music

Angel Olsen On Being Her Own ‘Woman’ On Her New Album

I profiled Angel Olsen for Nylon’s September issue. Photographed by MichaelBeckert. Styled by Liz Rundbaken.

Angel Olsen has the power. Of course, she’s always had it, but with the release of My Woman, she doesn’t really care about how you perceive that power. “People think they know you entirely based on the work that you project, famous or not famous,” says Olsen over lemonades in a Brooklyn tea shop. “But you still have to be a person, and wake up and go through human struggles while everybody is thinking of you as not a human who goes through those things. You’re living the life of the self that you project, in the life of your actual self.”

Olsen is disarming in person—a celebrity with the air of a perceptive, considerate, and passionate friend, discussing the difficulties of being a working woman in her late twenties, and defying the limiting expectations of the public. My Woman, her third studio album and the follow-up to 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is demonstrative of her ability to disregard these constraints and portrays the broad spectrum of Olsen’s musical talent, which ranges from her signature folk, steeped in her superior songwriting chops, to synthy glam rock.

After the success of her last record brought Olsen to the stages of late-night television and into the hearts of an ever-growing fan base, the repetitiveness of fame and the unavoidable typecasting as a female folk singer led her to question where her hard work had landed her. “It went from the positive inertia of creating something alone in a room that no one cared about to a commercial image that you’re just living over and over again,” she says. “Despite the fact that I was doing well, and the album was doing well, I wasn’t doing well.” Naturally, her admirers viewed her through the self-absorbed lens of fandom, oblivious to the fact that even celebrities need repose. “People come up to me and they’re like, ‘You saved my life.’ Even though it’s amazing to hear that, when people compliment you in that heavy way, there is some sort of expectation. They want something back,” says Olsen. “I feel very fortunate to have fans that would say that to me, but when was somebody gonna pull me aside and be like, ‘Are you okay?’ No one was doing that.” She sips her lemonade and continues: “So I went to therapy, took a break. I just didn’t want to tour as much. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this. Maybe I should reconsider my plan.’”

Ironically, it was on the road where Olsen felt reinvigorated, thanks to the camaraderie of fellow musicians on the festival circuit, such as St. Vincent, Courtney Barnett, and Mac DeMarco. “You think all these bands are getting together and getting shit-faced and there’s probably drama, and there is,” she says, “but behind the scenes and on the sidelines, there’s also a lot of community that’s being built. It was really refreshing to talk to people—even in a drunken way—about our careers, and to know that I wasn’t totally isolated in the experience. Hearing that other people were bummed, and making fun of ourselves, like, ‘I’m so famous, my life is so hard,’ really saved my career. I was like, ‘I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep doing this.’ And after that I wrote a bunch of material.” Thus, My Woman was born.

The world was introduced to the new music via the morbidly beautiful lead single “Intern,” the video for which was directed by Olsen herself and filmed with a micro-crew of friends in Asheville, North Carolina, where the singer has resided for three years. The visuals for “Intern” and its commanding follow-up, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” star a silver-tinsel-wig-adorned Olsen, invoking comparisons to “Life on Mars?”-era David Bowie. “I wanted to create my own character and be more in control of the image I project through my own music,” she explains.

Olsen’s also determined to expose the hypocritical manner in which men and women in the industry are received by critics. Although male rock stars can howl misogynistic lyrics without being quizzed on feminism, when a female artist writes her own music and names an album something even moderately gutsy, she’ll likely be interrogated about it. With that in mind, the singer is already swatting away the line of stereotypical questioning that the title of her record will inevitably conjure up. “The album is called My Woman, and people are like, ‘Are you afraid that your male fans might be turned off by this title?’ I can’t wait for the questions like, ‘So, as a feminist, your album is a feminism album?’” says Olsen with a scoff. “I can’t deny that I’m a feminist. I don’t like that it’s hip right now, because I don’t want it to be a trend. Just because it’s being talked about doesn’t mean that people are getting the picture.”

She finishes her lemonade—a fitting drink for a discussion about the limitations put on artists who happen to be women (see Beyoncé’s latest album). In spite of it all—the cages of fame, the insistence of critics on typecasting her, the archaic categorization of female artists by their gender, and her occasional bout of exhaustion—Olsen has no plans to slow down. “I did name my album My Woman, so it’s very easy for people to think all these things,” she says. “It is a really bold move, but that’s what you gotta do. I’m going to be audacious enough to say that I’m important.”

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ROLLACOASTER: DEV HYNES’ UTOPIA

I profiled Dev Hynes of Blood Orange for the cover of the 20th edition of Rollacoaster Magazine. Photo by Michael Bailey-Gates.

Devonté “Dev” Hynes is one of pop music’s most important figures. The songwriting mus- cle behind Sky Ferreira’s breakthrough banger “Everything Is Embarrassing” and Solange’s equally mesmerising “Losing You” (as well as songs by everyone from Skepta to FKA twigs), he’s spent the last decade moulding his very own perfect-pop utopia, and surrounding him- self in New York’s scintillating, underground creative forces. This summer, as Blood Orange, Dev returns with his most honest, bravest long-player to date, Freetown Sound. Rollacoaster was invited into Dev’s brave new world for an exclusive, up-close-and-personal preview of it.

From the US to the UK, political upheaval is Trumping creativity. At least the artists have their messiah in the enigmatic form of Dev Hynes, who this summer returns with his solo project, Blood Orange.

The London-born musician, who has resided in New York City since 2007, along with releasing an upcoming beautiful and bold album, Freetown Sound, maintains a community of artists, musicians, models, and performers in New York like (previous Rollacoaster star) Whitney Vangrin. In his support of others, Hynes manages to come across completely unpretentious, a difficult feat for a celebrity of his status. “Everything I do is really how I want to be treated,” he tells me. “That’s the only way I base anything. I’m also still just a big fan-boy of things, so if I’m a fan of something, and it’s something I know or am in a proximity with, then if there’s anything I could possibly do to help them in some way, then I will do it. I just want them to create as much as they can.”

Hynes sits in his Manhattan studio bathed in je-ne-sais-quoi spirit, his red bucket hat tilted skywards to reveal passionate eyes. In July, Freetown Sound, his third album, the follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed Cupid Deluxe, comes out. Like a beautiful natural disaster, a thunderstorm collecting weight before pouring down on parched land, his creative process involves the collection of ideas and sudden appearance of arrival. “With each album, I’ll be working — just always making music, and it’s scattered and everywhere. It’s what happened with this one, it’s what happened with Cupid Deluxe. One day someone could talk to me and say: ‘What’s up with the album?’ and I’ll be like: ‘God knows, it’s like a million songs. I can’t imagine.’ And then the next day it can just click.”

What came together with Freetown Sound is an expansive, immersive, and glorious album. 17 tracks long, it’s being praised as Blood Orange’s most personal album to date, although Hynes says that maybe we just know him better now. Or perhaps we’re just paying more attention. “The last record was completely my viewpoint, too. Maybe it’s that people know me more. So they can really see that’s it’s personal. It’s personal in a different way, because it’s more explorative of myself. This one is kind of going back in even deeper than myself and looking at my parents and before that. It’s trying to understand roots of things, musically and lyrically.”

The title derives its name from his father’s birthplace, the capital of Sierra Leone. His family is also referenced in the record’s lyrics.“My father was a young man, my mother off the boat, my eyes were fresh at 21, bruised but still afloat,” he sings sleekly in a track titled “Augustine”. It’s an earth-shattering song, laced with sorrow that calls to Saint Augustine over the death of Trayvon Martin. Along with religion, race, sexism, Hynes’ heritage is a recurrent theme of the expansive album. He tells me that his family’s role as muse on the record is the simply the result of passing time. “I’m just getting older, and I have more questions and thoughts,” says the songwriter. “I’ve been very aware lately of age. It’s always hard to discuss it without sounding incredibly morbid.”

Despite how Planet Pop, where remaining fuckable is part of the deal, wants its stars to remain growing older, Hynes has his own agenda. “I love age. I always have. I think it’s because I grew up with classical and jazz [music], where age is very different than in popular music. If I was to look at the career of a composer that I love and if I saw things he wrote in his 30s, I would view that as before he found his voice,” he explains. “As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that people that have been huge influences on me were really young when they died. I’m not talking 27, of like drug overdoses and shit like that. John Lennon, John Coltrane, Arthur Russell, all died at 40. Bob Marley died at 36. Shit is so crazy to me. So it’s been very heavy on my mind lately, and I’m trying to understand a lot of things to do with myself and my family, because I feel it’s important to know this stuff and try to work through it for my own benefit.”

Christianity and an “album of the year” may seem unrelated, but it’s an unlikely union made flesh by Hynes, who scrapes away at his own history with the observational curiosity of a scientist.“There’s a lot of looking at Christian upbringing and then rebelling against it. There’s different moments on the album that are looking at those periods, Roman-era Christianity and then even colonial Christianity in West Africa. It’s not in a sense of condemning or preaching, it’s just in the case of questioning. It’s very interesting to me.” What he’s getting at is bigger than religion: it’s the promise of hope. “Christianity was so strong in black households because of slave times, and it was always seen as this beacon of hope. Even if it was this Christianity that was handed down, the ideology was still seen as a beacon of hope. Like: ‘We’ll get through this shit, there’s a bigger plan, you know?’”

Later this summer, he’ll take on Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, too.“I like to let the album breathe and [go] from there, because I don’t do many shows. I like the shows to be really fun and entertaining for people that know the music. I love the idea of playing music no one’s heard; I would do it in situations where I just use my name. I love the idea of making music for a live situation, [but] I’ll never do that with Blood Orange because I think it’s a bad vibe when artists just play a bunch of new songs for people. When it comes to Blood Orange, I want to play it for people who have listened and want to hear it.” As summer rolls into fall, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound will be our anthem album. For now, Dev will be enjoying the splendour of his self-made utopia.

THE EMOTIVE AND IMPOSSIBLE TASK OF THE MUSIC OF DAVID BOWIE AT RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL

I reviewed the David Bowie tribute show at Radio City Hall for Noisey.

The blackstar tattoo on my chest, which I’d gotten hours after learning of his death, smeared with glitter for the occasion, glared as a security guard scanned me with a metal detector. A crippling wave of anxiety passed over. He is gone, I am here. Bowie, his music, and his unfathomable legacy occupied a massive room in my psyche, in all of ours. When I closed my eyes and envisioned a Bowie tribute I saw bodies pressed together in a dark and messy venue, the type of scene where it was appropriate to kiss a stranger on the mouth just to taste their tears and lipstick. For that dark glamour was what Bowie meant to me. One version of what a Bowie tribute should look like for every fan left behind. At Radio City Music Hall, this was a classy affair. Time to sit up straight and act like I’m allowed in public. With the formal posture of a funeral, we were all here to pay our respects.

It was the second day of memorial following a concert at Carnegie Hall, the original show announced coincidentally on the same day of his death, featuring many of the same performers. Debbie Harry, Pixies, Mumford & Sons, the Flaming Lips and a thorough list of additional “all-stars” were here to pay tribute to David Bowie, the star who was given a constellation as he left this world. Tickets to attend both nights were being sold for $3,000. Proceeds of the concerts benefit organizations such as Little Kids Rock and Grammy in the Schools. Less charitably, vendors outside Radio City capitalized by selling crookedly printed Bowie photos for $5.

The audience was an older crowd. I was seated among other journalists, based on the lack of enthusiasm and frantic pen scribbling. Right before one of the first acts, jazz artist Esperanza Spalding performing “If You Can See Me,” the hall’s magnificent silence was interrupted. Someone very original shouted “Free Bird!” Once the lid had been cracked, a few others would later on join in the fun by adding “Feel the Bern!”, which lead to other audience members loudly requesting they shut the fuck up.

It wasn’t until saxophonist Donny McCaslin performed “Lazarus,” with Mark Guiliana, Jason Lindner, and Tony Visconti, that the mood began to form. They had helped create Blackstar. Visconti has been involved with Bowie since his self-titled and second in 1969. It was clear I would cry tonight. Despite the decades of memories and cultural currency that come with Bowie’s classics, it was songs from Blackstar that took the night. Perhaps the rationalization of why we were all there was best told through his final album, released just two days before his death.

One of the most powerful moments of the night came from Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, and Anna Calvi with the Kronos Quartet who performed the title track “Blackstar.” Palmer and company created Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute shortly after learning the news of his death. It was a perfect performance, their bodies forming a star. My anxiety broke to tears. The audience collectively stood in ovation. Through the beauty of their performance they had demonstrated the weight of what Bowie had done with Blackstar – he gave us an internal gift, and the monumental task of doing it justice. Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, Anna Calvi and the Kronos Quartet did.

Along with Palmer, Michael Stipe was one of the strongest performances of the night. In beautifully depressive Stipe fashion, before he began, he asked the needed question into the microphone: “Why are we here?”

An enormous pause, enough to make anyone decent in attendance ponder the real price of their ticket. “A celebration,” is the answer Stipe gave. A few more words for Bowie, and then came the performance. “Ashes to Ashes” has been played an unfathomable number of times, but never like this. He stripped it down to the bones, whispering the lyrics, and perhaps the first time in a million listens I was hit with the weight of the demons Bowie felt:

“Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh, no, not again”

Stipe stole the show with his brutally honest performance. And after we had his blessing, no, orders to celebrate, both audience and performers did just that. Perry Farrell gave a lively rendition of “Rebel Rebel” full of repeated hat lifts and cheesing grins, during which everyone was up and dancing (an act requested by Rickie Lee Jones, who asked everyone to get on their feet and join her in “All the Young Dudes”), but there was a disconnect. Even Debbie Harry, a goddess that can do no wrong, left an itch unscratched in her rendition of “Heroes,” but she, and the others, had an impossible assignment. No one can be Bowie, we’re all chasing a ghost.

Other highlights of the night included The Pixies covering Bowie covering the Pixies with “Cactus” (spelling out B-O-W-I-E), which was throw-up-in-your mouth cool. The Polyphonic Spree in their glorious Kool-Aid robes reminded that “the sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” During their introduction we learned that Bowie affectionately referred to them as “the pretty polies,” a tidbit of newly discovered Bowie trivia that tickled my brain, imagining our hero coming up with the alliteration in his brilliant voice. Cat Power covered one of the greatest album openers of all time, the epic “Five Years.”

The show was well-orchestrated and ran right on time. When the end was near the Flaming Lips played their favorite, “Life on Mars?”, Wayne Coyne was projection-mapped while singing sitting on top of Chewbacca. Massive karaoke screens came down for the closing number, an enormous sing-a-long to “Space Oddity” lead by The New York City Children’s Chorus. The thousands of voices, from the little punks on the stage to those in the nosebleed seats pronouncing “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…” summed it up. He’s dead. We’re still here, struggling to make with peace with the blackstar left in our souls.

BOWIE DOWN, BITCHES: HOW DAVID BOWIE BECAME AN ICON FOR SEXUAL LIBERATION

I wrote this for Noisey in honor of the release of “Blackstar.”

As a kid sitting cross-legged on my parent’s rug, hearing “Heroes” for the first time was the auditory equivalent of falling in love. That was it. I’d found The One, and millions of other sexually confused kids and self-proclaimed weirdos, from 1969 right until this second—and for the foreseeable future—had too. We share a love affair to last a lifetime with our hero of many masks, David Bowie.

Like me, and others around the age of 30, I put a moving image to the voice when I saw Labyrinth. The celestial star of the 1986 film was a mulleted Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, but it was his Lycra-ensconced bulge that snagged the gaze. “Mommy, who is this man with the spiky long blonde hair, sequined jacket, and elaborate eye makeup, and why do his tight pants make me feel things?” As a kid, Labyrinth was pleasurably scary for reasons other than all those monster hands grabbing for a young Jennifer Connelly. It was a moment of sexual awakening inspired not by a Backstreet Boys poster taped to the wall, but by an androgynous man far too old for me, who so confidently wailed about someone called “Queen Bitch” (and did so while wearing lashings of gold lipstick). The fantasy he inspired wasn’t one of handholding, red roses, and longing glances exchanged, but rather, with Bowie as Jareth, the kidnapper fantasy began to tease our nascent eroticism. Likely not what director Jim Henson was going for, but hey, that was my experience.

As I grew up, discovered masturbation, and then began boning, for someone whose boner didn’t always jive with the heteronormative standard of attraction, there was no more comforting mantra than: “If Bowie did it, it must be OK.” Exclusively watching lesbian porn with strap-on dildos as a 19-year-old college kid in conservative North Carolina sure seems a lot less odd when reminding yourself that Bowie’s infamous ex-wife Angie supposedly found him in bed with Mick Jagger. But as an icon for the sexually different, Bowie’s role went far beyond his alleged bisexuality. It wasn’t just about what he proclaimed, it was about he presented himself too. Bowie’s the type of guy that can dress in drag such as on 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World cover, coquettishly cocking his head draped in long blonde curls (let us never forget that the man of many hairstyles was, at 17, founder of The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men). He’s the kind of artist unafraid to adopt the soft focus Hollywood glamour of 30s starlets, just as he did on 1971’s Hunky Dory (a clear nod to the moody shots of Marlene Dietrich like this one). And yet, somehow this glam Martian was a performer who all Earthlings admired—from straight dudes in suits to glitter-eyed gay boys.

Bowie first announced himself to the world with his eponymous ’67 debut as the very British, very pretty David Jones. His sound at the time a decidedly jaunty brand of psych-folk—just don’t put his name in the same sentence as “hippie,” a word he grew to detest. But, it wasn’t until ’69 with “Space Oddity” that he made his break into the mainstream, and the surreality within him began to emerge, leaving the old guard media flummoxed. On one 1972 episode of the BBC’s long-running live music show, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Bowie was intro-ed with a bemused voiceover which ran thusly: “This is the face the public wants… an ex-art student from Brixton who has turned himself into a bizarre self-constructed freak.” The same year legendary photographer Mick Rock snapped an electric live shot of Bowie simulating fellatio/flossing his teeth with some guitar strings, English music newspaper Melody Maker asked about Bowie’s affinity for women’s dresses, to which he responded, “Oh dear, you must understand that it’s not a woman’s—it’s a man’s dress.” Later in that same interview the singer exclaimed, “I’m not outrageous, I’m David Bowie.”

Glam rock embraced and celebrated androgyny, flamboyance, button-pushing and liberally applied makeup, but what’s remarkable about Bowie is that he didn’t remain trapped in the glittering amber of the genre. With his ever-changing guises he gave us the green light to explore our secret facets. Straight men could sashay with Ziggy, gay men could put on a suit and out-masculine everyone as the Thin White Duke. It’s practically moot to point out that his playful toying with imagery wouldn’t have had a mere smidgen of the impact it has, if Bowie’s music wasn’t as catchy as it was mind-warpingly progressive and emotionally resonant. Just revisit the Berlin Trilogy: as much as Bowie liked to downplay his skills as a musician, with these records he gave the world a sprawling masterpiece. Songs like “Always Crashing in the Same Car” revealed inner turmoil, messages of mental struggle that sound almost suicidal, of repeating mistakes and searching for identity. Low, the first in this triumvirate, is a sonic snapshot of his skin-shedding that would result in coming into a space to create Heroes, which communicates a much calmer and cohesive exhilaration.

In 1976 he gave an interview with Playboy where he stated: “It’s true—I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Fun, too.” He absolutely used it—in the way Mad Men portrayed Don Draper using his big-dicked sexual energy to cut swathes through the ad industry (and the ladies in his path). Nevertheless, it’s worth noting the bisexual identity is one he’d flip-flop on: at times he’d refer to himself as gay, then in 1983, he told Rolling Stone that coming out as bi was “the biggest mistake I ever made,” before going on to describe himself as a “a closet heterosexual.”

Labels aside, most biographies can agree he was experimental—and regarding sexuality, his exploration wasn’t simply regarding orientation. His infamously open relationship with Angie allegedly included a threesome on their wedding night according to one biography released last year, “Angie and David used to have the most amazing orgies.” Apparently they had a vast bed of called “The Pit.” Love didn’t have to fit in any box: it was much more “You like me and I like it all.” It didn’t even have to be a unary or static experience—love could be part of the equation of finding oneself. Forget love—David Bowie taught how to consistently fall in love, the hardest dragon to chase. And yeah, sex was part of this: Everyone wanted to fuck David Bowie and David Bowie made it OK to want to fuck everyone. Except to honor him only as an early champion of sexual and gender fluidity short-circuits his all-encompassing fluidity. With his ever-changing, always evolving image he made it OK to experiment not just with your sexuality, but with who you are. “It’s OK that in college I crossed state lines to see Phish and got a peace sign tattoo on my ass and now I look like a Kat Von D wannabe; I’m not borderline, I’m like David Bowie!”

Through my awkward and wild first years in New York City, flashes of memory include a 4 AM cuddle pile with both bi girls and bi boys, which went from simply masturbating to actually eating pussy, and then there was that one Halloween spent dressed as Ziggy Stardust, wobbling down the Westside Highway in the early hours with a buzzed brain to match. That night I’d wind up alone in the fetal position—“Rebel rebel, your face is a mess”—but I’d repeat the mantra: “If Bowie did it, it must be OK.” And as Bowie knew far too well—shedding your skin can be painful. “It’s OK to have had mental breakdowns and not leave my apartment for a week curled up on the floor screaming; David Bowie pulled that shit all the time in 1976.” Apparently he even kept his piss, hair, and nail clippings in his manager’s fridge because he thought someone was going to curse him. I even got his Aladdin Sane lightning bolt tattooed on my back. The tattoo artist reminded me also looked like the Gatorade logo halfway through. Ah the impulsivity of youth can be awkward.

Bowie would dip back into the dark place for Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)—often regarded to be a collage of his various personas and sounds thus far. He’d appear oddly conventional with 1983’s “Let’s Dance,” and well, yeah, yeah, there was that yellow sweater and goatee, and no one even talks about Tin Machine, but Bowie would grow up and impress again with 2002’s Heathen. His musical aesthetic and over-arching philosophical DNA is traceable from Boy Gorge to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and today, when he drops shit—like yesterday’s creepy 10 minute video for “Blackstar”—everyone still pays attention. David Bowie is the rock god who neither burnt out nor faded away. For all his experimentation, he never apologized. He could use different labels to describe himself and his sexuality because that was his muse at the moment: he leaned into his inclinations with his whole thin frame. The fact that he sobered up and settled down and married Iman shouldn’t be taken as Bowie losing his edge. Who wants to bet the 68-year-old’s had Iman dress up like Ziggy and enjoyed enacting some really fucked up fantasies like, this week? Perhaps he was always a “closeted heterosexual”—who knows?—but in a world where people are now adopting and inventing increasingly complex labels from “demi-girl who identifies with the female binary” or “a graysexual panromantic transman,” labels which at times need more explaining than acting as an explainer, Bowie appears even more forward thinking. He learned long ago that a label or alliance will eventually mutate or be shrugged off, and that his strength is just existing as it pleases him there and then. For those who’ve felt the pains of society’s razor sharp cookie-cutter, Bowie is a beacon. Try this mantra: “I’m not outrageous, I’m David Bowie.”