Angel Olsen knows who she is now and knows that she, just as everyone else, will always change. Her albums are benchmarks, for that matter, pivotal moments wherein the page is turned from one chapter to the next. Whoever listens to All Mirrors, the latest album by the singer from Asheville, North Carolina, might just get the feeling that they’ve skipped a chapter. She’ll happily bring you up to speed, but know that you’ll never have to fully understand her, if only because the Olsen on the album is a different one. A conversation – with the real Olsen – about (self) perception.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: David van Dartel
First day of interviews, Amsterdam. It is late June and with more than four months to go until the release of her fourth studio album All Mirrors, Angel Olsen is at the start of what will be a very long press tour. Time and again, interview by interview, explaining in detail what lies behind the record, where ever that musical flight forward did come from, how she is doing now. She lets out a tentative sigh as she thinks of London, her next destination. “London journalists are into a very different kind of journalism. They have a huge tabloid culture there, rely heavily on personal stories. I always have a good time in London, but when I'm gone I think: huh, I've only talked about the things I didn't want to talk about."
Not that it will leave Olsen with deep regrets. “Headstrong”, she likes to call herself, someone who prefers to have complete control over her music and what happens to it. She edits her own videos, determines the light show of her live shows, and wrote her own biography for this album. Nothing happens without her direct input, everything has to be "in touch", convey what her precise intention has been, and yet in the hour that I sit across from her she repeatedly tells me that she is at peace with how much her music takes on a life of its own once it’s out there. In fact, Olsen says, “I don't care enough about what others write about me to worry.”
In that regard, All Mirrors was an exercise in letting go. Olsen hardly had any idea what she wanted to do after MY WOMAN (2016), except that she wanted to do everything herself, without a band. “I love MY WOMAN and I still prefer the way we recorded that record completely live. But it was such a weird time for me – I don't want to go into it any further, but I had a lot of relationship problems, health stuff, family stuff, life stuff – and I really wanted to do something different. I had no idea that I would be working with strings and synths. All I knew was that I wanted to make a double album, half of which would be solo and acoustic, and the other half would be 'something else' – with the same songs.”
“I don't have to do interviews anymore. I don't have to be here, but I want to be here because I care about what I've done and I want to talk about it."
The record Olsen recorded in October 2018 at Phil Elverum's (Mount Eerie, The Microphones) studio in Anacortes, Washington was miles removed from the version as it appears now, a year later. “I had recorded all the songs in their rawest form, with no one else involved yet. I had recorded the songs as they were.” It then enabled her to open up the music to the influence of others. She sent some rough recordings to her good friend Ben Babbitt asking if he would play some piano on them. “What I got back was the song 'Tonight' with fifty tracks of string arrangements, all of which he had recorded himself. So I immediately texted him back: 'uhhh, Ben...?'" Babbitt had given himself the freedom to enrich Olsen's music on her own, something she would have never allowed normally, but: "It was fucking incredible. That's why I decided to work with him for a large part of the album."
And so those solo songs were expanded upon in February of this year, into spectacular, bombastic orchestral arrangements. Olsen has never sounded so full of pathos as on opening track 'Lark' – and that's just the start of it. It makes you wonder how different the recordings from Anacortes are. “As I see it they are the same. Without one, the other would not have existed. But I prefer to present the final version first, and then dissect it at a later stage. I thought that that would also be most interesting as a listener.” Olsen understands that it makes a world of difference for the listener compared to MY WOMAN and especially its predecessors Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) and Half Way Home (2012). “And people will have their opinion about it: oh, it's over-produced; oh, so she's making a synth record. But I think the people who really care about my music will understand.” And otherwise things just might click when the acoustic version of All Mirrors comes out, although Olsen has no idea when that will be.
The record takes an even more theatrical turn with ‘Impasse’. “I'm just living in my head. I'm just working for the name," she exclaims during the song’s emotional climax. An overwhelming mantra. She almost screams it – exploring a hitherto unknown corner of her already quite impressive range. “It's a song about writing songs and about being in a band,” she explains. "It's about what it's like to be a touring musician with a partner who doesn't understand it, who thinks that everyone is constantly kissing your ass, that you've never had a setback in your life." She refers to the above mantra. “I earn my living with my thoughts; I live in my head. It's a somewhat secretive way of earning a living – and it's unreliable. I've been lucky and successful with it, but it might not be forever. It's something that can be over in no time." Making a living with your thoughts. Not a lot of people understand, not even those closest to Olsen. "'Impasse' is about a partner who spreads all kinds of nasty things about me, to which I think: go ahead, they’ll probably believe it too. I'm a musician, I'm a terrible person. I use and exploit everyone around me and then monetize them – that's what I do. I have never known adversity, but simply live on other people's misfortunes. I’ve never lost anyone or anything. I don't lose anything ever.” She is quiet for a moment. "I don't care if the public doesn't understand me, but if a partner doesn't, it's very difficult."
"As a person I can't always give what I can give with my music."
It is Olsen’s second interview for All Mirrors and so she is only now discovering what others think of the album. (“Friends always only give compliments.”) As mentioned, she doesn't care much about what people write, what others think, but at the least she wants to have told her story. “I don't have to do interviews anymore. I don't have to be here, but I want to be here because I care about what I've done and I want to talk about it. If people get something out of that, that's great. If it's not exactly what I meant, that's okay too."
There is silence again. Olsen seems lost in thought for a moment.
“Can we talk about something for a second? It might be a bit off topic, but what I'm trying to say is that your interpretation is ultimately just as true as mine; your interpretation of the record is the record. Even if as a journalist you try to be neutral and simply observe, your life will seep into it no matter what. I'm okay with that, one hundred percent. And that's largely thanks to a friend of a friend who died of cancer and was a big fan of my music. I barely knew him, but his wife asked me to play at the funeral: Half Way Home was the last album he'd listened to; he listened to it constantly during his treatment. And my first reaction at the time was: why am I so important? And that wasn't the right response, because it wasn't about me at all. Once it's out, it’s not my record anymore. That person listened to the album and heard what he needed. He didn't listen to me, he didn't listen to Angel as a human being, as someone with a life of her own. He listened to the songs I wrote and gave them his own meaning.”
“So I played Tiniest Seed at his funeral, and his son ran up to me at the end of the song and clung to my legs. It was the hardest performance of my life, because – and I always get emotional when I tell it – I realized in that moment that it wasn't about me." Olsen wipes a tear from her eye and takes a short breather. “It was an eye opener. I always try to keep that moment in mind when I talk about my music with journalists, or with others. I find it hard to talk to fans after shows because sometimes people come to me with these kinds of stories and as a person I can't always give what I can give with my music. I write the songs, but I'm not that person. The person you hear on the album is someone else. And that's okay. I can tell the two apart, but others don't have to."
Even when Olsen puts on an earlier album of her own, it's as if she's listening to a completely different person. “Sometimes I really don't remember why I wrote something. On Half Way Home's 'Always Half Strange', for example, I think, what the hell could have happened to me that I was sad enough to write something like that?" It comes close to the disbelief that characterizes 'Impasse': how could she have had the experience and wisdom to write such a thing? But Olsen knows it doesn't work that way. “I don't think you have to be wise as a songwriter. There can be a lot of wisdom in your lyrics that you don't have in real life. A good friend once told me: why don't you listen to your own songs now and then, why don't you practice what you preach? She was right about that. I'm very good at articulating the problems in my life, but actually solving those problems is a different story."
“I hope I always have something to write about, but I also want to be happy someday. If I'm happy and never write a good song because of it, I think it would be totally worth it. At the same time, I love my life and the bad things that have happened to me have only enriched that life and made the beautiful things even more beautiful. When someone dies, everyone is of course intensely sad and you are also sad yourself, but at the same time you really see the people around you and the things you do with your life. Thinking about that is a blessing in itself, because we so often go through life without thinking about such things. Until something is lost.”
All Mirrors will be released on Friday October 4 at Jagjugawar. Angel Olsen will be in Paradiso on February 6. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.