Indie's old soul on pandemic life, her stripped-down new album, and beyond
Tonight, I’m going undercover as one of the 695 people in the Angel Olsen Cosmic Stream group chat. My code name? Virginia. My mission?
Under normal circumstances, profiling an artist involves immersing oneself in their world. Maybe you visit their home, their haunts, the bar they used to frequent before they broke big. Maybe you ask them questions while they’re trying to eat before a chirpy PR person shows up to whisk them off to the next interview. Maybe you feel like you know them by the end of the chat or maybe you feel like you know how they want you to see them, and that’s good enough.
These are not normal circumstances, which is why I’m watching Olsen perform from the comfort of my bedroom, approximately 853 miles away from the Asheville Masonic Temple where she plays an arresting set of mostly old songs. This is one of several remote performances she’s done lately, many of them fundraisers for various causes and for her band members who were forced off the road when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This show is presented by Swing Left. In the group chat, fans gush over their favorite songs and react to Olsen’s acerbic (but charming!) quips. More than one user is proudly “sobbing.”
After singing the final words of “Miranda” from her debut full-length Half Way Home, Olsen looks into the camera and slyly says: “Don’t know who I wrote that song about, but they probably didn’t deserve it.”
She smirks; she smiles; the chat goes wild.
What the rapt, if distant, audience doesn’t know is that Olsen will release another album in September, her first recorded without a full band since Half Way Home arrived in 2012. It’s called Whole New Mess, and it comprises stripped-back versions of the songs that made up Olsen’s most recent album, 2019’s staggering All Mirrors, in addition to two previously unreleased tracks. Recorded to tape using only guitar and organ, Whole New Mess is an intimate collection, one that welcomes the listener in, allowing them to feel as if they are in the room with her. And now that Olsen’s certifiably huge and we’re in the midst of a pandemic, this is probably the closest any of her fans are going to get to being in a room with her, at least for a while.
When Olsen plays the opening chords of “Unfucktheworld,” the chat is aflutter. Tentatively, Virginia poses a question to the group: “Where were you when you first heard this song?”
The responses are few, but they are hyper-specific: sammy was “somewhere in my 97 camry”; ILoveFirstAvenue was “spinning the vinyl in my living room in my old home”; JorJorBinks was “in San Francisco and it was a cloudy and dark day.”
Music of any kind induces nostalgia — this is proven — but Olsen’s can transport a person quicker than most. Her voice has a vintage patina most often compared to Roy Orbison or Patsy Cline, artists who spoke to a particular moment in time but also exist outside of it. Like her forebears, Olsen’s songs can be melancholic and yearning, but defiantly so; the scorned, the lovelorn, and the forgotten flock to her. When I hear “Unfucktheworld” I take a Proustian tumble down a memory well — suddenly I’m 20 years old and blubbering on CalTrain because I miss someone and they don’t miss me back. This is Olsen’s superpower. She knows it.
“I don’t feel like a better person for being able to articulate or sing about these things,” Olsen mused when we met over Zoom for the first time in early July, our respective homes serving as backdrops. Behind her: a pink wall, a small cactus. Behind me: an unmade bed, a sleeping dog. Bad connections on both ends caused a slight lag that led us to hear one another in delay, as if waiting on an echo. When Olsen speaks of her work she’s slow and methodical, which means with technical difficulties she’s even slower, even more methodical. On paper she’s all ellipses punctuated by “you knows” and a half-laugh, half-smirk that I’m tempted to refer to as a “chuckle” though it definitely isn’t one. “I’ve always been somebody who can be intuitive about other people but when it comes to me … I’ve got my own shit, I’ve got my own issues.”
Whole New Mess is about some of that shit, some of those issues. It emerged from a period of relative turmoil: Olsen’s relationship with a longterm partner had ended, which she described as a “divorce,” and the release of her third full-length, 2016’s My Woman, catapulted her to a level of notoriety that was exciting but not without its problems. There she was, photographed flashing the peace sign next to Miley Cyrus and playing late night TV while her personal life — and yes, she does try to maintain one of those — was in tatters. Come fall of 2018, Olsen decided it was time to record the songs she’d been working on in the years since My Woman and her B-sides and covers album Phases came out. She knew it would be an emotionally grating process and that she would need someone she trusted by her side.
Enter Michael Harris, the Electro-Vox engineer who worked with Olsen on My Woman and with whom she shared a deeper connection than most professional relationships allow for. The two stayed close after those sessions and Olsen started sending Harris her demos, a habit that continues to this day. She told him she wanted to get a feel for these particular songs without having to also lead a band, to record them in a way that might give the listener a glimpse at the rawness of the original demos. “I needed someone to exorcise the songs out of me in the best way possible. I know that sounds dramatic … but I was really depressed at the time,” Olsen’s furrowed brow loosened. “Michael is such a sweet, thoughtful human but he’s also just a guy with a plan.”
Together, the friends searched for a room that would suit the skeletal demos Olsen had shared and they settled on the Unknown, a recording studio and occasional event space owned by Phil Elverum and Nicholas Wilbur. Located in Anacortes, WA and built in the early 1900s, the Unknown was once a Catholic church, and it is maybe a little bit haunted. This seemed ideal; Olsen was a little bit haunted, too. “These songs were still in me. I was still feeling a lot of the stuff that I was singing about,” Olsen searched for the right words before continuing on. “It was a hard experience. It was emotional.”
In order to mine the subtext of these songs, Olsen had to extricate herself from her usual surroundings and treat the Unknown like a residency. Hard as the experience was, it gave her the clarity she needed. Soon after finishing Whole New Mess, Olsen traveled to Los Angeles, where she recorded the songs again, this time accompanied by a 12-piece string section in collaboration with the orchestral composer Jherek Bischoff and the arranger Ben Babbit. The finished product was the critically-acclaimed All Mirrors, an album that can be described as “cinematic,” “ornate,” and “mystifying” without exaggeration.
I’ve always been somebody who can be intuitive about other people but when it comes to me … I’ve got my own shit, I’ve got my own issues.
The first time I listened to All Mirrors I was checking my email, enjoying the quiet murmurings of the opening track “Lark,” when the trembling strings tightened and Olsen’s voice, initially gentle, ballooned to a bellow. I yanked my headphones off, ears ringing, and adjusted the volume. My first thought was something like, “Whoa she is really YELLING!” When I told her this she laughed, then cocked an eyebrow and deadpanned: “It’s scary.”
On Whole New Mess, “Lark Song” still startles, but it doesn’t require all that much to do so. The enormity of Olsen’s voice, the texture in it, is enough to make you stop whatever you’re doing to pay attention. When I hear it I imagine her standing on the altar and performing for a phantom congregation, her words ricocheting off the ceiling and causing the room to vibrate. Without an orchestra, it becomes possible to hear them even more urgently, which seems important: Olsen has said that “Lark” is about verbal abuse and the way language can be weaponized to make even the loudest person feel small.
“Angel has probably the most powerful voice of anybody I’ve ever met, or really ever listened to, in terms of its range,” Harris told me as he recounted the residency in Anacortes, an experience described as “lightning in a bottle-y,” akin to magic. Acoustically, a church is designed to amplify the choir, which makes it a particularly dynamic, if somewhat difficult, space to record an album in. “Even in a big studio, you don’t have that same depth of field, that three-dimensionality.” The unconventional venue made experimentation not only possible but necessary in order to capture the intensity of these songs. From Harris’ perspective, this was a non-issue: “If there’s someone you’d want to dive in the deep end with, it’s Angel. She’s so down.”
“What was your very first impression of her?” I asked.
“She’s commanding and she’s kind. Both of those things, immediately.”
To get to know a person, talk to their friends. In Olsen’s case, her collaborators are her friends, because she can’t work with people she doesn’t connect with and has no time for the “ladder-climbing” or “transactional” aspects of the entertainment industry. Cinematographer Ashley Connor has known Olsen since they were both hungry 23-year-olds, and she’s made the bulk of Olsen’s videos. When I spoke to Connor over the phone, she remembered the days spent shooting the ambitious video for “Lark” in North Carolina, which were disastrous: It rained constantly, Connor broke her wrist, and then she fell out of a moving car. When the small crew drove 10 hours to the coast to shoot some footage of Olsen running with wild horses along the beach, there were few wild horses in sight.
“The horses we found were, like, eating trash,” Connor said, laughing. “It basically culminated in me finding this one sad horse who was walking along the beach and then after I shot it I just fell on the sand with Angel and we were crying, holding each other. It was cathartic. We were like, ‘We got one horse! We came all this way, there’s one fucking horse!'” Then, Connor picked up her camera and filmed Olsen with tears in her eyes. It ended up being the video’s closing shot. “I don’t think somebody else could’ve made that video with her ’cause she might not trust them in the same way that we trust each other,” Connor said. “We like the human element. We like the possibility of failure.”
From a critical standpoint, Olsen’s career has been bereft of failure. Since her sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was released in 2014, she’s been anointed by year-end best lists, and though her aesthetics evolve album to album, she hasn’t buried the core aspect of her songwriting that makes her work feel irreplaceable, already canon. After My Woman came out, Olsen used her publishing money to buy a house in Asheville’s historic Montford district, which would’ve been unthinkable just a few years earlier. She describes her experience thus far as “lucky,” but, “There’s a lot of invisible work that plays into being a musician … I have to kind of forgive myself ’cause I didn’t plan on becoming a businesswoman.”
Whole New Mess has given Olsen an opportunity to reflect back on the foundational days of her career, when she was still known to many as “the girl who sings with Will Oldham.” “I don’t think that I owe him anything really, but I think that that time was super important, and I got to see how a band works as an outsider who the spotlight wasn’t completely centered on,” she said. As a conversationalist, Olsen is a dry wit — if you’re not intimidated by her, you’re lying — but she can also be disarmingly earnest. “When I think about this solo material, I reflect on this time when things were a lot simpler and people were really listening to the words. Now that things are bigger and there’s so much expectation to be interesting and new it’s really important to me to remember that people wanna hear something that’s just barebones sometimes. Because that’s where I started, you know?”
Now, Olsen’s 33 and as she puts it: “I just keep cuttin’ my baby bangs and hoping for the best.” A decade into her career, those early songs don’t bring up searing emotions, though the perceived sorrow of her early work has been noted — so much so that the My Woman press cycle seemed to be hellbent on convincing the world that ACTUALLY Angel Olsen is very happy. When I ask her how she feels about the material on her first EP Strange Cacti or Half Way Home now, she takes a moment to think and then says: “They’re just memories, like when I used to ride my bike everywhere in Chicago. For me, they’re pockets of time that hold those memories.”
It’s an infernally hot Friday in mid-July and Olsen calls me from one of her regular walks along a greenway in Asheville. She’s sweating and drinking a smoothie, which I imagine is also sweating. An orchid grows wild and Olsen stops in the middle of a sentence to admire it, describing an adjacent blackberry (or maybe it’s elderberry?) bush to me. Her rendering is like the beginning of a long-winded story: “So, I’m walking on the greenway and I see this beautiful orchid… ”
Olsen isn’t big on FaceTime — she reserves it mainly to put her best friends on blast when they don’t answer her texts. Before the orchid made itself known, she’d been telling me about those friends, one of whom she hesitates to mention because a journalist got her all wrong the last time: “I hate to talk about my friends because maybe people will misquote me or I’ll slip and say something weird and then my friends are in what I’m in and they didn’t ask for it.” Her tone is affable, but the protective instinct is there and it is fierce. Technically, Olsen moved to Asheville from Chicago because she fell in love with someone who owned a record shop in town, but long after the relationship ended this is still the only home she can imagine. Being there feels easy. Few things do.
Certainly, the world, and Olsen’s life, have shifted a great deal since she recorded Whole New Mess. I ask her whether the songs still hold the same emotional intensity for her a few years on. She says no, not all of them, then puts on a goofy, professorial tone: “I have a whole new mess of things I’m depressed about now!” In all seriousness, “Performing them solo does hold a different intimacy, and I connect to [my songs] in a really different way than when I’m onstage with a band and I’m worried about keeping time or listening for changes.”
During the All Mirrors shows, Olsen performed with a six piece band, incorporating violin, piano, and cello. Ending the run of shows early was an obvious disappointment but at the same time, “I feel this huge relief that I don’t have to continue to wear my hair up in this huge fuckin’ way for a year and a half and wear the same dress. Even though it’s a beautiful dress, I can just be myself for a minute. And I think part of what’s been fun about Whole New Mess is that it is relaxed.”
Originally, Olsen planned to release both albums at the same time, but decided against it because the two felt like different entities rather than opposite sides of the same coin. While the visual aesthetic of All Mirrors transformed Olsen into a Lynchian lounge singer, the Whole New Mess look is less full-on, a bit closer to how Olsen dresses divorced from her stage persona. In the video for the title track, she wears a striped ’80s suit jacket with shoulder pads. Her formerly huge hair is soaking wet and limp.
“I don’t wear the suit every day, I’ll be honest. It’s too hot,” she quips. “I feel very androgynous even though I don’t look that way. I think part of me is just coming to terms with my sexuality and where I feel like I fit in my world. I wanted to embrace something that was a little less ’60s pinup. I don’t think either one is bad. I just wanted to share different parts of the spectrum of what it means to be feminine or what it means to be in the middle or flirting with the idea of being masculine.”
“Can you go deeper on that?” I ask.
“I feel like somebody who can switch back and forth. Ever heard of a switch?”
I can just be myself for a minute. And I think part of what’s been fun about Whole New Mess, is that it is relaxed.
“Whole New Mess” is about that struggle to go deeper, to re-enter the public eye every couple of years to explain your existence in a way that is easily digested and cast into narrative form. The hiss of room tone and a lone guitar cradles Olsen as she sings: “Take a photo for the press/ It won’t be long before it’s really showing.” There’s a guardedness to her that can come across as aloof, but my impression is that she thinks carefully about most things, including how much of herself she’s willing to expose to people who already “think they know [me].” The Angel Olsen subreddit points to this: “The only rules are to not be a dick 🙂 and respect Angel’s personal information/life.”
Olsen says the hardest part about doing this process is looking at it later. She overanalyzes the woman on the page and criticizes her, wonders if that is how she really comes across, wishes she didn’t start talking about any number of things that could lead her to seem less like herself. This is probably true of most interview subjects, but not many will readily admit it. “Sometimes you get a little lost in it or you get a little bit sad about it,” Olsen says about the expectations that come with getting and staying big. “There does come a time when I’m like, ‘Man! The day is gone and I’ve just been talking about myself. I can’t even remember the things that I said.'”
By now, it’s late afternoon and the air hangs heavy with humidity. Olsen’s breathing grows increasingly more labored on the other end of the line and she apologizes, narrating her trudge uphill. She’s on her way to see a friend’s new house, a small thing to celebrate in the midst of much uncertainty. Before we say goodbye, I ask Olsen if there’s anything we haven’t touched on that she thinks I should know. About the record, about herself. The line goes momentarily quiet save for the sound of her breathing. “Just know that I care.”
No matter how far Olsen’s words and songs might stray from her, you would never believe otherwise.
Whole New Mess is out 8/28 via Jagjaguwar.