Artist: Angel Olsen
Album: Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Label: Jagjaguwar / Cargo Records
Very often, the move from containment to connection is a difficult one. After all, there’s a lot at stake – one’s sense of self, most importantly – but sometimes, it comes naturally and easily. For Missouri-born, singer-songwriter and guitarist Angel Olsen, the recording of her second album was a relaxed and enjoyable process, despite the fact that she was working on her own, highly personal material in creative collaboration for the first time, with musicians she’d been playing with for barely six months. That the three are now a band proper says much about not only their talent, but also the singer’s desire to push her extraordinarily compelling songs into new territory and watch them develop.
Olsen, of course, has an impeccable cooperative pedigree. As a member of Emmett Kelly’s The Cairo Gang, she’s toured with Bonnie “Prince” Billy (on whose Wolfroy Goes To Town album she appeared) and has twice duetted with Marissa Nadler, to devastatingly minimal effect, but her first two recordings were very much Olsen in solo mode. The kitchen-recorded, reverb-shrouded Strange Cacti EP from 2010 was almost spectral in its simplicity, while Half Way Home, her debut album of 2012 was a work of poetic profundity delivered on acoustic guitar, with mere hints of double bass and drums and by a remarkable voice. Now, Burn Your Fire For No Witness.
It sees Olsen again exploring themes of place and belonging, loss and loneliness, but this time with drummer Josh Jaeger and bass player Stewart Bronaugh – the former a dramaturg/playwright and former colleague from her days working in a café in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, the latter Jaeger’s band mate in garage-pop outfit ‘Lionlimb’– and using a much broader sound palette. The reverb Olsen abandoned after Strange Cacti is back, albeit in much subtler form and alongside three solo tracks – including “White Fire”, an exquisitely haunting, finger-picked epic that’s equal parts meditation and parable – sit a surprisingly fizzy and upbeat, two-minute opener, (“Unfucktheworld”), a burr-studded, grunge-pop number with a satisfyingly abrupt finish (“Forgiven/Forgotten”) and songs that variously tip their hat in the general direction of Velvet Underground, The Everly Brothers, Giant Sand, Mazzy Star, Peter Green and Astrud Gilberto. The whole sounds warm, vital and alluringly present.
“I was trying to take a little bit of what I learned from both of those early records,” says Olsen of her initial aim with Burn Your Fire For No Witness, “and I thought maybe some space around guitar and a little bit of space on drums would sound cool. We ended up recording a lot of stuff live and then adding vocals later, so that was a difference this time around. I think that gives a live perspective to the songs – not that any live performance will be like the record, but it has more of a feeling when everyone is playing it together. You can tell.”
The trio first rehearsed together in January of 2013 and recorded in a deconsecrated chapel called Echo Mountain – in Asheville, North Carolina over 10 days in July, although things went so smoothly they were almost done by the seventh day. John Congleton, who’s produced acts as diverse as Bill Callahan and St Vincent was at the desk and after mastering in Dallas, the record was finished by the end of July. “We were so… on,” enthuses Olsen of the session, “and it was just really cool. I’d just got back from a tour before we went in, so it was a strange thing to shift to recording, but we had really good, funny days there and John Congleton was like the doctor of our sound. At first, we just felt really safe with him, so we’d confide in him about what we’d want and he’d tell us what the symptoms were, but then he opened up and became this hilarious character. He’s really easy to work with.”
So too, are her new band mates. “We started playing together and he just got it,” Olsen says of Jaeger. “In the middle of practicing, in that first week I was just laughing, because he was so intuitive. Most people who want to collaborate with you just say, ‘let’s jam’ and don’t really listen to the music, but the only way to know if someone is seriously interested is if they’ve done their own research and know the material. Josh definitely took that initiative. He introduced me to Stewart, who just so happens to be a really great singer, writer and a really great guitarist; I’m so excited to be working with him as well- It is very much a band and I feel like I’m merging into this entity that they’re also creating.”
Collaborative keenness and new shared identity aside, Olsen remains the dynamic nucleus; her voice – equal parts Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison and Hope Sandoval – speaks (literally) loudest and her songs are profoundly personal. So much so that at times, it seems even listening is as intrusive as reading the pages of a private journal. But anguished though Olsen’s honesty can be, it’s not the stuff of dramatic torment. She speaks about letting her experiences “run through” her when she writes, which is what lends the Leonard Cohen-styled “White Fire” its dream-like poeticism. It opens with the observation that “everything is tragic, it all just falls apart” and later has Olsen recounting, “I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth”. But the weightiness is countered by the line that immediately follows – “I laughed so loud inside myself, it all began to hurt.” It would be easy to assume the song is about parenthood and belonging (Olsen was adopted when she was a pre-schooler), but her focus is broader and far less literal than that.
“I have two mothers,” says Olsen, “but I didn’t even understand where that was coming from and then I thought about it. This is, in part at least, me imagining what my mother might have thought- the moment she found out that I was born to be her daughter. I haven’t asked either of my mothers what that experience was like and although the song comes across as heavy and dark, this particular part is not meant to be. This line isn’t the complete subject of the song.. it’s more curious than final-It’s more about when you imagine your parents and wonder where you were conceived, and then inevitably wonder about doing that same thing yourself some time. It’s me doing that and just laughing about it.” Olsen agrees, though, that it’s “very much an existential confrontation song.” Hard to deny, given the following instruction: “If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone/Burn your fire for no witness, it’s the only way it’s done/Fierce and light and young/Hit the ground and run.”
But there’s the spirit to overcome and positivity in spades in those lines – and plenty across the rest of the record, too. “If you’ve got a sense of humor, you’re not so bad,” Olsen remarks sagely in the sweetly spangled “Lights Out”, while “Hi-Five” adopts country music’s sardonic view of Sadness, sat in some saloon bar in search of fellow Sadness. “Are you lonely too?” she sings in the swooping chorus. “High five – so am I.” “I’m definitely being sarcastic there,” Olsen laughs. And the album closes with the magnificent, slow-building and 100% optimistic “Windows”, her clear, pure voice soaring as if in a vaulted cathedral and asking simply, “what’s so wrong with the light?” “It’s like reaching a wall with something,” she explains, “and the step before you’re just about to give up is… ‘c’mon, man! Stop being so negative and open a window!’ Life is hard, but every day, we have to make even a little bit of sunlight matter.”
With Burn Your Fire For No Witness, though, Angel Olsen is doing more than just letting in a little bit of sunlight. She’s blazing bright.
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