LISTENING TO Angel Olsen's first two records, 2011's Strange Cacti EP and 2012's Half Way Home album, is a little like looking at vintage photographs taken decades ago—rare and exquisite glimpses at bygone worlds. The images captured on Olsen's new album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, on the other hand, come from the same keen eye, but instead of faded sepia tones, the songs are rendered in full-blooded color, the pictures bursting out of the careful boundaries of their frames.
It's Olsen's first album for indie powerhouse Jagjaguwar, but more significantly, it finds her strapping on an electric guitar, venturing to make a bigger, braver sound. It also happens to contain her 11 best songs to date, compacted into an arresting, almost overpowering album with virtually no lulls.
Burn Your Fire wasn't specifically designed as a departure for Olsen, but she can understand why people need to characterize it as such.
"I think a lot of people haven't heard of me until now, and so that's why they describe it that way," she explains. "For me, it's my third piece of work. With Half Way Home, by the time I recorded that I was already working my way into playing electric, and so the change for me was pretty apparent. It's just that I wasn't showing anyone, you know? This is how I feel: It was a natural progression for me because I was waiting for so long to be comfortable enough to play in a band. I could already hear a band in a lot of my previous work, but the moment you actually have a group, it totally changes the sound of things."
Indeed, those members of her band, drummer Joshua Jaeger and bassist/guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, contribute significantly to Burn Your Fire's almost tumbling momentum. (Bassist Emily Elhaj has since joined the live lineup.) But perhaps an even bigger part of it comes down to Olsen's voice. It's an instrument with thermodynamic capabilities, going from misty coldwater stillness to near-boiling heat. It also capably finds a leadership role within Olsen's larger sonic landscape, heading the stampede of the stomping "Forgiven/Forgotten," flickering then blazing in the Patsy Cline-meets-overdrive track "Hi-Five," and cooing fragilely on the yearning album closer, "Windows."
"I feel like for the first time I've made something that I can go back to and listen to objectively and enjoy, and pretend like it's not me," Olsen says of the album. "With Half Way Home and Strange Cacti, to me, it's so me. In some ways, because it's just me and a guitar a lot of the time, it's very, very difficult for me to go back and listen to them."
Olsen recently moved to Asheville, North Carolina, after growing up in St. Louis and living for many years in Chicago. "It's so mellow that when I'm not traveling, it really does calm me down," she says of her new hometown. "After having gone on a huge tour, it's like, okay, it's time to go on a hike and not see very many people and have a campfire, you know? You can't really do that in Chicago. But there are things that I'm always going to miss about Chicago."
If Burn Your Fire marks a period of newly found confidence for Olsen, it's because she's earned it through touring and performing over the past few years. She confides that when Jagjaguwar initially approached her, she said no. "There was a lot of shit I needed to get together," she says. "I guess I was just afraid because I knew I wasn't ready."
But what remains intact from her beginnings is the clear, vigilant writer's eye on the new album. "I'd always sort of tried to write songs as a kid," says Olsen. "I had a little Panasonic tape recorder, and very early on, I would play Casiotones and Yamahas and stuff, and sing to those and write lyrics. I had a double tape deck and I would do harmonies. A lot of the songs didn't mean anything, it was just more about cadences... I remember getting really into rhyming, like reading Edgar Allan Poe in middle school or something, and being like, 'Man, it's really just about syllables, you know?'" she laughs. "At the end of it, the songs didn't really mean anything, it was more about how to create something. I was more interested in how to write poetry or poems, and how to make them work. I've always been interested in that."