STORY / BROOKE SEGARRA
Everyone wants to ask Angel Olsen what it’s like to be a woman. What’s it like to be a female artist in the second decade of this millennium? As a woman, what was it like directing the music video for “Shut Up Kiss Me”? Do you find it intimidating speaking your truth as a woman? And so on.
I get it. Casting aside the occasional case of lazy journalism, one can see the eagerness to tap into the psyche of a writer who, also as a woman, has written for us female characters who seize their autonomy, flex themselves emotionally, and are allowed to be big beautiful messy humans within our larger absurd, self-inflated human footprint. In other words, Olsen is an artist who has epitomized for this generation what it looks like to create your own reality and then have a field day maneuvering through the explicit and implicit oppressions they place on you.
But don’t ask Olsen to comment specifically on writing from a female perspective. In interviews following the release of 2016’s My Woman, Olsen perforated the notion that her work would solely exist within the conversation of her sex or gender. Olsen never really intended for My Woman to be the politically charged album that it was largely received as. And while Olsen told me, “I think it is important to be aware of how you affect people. You can make it a driving factor in what you do,” Olsen has stood her ground that the perspective she writes from is solely a human one.
Since Olsen’s last body of work, Phases, was released in November of last year there was thankfully no need in this interview to go through the vexatious struggle of journalist asking artist to elaborate on a work that already speaks for itself. Given Olsen’s stance as a writer first and foremost, I felt the precious space on this page would be better spent focusing on her craft. So I decided take the opportunity to speak with a writer that I very much admire about the act of writing.
COAT, HEIDI MERRICK. DRESS, GUESS. EARRINGS, YUN YUN SUN. SUNGLASSES, CHRISTIAN ROTH.
Olsen is four acclaimed albums into her career, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still questioning and attempting to push the limits of her own work. When I spoke with Olsen, she was on tour in Australia and told me, “I feel like by the end of every tour and every record I’m at a new point where I’m critiquing what I just did. I’m at the point where I’m asking what is the fault in this thing that I was so proud of and excited about two years ago? Not necessarily the fault as in ‘I think it’s shit,’ but the fault as in, ‘What can I do that is an extension of this, more aware, or a different style of awareness?’”
Acquiring the insight is a part of the writing process that goes unseen, but this laborious work manifests the art we find worth listening to. However, contrary to what some might believe Olsen isn’t going up on stage every night doing breaststrokes in a pool of aching nostalgia. “For me, when I’m performing a song I’m not reliving the experience. Instead of remembering what the song’s about, I’m remembering what I was doing in my life at that time. For me, it’s not like I’m reliving some terrible experience when I perform for people. Vulnerability stands for something greater than that. It’s me being stronger because of what I’ve been through, and the way that I saw something that I went through. A lot of the time I feel like, as a writer, it’s mostly about what happened, the way that you see it happen, and how you manage to allow your imagination to run wild with that idea or event.”
DRESS, SELMA CILEK. CARDIGAN, FRANKIE. JEWELRY, YUN YUN SUN. SHOES, GASOLINE GLAMOUR. SOCKS, TOPSHOP.
Careful not to paint the wrong scene, Olsen continues, “But if you sit at home all day thinking you’ll go insane. However when you read a good book, for example, you’re like ‘Wow, I know I can think like this on my own. I’ve thought these things too, but I just forgot that this is a rhythm of thinking.’ When I find a good book I’m like, ‘Oh yea, this is just a style of thinking.’ It’s not just an opinion or story. It’s a way of thinking about the world. It’s the same way when you watch a film that really inspires you. For instance, I was in a movie theater watching Call Me By Your Name and I was like ‘I really want to spend the rest of the day as if I’m in Italy in the 80s.’ You just get inspired in that way and it’s a way of thinking about the rest of the day. I feel like if I stay in the practice of that style of thinking then I’m reminded that I’m still a writer. In the past, every time I finished a record, I would think ‘I don’t know if I’m a writer anymore.’ You just have those dry spells. You need time away from everything that just happened to you in order to have the energy to even think about a new message, a new idea, or a culmination of tiny ideas. I’ve never been the type of person who sits down at a desk and says ‘I’m going to write a record about this.’ You know it’s always been a culmination of different things, so I never have any idea what the next direction or piece is because I don’t think of it as a piece. I don’t think of it as a beginning and an end of a record. I’ve never thought of it like that. I’ve always thought about my work as vignettes. Every song is a vignette of a thing. Some of those themes carry onto other songs on the record, but it’s not a timeline for people. It’s not some kind of struggle, climax, and then resolution. I don’t think things should be made that way all the time.”
At the end of our conversation, I asked Olsen to give her best advice for writing. She told me how she had thought about journaling for years, but only this year had her ambition truly materialized. “I started this year writing three pages a day. Three pages about anything. It could be what I did that day, what I did the day before, or just a story that I have. However, it could only last for three pages, and I think that’s a good outline to give yourself if you’re trying to just get in the habit of writing. Even if it’s terrible. Write it down even if it’s really dumb, because eventually you’ll have a notebook full of stuff some of which is really interesting. Especially years later.”
So the next time you think your writing is god awful, remember that it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Nix the agenda. The message lies in the big messy human experience you allow yourself to have — and hyper-analyze.
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