She effortlessly describes heartache in the same matter-of-fact tone as talking about feeding her cat, all while she attempts to quietly close her cupboards in the background. The beloved wide-eyed indie rock darling of the Midwest has enjoyed an incredible trajectory, making her way into countless hearts and sad mixtapes with the release of her acclaimed 2016 album MY WOMAN. Olsen’s frank-yet-flowery lyricism over punchy drums and silky guitar strums marked a decision of departure, with her refusal to be typecast as the lo-fi indie artist of her earlier work.
On her 2019 release All Mirrors, Olsen sought to challenge herself again, experimenting with baroque pop string arrangements and synths. Throughout her body of work, one could say that if Olsen had a signature, it would be her voice transforming from an erotic whisper into a piercing belt as she allows herself to become more vulnerable. Olsen is growing, and her songs are a documentation of this process. From the awestruck reflection of friends becoming parents on “Spring,” to the shedding of negative relationships on “Tonight”, All Mirrors is a love letter to aging, that isn’t necessarily fearless. Olsen is open about her fears and frustrations, and it comes with a poignant understanding of maturity as open ended.
With this understanding of aging comes trust and loneliness, two things that All Mirrors deals with. “Wherever I was, I was always alone and I was always not into people in some weird way,” Olsen tells me with a tinge of hesitation, “which is probably why I write so many songs about not being able to relate to people.” Despite the spotlight shining down on Olsen as an acclaimed songwriter, she wants people to know that she still feels pain. In between sighs and pauses, she tells tales of being overwhelmed on the road or recording. To Olsen, music is both a passion and a job, which is a double edged sword. Standout track “Impasse” feels like a voyeuristic look into her frustrations with not being seen as a human with feelings. It’s an earnest call to ask herself how she is in a choir of voices telling her how she is.
In an intimate and heartfelt conversation, Angel Olsen opens the door into the wealth of her mind and character which have allowed her to create one of the most complicated albums of her career.
I want to start off by saying how beautiful this album is, and how simple yet powerful your words are.
Thank you. It killed me.
What do you mean by that? You talk about how some of the songs you recorded, specifically “Chance,” you said it wasn’t really the best to record, but you liked the message of it. Tell me about the recording process.
I think that I like “Chance” now. I think it just took me awhile to not feel like that one was just so long. It just seemed like the one that nobody was excited about at this time, and then when we finished the record, it grew on me in this way that was like “wait!” This is the one that's probably the most straightforward and relatable and it fits into a genre that you can't really avoid. I think that was part of the reason why I didn't get too attached to it, kind of like when I wrote “Never Be Mine” on My Woman. I was like “This is just a throwback song.” but I thought it was a really good way to end the record and it changed the way that I viewed the song and now it’s one of my favorite ones to play.
I love the clarity in your songs, which you’ve talked about. A lot of it is straightforward, but you allow for such vivid pictures to be painted from so little words. How important is clarity and being understood, and where did that come from?
I remember listening to indie rock growing up, trying to get into modern music at the time, and just loving all these bands but it’s just hard for me to get into this song because I look at the lyrics. I know a good example! My friend and I were in Portugal and we were listening to “Swinging’ Party” by The Replacements. I was like “Damn, what are the lyrics to this song?” and we look them up and they just didn't really even make sense. I don't know if it's a cultural thing or if it's just that they just found words and phrases that rhyme. It just didn’t make any sense to me, so it just bummed me out to know what the words are. For me, I love that song and I love that period of time but there’s a lot of stuff like that out there where it’s just filler words. Growing up, I was always aware that in case somebody stopped to listen to the words, I want them to find something. I want it to make sense and I want it to be powerful. I think that’s always been what governs how I write. I try to simplify phrases and make things less overly wordy and more to the point, mainly because I’m getting older and I don’t need to be flowery all the time and show that I’m a writer.
I’m just going through stuff that’s really — I think the thought is — there’s nothing magical about those words. It’s not me talking about a fantasy life that I’m living. It’s just…here it is! I think that can be really powerful without needing to add all these frills to it. There is a time for frills, but I think with this record I was just going through stuff that I wasn’t afraid to blatantly say what it was. For this version of the record, I also had to open up certain phrases and spaces for me to happen. As I get deeper into music, I'm trying to hold onto why I did this in the first place, which is mainly because I like writing and I like singing. I also feel that in the past, I've been so worried about the words that I didn't allow music to happen. I'm really trying to be more aware as I go forward of just letting go of trying to make a point of every single song that I make.
I think you find a very happy marriage between words and sound, as sound can definitely enhance the message.
I'm hoping to release a version later in life of the solo versions of the songs. I've played a lot of these live already, so when I perform them, I sing certain parts differently or I slow things down and let things linger a little bit to create that space. I think just listening to my earlier work I can tell that it's everything that a song is, but where's the actual music? The music is jogging along with the words. It's hard for me to listen to stuff from the past, but I guess that's why we make new stuff and we can apply different goals and ideas to other things.
I know that on "All Mirrors", you were heavily influenced by going to the symphony with your parents hence the string arrangement. Are there any other childhood memories that impacted your songwriting?
I always felt like a misfit as a kid. I was adopted, my parents are older, I grew up kind of poor in a neighborhood. We went to a weird ghetto public school for a while and I'd get into fights with kids. I just feel like I didn't really fit in. This was as a preteen when I was 12 or 13. My parents took me out of school and put me into a private school and I was behind in all of the subjects because I went to a shitty public school. Then, I was an outcast because I was underprepared. It just took me a really long time to get to a point where I found my people and didn't feel insecure about where I was. I just had a lot of time alone because of that and I wrote a lot when I'd get home from school. I had like a little two tape deck recorder and I would listen to music and record harmonies and stuff. I got really into singing and writing dumb little songs, recording them, and spending all my time just obsessing over that. I think it was because with me and people, I just don't understand them. Looking back, I think a lot of that was growing up the youngest in a family of adults. I always felt like there was an aspect of an only child situation, but also all of my brothers and sisters were old enough to be my parents. It was an odd thing. Because my parents were much older, I felt that I was looking out for them and being worried about their health all the time. They were fine then. Now, they're obviously going through stuff but at the time, I was more worried about my parents than my studies. I grew up really fast because of that. One of my closest friends got really sick and developed schizophrenia. It was like I didn't have my friend anymore, and I asked myself "What am I doing here?"
I thought I could go to school and become a psychiatrist because I wanted to help people like my friend. I realized that was not actually what I wanted to do. I wanted to help my friend. I wanted to help people. I guess I feel like music is doing that in a way. I moved out of St. Louis and started doing that, and I told my parents I would go to school. Then I dropped out of school, but they were still proud of me for adapting to a different city. I just changed! I lived in a different city so my clothes started changing. I'd come home for the holidays and friends would be like "Oh you're too cool for me now?" Well, no. St. Louis is the stomach of the midwest as far as fashion. They get everything five years behind. I was only 19 or 20 at the time, so you'd have to imagine it was some dumb shit. I grew up there and I felt alone there, because I didn't know anybody there. I would go to the Harold Washington Library and write songs there. Wherever I was, I was always alone and I was always not into people in some weird way, which is probably why I write so many songs about not being able to relate to people.
A lot of your songs are very vulnerable even if you don't outright say what was going on when you wrote the song. You can get a feeling of the headspace you were in. Are there ever times where writing is too painful for you or is it necessary?
There are plenty of times where writing is too painful. Have I written something, been surprised, and then cried as I've done it? Yes. Sometimes when you're talking to a therapist or talking to a friend and you're voicing your thoughts that you're keeping to yourself, you realize you've been holding these thoughts. I'm always surprised by the thoughts I'm holding. I'm just walking around, feeding my cat, cleaning my house and trying to get rid of stuff, making plans, playing guitar, whatever. Sometimes, I'll sit down and write something like, "Shit. That's not me." I'm not an original or better person for having that thought, but it was cool that it's in there and it can be put into a phrase like this. I think that's the magic of writing, just feeling that even for a second, you're channeling something else. It's not you! I think when people start to use themselves and use their crafts, it feels good to be like "I accomplished this all by myself. This was me." Well, life served you some bullshit and you wrote some shit down is what happened.
By the time I wrote this record, I had gone through a lot of those things, but I still think a lot of those songs are always going to be relatable. "Impasse" is always one that I think about because it is hard to get people to come out onstage and perform with me. Sometimes I just had sore thumbs that made me feel bad for enjoying what I made, and I'm not going to do that anymore. I want to be around good people, and I should be excited and proud of what I made. That doesn't mean I'm done. I just need people to understand that, though I write the songs, perform them, and I love music, it's also work! I don't love going onstage every single night. That is not real. I can do it because it's an hour and a half of work. We get paid money to support a band to do an hour and a half of singing. That is not a bad life. There are days where I get into fights with people, or I'm not feeling really well. Usually by the time I'm up there, I actually like this song because I'm in a shitty mood. Playing "White Fire", "Impasse", or "Lark" could make me turn a really bad day into this song fucking crushing it tonight.
That's the advantage of writing sad music. It's always kind of relevant.
Do you ever feel guilty for feeling proud of something you've made?
Sometimes, yeah. Mostly because I don't want people to think that's the only thing that makes me feel good and that's all that matters to me in life. I had to try to balance not feeling ashamed for enjoying making art and putting my image out there. Part of it is getting older and realizing I'm not going to have a sexy body forever. Let me just feel good about this right now!
How has your relationship with loneliness evolved throughout your career?
When I was first writing, loneliness plagued me. When I was in relationships, I needed more space and I needed myself. I eventually found my space and I feel like there's something really freeing about being alone and knowing yourself. It's powerful and attractive, and you can do whatever you want if you really like being with yourself! There are things I want to work on, and things where I'm like "If I had a partner, they'd note this for sure." I think it's good when you can notice those things on your own so you're not viewing your partner as someone keeping tabs on you or viewing somebody else as a witness to your bad behavior. I think it's best to be independent sometimes. When I entered my thirties, I was like hell yeah! I love being alone! It's not a fear, but I feel like I'm so used to it that it's going to be so weird when I have a partner someday.
"New Love Cassette" is my favorite song on the album, especially lyrically. It feels like you are so ready to give your all to someone which feels effortless, a nice contrast to wanting to be alone. To end this, tell me about what love means to you and how you show love.
I guess it is allowing someone into your space and being able to communicate in a clear and open way about things that bother you, things you're struggling with, and not yelling about it or putting it on each other. It's just being like "Hey! This is bumming me out, can I talk to you about it?"
I remember being in shitty relationship after shitty relationship until I was in one that wasn't. I was surprised that they weren't mad at me for telling them I was in a bad mood today! So many people view your problems as their problems, and I think that love is patient and kind, but it's also open and communicative. It doesn't exist. Your reality is different when you haven't experienced that in a relationship, and it's important to experience, to know it's possible, and to know you're capable of doing that for someone even if it's not forever. To know you're capable of being open to someone in that way is saying something about how you're open and forgiving to yourself. Love really does start with nurturing those things within yourself, but sometimes you don't know you've nurtured them until you're with someone.
It hasn't worked out for me yet, but I can talk about it all day!
photo by Cameron McCool