On "Burn Your Fire For No Witness," the alternative folk singer brings in a full band and tests her artistic identity
“When you finish an album, you’re not finished,” says Angel Olsen. “You have to keep writing, if that’s what you dream of doing, if that’s what you’ve always wanted to do. I try not to obsess over what I’ve done already because I know there’s still more work ahead. I’ve never been the kind of person who can say ‘OK, I’m done, that’s all I have to do. I’m done with life now.’”
Olsen, the 26-year-old alternative folk singer, is about to release the best album of her career so far, but she’d rather not think too much about that. She writes as much for her own personal wellbeing as she does for anyone else, a subtle distinction that you can hear in her music. Olsen’s songs, often dealing with themes of emotional isolation and self-reliance, tend to rise and converge like the billowing smoke of a stubborn fire. As long as she can keep the flame, no one album need be definitive.
“Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” out Feb 18 and streaming now at NPR, is Olsen’s third record but is otherwise marked by firsts. It’s her first for the influential independent label Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr.), her first produced by an outsider, John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen), and her first recorded with a backing band. Previous albums “Halfway Home” (2012) and “Strange Cacti” (2011) were essentially home recordings and felt like the products of a singular voice willing itself into existence. “Burn Your Fire” takes that same voice and puts a few hundred watts behind it.
“I was pretty skeptical of working with a producer, just because I’ve always kind of done everything myself and I didn’t want it to sound overdone,” Olsen says. “But I really liked the way John interpreted my ideas without being overpowering. I knew what I wanted from the experience and he really worked with what we brought to the table instead of adding a ton of stuff to it.”
On “White Fire,” the piercing and primitive emotional centerpiece of the album, Olsen hushes her dazzling, quicksilver vocals to a breathy whisper. Rueful ruminations over distant youth pour like marbles over mesmerizing acoustic guitar.
“I look for you or someone who can still remind me of / the tight grip / and the sun lick / and the calm weight / of all things summer.”
But Olsen says the song originally wasn’t meant to be a song at all, and almost wasn’t recorded for the album.
“It was one of the last things I had written and wasn’t meant to be shared, but I ended up taking the album title from it,” she says. “A lot of the songs on the album are about knowing the self outside of everything else and I think of (“White Fire”)as being from the perspective of this character who has grown old and is going back to the beginning of who they were. They’re thinking about how many times they were defiant and confident that they were doing the right thing, but in hindsight they’re like ‘Oh, that was kind of silly. I was so fierce and yet so wrong.’”
Olsen recorded “Burn Your Fire” with drummer Josh Jaeger and bass player Stewart Bronaugh at Echo Mountain in Asheville, N.C. Their presence brings new musculature and propulsion to Olsen’s signature throwback minimalism, especially on songs like lead single “Forgiven/Forgotten” and the rattling “High & Wild.”
If the album is at times more fun than Olsen’s previous material, it might be because she had more fun while making it. She says she marveled at the studio’s comfortable, chapel-like atmosphere, impressively Star Trekian main console and downstairs lounge stocked with a pool table, snacks and “Freaks and Geeks” DVDs— a far cry from the kitchens and basement studios she’d been used to.
On tour starting late this month, Olsen will have to combine her past and present selves into an integrated whole. She’ll alternate between playing by herself on stage and playing with the band, mixing softer moments with more boisterous ones.
“When you’re just by yourself, even if you’re playing an electric guitar, people will always assume you’re just a folk singer,” Olsen says. “I wanted to try something else because I don’t know if that’s what I am or if that’s all that I want to be.”
Figuring out that question, who she wants to be, is a task for the road as well as her notebook. Olsen says she’s already started writing again, soaking up new experiences and jotting them down. All the better. Albums get released, tours end, but the fire flickers on.