Angel Olsen Interview: ‘I’m someone who cares about detail. Even when I make stuff just for fun’
Released in late 2019, All Mirrors is the fourth album in an ever-more varied catalogue from an artist who defies easy categorisation. Rob Haywood meets Angel Olsen and discovers that the devil is in the detail…
Angel Olsen is fast becoming recognised as a multi-talented artist who knows what she wants and how to present it. If taking control of her music videos, starting work on a book, overseeing a sound installation in Brooklyn and being in charge of minute touring details such as the stage lighting aren’t enough, she recently recorded two disparate versions of her new album, while in the past she has even written her own fact sheets to give to interviewers and reviewers.
Now based in North Carolina, Olsen grew up in St. Louis before moving to Chicago. As a teen, it was the age of CDs, but she began making cassettes and collecting vinyl. While she can now be lauded as the queen of the streaming age, she owns crates of vinyl and enjoys putting out 12″ collections of cover versions. It’s these polar extremes that in part make her so interesting. She’s also equally at home touring solo or with a band.
“I decided I was interested in playing with a band forever and playing alone forever,” she says. “At least one solo tour a year would be really fun.” Olsen is speaking to LLV during a break from her tour to promote new album All Mirrors. After a decade of surprising listeners with shifts between country, folk, indie, grunge and rock, the new album is drenched in strings, synths and a twisting sense of cinematic drama rarely witnessed this side of Kate Bush.
Angel Olsen released All Mirrors, her fourth album, or fifth if you count the 2017 compilation Phases in the autumn of 2019. It contained some of her most personal songs, written in the aftermath of the break-up of a long-term relationship. It proved to be an album that Olsen told Apple Music was “so fucking emotional and hard for me to make.”
Both the album’s title track and second single, Lark, showed casual listeners the way Olsen was heading. With a brooding atmosphere bleeding through, the Jherek Bischoff-arranged strings and synths framed the mirrors that reoccurred across the record. They show Olsen looking at her life, her relationships and her friendships, more often with loss and change at the heart of what is reflected back.
All Mirrors started life very differently as a solo, acoustic collection of songs closer to Olsen’s earlier output. However, working with returning producer John Congleton (he’d previously overseen 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness), the record took on a new life and a much fuller sound. Once the fully produced album was complete, the entire project was going to be a double album, with the original demos released at the same time. Olsen changed her mind and now on tour she’s having to recreate another version of the songs with two strings players rather than the dozen or so that played on the album.
“Making the live version of this is like making a third record,” she explains. “We have two string players who play through pedals and I play some organ, and I have a friend who plays piano and synths as well. I got the band together for a few rehearsals and then we added the strings. Most of the rehearsal time was for this new material, but also adding strings to my old songs. That was the hardest part, applying the same textures to old songs without changing them too much.” The resultant live show has been gathering rave reviews in North America before it heads to Europe at the start of this year.
“I was going to do this as a double album,” she explains, “but when it was all finished, it made sense to come out with this one. It was interesting the way the songs changed.”
After the breakthrough success of her 2016 album My Woman, Olsen’s touring band went several different ways and she took a break by releasing a compilation of outtakes, covers and B-sides. Ever the workaholic, she embarked on a solo tour to promote the record and found herself writing new material as she toured. “I love listening to The Cars, and I love rock and roll music,” Olsen recalls, “[but] when I went on a solo tour when Phases was out, I was writing quite a lot and I got to a place where I realised the material I was writing didn’t fit that background. I needed to allow my writing to wander and for music to come along for it rather than trying to write a rock and roll song or a throwback song.”
As the new songs took shape, she wanted an adventurous approach. So Congleton was brought in to produce the lush new arrangements. It was important for her to trust these songs to someone else and Olsen confesses that she had a hard time letting go of her songs to the producer. “All I wanted was to be a part of the final editing process [this time],” she explains. “I do trust John, but there were certain songs where I wasn’t really sure if the textures were what I wanted. We had to re-do Too Easy at some point. [John] was very reassuring and we just kept collecting more material. I’m sure there was a hell of a lot of strings he didn’t use, but the way he manipulated them is probably what he enjoys about his job. When everyone is out of the room and he can manipulate stuff.”
Though the original versions of these songs were held back for now, they will be released at some point, possibly with more tracks that didn’t make this version. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a solo tour would follow either.
A Change Of Path
All Mirrors is a major departure from the guitar pop of My Woman, or the country-tinged Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Like her changing musical path, Olsen has moved through three major locations in her life. She relocated to Chicago in 2007 after growing up in St. Louis, but she now calls Asheville, South Carolina home. She’s recently bought a house and enjoys the fact she can use her home as a retreat from the business, and live a ‘normal’ life of daily chores and grocery trips. She has a favourite local vinyl store there, Harvest Records.
Back in St. Louis, Angel Olsen would play her earliest gigs outside a local record store called Vintage Vinyl. “I tried to get a job there,” she recalls. “I did my vinyl shopping there. I would go there all the time when I was a kid. I still buy vinyl and I used to date a guy who owned a record store. I still really like his record store even though the relationship didn’t work out.”
For an artist who first came to be noticed around a decade ago, it’s perhaps surprising that her first release was on cassette. Strange Cacti was issued on Bathetic Records (which Olsen describes as “an experimental ambient noise label”) on tape before later vinyl issues came to the market. But tapes were her first love. “I had a car with a tape player,” she says. “A lot of my friends had old cars, so we’d make mixtapes and drive around Chicago listening to them.”
While this use of cassette tapes might seem anachronistic, All Mirrors has been picked up for promotion by various streaming services. Apple Music provides Olsen’s own song-by-song notes for the album, which is something she embraces. “I’m someone who cares about detail,” she explains. “Even when I make stuff just for fun, I put work into it. It’s hard for me just to be light about it.”
Spotify has also been really supportive of the record. “I’ve no idea why,” she laughs. It was Spotify that approached Olsen about staging an art installation, which led to ‘Behind All Mirrors’ in Brooklyn.
“They wanted to recreate an audience’s perspective of a breakdown of All Mirrors,” recalls Olsen. “They got our friend [Sean Cook], who had worked on All Mirrors to unmix the tracks; starting with the final recording and breaking it down to the demo. You sort of walk through the installation and different things happen that are related to the All Mirrors video. Just a one-off experience, a way to get fans engaged in a neat way.”
The All Mirrors video was a black and white affair, with Olsen playing various different characters. The follow-up video for Lark was very different. Directed by Ashley Cooper, the film again showed different versions of Olsen, this time running through woodland, being filmed on hillsides by drones, on the beach with wild horses and giving an impassioned performance outside in the rain.
“It needed a whole lot of different landscapes and emotions and feelings,” says Olsen. “It was a pain in the ass! I wanted to go to the beach and see the wild horses and I wanted to have drones on a hill. I wanted to levitate at some point, but we dropped it. I didn’t know I’d be running over and over in a field. It was an exhausting but rewarding experience. It rained three of the days we were filming and I did this crazy performance outside in the rain with the truck behind me. I said, ‘How did you feel about that Ashley?’ and she said, ‘I think we got it’. I said, ‘I think I’m going to pour myself a drink,’ because that was not the answer I wanted. The next day, she told me she was afraid that we’d lost all the footage in the rain.” Luckily, the footage from the $17,000 camera was recovered and made the final cut.
Olsen has also mentioned that she’d like to write a book. “It’s something that I’d like to do,” she admits. “I’d like to write about my life and my family, things that I’ve experienced that I can’t put into song.” She might struggle to find the time to fit in an autobiography while she is having such a creative phase musically. A backlog of unreleased material and touring for the foreseeable future will keep her more than busy. Now she is specific about how the band are viewed on stage.
“I don’t know if I can afford to do it in Europe, but over the last two records I’ve grown to value the presentation of the band,” she says. “I’ve been putting work into the live show rather than just wearing whatever I want, bringing almost a theatrical vibe but not at the expense of joking around and checking in with the audience. It feels right when we’re all dressed up and ready to be there, and when you’re dressed up for a role you can help other people lose themselves as well.”