm gonna miss my bus!'" she says about a heckler at a recent show. "I'm putting myself out there, I can't expect it to always go well. I welcome it, I do."
Still, Olsen has no interest in being a victim. "If someone says something smartass to me now, I've always got something to say back in my pocket," she says. "If you're being annoying, I'm going to do something about it. I will. I'm not going to be nice, quiet little Angel who just wants her fans to be happy."
Olsen is about to embark on her first tour without a backing band in six years, a trek she was inspired to undertake after the career-changing success of My Woman, her 2016 record about "the complicated mess of being a woman," as she puts it. Recently, the songwriter also left her longtime Chicago home for the idyllic serenity of Asheville, North Carolina, where she purchased her first house.
After My Woman's massive world tour, Olsen sought to revisit a simpler time in her career and life, back when she was beginning to step out on her own after backing Bonnie "Prince" Billy. "You can feel really isolated out there," says Olsen about touring. "The hardest part for me was relaying my experiences back to people in my life not on the same wavelength."
That feeling of isolation spurred a deeply vulnerable period in Olsen's career. Last year, she released Phases, a sparse and affecting collection of acoustic odds and ends, from demos to enticing covers like Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest." On the album, Olsen's powerful, pining voice towers over raw production and simple instrumentation. It stands as a sharp juxtaposition from My Woman's rollicking, crisply produced numbers.
Now, Olsen has embarked on a solo tour to explore Phases, as well as songs from Strange Cacti and Lady of the Waterpark, her earliest releases. "Phases was released as a sort of way to show some of my earlier work to my new fans and to show them my process along the way," she says. "Then I started to realize I missed playing those songs and people wanted to hear them."
Olsen relishes the challenge of leaving behind her band and performing alone. "It's fun to play the big festival where I get into the act and joke and I share a bit of myself," she says. "But there's something I missed about being on edge and being alone up there and having to think about my writing and why I started doing this in the first place. I'm revisiting a part of myself I sort of put away to make the band sound bigger."
Olsen's desire to fully devote herself to her craft was also behind her decision to leave Chicago. "When I moved to Asheville, people asked me if I was inspired by the mountains. Like, 'I'm a writer, I only write in the woods. I can only write at home, in my cabin, in the woods,'" she says. "When you're a writer, you write when you don't want to. You wake in the middle of the night and think of something, and you have to write because you know if you don't, you'll fall asleep and you'll forget and be pissed."
Asheville has provided Olsen some inspiration, however, in the form of a burgeoning friendship with Holly Bower, who in 1974, sued to become the first woman union still photographer in the motion picture industry. The fact that the 81-year-old iconoclast and Olsen have become friends (Olsen says they communicate nearly every day) seems perfectly fated for this phase of Olsen's career. According to Olsen, she and Bower bonded over their shared views on writing. "[Bower] said, 'I wasn't eating and it was destroying my life. Everyone around me, I didn't have time for them. I just had to focus on finishing it because I was just completely absorbed,'" Olson recalls. "'But I didn't care that I was missing those people. I didn't care that I wasn't eating all the time, because I was being fed in my writing and I knew I was doing something good. And when you know you're writing something good, you feel like Spalding fucking Gray delivering a monologue.'"
Olsen says she ended up in Asheville because she felt burnt out by Chicago. "It's becoming Portlandia 2 out here," she says. "I wrote to Carrie Brownstein once and said, 'If you ever run out of stories, I've got a few for ya out here in Asheville, North Carolina.'"
But she also left Chicago because her notoriety made it difficult for her to feel she was being seen as simply human. The intensity of having others project themselves onto her—having fans cry in her arms, strangers thinking they know her intimately because of something she wrote eight years ago—has clearly begun to wear on her, but Olsen is taking it all in stride. "I want to tell people that it's great they're inspired, but to go home and do something that's unique to themselves and cultivate that," says Olsen. "I hope to keep my sense of humor about it. Sometimes when people say, 'Are you Angel Olsen?' I say, 'I think I am, can you show me that I am?'"
Thanks to the warm nostalgia of her sound and her candid lyrics, Olsen's music is certainly intimate. But she wants to make it clear she isn't anyone's savior. Olsen says that while she "of course" agrees with feminism, she thinks it's a "lazy reflection" when people instantly classify her work as feminist just because she's a woman and a writer. She prefers getting things done over discussing labels. "Knowing something is wrong and just talking about it on a public platform doesn't change the issue," she says. "Of course, these movements are important and are exposing terrible things and should be taken super-seriously. It's more that when you get distracted with your personal struggle and you put it up on a pedestal as like 'This struggle is the hardest one and it's the most important right now,' that's where the problem lies for me."
Instead, Olsen hopes to weaponize adversity for her own use. "I've of course been in situations where it's clear I was being treated a certain way because I'm a woman, and it sucks. It really sucks," she says. "But instead of being bummed out by it, I'm empowered by it to keep pushing myself to write. When people tell me no, a little light goes off in my head where I have to somehow prove them wrong."
That's perhaps another motivation behind her solo tour. It's hard to think of anything more isolating than a musician alone under a spotlight on a giant stage with only a guitar and a microphone. With her music, Olsen is staring the void of loneliness in the face, and hoping to connect with others despite the darkness.
"I feel like the most important message is to let people know no matter what's going on in their personal lives or politically, to let it be a part of your work, or go do something about it instead of just complaining and knowing that it's wrong," she says. "I think humans should work harder on trying to be real."
SEE IT: Angel Olsen plays the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, portland5.com, with Hand Habits. 8 pm Wednesday-Thursday, Sept. 12-13. $31-$41.