Angel Olsen navigates the ‘complicated’ parts of success

Kyle Coutts

Angel Olsen is still making peace with the business of being Angel Olsen.

“I always feel like I’m running in quicksand,” the songwriter says over the phone from Asheville, N.C., where she lives. “Always. And for other people . . .”

Her voice trails off, and images of the 30-year-old’s life before her ascent fill the silence: Watching “Bonanza” as a child in St. Louis, slinging sandwiches in Chicago’s Bourgeois Pig Café, briefly pursuing a career in sports massage. Olsen, as a teen, posting on music-themed message boards and cheerleading at Tower Grove Christian High.

Olsen — who plays the House of Blues on Monday — now sells out theaters. Vogue asks about her bangs. The New Yorker erupts with hosannas. Conan and Colbert beam her work to millions. She bested Radiohead in an album of the year vote for indie artists.


Success, though, invites threads of negativity. Relationships die on the vine. Fans feel betrayed for spurious reasons. (Olsen, embracing wigs and New Wave tones in the video for “Shut Up Kiss Me,” has already experienced her Dylan-goes-electric moment.) Activists co-opt lyrics. Writers stereotype. Creeps spill from the Web’s every corner.

“Who knew the business of wanting to be special would get so complicated?” she wrote on Instagram in August. “That a dream would turn into livelihood, that it would be a constant fight to keep real when people, maybe unknowingly, try to make you embrace the fake.”

Olsen, forever singing about the marrow of relationships and self-possession, is a reticent star in independent music, vigilant of threats to her reach for connection on unembellished planes. “However painful, let it break down all of me,” she sings on “Not Gonna Kill You,” from her lauded 2016 record “My Woman.” “‘Til I am nothing else but the feeling, becoming true.”


Her lyrics, over three LPs, an EP, and the extras collection “Phases,” are brimming with this dim-lit search for truth. And they’re delivered with and without restraint at Olsen’s command — she can croon with a balladeer’s precision and a rocker’s caterwaul within single lines. Critics hear Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Stevie Nicks, Leonard Cohen, Julee Cruise, and Siouxsie Sioux wending through her voice. They’ve called it “enchanting” and “operatic,” and it’s both without sacrificing gravitas.

This graceful smearing of intimacy and showmanship partially accounts for Olsen’s success, as does her ownership of the spotlight. Her concerts have evolved from whisper-soft folk performances to swaggering rock music spectacles. Her press photos, once imbued with underground disaffection, now cast Olsen as a timeless star of Nancy Sinatra vintage. Her image and stage presence have caught up to the cross-generational appeal of her songs.

“She’s figured out what she has to say and the best way to say it,” notes Joshua Jaeger, Olsen’s drummer and collaborator since 2013. “Where she might have been a little more reserved [on stage] before, she gets up there now and just lights the whole damn thing on fire.”

Olsen isn’t, after all, exposure-averse. When she talks of discerning between “real” and “fake,” she’s speaking of her effort to navigate exposure well — not to avoid it. She’s learning “how to say ‘yes’ within my etiquette,” she says, and she’s embracing the fact of literally running a business based on Angel Olsen: Entertainer. But the feeling of running in quicksand exists “no matter how successful people say that I am.”


That Olsen articulates how others perceive her acclaim — managers, label heads, publicists, critics, friends, family — doesn’t feel accidental, since the very notion of success seems evanescent to her. It’s not measured by album sales or magazine spreads, perhaps, but whether she’s able to stay connected to the transfiguring purpose of her work. Her metaphor is quicksand, perhaps, because it’s exhausting to chase true north through a shape-shifting thicket of expectations for years at a time.

“It’s rewarding to know that you did something good and that people are using it, that they’re reacting to it and they can relate to it,” Olsen says. “But the other stuff, where you’re trying to keep that going, that’s not fun to me.” She talks about playing an endless string of thankless music festivals and being interviewed by agenda-minded journalists. “I don’t like pushing my work onto people who aren’t interested in it.”

The media piece is especially thorny. The final product of an interview — a story like this — can make otherwise disarming artists like Olsen seem severe, or that they’re heavy all the time. You know this isn’t true if you’ve heard Olsen’s “oddball and humorous” onstage banter (Jaeger’s words), or you know anyone with a multi-dimensional personality. Here, Olsen has been asked about Instagram posts she intended for fans, friends, and peers — it’s unlikely she meant to psychoanalyze them in an interview with a stranger. Olsen had no say in how this article was written, and she has little incentive to grant us access to her inner life.


Still, it’s worth considering these tensions because they illuminate the costs involved in pursuing dreams. They distill what it is to choose ambition over comfort.

“It’s difficult to describe all the stuff that’s not music without sounding really privileged or that you’re taking it for granted,” Olsen responds when asked about the Instagram posts. Her self-awareness was acute: She wouldn’t trade any of this, she seemed to say, and of course the world is riven with more terrifying problems than work-a-day musician issues. But it’d be disingenuous to suggest that her pursuit hasn’t involved great tumult or sacrifice.

Olsen says that peers reached out to express fellow feeling after they read her posts. “It’s important for musicians to say those things out loud for each other,” she says.

This network of “vagabonds” and “survivalists,” as Olsen deemed them on Instagram, will continue to be important into 2018: She is plotting additional tours — short solo runs that feature earlier, more hushed tunes — and she’s dreaming up new work.

“Well, I want to keep writing,” Olsen responds, laughing, when asked about her plans for the new year. “And I want to take a step back and think about the next project. I haven’t had a moment to myself to reflect this year. That will be good.”


At House of Blues, Boston, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. Tickets $25, 888-693-2583, www.ticketmaster.com


Ryan Burleson can be reached at ryanscottburleson
. Follow him on Twitter @ryanburleson.