As a kid, Angel Olsen would climb the stairs of her family’s Victorian home in St Louis, Missouri, right up to the small landing at the top of the house. With her she would take a Yamaha keyboard and a cassette player. After being sure to close the door to the landing, Angel would record herself singing over and over into the tape machine, stacking harmony upon harmony. “I would add layers the old fashioned way,” she explains, using the double deck to multitrack her vocals. “That’s how I taught myself to record and sing.”
By the time she was in high school, she’d built up enough confidence to leave the door to her DIY home studio open. Since then, her instantly recognisable, reverb-drenched, postmodern torch singer style has been defined by two things: a willingness to let the world in on her own intimate thoughts, but also a staunch lone wolf mentality. Now, after a decade of acclaimed releases – fittingly beginning with 2010’s cassette-only ‘Strange Cacti’ EP – she’s pulled back the curtain even further, going back to basics for the devastating, stripped-back ‘Whole New Mess’.
Her first proper solo album since 2012’s debut ‘Half Way Home’, the new record is driven by the singer’s powerful vibrato, twanging guitar and bursts of stark, emotional release. As well as taking her career full-circle, ‘Whole New Mess’ also breaks the traditional release pattern: it was, notably, recorded before last year’s masterclass in symphonic rage, ‘All Mirrors’. In fact, ‘Whole New Mess’ should sound more than familiar to fans of Olsen – all but two of its tracks are made up of the very first versions of the songs that went on to comprise that last album.
But this is no mere demos collection. Taken on its own merit, ‘Whole New Mess’ is a powerful thing; the close, often uncomfortable sound of someone working through the spiritual detritus of a break-up and coming out not with answers, but catharsis. And in the context of ‘All Mirrors’ it also offers a fascinating insight into how an artist works, showing us the bare, brittle bones of songs before she was able to stand back and cover them in sinew and flesh, to dress them in dramatic, scene-stealing costumes.
“I thought it would be more interesting to do something explosive, and then take a look back to where it started.”
“It feels more personal,” explains Angel from her home in Asheville, North Carolina, comparing ‘Whole New Mess’ to its predecessor. “I was still processing a lot of the feelings and the thoughts that were going into these songs when I was recording them. I just needed to write them and sing them without really knowing if they were going to be flashy, or what people wanted to hear, or if it would be interesting, or if it would sound good.”
An artist who has never shied away from letting fans know exactly what’s happening in her heart, it’s no surprise that Angel was willing to release these sessions, but that she wanted ‘All Mirrors’ to come out first definitely makes a statement. “I thought it would be more interesting to see something explosive, and then take a look back to where it started – to do it the other way around,” she says of her decision to release the albums out of order. Though it might not have the bells and whistles of ‘All Mirrors’ – a lavish production which comes complete with a string and brass section overseen by Grammy-winning St Vincent producer John Congleton – ‘Whole New Mess’ is explosive in its own right. Like a pistol fitted with a silencer, it may not make as much noise, but it’s just as deadly.
Songs like ‘(We Are All Mirrors)’ – which would later morph into ‘All Mirrors’’ dramatic title track – swirl with a taut, controlled chaos, while ‘Lark Song’, the formative track for ‘All Mirrors’’ ‘Lark’, begins as a gentle acoustic strum-along, before Angel’s voice takes off into a soaring, pained falsetto. “Every time I turn to you / I see the past it’s all that lasts / And all I know how,” she calls, almost hopeless. Then that aching refrain of “What about my dreams? What about the heart?” arrives, ready to punch you in the gut all over again.
“I weed out the stray weeds coming through the rocks in my garden, and it feels like weeding out the shit in my life.”
Recording sessions for ‘Whole New Mess’ took place inside a converted Catholic church in the small, leafy town of Anacortes, Washington. A grown-up version of the hidden landing at the top of the stairs, Angel worked there with a small team lead by Michael Harris, who engineered her 2016 breakthrough album, ‘My Woman’. “He and I had developed a really close friendship and I felt really able to be vulnerable around him,” she explains. Though the album might have been a far smaller affair than the theatrical, full-band ‘All Mirrors’ – which would be made a month later in a far swankier Los Angeles studio – it was a hard-going 10 days: “It was a lot of emotional work,” Angel nods, “because I’m performing these songs that I was still clearly dealing with.”
Just like she had done years before in St Louis, she ended up recording vocals on the staircase and embraced the “dreamy and yummy and ghostly” reverb that typified her early releases. “It was spooky,” Angel says of working at the old church, which is called The Unknown and has been a functioning recording studio since 2010, run by Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie. “The bathrooms used to be confessionals, and upstairs the listening room used to be a crying room for when it was a church – mothers would take their babies up there in the middle of the service if they were crying.”
It’s now been almost two years since those sessions. So how does she feel hearing it back all over again, knowing how bruised she was when it was made? “I can separate myself from it now that I’ve performed it in some context,” she admits. Even so, Angel is alright with those painful memories staying within reach. “I would hope that whatever feeling of sadness or indignation, that I would continue to have that. But I don’t want to romanticise things that aren’t worked out either, because that’s part of moving forward.”
“It feels more personal.”
Moving forward is something Angel Olsen’s made a pretty decent job of. Since recording ‘Whole New Mess’, she’s bought a house in her adopted city of Asheville and, in light of the global lockdown, she’s been able to spend a satisfyingly long stint there – a rare thing indeed for a touring musician who usually lives out of a suitcase. “I haven’t really been home for longer than a month at a time, or two weeks at a time, for many years,” she notes.
Until it got too hot to be outside, Angel was using lockdown to walk six miles a day, as well as spending some quality time with her squirrel-obsessed fluffball of a cat Violet. Her friend Juliana Barwick’s new album ‘Healing Is A Miracle’ has been on heavy rotation on her record player (“I like new age music. I hope that I get to do a new age record someday with somebody”) and she’s even had time to perfect her risotto recipe. The secret, informs Angel, is heaps of patience and switching up your dairy. “You don’t have to stick to pecorino,” she explains, channelling her inner Nigella Lawson. “If you change the cheese it can really change the flavour.” She’s also been attempting to stick to the testing task of not drinking booze, “which is hard considering everything that’s going on right now!”
But Angel’s enforced homestay hasn’t all been lavish rice-based dinners and zen cat stroking sessions soundtracked by Enya. It’s also brought up a whole bunch of deeper issues too. “I’m facing a lot of stuff which has nothing to do with the current state of the world, it’s just stuff that I put on hold while being on tour,” she reveals with a sigh. “It’s just hard to be present for life stuff when you’re travelling. It’s a real feat to do that, which is part of why relationships can be so hard for musicians, because they’re trying to be present, but they can’t.”
“I was still processing a lot of the feelings and the thoughts that were going into these songs when I was recording them.”
Despite her transient lifestyle, from the outside at least, it seemed like Angel was truly thriving before lockdown. In February, she finished up the hugely successful European leg of her ‘All Mirrors’ tour, including her biggest ever London show to date – an old-school-style spectacular at the Hammersmith Apollo. Considering such major-league exposure – collabs with Mark Ronson, spots on the Orange Is The New Black and Broad City soundtracks – she’s managed to maintain her indie cool despite also making inroads to the mainstream. She’s the kind of artist whose gigs are attended by Miley Cyrus, but who your chin-stroking mate that only buys vinyl and refuses to listen to mainstream radio still rates.
After the European tour was done, Angel headed out to Los Angeles, preparing to add a new string to her storied bow. There, she attended a bunch of meetings about sound design and scoring movies. “So that was cool,” she nods. Is sound design something she’s ever done before? “No and, in fact, I hear it’s a fucking pain in the ass!” she jokes. “But the stories are really interesting and I think that, even if it’s time consuming, I have all the time right now to do it…”
With most of her friends living in California, not to mention collaborators and fellow artists, the move would be a logical one. But logic doesn’t always necessarily prevail over gut feeling. “When I’m there I just have this feeling like it’s about to fall into the ocean. Every. Time,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful the day is, or if I’m at the beach. I just have the sense that the world is going to end and it’s going to start with LA.” Angel’s sense of impending doom suggests that it probably isn’t the best place for her to settle down, but that doesn’t always chime well with her romantic side. “I end up always meeting people that I fall for there and then I have to tell them that I live in Asheville,” she concedes. “And I’m not leaving, so it’s hard.”
One thing she isn’t doing is working on any fancy home improvements in her still new-ish pad. “I’m just trying to make sure that I’m keeping up with it,” she explains of her attitude to homeownership. “Part of me doing this is realising how no-one else is responsible for taking care of it. I have to clean out my gutters and mow my lawn and tend my garden and make sure that the ants don’t come back, you know? I think that it’s teaching me to examine my relationships and examine my life and tend to my life, because I have to tend to my house. When I’m in the garden, I’m thinking about weeding out all the stray weeds that are coming through the rocks, and in a weird way it feels like thinking about weeding out the shit in my life. It feels meditational.”
“I just have the sense that the world is going to end and it’s going to start with Los Angeles.”
Though she’s been recently seeing someone again, when we speak, Angel is back to reveling in the easy bliss of an empty house. “That’s been really good, but now I’m back to solitude,” she says. “They went back to LA and now I’m back at it with working non-stop, which is actually good for me because, as much as I love being in a relationship, the solitude that you have alone – the loneliness that you feel alone – is a little bit more stable than when you feel it with other people.”
As well as getting stuck into promoting ‘Whole New Mess’ less than a year on from her last album, after our call Angel is off into town for a very 2020 show: hosting the second of her online Cosmic Stream events to an empty Asheville Masonic Temple. The gig isn’t just to give fans something in the absence of a summer tour, but also to raise awareness for Swing Left, a Black Lives Matter-backing group of Democrat supporters who were founded in the wake of Trump’s disastrous Presidency. “I was trying to figure out how to be more impactful about this year’s election,” she explains. “I wanted to be more on board with stuff in my own community, but also work with a national organisation that draws attention to voting and doing what I can to talk about those things – forcing myself to articulate [those ideas].”
Like many members of the US indie music community, Angel was a vocal supporter of the socialist-leaning Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who dropped out of the race in April. Does she feel as enthusiastic about the eventual nominee, Joe Biden? “Um, I don’t think anyone is very enthusiastic about him, at least not in my friend group,” she reasons. “But I’m definitely going to vote for Biden, and I think that it’s really important that Biden makes more of a connection with liberals and bends more towards some of Bernie’s campaign ideas. If he makes that effort, I think that would make a huge difference for artists sharing their enthusiasm for him. I feel like work will be done to keep some of Bernie’s goals, but it’s hard to say. You know, don’t trust politicians!”
‘Whole New Mess’ might be about Angel Olsen’s own personal turmoil, but in the strange, fucked-up year that is 2020, she’s made one of the most raw, relatable records around. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.
‘Whole New Mess’ is out 4th September via Jagjaguwar.
As featured in the August 2020 issue of DIY, out now.