Why This Bold Musician Wants To Defy "Normal" Feminism

by Amy Roberts

Acting as a thoughtful extension to the eclectic musician's already stunning discography, Angel Olsen's new album, Phases is a treasure trove of unreleased tracks, cover songs, and home demos that demonstrate Olsen's musical evolution. Songs skip confidently between wailing garage rock, drama-licked country, atmospheric ballads, and sparkling, sparse folk, offering a retrospective of an artist with a fluid, musical identity. Since the reverb-soaked folk of Olsen's scintillating 2010 debut, Strange Cacti, the singer-songwriter has continued to experiment and push boundaries with her sound. And in a phone interview with Bustle, Olsen confesses that this evolution was perhaps not as straightforward to her as it may have been for her fans to experience it.

"I feel like I’ve developed four different styles over the years and I’ve added these new ones," Olsen explains, "But, for me it’s taken a long time to be able to look at my music and to say that I have a style or there are styles that are developing and changing and to really psychoanalyze it and see it." The awareness of that development is evident on Phases, offering an intimate glimpse at Olsen's process as a musician that draws you deeper into the embrace of her past albums.

An entirely self-taught musician, Olsen began her career in Chicago's DIY scene, where she spent her formative years singing for a "crazy kind of ska punk Christian band." Prior to the start of her solo career, she was also a member of The Babblers, a mysterious conceptual band who would perform in one-piece pajamas and sunglasses, led by legendary singer-songwriter, Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy.) Over three full length albums (Phases being her fourth), one EP, and collaborations with musicians such as the high-concept Australian indie-pop artist Alex Cameron and brooding folk-artist Jaye Bartell, Olsen has managed to evade categorization. All the while garnering continual plaudits for her ever-changing sound.

Her transformations from one album to the next have always felt vast yet effortless. The distant, haunting folk of Strange Cacti, for instance, was followed up by the surrealist-incantations of 2012's Half Way Home, a brooding psych-folk album both hushed and operatic. Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen's second full-length album, saw the singer-songwriter traversing a sound between indie-rock and country, that felt defiantly upbeat in the face of extreme melancholy. While 2016's My Woman, on the other hand, was a formidable blend of traditional rock'n'roll and modern folk that featured a fuller sound of organs, pianos, and energetic guitar work. Olsen's music likes to roam, and it strides through the mesmerizing sonic plains of the familiar and the unknown as it does so.

No matter where it wanders, Olsen's music is always grounded by the singer-songwriter's distinctive, symphonic voice. Full of character and emotion, her vocals can leap effortlessly between an almost bashful vulnerability, and powerful, fluttering high notes that sprawl out vigorously between words and melodies. It's interesting that while discussing two Phases songs about being on the road (the home demo, "Sans," and the Bonanza cover, "Endless Road,") that Olsen muses, "as a musician you’re kind of a cowboy," because her music can feel like an enigmatic rambler, too. And it reflects Olsen's capacity to pass through many musical pathways and lyrical ideas, and to encompass many different personas as she goes.

"I feel like outside of music, I’ve always been a character to people that I know," Olsen explains, while discussing the various personas seen in the five music videos that she's also self-directed, "Not in a weird way, but just being someone who jokes around and has a laugh." Those music videos reflect Olsen as a visual chameleon as much as she is a lyrical and musical one, too. Able to inhabit visual expressions as diverse as the silver-wigged, roller skater of the "Shut Up Kiss Me," video and the profound stoicism of "Pops," it's difficult to pinpoint exactly who Olsen is from how she directs herself. "For me, I just wanted to have fun, and there are parts of each video that reflect me," Olsen elaborates, "but my fans don’t really know me personally, so they don’t know which part is me and which is the character."

Being able to create and maintain control over her own image in these music videos was important to Olsen, who admitted that directing them herself compelled others to want to help her. Not that she was interested, "It’s so crazy how many people come out of the woodwork when you do something for yourself," Olsen laughs, "Everyone is just suddenly like, that was great that you did that, let me give it a go now, let me help you out now. And it’s like — well, actually I was doing OK without you."

It's a poignant statement and one that echoes back to an underlying theme of My Woman. As highlighted by the self-possessed challenge that howls as the centerpiece of "Woman," wherein Olsen sings, "I dare you to understand what makes me a woman," the album is full of songs that deconstruct the struggles of loving and understanding someone while maintaining a strong sense of self.

Upon release, conversation around My Woman was often accompanied by the artist's quote that the album was about "the complicated mess of being a woman," however, Olsen is quick to correct the statement, suggesting that the quote was specifically about "talking about the song 'Woman' and the lyrics of it." Regardless, the idea behind the sentiment was one that she still "finds interesting," due to the conversations that it provokes.

"I feel like it was almost a mistake to put that quote in the bio of the record because it was so specific to one song. But it opened up so many conversations with people, women and men, about what that meant," Olsen points out, "it doesn’t have to be about feminism, it can about someone just not seeing what you’re seeing and no matter how you lay it out for them it’s up to them to see that way. You can’t always teach someone to be intuitive and see something, they have to come around to it on their own sometimes."

Confessing that she doesn't see herself as a "normal kind of feminist," Olsen's perspective on what it means to be a liberated woman is refreshingly honest and relatable, "I don’t mind certain roles," Olsen insists, "I want to make food for people. And what if I did just want to have a baby and be a stay at home mom? I think that that you can be a feminist who still gives in to traditional roles without it feeling like they were put upon you. You can still choose them."

It's a captivating statement to hear from a woman whose music often feels intrinsically traditional in many ways, while feeling radical and offbeat in others. Olsen's perspective on feminism is as expansive as her music is, and the personas we can glimpse within it's many forms. "It’s hard to go into a conversation about feminism without talking for hours about different viewpoints," Olsen reflects at one point. And you could argue that's it's just as hard to define Olsen's musical oeuvre so far without also talking for hours about it's disparate inner worlds, the trajectory of her sound, and the narrative gems to be found in her lyrics.

And like her music, it’s clear there’s many versions of Olsen, as we know her. There's the roaming cowboy, the dissident feminist, the joker, the silver-wigged rollerskating champion, and the visionary director doing everything herself. But, as Phases reminds us, at the core of all those identities is Olsen — the enigmatic, always surprising musician, pushing her sound in different directions, and sharing stories that burrow under your skin, and take root in your heart.