Crooner Angel Olsen Keeps Home Fires Burning

In 2012, singer-songwriter Angel Olsen scored a critical hit with "Half Way Home," her first full-length album, which undoubtedly led to big expectations for her follow-up record. "Burn Your Fire For No Witness," which came out earlier this year, finds her in full-band mode, with plugged-in guitars and rock drums on songs like "Hi-Five," where her Appalachian warble channels classic country from the first line — "I feel so lonely I could cry" — before reaching a state of faux-celebration at the chorus: "are you lonely too? / are you lonely too? / High five / So am I."

The 26-year-old Olsen, who's originally from the St. Louis area, can sing in a clear soprano, a mid-range, velvety croon or a breathy falsetto, and as a solo performer, Olsen can stop folks dead in their tracks, often mid-sentence. Six years ago, Olsen moved to Chicago, joining musician friends who'd made the jump earlier. "They told me to move to Chicago and you won't have any problem getting a show," Olsen told CTNow by phone from her home in Asheville, N.C. ("I'm never really here," she added). "I had been in this circle of friends, and I'd just started to release my own music, this tape called 'Strange Cacti.' I didn't think it was going to do anything."

Olsen eventually met musician Will Oldham, who records as Bonnie Prince Billy, after emailing him mp3s of her songs. Oldham invited her to sing backup for a new project called the Babblers. "We just continued from there," Olsen said. "It was word of mouth, a friends-of-friends kind of thing."

"Strange Cacti," meanwhile, was getting noticed in indie rock circles. With guitarist Emmit Kelly, Olsen started working on "Half Way Home"; a month later, with the album recorded, she went back on tour with Oldham. "Half Way Home" was reviewed favorably by some major taste-making outlets, including Pitchfork, and a November 2012 solo show at the Grasslands Gallery in New York was written up in the New York Times. A European booking agent who'd heard "Half Way Home" scheduled 10 dates for Olsen and Kelly.

For "Burn Your Fire," Olsen worked with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Bill Callahan), but it was hard for the staunchly DIY musician to give up even partial control of her music. Her reservations faded somewhat when she first heard a playback of a Congleton-led session.

"When I got [to the studio], I was sick for three days," Olsen said, "but when I did listen back it was of the whole band… I got to hear us reflected back. We could always hear each other live, but when you hear yourself on the radio, you hear everything. It gives you a very true perspective of what you sound like… It was interesting to see that we were actually a tight band, because we were so new to each other. We didn't know what we sounded like when we took a step back. I realized I was working with really talented people."

On her vocal takes, Olsen wanted to do something novel on every track. "I had a different idea for each one," she said. "For each song it was different… I was really particular about that." You hear those variations on songs like "Forgiven/Forgotten," where beneath a wall of fuzzy guitars, Olsen's double-tracked voice is buried happily in the mix; she harmonizes with herself on "I don't know anything / but I love you / yes I do." On "White Fire," the album's bleak centerpiece, she's mixed way up front, in Leonard Cohen mode, along to a fingerpicked electric guitar: "I see an elevator, a moment I'm above," she sings, toward the middle of the 7-minute song, and it's downright spooky: "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."

"The stuff I'd recorded on my own was crappier," Olsen said, "but people always wanted to hear that first." She asked herself: What am I doing wrong by allowing other people — Congleton, for example — to tell me what to do? "John knew I was stubborn… but I think he understood what was going on. He listened to my last album. Basically I wanted something in the middle of these two things, something that sounds really professional but also seems like it could be recorded live."

Olsen and her band performs at Cafe Nine in New Haven on Saturday, May 10, at 9:30 p.m., with Promised Land Sound opening. Fans who've been following her progress and newcomers will hear the best of two worlds: songs performed solo and others with the full band. The vibe in the room, it seems, plays a huge part in how the music is shaped.

"You play some shows in the South of France, and you don't have any idea if they enjoyed it," Olsen said. "In Fayetteville, Arkansas, people were so rowdy: 'Play this song!' It's a different experience every time out."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Angel Olsen's name.