Photo: Ebru Yildiz
“I know what it looks like. It looks like I’m a control freak, which I am.”
Angel Olsen is refreshingly direct. Just back from tour rehearsals in L.A., and currently in the midst of entertaining a friend and dealing with the garbage disposal repair man at her home in Asheville, North Carolina, she bats back my pleasantry of whether now’s a good time to talk with a brusque but good-humoured, “It’s the only time I have.”
Almost a decade on from debut EP, Strange Cacti, the St Louis-born, Chicago-raised artist has seen her profile rise steadily with each subsequent release, while watching her personal space retreat at roughly the same speed. It’s no wonder then that, at this point, the 32-year-old quite rightly values her own time far too much to squander it entertaining banalities. Though, honestly, it’s hard to imagine anyone as sharp-witted and allergic to bullshit as Olsen ever humouring journalists attempting the softly-softly approach.
Again and again, Olsen has found herself dogged by the misapprehension she’s some sort of tragic figure, with some citing her soul-stirring songwriting as evidence, and others taking to armchair psychology, pointing to her adoption as proof. In an attempt to tackle some of the fallacies following her around, her fourth album, All Mirrors, has been supplied with – what must be – one of the most generous press kits in history, featuring complete credits, lyrics, a fact sheet, and an artistic statement. But when I question the motivations for its existence today, Olsen insists it wasn’t a fear of misrepresentation.
“It’s like, ‘Here’s all the information for you so that your questions can be unique.’ I’m actually trying to help people. But I know what it looks like. It looks like I’m a control freak, which I am,” she laughs sardonically, “And that I’m crazy, which also I am.” Olsen has had enough brushes with sensationalist journalism that she’d be forgiven for raising her guard entirely. Instead, she’s resolved to communicate on her own terms.
“People only want to hear about my dark childhood; that’s all that matters to anyone,” she bristles, specifically remembering the press around her last album, My Woman. “And you know what, they’re just going to have to fucking wait until I write my own book about it. But I will say, yes, my life has been weird. It’s been really fucking weird. And I’m really blessed that I can make music. And what I’m learning is that even if I hate being on tour sometimes, I won’t stop writing because I have to write. It’s part of who I am and how I think and how I process [things].” She adds with a laugh, “But I won’t promise it’s going to be great forever.”
“I get to be angry again onstage and it’s gonna fucking rule.”
For the foreseeable future there are no such worries: All Mirrors is an instant classic. Produced with Burn Your Fire For No Witness-collaborator, John Congleton, it finds Olsen upping the ante once more, bringing in an 11-piece string section to perform arrangements by Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt. Fearlessly dramatic, and astonishingly varied, Olsen’s fourth album-proper could scarcely seem more disparate from her last official release, 2017’s stripped-back rarities compilation, Phases. And yet, Olsen actually recorded All Mirrors twice – the first time as a solo record in late 2018, and then again with full arrangements, in the winter of 2019.
“I think some songs breathe differently when you play them by yourself,” says Olsen explaining the rationale behind recording the songs solo first. “I just wanted it to be bare minimum, a lot like Strange Cacti, but a little bit easier to listen to. And then when I was finished with that I had to go immediately into revisiting the songs, reimagining them, and changing a lot. And because I had recorded them in such a stripped-down fashion, now I could open my mind to collaboration in a new way.” Olsen still intends to release the solo record at some point but thinks it’s better that “this strange, epic record comes out first, so that people can see how much it’s changed when the other one comes out.”
It’s difficult even to imagine some of these songs stripped back. Take stunning album opener, ‘Lark’, for example. Beginning with the tremulous shiver of strings before rapidly ratcheting up the drama, it ebbs and flows over the course of its six-plus minutes, always utterly cinematic in its scale. Olsen remains immensely proud of the way it came together, despite its protracted gestation over the holiday period, during which she waited impatiently for string demos to arrive.
“It was so cool to finally sit back and listen to the strings sounding like fireworks going off. It’s a song that starts the record, and basically says, ‘We’re burning the house down now,’ you know? And we needed the house to burn down at the beginning of the record, almost like a backwards story. Like, you start at the finale, and then you work backwards and see how it got to be that way.”
Thematically, ‘Lark’ touches on toxic relationships, and specifically verbal abuse, as Olsen explains. “You know the fucked up things that you forgive? I forgive people who yell, because I see through them and I hear them crying instead of yelling. The way that I yell is to sing. But when I’m not singing, I can yell really loud. I will fucking knife you with words. Watch yourself: I can tear you down. And I’m not proud of it, but I have a lot of anger. So I think that’s why I have empathy for those people; because I know that it comes from a place of deep disappointment and sadness. But at a certain point you have to walk away from those people and let them take agency for themselves.”
‘Impasse’ is similarly mired in heartbreak, its sense of isolation brilliantly accentuated by dissonant, swirling strings that were inspired by Scott Walker’s ‘It’s Raining Today’. And yet, All Mirrors ultimately ends on a hopeful note, with ‘Chance’ finding Olsen declaring, “I’m not looking for the answer or anything that lasts / I just want to see some beauty, try and understand,” over a waltzing arrangement fit for Sinatra.
It’s undoubtedly a challenging set to perform live, but Olsen is happy with the progress she and her six-piece band have made in rehearsals. And despite nearly burning out during the tour for My Woman, she’s excited to hit the road again. “I get to be angry again onstage and it’s gonna fucking rule,” she laughs. “I’m trying to get dark, to bring some heavy vibes. I’m like, what would Kate Bush do? What would Sinead O’Connor say? Probably some crazy shit that I’ve said.”
All Mirrors is released October 4th via Jagjaguwar.
FB: @angelolsenmusic TW: @angelolsen
Live: SWX, February 10th 2020
See the video for ‘All Mirrors’ here: