Take it or leave it: Angel Olsen’s new record trades oceans of reverb for a directness and clarity the singer hopes will “allow people to see that I don't sing in tune and that I'm not this ghostlike figure who's afraid of singing what I have to say. … and for them to like it or not like it."
who: Angel Olsen
where: Forsythia Hall (28 Forsythe St.)
when: Saturday, Nov. 17 (7 p.m. $10. harvest-records.com)
"The last thing I want to do is walk into a café and hear my song playing," says Chicago-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. "It's like seeing a picture of yourself naked up in a restaurant while you're trying to eat a sandwich."
Olsen gets a kick out of her own analogy, but it's fitting. Her work is personal in that vulnerable, people-who-know-you-can-fill-in-all-the-blanks sort of way. The way any honest art has to be on some level.
She's referencing the lyrics, of course, but Olsen could just as well be referring to the voice with which she sings them. Her heartbreaking alto is raw, dramatic and transcendent — arguably more revealing than the words it carries. She leaps effortlessly from hushed wipers to booming, theatrical wails that seem to stop time, slipping in and out of pitch and gliding gracefully into an earth-shaking falsetto.
Reviewers struggle to find apt comparisons to Olsen, who says she's more inspired by the feeling of other singers than their particular tones.
"I get a lot of influence from these, sort of more theatrical women," she explains. "Not necessarily from their singing voices, just wanting to embody that and push myself to be open to those things."
Fans first heard her haunting, stratospheric force on last year's Strange Cacti, a minimalist, lo-fi offering of acoustic folk with a ghostly allure. (The album was released on cassette by Asheville's own Bathetic Records.) And while its distant, airy charm and oceans of reverb suit the sparse arrangements and otherworldly mood, it was clear that Olsen's poetic narratives and stunning voice deserve a chance to stand on their own.
Enter Half Way Home, the sonic antithesis of its predecessor. First, and most obviously, there's nary a hint of reverb to be found; Olsen's vocals are clean and direct, so prominent it's as if the singer is in the room serenading the listener personally. Where Strange Cacti was a cloud looming miles above earth, Half Way Home is the earth, timeless and organic.
"We were trying so hard to get a sound where I could allow people to see that I don't sing in tune and that I'm not this ghostlike figure who's afraid of singing what I have to say," Olsen explains. "I didn't want to drench everything in reverb, because I felt like that was something that was such a thing that everyone was doing. I got sick of seeing it even. … So, the attempt for Half Way Home was to come out of it a little bit and allow people to hear what I sound like; and for them to like it or not like it."
Production aside, Half Way Home is a major stylistic evolution from Strange Cacti as well. There are still the sparse, minimal acoustic numbers, but it also debuts a handful of upbeat tracks fleshed out with drums, bass and electric guitars. There’s snappy retro-soul, early rock 'n' roll, worn folk ballads and country-tinged crooners that would fit well in a Von Trapp-family musical. The themes are familiar — longing, loneliness and a struggle to connect with the rest of the world — but the production and clarity afford them a new gravity that can make listening an emotionally exhausting experience.
Tracks like "Acrobat," "The Waiting" and "Free" are hopeless admissions of love and dependence; Olsen seems resigned to accept her powerlessness and embraces it, admitting "All I want is to believe / There's no harm it's what we need" on "Free." "Safe in the Womb" and "Lonely Universe" are slow and melancholy ruminations on the loss innocence, each focused on a mother figure. The eloquently framed chorus of the latter mournfully proclaims "Goodbye, sweet Mother Earth / Without you I'm a lonely universe."
"I understand why it would be very, almost grating to hear some of the things I sing about," Olsen admits. "Like, 'Oh, this is catchy. Oh shit; she just said that. She really went there. Oh no.' It's like when you watch a movie and they leave out all the dirty details, like when you're going to the bathroom. But things that matter need to be said. And if it hurts to hear, then that sucks, but my goal is to make something that is honest and raw. And if people don't like it, then they're not liking their reflection that they see."
Live, Olsen will tackle the new songs alone, but she’s clear that working with a band was refreshing and rewarding, something fans can expect to see more of. Recording and touring with Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) and Emmett Kelly (Cairo Gang, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) in recent years, she says, helped ease her into the new role of bandleader.
"It’s very difficult for me to communicate improvisation to a drummer or a bassist, but after seeing the way that Emmett communicated to the group, via Will … Emmett created this language that I could see. So working with him on my record was very easy, because after a while, we just kind of developed this thing where we knew how to read each other and sort of improvised together. It's a very opening experience, in this way where I've been able to allow my songs to change and open up in ways with somebody else that I hadn't been able to before."
The 10-day excursion that brings her to Forsythia Hall (Olsen's first-ever solo tour) won't be a solitary experience though. The Chicago-based songstress is taking a piece (or two) of Asheville with her: Bathetic Records' Jon Hency and Harvest Records' Mark Capon, who will manage the tour. And they’re getting her up to speed on the local scene.
"Working with Jon Hency has been really cool,” she notes. “I've learned about all these things going on in Asheville, which has been really nice."
Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.