Artists Of The Year CMU Approved

CMU Artists Of The Year 2014: Angel Olsen

By | Published on Monday 8 December 2014

Every weekday in the run up to the Christmas break, we’ll be revealing another of our ten favourite artists of the year. See the full list of artists as they’re announced here. First up in this year’s list is Angel Olsen…

Angel Olsen

Making even the slightest ripple in a pool so thickly fogged with singer-songwriter-y type folk artists isn’t easy, nor is breaking beyond that closeted folksy corner to make contact with the pop/dance/hip-hop-loving world at large. Especially since, in this post-Mumfords era in which we live, it’s hard to prise the ‘image’ of the folk genre away from the idea of some raspy-voiced and deeply not-cool ‘bard’ pumping away at an accordion.

So thank God for Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, who is none of those things (the direct opposite, in fact), and who instead has ruled quietly but surely over this ‘year in folk’ with the same quality of natural, wild-minded autonomy that arches all the way over ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’, the almost imposingly good, stealth missile of an LP-on-high she released all the way back in February on Jagjaguwar.

In most accounts, Olsen’s story leading to ‘Burn Your Fire…’ – singing and songwriting-wise anyway – starts in high school with her learning to play the piano and shaping her first original songs. Then she skipped college and moved into the big wide world, or Chicago, and began playing in small bars and galleries, then got noticed ‘online’ by the boss of local label Bathetic Records, then released her first EP ‘Strange Cacti’.

From there, Olsen’s name was passed like a Chinese whisper amongst a circle of Chicagoan musicians, landing after a time in the lap of Will Oldham aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie, who invited her to come join his weird PJs-and-shades wearing band The Babblers. Which she did, also notably carving her vocal initials into the sighing timber-frames of Oldham’s 2011 LP ‘Wolfroy Goes To Town’, trilling a lyric-less solo mid-way into one of its songs, ‘Time To Be Clear’, in the kind of voice that’s only ever meant to be heard at the fore, never ‘at the back’.

Olsen’s voice has been endlessly mythologised in the press, practically to the point that some gobsmacked critics have kind of likened it to some kind of divine tool on loan from the Gods of folk. And in fact, to be fair, it is an extraordinary thing.

It can play sweet, pretty even, in places; though never is it frilly, or fey, or ‘girly’. Sometimes it’s a throaty, heart-strings-stripping wolf howl, sometimes a bleak and creeping cry, sometimes hard sometimes soft, sometimes so soft it’s as barely there as the thinnest pane of glass. And sometimes it just, kind of, throws its folk cloak off and rocks out. Sometimes it spits, and, “neither innocent or wise”, drips and crackles like a white-hot flame.

And there I go, getting carried away. Because it’s that kind of voice I guess, the sort that ‘transports’, off and away into some space in which, for instance, loneliness (a big, big theme in Olsen’s lyrics) is something to toast to with a wry ‘Hi-Five’, or as in ‘Burn Your Fire…’ tagline track ‘White Fire’, a place in which a woman wanders sadly in the middle of the night, drowning in thoughts of a time when she was in love and “fierce, and light, and young”.

In short, as in this brilliant Spin/AO cover story, it simply “will be heard”; and of its own will it can both cajole and coax, and on the flip side, command softly that you sit up (or down) and listen to its siren’s call.

If her debut LP, 2012’s dreamy, meandering and slightly batshit crazy ‘Half Way Home’ is a portrait of Olsen ‘in love’ and enchanted, intrigued by that feeling and examining it over and over in the light, then ‘Burn Your Fire…’ is the sound of falling out of that love with a bump, and taking another look at the world. It’s wiser, yes, and surer, and still more than ‘half strange’, but still as wild; and still paints Olsen as what I think is a real ‘artist’. Someone who’s able to pluck at an emotion she’s had, or a story she’s heard, or a moment she’s imagined, and shape those strands into something beautiful, otherworldly and at the same time universal.

I think critic Lindsay Zoladz says it well in her Pitchfork review of ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ when she writes of Olsen that “the people she writes about daydream vividly, mumble reassuring mantras to themselves (‘Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind’), and get so caught up in the songs stuck in their heads that they accidentally walk past their own houses. And yet, even as she longs for deep connections and hi-fives from strangers, Olsen knows too well that dreamers are usually loners. Not that she really minds”.

So this is a big CMU hi-five to Angel Olsen, who’s as lonely as anyone and just as strange, and who has made one of the year’s treasures in ‘Burn Your Fire…’, taken from which this is the beautiful ‘Windows’: