The stage was bare and dark as we waited. A girl in a green raincoat, sleeves rolled up with the white lining material over pale wrists, a plain black hairtie around one of them, walked on with a guitar. She gave her guitar a few chords, as if we were sitting in her living room. « I’m just trying to talk to you », she would say later, between songs. We just wanted to listen.
It was a cold night in Lisbon. The sun had been showing its spring all day, chasing the clouds away. But the evening chill had chilled Angel Olsen’s hands, which were cold, she told us after opening the solo set with a cool and haunting version of « You Only Live Twice« by Nancy Sinatra.
Angel Olsen at ZDB, Lisbon, 17th March 2016 © Vera Marmelo
The venue is what you might call an art complex – concert hall, exhibition space, bookshop, performance arts studio – except that the term ‘art complex’ might conjure a structure of institutional hubris, made of glass and gleaming chrome. Zé Dos Bois, or ZDB, is instead an 18th century palace in the heart of Lisbon’s beautiful old town, the Bairro Alto. It is the site of Angel Olsen’s only European concert scheduled in 2016.
In 2015 she played two solo shows as part of the 150 events they organised at ZDB last year. She had first caught their attention when she came to Lisbon to play with Bonnie Prince Billy, and this spring she is in Lisbon for a two-week residency of writing and recording.
For the many people who love her songs, learning the lyrics like incantations, the prospect of new work from this residency is tantalising. They were all there tonight, as the concert had been sold out for over a month, and you could feel emotion rise from the familiar opening chords of the second song, « Iota » .
This version of « Iota » wasn’t the one we knew from the record, as she added and removed words, chords and bars with equal generosity and audacity. It was like seduction, as she delayed the parts of the song that we know, holding back from what we wanted to hear. This second song thus set the scene of the concert as being a questioning of a performance: we came to hear a song. She played us the song. But the song was simultaneously the one we knew, and a completely new and different one.
The next song was one we hadn’t heard before, with lyrics about wanting to be special, to be someone… The plea to « love me whenever it’s out of season » sang to the heart of this old European capital in its cold spell.
It was a beautiful song and we liked it and clapped, but she seemed to sense something, and explained, « I’m going to sing the songs that you know… but also the songs that I know ». A curious show of unease that later made so much sense. For Angel Olsen, it was problematic to reproduce these songs from the past that she now considered not to « know » anymore in the same way. Like having to have dinner with a former lover whom you haven’t thought about for years.
The lyrics to ‘White Fire’ at ZDB, 17th March 2016 © Vera Marmelo
« Does anyone have any stories? », she asked us.
« I was born! » exclaimed a man in the audience in Portuguese-accented English.
« Well I was born too, » she said, « so I guess we have a similar story… but I was born yesterday, so… »
She went into « Acrobat« , which is where her voice and playing had really warmed up. We recognised her now, fully and beautifully. The volume on the microphone, too strong at the start, was now corrected. The gain was still up high, giving the characteristic reverb that sends her voice into the past and back again. It was hot in the room, but we had begun to shiver.
The next song we didn’t know, and it must have been a new one, in which she sings to someone, asking them « was it another? with a heart-shaped face? » The lyric « you never needed someone to raise you up out of your mind » hung in the air after the song had ended.
Now the reverb on the mike was no longer distracting; instead it had become a meditative drone for her voice to soar above. The mike is now so sensitive to her voice that she can circle around behind it, like a bird trapped in a room.
« I always like to ask people what they drink », she said.
« Beer! » people shouted.
« You don’t drink that orange port stuff? You know, the stuff they give to people who aren’t from here? »
It was interesting her commenting on that feeling of superficial welcome, of alienation, that tourism and, we suppose, touring, can bring. And significant that she has chosen to come to ZDB for a residency, to spend two weeks writing rather than just giving a couple of shows and moving on. We picked up on her strong connection with the place and the people who run it, whom she thanked warmly.
Angel Olsen soundcheck at ZDB, Lisbon, 17th March 2016 © Vera Marmelo
Next she played us a song which we can’t remember because we were so enchanted that we momentarily forgot to take notes. Then she played Always Half Strange. She pressed the chords like a reflexologist pressing pressure points. Afterwards, though, she undermined the prevailing intensity by saying she couldn’t remember it: « I wrote that when I was, like, 16. I had to look it up on the internet or something. »
If we didn’t respond enough as an audience, it wasn’t because we didn’t appreciate her dry, self-deprecating humour. It was that some of us in Lisbon didn’t have sharp enough English to fully understand her tone. And the rest of us were too intoxicated by the music to react much, as her voice is stunning and made us felt like being quiet.
But something seemed to be upsetting her. It was as if she found it strange, the idea of us paying money to have her perform songs she had written a while ago and which, she claimed, she didn’t know anymore. Perhaps she didn’t realise that when she played them we felt like she knew them with her whole body. The room vibrated with the words as if they were improvised. But somehow, we felt guilty about making her play the songs, watching her at a distance of two metres. Her huge and unblinking eyes shined with what looked like tears, but which were just made by the stark lighting.
Angel Olsen at ZDB, Lisbon, 17th March 2016 © Vera Marmelo
Apparently in search for new material, to counter the feeling of rehearsing the past, she asked us what we wanted to hear.
« Pearl Jam! » someone said.
« There you go, that is something I know », she replied.
Like an artist who can’t explain how they make what they do, her songs seem to go beyond her own abilities. Some of them, she played rather approximatively, like someone at a party with a guitar. This questions the idea of performance: to perform an extremely personal song to a room full of strangers, when the songs meanings have changed or become lost with time. The chords come from a past creative phase. Between two albums, she was at ZDB to create a future of possible music, which we were all waiting for. But this curious temporality of being in-between times is perhaps what created the strange atmosphere.
The song « White Fire » which came next contains the line that gives the title of the album, ‘Burn your fire for no witness, it’s the only way it’s done’. I noticed the stop between the word ‘it’s’ and ‘done’. Not ‘itsdone’. But ‘it’s. Done.’ She pronounced the ‘d’ the way you have to overpronounce the final consonant of a word when singing in an echoing church.
This is the way she sings it on the record, and yet, here is was even more pronounced. Like a sense of foreboding that you assume is just for effect. But to our dismay, it really was done. In the next beat after the silence that ended the song, she told us ‘I think that’s all I have’, and left the stage. Without ceremony, to applause whose lightness came only from bemusement. We were sure that she hadn’t understood how good it was, and how much we would have wanted her to continue.
The experience of listening to Angel Olsen perform live in a small venue, alone on the stage, was like a conversation that leaves both parties – when it’s too late to make reparations – with the desolate feeling of being misunderstood. We wondered whether this were inherent to the lone singer/audience relationship. The songs are sad; we weren’t going to whoop and cheer; our encouragement could only be expressed through silent concentration. And yet the fragility which came from her in waves of electricity seemed to cause her to stutter out. Without a more conventional audience response, our directly asking her to, she wasn’t going to give us any more.
The second half of the concert happened in our heads as we sang the other songs we loved to the white cobblestones on the walk home through the Lisbon night.
Angel Olsen’s album Burn Your Fire for No Witness is available to download here
ZDB website with upcoming shows