Angel Olsen started out playing the coffeehouse circuit in St. Louis and established herself as a solo performer in Chicago after her first EP and album. But now the newly minted Ashville, N.C., resident is also a band leader, and it's opened up her sound in a way that seemed completely out of reach two years ago.
On her latest and best album, "Burn Your Fire for No Witness" (Jagjaguwar), Olsen splits the difference between her intimate, solo past and her previously hidden inner rocker in tandem with Chicago-based drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Stewart Bronaugh.
"I always thought I would never be able to keep rhythm because I'd be distracted by a band," Olsen says. "When I play solo I can really zone out. But I developed a communication with Josh and Stewart live. If I forgot a lyric, I'd look at them, we'd just go for it and improvise. They're perceptive, reaching out to me with a lot of energy. They made it seem so easy. It took me so long to find that kind of mutual feeling with other musicians."
Olsen was coming off her acclaimed first album, "Half Way Home," in 2012 when she started working with Jaeger. "He asked me if I needed a drummer, and when we got together, it was amazing he knew the songs," she says. "He'd listened to the material and figured out drum parts. Everyone I had previously played with, it was 'Let's jam.' And I'd have to say, 'No, I'm going on tour, let's practice.' He put effort into learning something that wasn't there and trying to make it sound as subtle as possible, not overdoing it."
On tour, she began rearranging her older songs with the rhythm section and breaking in new material. Progress was gradual. Only when she began recording "Burn Your Fire for No Witness" with producer John Congleton last year did she realize how far the trio had progressed. "This record was like looking into the mirror for the first time and seeing what we were, what we sounded like," she says.
Congleton, who has worked with artists such as St. Vincent and David Byrne, also helped open up Olsen's sound. "It was strange at first," she says. "I'd always done everything myself or worked with a friend I really trusted. It was weird to think of time like money, and using a studio, and how someone can have a decision about what they want you to sound like. But I was opinionated enough to get my feelings across. I told myself I wanted to do something in between my first EP and 'Half Way Home.' The first one was really reverberant, the second bare and minimal. (Congleton) took sounds from both of those albums and brought them together in an interesting way, adding reverb on guitar instead of my voice on certain things, and using reverse reverb and creating some surprises in the tracks. He left his touch on our music, but not in an overwhelming way."
The constants are Olsen's incisive, emotionally transparent songwriting and soaring vocals. She always knew she could sing – her voice has earned comparisons to classic stylists such as Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. But experiences such as touring and recording a few years ago with Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham) have helped her mature as a stylist.
"I never had formal voice training, but I learned as I went," she says. "Working with Will helped stretch my voice. I learned how to use falsetto and use my voice in a way that was different than the way I would when singing my own music. I couldn't be intrusive, but blend in. In a similar way, I notice if people sing in cover bands, they use their voices more confidently than with their own music. I've learned from all those experiences. I don't hold back as much, I feel more relaxed and I sing less flowery, more straightforward. I know I'm capable of doing certain things but it's not always necessary to do those backflips. It's important to project what you hear instead of hiding from it."
It's helped her develop a career that she always wanted but never thought she could attain. "I always thought I would be a performer," she says. "I thought about theater, but ended up liking writing my own music a lot more. I didn't think I'd end up at this level. I thought I'd be working at a cafe and doing this whenever I had time. I'm surprised I'm doing it at this level."
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $14; lincolnhallchicago.com
Other recommended shows
Bladerunner: Avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn joins forces with bassist Bill Laswell and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo in a dream instrumental power trio, encompassing everything from free jazz to metal. The group debuted at a festival in Australia, and this is its first Midwestern appearance. 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday at Reggies Rock Club, 2109 S. State St., $60, $100, $125; reggieslive.com
Queens of the Stone Age: Josh Homme and company released their first album since 2007 last year, "…Like Clockwork," and it proved worth the wait – a distillation of all the hard-edged quirkiness and power the band has perfected in its career, plus a more vulnerable and introspective touch in the songwriting. 8 p.m. Monday and May 9 at the Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence Ave., $36.50; jamusa.com
Greg Kot cohosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).