"When there's a lot of change in anyone's life, even if it's good, it's kind of overwhelming and frustrating at times," Angel Olsen tells the Scene by phone from Asheville, N.C. And it's true: The 27-year-old singer and songwriter has been going through changes — leaving Chicago for the South, perfecting a more built-out sound with an expanded live band and navigating the minutiae of releasing an album on a proper record label.
"I just didn't realize all these details would be involved in it," Olsen says with a touch of resignation, "and that's the frustrating thing — learning the truth about the music industry, and still trying to continue to be psyched about it." She gives a self-deprecating laugh. "It's all Spotify and festivals and regurgitated excitement."
But it's not hard to cough up some enthusiasm for Olsen's new album. Over 44-and-a-half minutes, Burn Your Fire for No Witness shows a gifted singer growing more fully into her powers. Much has been made of how much the up-tempo rock push of lead single "Forgiven/Forgotten" departs from previous efforts.
"It's definitely a different kind of album," Olsen says. "Even the quieter songs are embellished in a different way." Still, there's a through-line. "I don't think it's far-fetched. The roots are still there."
For instance, Burn Your Fire's "Hi-Five" builds on the Orbison-esque ache of Half Way Home's "The Waiting," blowing it out with tumbledown drums, trembling guitar riffs and heavy-lidded last-call vocals. And on the spectral voice-and-guitar composition "Enemy," Olsen demonstrates how she can carry a song with nothing but her own voice and a few chords of collapsing slow-motion Tropicália.
By Olsen's own admission, the album is, in part, a document of recent personal upheaval, but it's no diary. "I have truly experienced the things on this record," she says, "but I have definitely manipulated those experiences to become songs."
Whatever the backstories, the manipulations are deft, the resulting music evocative and rich: Burn Your Fire for No Witness heaves with emotion, but never uncontrollably. Even the most vulnerable moments are tempered with a nervy assurance that gives the album its tensile strength. And if anything, the songs are better for their ambiguity. "I think it should be up to the listener to make their own interpretation," Olsen says.
The slowly untwisting "White Fire" gives the album its title — "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" — and acts as its gravitational center. In another singer's hands, this kind of dimly lit near-dirge might collapse into a sulking heap, but Olsen's quiet ferocity sears.
This kind of intensity is something Olsen shares with her Jagjaguwar labelmate Sharon Van Etten, and you can hear the faintest echo of SVE's Epic-era torch bearer "Don't Do It" in the rough opening strums of "High and Wild." Olsen's at a similar point on a similar trajectory as she moves more fully into the role of bandleader after first blipping the radar as a solo singer with a standout voice.
"As Half Way Home was being released [in 2012], I was writing and thinking about electric music," Olsen says, "And in the same way, this album is going to be out, and I'm already thinking about what I want to do next. I think that not getting too excited or proud of myself for anything I do is ... the best way for me, myself, to continue writing and creating things."
But Olsen's not getting ahead of herself. For now, she's happy exploring the possibilities of a new situation; the addition of bassist Emily Elhaj to the touring band has allowed former bassist Stewart Bronaugh to move to guitar, which in turn has freed up Olsen to do what she enjoys most. "I can focus on singing instead of trying to fill the space after singing with half-assed guitar parts," she says with a laugh.
As for the music business, Olsen is taking that in stride, too, despite whatever misgivings she may have about the machinery.
"I mean, I have this attitude about it, but at the same time I still have a PR company that's working for me," she says. "I'm still promoting my music, because I believe in it."