So much of life is yearning.
I’ve been in Philadelphia for nine years now, and sometimes the longing blooms in my chest. I picture another life, in a different place: In a shack on a mountain, in the arms of a man who never loved me, belly swollen with child.
That yearning gets stronger when I hear Angel Olsen. Her voice is the sound of that feeling: The strange daydream of another life, the tightening of the chest, the untenable feeling of loss when I blink my eyes and realize I am still where I was before: Standing outside of Starbucks on South Broad Street, surrounded by students from the University of the Arts, and nothing has changed.
Olsen’s newest release, Phases, offers up rarities and covers that trade in that same yearning. The rarities are captured from earlier recording sessions of her poignant hit album My Woman and the rawer Burn Your Fire For No Witness. She thrums through the rapid strumming sadness of “Sans,” then deftly turns to cover Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest” with the velvet melancholy of a woman trapped her in bedroom on a Saturday night while her beloved is out on the town with another woman.
It isn’t often that a voice comes along that can drive right through your ribs. Olsen is that voice – and ahead of her upcoming two-night stand at Union Transfer (Dec. 12-13), I spoke with her via phone about Phases, songwriting, and self-analysis during interviews like this one.
How did you decide what to include on Phases? How did you approach the choice of the covers and how you wanted to reimagine those?
Well, I’ve been touring extensively for My Woman. I’ve been playing the covers and some of the other songs live. I honestly didn’t know I was going to come out with another record in the middle of this, but I had all of these demos that were a good group of songs from different eras. I chose some songs that had gotten lost under records. “Special” and “Fly on the Wall” were supposed to be on a record together, actually, but then I ended up releasing “Fly” for the compilation Our First Hundred Days. I always wanted to do something big for “Special,” but then we decided to release it as a single for this record instead.
What do you mean by do something big for “Special?” Would you have put the song on another album?
Maybe so. It didn't really fit the material of My Woman, and neither does “Fly.” I mean, “Fly” could've fit it, if I made it. But adding “Fly” to the album made the record go over one minute of what you're supposed to put on a record to make it sound good. The timing was kind of hard to figure out. People were like, "Why did you choose to do all the songs on one side and these slower ones on the other?" Part of it was aesthetic, and part of it was timing. Adding those two songs to My Woman would have made it a double LP. So Phases is really just a mix of stuff that kind of got left out of those records. And it still reflects them in a big way, production-wise.
When working on these songs over the course of your career, how do you know when a song is done for you? What is that process like?
With a song like “Sans,” I really wasn’t sure if it was finished, because it's so simple, you know? It’s a song that repeats a lot. And I hardly ever do that – I don't really like to repeat choruses. So I just sort of sat with that, then forgot about the song. Four months later, I listened to it and thought, ‘Oh, this is finished! This is a song.’ Then I played it a few times live and it felt good. It felt like a finished thought. But at the same time, some songs never feel finished. I never felt like “unfucktheworld” was finished.
Your songs always feel so complete to me. Why does that song feel unfinished to you?
Well, “unfucktheworld” is a solo song. It just feels unfinished because there isn't a lot behind it. It's just me. The last part of the song just feels like it should have some sort of grand finale. But there’s not a grand finale. I'm always confused as to why people like the song. When I play it I'm like, ‘Are you sure? Because I don't know if it’s finished!’ I always felt like “unfucktheworld” and “Flies” were supposed to be together [on an album], but they just didn't end up that way.
In terms of your songwriting, I’ve always really admired your lyrics. What inspires you when it comes to lyrics? What’s that process like for you?
I definitely take inspiration from my life. I write about things I’ve realized and things that I've learned, but I definitely exaggerate certain emotions.
If something really disappoints me, I really go to the extreme with it in writing. Then I have to decide how much I want to put into that. So some songs start off really intensely, and then end up becoming more subtle, you know? That is my process. The songs and lyrics start off really raw. I'll try them in three or four different styles, and then the figure out which style fits the content the most. For Phases, “How Many Disasters” was a louder song, and now it's this short and sweet little folk song.
The writing process is just weird. Sometimes I write something and think, "That's just the way I want it to sound." For songs like “Not Gonna Kill You” and “Shut Up Kiss Me,” I had already envisioned what they were going to sound like.
It’s interesting how those songs come to you – some very clearly, and some shape-shifting. So you’ve been touring pretty extensively, but you’ve had a few weeks off. How is the break going?
I’ve been hanging out with the cats. We're bird watching together every day.
Ha! So you’re in Asheville, North Carolina, right? At home?
I am, yeah. It's really pretty here. The leaves are changing. We call it Leaf Season because the tourists come through. They’re taking up all the parking spaces downtown, but it’s pretty.
Yeah, we’ve started getting those segway tours through my neighborhood in South Philadelphia. Forty people on damn segways. Drives me nuts. Anyway, it sounds like you’re getting a nice break. I know you’ve mentioned breaks are important for your process.
You know, I think my brain is always making art. When I'm on tour, I'm on tour. And I'm doing all these things, and talking about myself, and my face! My face is everywhere.
And then I go home. And if I'm home for two or three months, I finally get to reflect on the beginning of that year. I can only allow myself so much reflection during the day. You can't think about your whole life all day or you'll just get depressed. It's just not worth it to think about your whole life all day. But I do reflect during my breaks. I just like to come home and go to the grocery store and do all the normal shit. I just clean up my house. And I don't like to leave my house and I don't like people here that often.
I actually don't get energy from being around people, so being on tour this much sucks a lot. But I also enjoy it at the same time, because I get to do what I love. I get to be my own boss, at least for this time in my life. It sucks sometimes to turn your art into a business, and then have to like protect it, and keep it from losing its roots. It's all work. Everything that you do is work, even if you're doing it on your own it's still work. And it's difficult to describe to people that though it's a privilege, it's still a lot of work. And that there's so much of it that isn't music and that isn't the writing that I really don't like.
Do you mean the capitalist part of it?
I don’t know. You gotta make ends meet at the same time. Yeah, it's capitalism to a point, but then when you keep hiring people to be in your band, you're like "Well, I am just making it work. I'm making it happen.”
Well, with something like Phases, right, that's kind of a balance because it's like something that you said you haven't expected to release, and then you need to find a way to do so with like, integrity, or something that feels like it's true to you, right?
With Phases, “California” and “Sweet Dreams” were recorded a long time ago, and it's a very different production style. I like the songs. They're songs from my past. They bring back memories of Chicago, but I wouldn't record them the same way now. It’s interesting with Phases because part of me feels like I am revealing something very personal to people by reintroducing them to these songs. For new fans, who only know My Woman, now they’re hearing all of these different phases of my career. And it's scary. I don't necessarily love every single production of every song. I think there were better versions, but it's a window into all the changes that happened up until My Woman.
It’s kind of a great way to introduce them to everything you’ve done before, though.
Any time I do an interview talking about this stuff, I'm always like psychoanalyzing myself afterwards. I’d hate for anyone to think "Man she really knows about herself. She must be really thinking about how self-absorbed she is." But I have to think about it from an outside perspective. I do things with intent. I think that that matters, and saying so matters. I don't sit around all day thinking about this stuff. It just occurs to me during interviews, and then I want to be earnest. But, you know, I also cringe at the thought of reading it.
I really understand, but I also think that feeling is so specific to female artists. Men have no problem, at length, talking about their processes, and every female artist I interview is in the same boat you’re in.
Yeah, and I wouldn't be doing this if I thought I sucked at it. You know? And I'm not saying like "I'm the best!" - but I don't think I suck.
Angel Olsen | Dec. 12-13. 8:30pm (doors open at 7:30pm). $22-24. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. utphilly.com/event