Angel Olsen: “I’m just as lost as everybody else”

The darkly funny musician on her latest release, ‘Whole New Mess’, which peels back the layers of her songwriting process and mysterious persona

A hot North Carolina day: the first hints of hurricane season hang in the air and Angel Olsen is running around her home in Asheville, which she describes as a “little hippy town”, searching for her massive cat, Violet. “My house is a mess, sorry,” she apologises via video call, bustling past a room filled with houseplants and the sofa on which she likes to sit in the morning and write.

Olsen is keen to ensure that her beloved feline gets some deserved time in the spotlight today. “She helps me write,” the musician explains. “She’s the one with all the deep thoughts and I just write them down for her.”

This leads to a jokey riff that, I will find, is typically Olsen: “If you could put that as the headline, that would be great. Whoever the editor is, tell them: ‘The angle we want to go with, really, is about Violet the cat, because she’s the true writer. She’s the one with the soul.’” She adds: “I’m completely soulless, but she has such a dark, deep soul. I think she deserves it; she’s worked so hard.” The musician adopted the kitty from a rescue centre. “She’s got that whole tragedy thing,” Olsen deadpans, “that everyone loves to romanticise.”

In the same way that, say, some people romanticise Angel Olsen’s music as being tragically sad? “Oh, but it is,” she retorts without missing a beat.

Angel Olsen NME The Big Read
Credit: Holden Curran

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Angel Olsen was “bossy and a fucking tyrant” when she was growing up in the city’s Maplewood suburb. Like Violet, she was adopted; Olsen was three at the time, and became the youngest in a family of eight. “I partly had strong will as a child because going back to adoption, you’re taken from your home and put in a different home,” she says. “You hold onto it. You’re like: ‘I deserve the best’. It’s pushed me in a lot of ways, but it has also held me back. That willpower and strength can be dark and weird.”

Single-minded is an accurate way to describe Olsen, now 33: her latest solo album could provide the Dictionary definition of ‘uncompromising’. ‘Whole New Mess’ is largely comprised of re-recordings of songs from her previous album, last year’s revered ‘All Mirrors’ (which received the full five-star treatment from NME). While the original was lush and orchestral, the new one sees her strip back the arrangements to their bare bones.

“I’m really into doing shit that’s unexpected”

With ‘Whole New Mess’, Olsen has returned to her musical roots. After a brief stint at massage therapy school, she became embedded in Chicago’s tight-knit DIY scene and sang backing vocals for cult folk musician Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Her early 2010s first solo releases – the home-recorded cassette ‘Strange Cacti’ and 2012’s haunting debut album ‘Half Way Home’ – were intimate and urgent. For her subsequent albums, 2014 breakthrough ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ its swift follow-up ‘MY WOMAN’, she recruited a band and branched further into smoke-stained rock’n’roll.

Angel Olsen views her legacy with amusing honesty. She often finds it weird to perform her tremulous 2016 breakout single ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ because it conjures up images of the fan art she receives online. “Often, when I hear the song, I see the weird, warped cartoon versions of my face that people tag me in, she says. “That’s not my nose, dude. You made me orange!” Despite such horrific visions, she’ll always play the hit: “Whenever you go and hear an artist you love, you wanna hear those old songs.”

Angel Olsen NME The Big Read
Angel Olsen on the cover of NME

A reputation for meticulousness also precedes her: around the release of ‘MY WOMAN’ she infamously issued journalists with a not entirely serious ‘fact sheet’. “She has never listened to Joni Mitchell,” read the first bullet-point. Today’s interview is also preceded by a similar, but slightly less intimidating primer: “Her interests include: reading, roller skating, going to softball games, making films, and writing letters to friends.”

I sense that Olsen isn’t deliberately trying to psyche out her interviewers – even if she inadvertently succeeds in doing so – but simply cares deeply about the details being understood. “It used to upset me the way people would interpret things,” she says. “I still find a way to correct people because it’s annoying. That’s because I’m a writer; I’m an editor in my mind. I want people to have the actual words.”

“I’m trying to embrace this part of myself that’s unpolished”

She admits to being “on guard” during our interview, and says that although she’s engaged in the conversation, she can’t help but “perform”. Perhaps due to the extra time for reflection that lockdown affords, Olsen has recently been pondering this line between the self and the persona that we project.

“I don’t like being around people,” she says. “It’s hard to know an artist from watching a show. So many people are introverts and you just wouldn’t know it.” Given the emotional frankness of her music, there’s a tendency to feel like you already understand Olsen; it’s something she struggles with, given that her songs can only ever be subjective accounts. “It’s OK that people think they know something about me,” she says. “But it’s not the whole narrative, or the whole truth. It’s just my imaginings.”

‘Whole New Mess’ leaves no stone unturned, emotionally. She’s backed only by guitar and, occasionally, organ. The track ‘(We Are All Mirrors)’ echoes disorientingly, like two sirens whizzing away from each other towards emergencies on opposite sides of town. ‘Chance (Forever Love)’ peels back the ornate layers of string on the ‘All Mirrors’ version, and Olsen’s voice towers as she yearns to be seen clearly. “I just want to see some beauty, try and understand,” she sings atop spare, picked guitar. “If we got to know each other, how rare is that?

Angel Olsen NME The Big Read
Credit: Holden Curran

The songs that comprise ‘Whole New Mess’ were actually recorded before the previous record – not as demos, but as a standalone collection that later morphed into ‘All Mirrors’, an album that will likely be remembered as her masterpiece of excess. Exposed, though, the songs hit with an even closer kind of intensity.

The writing process began in Halloween 2018 at The Unknown, a studio on a nondescript suburban crossroads in the small, island-bound city of Anacortes, Washington. In the distance, the real-life Mount Eerie towers on the horizon. The studio’s website warns that “entering the “crying room” and the bell tower (bell missing) is not recommended”. Does Angel know why?

“I’d rather be vulnerable than be walled up from people”

“The crying room is haunted,” she says. “There’s a heaviness in that room, and the whole place. The listening room is next to the crying room. It seemed really spooky in that way, but maybe we were creating it? I guess I couldn’t tell if it was haunted, or if I had brought my own shit there?”

The decision to let ‘All Mirrors’ and ‘Whole New Mess’ exist side by side “is sort of an experiment for myself,” she says. She thinks that placing both versions next to each other – one grandly ornate, one intimate and more vulnerable – will reveal something about how we interpret artists’ words. “I think the context of the lyrics changes because of what’s behind them,” she says.

With album five, Angel Olsen is peeling back the layers of her work to get back to the “stripped back versions of me”.

Angel Olsen NME The Big Read
Credit: Holden Curran

To understand ‘Whole New Mess’, we must first understand its predecessor; ‘All Mirrors’ is a thing of dizzying, chaotic beauty. A 12-piece string section buzzes like a nest of agitated wasps, jostling for space with grinding Parisian synths. Olsen’s voice is a force to be reckoned with, raising quickly from a quietened crackle to a roar of anger. Sonically it calls to mind a particularly lusty Serge Gainsbourg, the saddened waltz of Twin Peaks’ score and Scott Walker’s avant-garde creations – all at once.

Olsen often sings of getting caught up in your own everyday life at the expense of finding that rare, true connection. “How time has revealed how little we know us,” she sings on the funereal ‘Spring’. “I’ve been too busy / I should’ve noticed”. Despite the seeming melancholy, though, it ends in a strangely comforting place of self-sufficiency. ‘Tonight’ sees her hold onto heartbreak carefully like an unexpected gift. “I like the air that I breathe, I like the thoughts that I think, I like the life that I lead,” she sings, “without you”.

Crucially, ‘All Mirrors’ was a theatrical, playful and often rage-filled swerve from an artist frequently typecast into emotional fragility and sadness. Search Angel Olsen’s name on Twitter and you’ll find countless people declaring that her music makes them hopelessly emotional. A Chicago radio host infamously asked her how it felt to make music that sounds like “a girl at the bottom of a dark well” Olsen, who was performing on the show, responded by dedicating her next song to “all the little girls at the bottom of the well”.

“My willpower and strength can be dark and weird”

‘All Mirrors’, she explains today, is “about how you look in the mirror over time and see changes and differences: quickly your face, body and image can change. Deflection and deflecting from people, and how we mirror each other and find people who mirror us in some ways. That’s problematic sometimes.”

In other words: in connecting with people, we are also searching for something within ourselves. Many of the songs seem to question if it’s possible to love somebody in a way that doesn’t reflect back on yourself. Is Angel any closer to figuring it out?

“I do think it’s possible,” she says, “but you have to separate yourself from that person to see it sometimes. I don’t know [what it’s like] when you’re in it [love], because love has not worked out for me yet.” This, in turn, has led to another big question: “Did I create that? Is my love valid if it’s alone? What is the difference between creating a narrative and knowing your own love for someone is real?

“That’s a big life question, huh!” she observes, more lightly. I don’t think anyone has the answers, but I’m so glad that I’m a writer and can get these things out.”

Angel Olsen NME The Big Read
Credit: Holden Curran

Certainly Olsen’s songs seem, on the surface, like the work of someone who can understand their own emotions with clarity (on the newly sparse ‘What It Is (What It Is)’ she quips: “You just wanted to forget / That your heart was full of shit”). Yet she says with a laugh that this is anything but the case: “To demystify my career entirely: I’m just as lost as anybody! And who do I look to? Somebody once said to me: ‘You should listen to your songs sometime’. I don’t get my songs; I give those away. I’m trying to be at peace with not [having all the answers].”

‘Whole New Mess’ also features two new Angel Olsen songs: the sparse ‘Waving, Smiling’ and its morose title track. “‘Whole New Mess’,” she explains, “is about drug addiction, being addicted to alcohol, being on tour, not taking care of yourself.” “Make a whole new mess,” she sings on the track, “celebrate the best / Take a photo for the press again.”

Of the decision to release a solo album at this point in her career, Olsen says: “I’m trying to embrace this part of myself that’s unpolished and not perfect.”

She adds, laughing: “I’ve been trying so hard to be interesting – and it just fucking doesn’t matter. I like my branding – the black-and-white photos, the suit jacket and dresses and stuff – but does it have anything to do with my music? Absolutely not. It’s a selling point.

“Love has not worked out for me yet”

“That’s part of what [‘Whole New Mess’] is about. I’ve been trying to dress myself up to be sellable for people. The truth is, I really just believe in my art. Can I just do that for once without having to fucking sell my face? Do I have to sexualise my body, wear make-up, do all of these things to sell my product? Is this really how this system is going to work for the rest of my life? I don’t know if that is gonna work for me…”

Instead, she says, she now wants “to protect something that’s raw – to really go back to where I used to be.”

Olsen previously said that ‘All Mirrors’ marked the ending of something; in 2019, she told The Cut that it closes a chapter. What did she mean?

“Who knows!” she jokes. “I mean, this chapter sucks too! Me and my friends said that 2020 would be the year of burning trash, and it turned out to be true.”

Their fortune-telling turned out to be correct, of course: in between a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement gathering momentum, it has been a year of scrutinising every system we once accepted without question. “It’s a trash-burning year! Let’s reveal everyone, everything, pull the rug out from all of the world’s feet and really investigate people, power, people in our lives, the people we are. Let’s burn it all down. Trash burnin’ 2020!”

In seriousness, she continues, “‘All Mirrors’ was the end of a relationship, and at this time where I had to learn to set boundaries with people: the people I worked with, and in romantic relationships. I had to throw myself into some newness, and it was good for me.”

Angel Olsen NME The Big Read
Credit: Holden Curran

Angel Olsen has been throwing herself into plenty of newness lately. Aside from this unconventional record release, she also recently branched out into more mainstream territory with ‘True Blue’, last year’s 80s-inspired noir-pop collaboration with Mark Ronson, which appeared on his acclaimed album ‘Late Night Feelings’.

“I’m really into doing shit that’s unexpected,” she explains. Stepping into the pop world was, she says, “really fun”. She doesn’t harbour any pop star ambitions, but insists, with a wicked grin; “I will infiltrate into this world if I feel like it.”

In 2017 Olsen used Twitter to court another left-field collaboration prospect: Detroit rapper Danny Brown. “Just got my wisdom teeth pulled,” she said, “but as soon as I heal I’d love to sing on one of your tracks.” He replied: “Deal!!!” Two years later, she tweeted him again, inspired by his appearance at a festival in Asheville.

“It’s a trash-burning year… trash-burning 2020!”

The unlikely duo didn’t meet when Brown played Harvest Records’ TRANSFIGURATIONS III event, but Olsen lent out her car to be used as a shuttle across the site and Brown caught a ride. “Dear Danny,” she tweeted. “It is I, Angel… My tour manager picked you up in my Subaru in Asheville and it’s the closest I’ve gotten to you. It’s time to collaborate. The time is nigh.”

“I [thought], ‘You were in my car!’,” she says today of the tweet. “I don’t know if [the collaboration] will ever happen, but it’s funny. It would be cool.”

She adds that she also hopes “to be doing other things than playing music”. Though Olsen has tried her hand at acting before – mainly in her own music videos – she’s not convinced about pursuing it. “If you can make a good sandwich,” she quips, “it doesn’t mean you should open a panini spot.” She’s been loosely toying with the idea of writing a book, too.

“I just keep having these relationships with people that are so wild,” she says, “I’m gunna fucking write a book about it, because I can’t sing about it in a song any more. Not everything can be put to a melody. There’s a lot of unsung things going on in my head and in my world that I can’t sing about. That would be fucked-up to sing about…”

Like what, exactly? “I’ll save it for the book,” she smiles.

Angel Olsen NME The Big Read
Credit: Holden Curran

And this is the thing about Angel Olsen: she’s an artist who writes with such lacerating precision and clarity about things which are so complicated to articulate, but remains distinctly private and, in some ways, unknowable. And perhaps she’s right to question that tension, and the idea that great art only comes from creators who are eternally open.

“I would rather be hurt and vulnerable than live a life of being completely walled up from people,” she concludes. “But unfortunately living a life that’s vulnerable means writing all of these fucking records that are sad. That’s what it’s meant for me. Maybe I’ll get tired of it someday.“

And with that, Angel Olsen is off: she has big plans to install a contraption called a yoga hammock later on, and plans to “get ripped” in it during the winter. “Violet’s gonna get ripped too,” she jokes of her massive cat. “We’ve got an exercise routine.”

Apropos of absolutely nothing, she adds: “I’ll be so sad if she dies – I’m gonna have to get a cat to overlap. I know it’s dark… but I just love her so much. She does so much spiritual work for me.”

Which, just before she hangs up, reminds Angel Olsen of something. “Good luck with the piece – just really try to focus on that cat stuff,” she says, her thoughts once again on Violet’s ingenious creative mind. “Super important.”

Angel Olsen’s ‘Whole New Mess’ is out August 28