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Angel Olsen: Half-Artist, Half-Advocate

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Angel Olsen’s career has been a case study in steady and rewarding upward advancement.

She started as backup singer for freak-folk icon Bonnie Prince Billy before shifting into a career as a solo performer, focusing on sparse, delicate acoustic offerings. She gained widespread acclaim for her 2014 album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, a harrowing, inky record of self-reflection. Two years later, she drew even greater applause for MY WOMAN, a bold and empowering album that represented an ideological and sonic U-turn from her prior releases.

Along the way, the folk troubadour picked up more fans, gained fame and recognition, expanded the size of her band and sound, and moved on to bigger live venues. While the support and praise was nice, Olsen concedes that something tugged at her — a nostalgic itch that had her thinking wistfully of her younger, halcyon days.

“I began to really miss the quiet times when I used to hang out in my apartment and write songs by myself and I would just go and play them at a coffee shop that my friends ran,” says Olsen, who lives and works in Asheville, N.C. “That’s something that I’ve missed, as my band and my name kind of got bigger, I’ve kind of lost that intimate setting. I love having the band with me, but I don’t get to see people as much, I don’t get to say hi at the merch table or anything. I really want to be more interactive now.”

That desire to reconnect with her past acted as the impetus for Olsen’s latest tour, a collection of solo performances in atypically intimate venues. She kicks off the jaunt in Northern California, starting with a performance at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur on Sept. 7. After a gig at the Old Redwood Barn at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma on Sept. 8, Olsen stops in San Francisco for a Sept. 10 show at the Nourse Theater, a venue that usually hosts lectures and classical-music concerts.

Olsen says the tour will be an opportunity to play her older material, namely from her 2010 EP, Strange Cacti, and her 2012 full-length debut, Half Way Home. She will also play some cover songs, unreleased material from her next album and reimagined versions of tracks from Burn Your Fire and MY WOMAN.

In addition to creating a communal atmosphere at her shows, Olsen’s tour acts as a staging ground for her advocacy and humanitarian efforts. Through a partnership with PLUS1, one dollar from each ticket goes to Direct Relief, a global antipoverty organization, and each stop on the tour will include representatives from NextGen America, a nonprofit that helps register young voters.

“This is my way of not only contributing to something I care about, but also by doing this, I can show other artists in my position that this is so easy to do,” says Olsen. “Saying you know about something and you hate it is not enough. We have to do something about it — to act. I have this platform and I feel like I have to do something with it. I can’t just take videos of my cat. Well, I will still do that — I’ll just encourage people to vote at the same time.”

Olsen has never been an overtly political artist, preferring to detail the raging turmoil inside her head instead of the drama being played out on the streets. Her new material will continue in that vein, plumbing the depths of her psyche as she grapples with the various conflicts in her life. While recent events may be creating anxiety and unease for creative people across the nation, Olsen’s always had to live with personal discomforts — levels of pain that she translates so evocatively in her emotive, candid musical offerings.

“In my world — the one that I exist in, my little bubble — there has always been something not good happening,” says Olsen. “But that’s what drives me. I can’t only focus on that and feel exhausted and allow myself to be ruled by it. I’ll never get anything done — and that’s just fucking lazy.”

How that personal discord translates into the new material is still being decided. Olsen says she is torn between pursuing the more full-throated approach of MY WOMAN — an album that featured a full band and blown-out arrangements — or the sparser, delicate stylings that marked her earlier work. She’s also undecided on when she’ll get into the studio to begin recording the work.

Either way, the music will certainly be honest, sincere, and searching — hallmarks of Olsen’s probing discography. And that is truly the experience of listening to her material. She may bemoan the lack of personal touch that signified her recent live experiences, but true fans appreciated her regardless. While it may be nice to shoot the breeze with her at the merch table, you don’t need to chat with Angel Olsen to feel a special connection to her music.

Angel Olsen, Monday, Sept. 10, Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St. $33.50-$46, cityboxoffice.com

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Will Reisman

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