The Washington Post

Old soul Angel Olsen — playing the Rock and Roll Hotel on Thursday — has an ear tuned toward the future

Angel Olsen’s advice: If you’re sad and you know it, high-five! (Zia Anger)

“I feel so lonesome I could cry,” Angel Olsen sings on “Hi-Five,” a standout track off her latest album, “Burn Your Fire for No Witness.”

After she wrote it, Olsen, 27, thought to herself: “I think that’s in a song already.”

Well, it’s basically the title of one of Hank Williams’s most oft-covered standards, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” But where Williams wallowed in his loneliness, Olsen wryly celebrates it: “Are you lonely, too?” she howls over crunchy guitar. “Hi-five, so am I!”

The song is at once reverent and rebellious, caught between eras.

“Because I’m changing where the direction goes,” Olsen says, “I feel like I’m going back in time and then waking up from that and being like, ‘This is how it would be now, if these type of songs were written now.’ ”

With her haunting warble, the indie-folk artist updates the happy-go-lovelorn twang of Patsy Cline, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood with a visceral existential angst.

“The way that I sing, the things that inspire me are definitely from the past and the future,” Olsen says. “I feel like it’s OK to experiment and just embrace it, instead of running from it.”

Olsen, who was raised in St. Louis, Mo., by foster parents roughly 50 years her senior, has an affinity for the older music played in her childhood home.

“I was listening to ’90s music, or I was listening to ’50s and ’60s music,” Olsen says. “It just stuck with me. [Back then] people sang really beautiful harmonies. The words were really clever and there were really intelligently written country songs that were poppy and addressed certain things that were really funny.”

But Olsen’s relentlessly brooding lyrics and tone on “Burn Your Fire” create an eerie tension between her stark songcraft and the wistfulness of the oldies she pays tribute to.

“I think, ‘Wow, this is really dark sometimes,’  ” Olsen says. “But is it dark? Or is it just that somebody is giving it power by putting it into a song? People think about these things all the time, they just don’t sing about [them].”

Olsen’s raw honestly helps her connect with an audience.

“Everybody’s been a little depressed in their life,” she says. “As long as anybody writes a depressing song, somebody is gonna relate to it. Pain is just easier to describe. If you were to describe happiness, then you might dissect it into nothingness and then you wouldn’t be happy because you’ve dissected it.”

Instead, Olsen carefully mines enlightenment from despair. Who wouldn’t high-five to that?

Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE; Thu., 8 p.m., sold out; 202-388-7625.



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Beth Marlowe · May 14, 2014