Through the looking glass
The last time I spoke to Angel Olsen, she’d just released MY WOMAN and gotten a cat, her beloved Violet. She joked at the time, “I’m done with music, I have a cat now, the next record is all cat!’
Much has changed in her life since then. MY WOMAN won universal acclaim, Violet has her own Instagram account and Olsen wrote All Mirrors - which isn’t all cat -`but a story of the human condition and relationships that she recorded not once, but twice.
When we spoke in 2017, it was the only time that before an interview I was given a list of questions not to ask, but she addressed most of the banned questions unprompted regardless. This time around there’s no blacklist from her publicist, but an Olsen-penned essay on the record instead, that prompts the first of a series of bursts of laughter from its creator.
“I wrote my own bio,” she tells me, “so clearly I’m a control freak and I’d like to be a writer more than just a musician, because I do these things. I write a fact sheet because I want people to have everything they need on front of them, so they don’t have to look it up, ask dumb questions and waste both of our time. It’s not just about me being uptight and high maintenance, but I definitely am both of those things sometimes, one hundred per cent.”
On the surface, All Mirrors is the story of a romantic parting of the ways, but there’s much more to it than that. “It’s obviously a breakup record, but it’s also not just a breakup record. All of these people saw me going through this thing that I experienced and I don’t care. Everybody in the world’s been through a breakup at least once.
“I’m an open fucking book about that shit, but there’s so much more. I’m not ‘Angel Olsen’ - I’m just myself - but ‘Angel Olsen’ wrote a record that has to do with breakups, trying to find myself and getting through, knowing that others couldn’t understand what I’ve been through, but trying to show them would just isolate me even further.”
The first incarnation of All Mirrors was a lone endeavour, but when Olsen finished it, she decided to reimagine the songs with strings and a full band. “I originally did the thing I wanted to do, which was to go back to my roots, something like Strange Cacti or Half Way Home. Then I was ‘OK, now I’m going to free up all this energy to do this other thing.’”
The ‘other thing’ saw her re-record the songs, taking them to a place that’s more epic, elegant, funkier and intimate than Olsen has ever been before. Reuniting with producer-du-jour John Congleton, who worked on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, she also enlisted LA-based composers Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt for the string arrangements.
Rather than having the strings as an add on, as many artists do when they’re trying to go all-out for grandeur, Olsen was involved in every step of the arrangements. “I was sitting with them saying ‘In this line there’s this melody, what about this melody? That’s too much, can you do this? Here’s an example of a Scott Walker song, here’s an example of this song.’ When she mentions the late Scott Walker, I tell her his name came to mind when I first listened to All Mirrors and the way he used strings to tell the story in a song like “It’s Raining Today” from Scott 3, where the orchestration evoked the weather.
“There’s a lot of Scott Walker at the beginning and the end - in "Impasse" and "Lark." I like that my writing has always been a mixed bag of different things but sonically I’ve always wanted to make something with strings.”
The inspiration for strings in her own work started when Olsen was a child, when her mother would take her to classical recitals. “I always imagined that one day I’d be a composer, that I’d write an orchestra. I didn’t exactly do that but the first day we tracked the strings it was my thirty-second birthday and I went to the symphony. It’s one thing to hear it on the record, but it was such an incredible feeling to listen back to it for the first time and feel it in the room. It was a wild, wild thing.”
Olsen tells me one of the reasons she prefers All Mirrors to her other records is because it was a chapter of closure, not just in terms of her breakup but the freedom she feels now. “I bought a house and no one told me it was more than buying a house. I just thought I was buying a house, I didn’t know it was going to be me reflecting on what a home is, what it meant to be doing something that was so powerful alone, and how validating but how weird it would be. I still haven’t painted my walls because I’m ‘Are these my walls? These aren’t my walls, are they?’”
For all of the happiness that radiates from Olsen at her joy of creating All Mirrors, she’s mindful of how she can manage the arduous tour she’s signed up to. Two years of taking MY WOMAN on the road provided a test for the touring party: musicians and their crew are constantly in each other’s company, and familiarity can breed contempt. “You start to notice everything you don’t like about people, and they start to notice the things they don’t like about you. Then you’ve got to go onstage and perform as though you love each other, that you’re having a great time and you didn’t spend the whole day thinking these thoughts about each other.”
This time, Olsen wants to adopt a working day mentality to touring, where everyone learns to let things go. “It’s been a very interesting thing that I’ve never really wanted to talk about, but I think it’s important to talk about it, because no one ever talks about it and it’s real. I try to get deep with other artists at my level or higher and they never open up about it. I don’t know why they don’t want to open up about it but I do, and I’m wasting time if I don’t try to figure it out. There is no real answer, it’s a hard job to have.”
"All Mirrors" was the first song Olsen wrote after MY WOMAN. She heard the phrase ‘We are all mirrors’, looked up its meaning and realised it was about the idea that, “the way you treat others is the way you treat yourself and keeping that mentality. It’s about a bunch of other things - self-reflection, seeing myself in different ways, choosing different paths, being caught up in different narratives and how confusing that’s been. Why do people end up alone, why are they so much happier alone sometimes?”
"It’s really rare I spend time missing and needing someone. I think it’s a blessing, but what’s not a blessing about it is that partners are confused as to how to make it work.”
All Mirrors is an incredible record that immerses the listener from the opening notes of “Lark”, which starts as a lament, as Olsen half-sings, half-speaks “To forget you is to lie, there is still so much left to recover” before exploding with strings as she half-sings and half-screams “What about my heart? What about my dreams?”
“It was originally called ‘Lark Song’, she explains, “but I knew there was something about the word that I needed to call it ‘Lark’, I just kept thinking of a bird.”
Male larks are noted for their distinctive singing voices, which as well as attracting females, help to mark and defend their breeding territory, I tell her. “I don’t know what larks do or what they’re like, but I like hearing what you’ve read. To me it’s all about a man marking his territory on something he doesn’t really understand. Specifically, it’s about multiple partners that would say that they love and support me, but could never really understand what I do and support that - to trust it and believe in it without it being emasculating or competitive. Jealousy arises at some point, the feeling of being unnecessary.”
Olsen tells me she thrives on independence: “I’m very good at cutting things off and being cold if I need to survive. I travel and don’t miss people I love, and if I do miss them, then I really care about that person and they’re really, really special to me. But it’s really rare I spend time missing and needing someone. I think it’s a blessing, but what’s not a blessing about it is that partners are confused as to how to make it work.”
I tell her the song that will floor listeners on All Mirrors is “Tonight”, with its themes of loss, independence and solitude, especially the line “All these things that I’ve come to understand about you, about me.”
"Tonight" is definitely the centrepiece, it’s the saddest song, but it’s also ‘I’m at peace.’ It’s about being at peace without someone, without anyone. I’m sure life is going to hand me all kinds of new messes to deconstruct and figure myself out of again, but in this chapter, that was the one for me. That was the one I dealt with.”
There’s a sense of independence in the line “I like the air that I breathe, but without you…” Is “Tonight” saying ‘I’m happier now that I‘m gone from this?’ "Yes. It’s ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for my heart.’ 100% genuinely.
“I’m so glad that my heart was broken, it’s the fucking coolest thing that ever happened to me. To be completely split open, to lose everything, to be completely isolated, small and unheard and yet at the same time everyone around you thinks you’re hurt more than anyone because you’re a musician, and people sing your songs, so no one bothers to reach you. That was the feeling and the loss for me, but to come out of that… that’s what I mean by saying ‘I’m so glad’, because I came out of it.”
"Some things are really simple - communicating well with someone, that’s the key to keeping on the same page and passion for living and the same kind of love.”
“Tonight” is so rewarding but complex, it makes me wonder whether it’s easier to write about heartbreak than it is to write about being smitten with love, I tell her. “For me, that song is ‘Chance’, it’s the happiest song,” she says. “Love doesn’t have to be forever anymore and that’s not how I do it. I don’t want to be forever at everything, it’s just ‘love me right now and when it changes, let me know…’ and that’s it.”
Can love be that simple? “No. I wish it were. Some things are really simple - communicating well with someone, that’s the key to keeping on the same page and passion for living and the same kind of love.”
She adds a caveat on why love affairs and friendships can go awry: “You get comfortable and you lose track of what someone’s doing because you think ‘This persons always going to be around.’
As well as taking someone for granted? “Yes, or they’re always ‘that thing’ to you, even though they’re continually changing and growing and sometimes it’s not always for the better.”
We circle back to the lyrics, and the intimacy they can create between the listener and the artist. “It’s amazing that people think that ‘that’s everything.’ It’s part of why I’m afraid to go and see fans sometimes, because they think I’m someone who is going to be their therapist. I hate to say it out loud, but I’m not a therapist. I don’t know anything about anything, I just know how to articulate the things that have happened, and still keep happening to me. I’m not a better person, in fact I might actually be worse, because I’ve articulated them, but I just can’t learn my fucking lesson.”
But there’s something about hearing a song, that it articulates how you’re feeling? “Yes, and reading a book and thinking ‘I’ve thought that thought’, that person published it and that’s validating because I’m not alone in that thought.”
What about the flip side to writing personal songs: where the people you’re writing about will probably hear it? “I think they should feel complimented that I’d spend so much time mulling it over, trying to understand and trying to love enough to share it with the world. I don’t think it’s embarrassing, I’m not trying to exploit the things in my life, I’m trying to understand them. I think it’s important, sometimes it’s deeper than the situation itself and the person themselves.”
Olsen tells me that writing personal stories are just that - personal - where musical expression encompasses not only how we see people, but how we see ourselves. “A lot of it is how I see it and how warped it can be. It’s not completely about someone, and that’s why the theme of the record - and why I chose All Mirrors as a title - is because of the way you see something. You can be confused when you’re projecting yourself, you see something in someone else that is yourself, but it keeps you from actually seeing them, listening and trying.
“Falling in love with someone because I saw something in them that reminded me of myself, but I didn’t know that at the time. Then I changed and that thing didn’t exist anymore in them. I should have been listening to them that entire time, but I wasn’t.”
Writing about a breakup helped Olsen to understand what it meant for herself and provided a sense of distance and objectivity. “That’s been such a great thing,” she says. “It was a terrible thing to go through in front of people and it was humbling, but I hope it happens again - when you have your heart completely broken, you know that you have a heart. I don’t want it to go on forever, but I often think that life keeps serving me lemons. I don’t know if it’s the way I see things, or if in some subconscious way I always find a way to create some sort of catastrophe. It’s not about self-pity, its ‘Am I plagued by the way I see it or by events that have happened to me?’ And then its ‘Do I enjoy writing about it? Am I exploiting my own life by writing about it?’”
"I’m sure some people will be, ‘oh, she’s going to soften up’ but I will tell you this: I will always have something to complain about!"
She asks if I’ve heard of Spalding Gray and the documentary And Everything Is Going Fine. Gray wanted to be a famous actor but he had a problem with his chosen vocation. “He would change all the lines constantly, so he failed as an actor and became a sit-down comedian, a storyteller. He’d have a glass of water at the table, one light and he’d talk about his Mother.
“For forty-five minutes you’d believe him, but he exaggerated the whole story and suddenly it’s ‘Is he making this up? What is this story?’”
She references Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, where “one of the questions he asks himself is ‘Am I creating drama in my life so that I can continue writing? Or am I just writing things that happen to me?’”
As she muses on whether she enjoys writing about her own life, Olsen tells me, “it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if one day I was an editor of someone else’s work, I was a mom and I didn’t write a good song ever again, because I was so happy. I would be okay with that at this point, but at the same time I’m really happy because I’m okay with that. Making this record, promoting it and all of the other dumb shit I’ve always done, is, for whatever reason just a little bit lighter.”
Why’s it lighter? “It’s not ‘This is all I have to do’, it’s more that I know I don’t have to continue, that I deserve to be happy, I can maybe not write about my entire life and all of my problems forever and always be alone. Maybe I could actually be happy; have a family and not do that - that’s an option. That makes me enjoy what I’ve made even more, because I can finally let go of it - the want and the need.”
Within the idea of artistic liberation and letting go, Olsen thinks she might have peaked with All Mirrors. “I’m sure people will be disappointed to know that, but I’m fine with plateauing. At some point I’d prefer to have a kid and whatever.” She smiles and then adds a hilariously self-deprecating line that Spalding Gray would have been proud of: “I’m sure some people will be ‘Oh, she’s going to soften up’ but I will tell you this: I will always have something to complain about!”
Talk of her artistic temperament prompts a memory of some advice her mother gave her as a child. “She said, ‘You think too much for your own good. You need to learn to enjoy the things that happen to you and see the things that are happening to you as enjoyable.’
“I try to remember that whenever I’m overthinking things.”
Such sage wisdom doesn’t apply to the life of being an artist however: “That’s also partly what makes you a writer; someone who wants to see things from different angles at all times. It also keeps me from enjoying something and trusting it completely, because I’m so critical.”
I’ve seen first-hand how much people enjoy Olsen’s music. An entire crowd at London’s Roundhouse in 2017 singing “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman” is one of the most exhilarating moments I’ve witnessed at a live show. Why does she think people listen to her songs? “I don’t know, because it came up in the queue next to Sharon Van Etten and Marissa Nadler? I love them both, but it’s really hard to find women’s voices that I really like and that I’m drawn to, it’s so typical being drawn to Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush, but they just have the ranges I like.
“I think sadness is definitely my deal and I’m down for being known for ‘sad-girl songs’, I don’t mind being called that or being genre-ised, but the songs are pretty fucking good right? I’d say that I’m not as gifted a singer as I am as a writer, I put my writing first.”
I tell her I'm surprised she underestimates her singing voice, which hits new heights on All Mirrors. “Really? It’s hard to know when you’re in it. I’m not saying I’m the best, but I work on my writing, so when someone cheaply compares me to someone who doesn’t work on their writing - because our voices are similar enough - that makes me so sad. It also makes me realise that no one pays attention to the writing ever, and it’s not as important to anyone but me.”
She recalls a conversation with friends about the merits of Songs: Ohia and Will Oldham. “I was ‘What do you like about them both? Is it the writing or the singing?’ I’m curious about what people get into more, because lots of people are ‘I don’t care about wordy songs, I just like to listen to music’ and it makes me want to strangle them. It does, I have violence in for me for that and I’m dealing with it every day.”
Olsen’s trip to London to do press for All Mirrors is also an opportunity to catch up with some of her friends and collaborators, including Mark Ronson - with whom she co-wrote “True Blue” on Late Night Feelings - and The Raincoats. She met the seminal post-punk band by chance in Lisbon, found that they got on famously, and they asked Olsen to play with them a year later. “I don’t know if you’ve ever played music with a bunch of sixty-year-old women who are all correcting each other and have years of history, it was ‘This is going to be me! This is me already!’”
It’s unsurprising that Olsen makes friends easily; she asks as many questions about my life as I do about hers: “You’ve always wanted to be a writer? You’re a music nerd?” I tell her I have another job too and Olsen quips ‘I thought this was your real job?’ This isn’t real? Is anything real?" She then asks me "What’s my job?”
“I think my real job is that I go into life, I see it in a certain way, it fucks with me and then I write about it.”
I tell her that sounds like a good job to do.
“Is it? It’s kind of a fucked-up job to rely on, I can tell you that. It’s pretty esoteric and weird, but it’s been good so far. I bought a house, I got this book.”
The book in question is A Little History of the World by the Austrian-born art historian E. H. Gombrich. “It’s really concise, a reminder of how everything started, how different cultures influenced and stole from each other, and how then in the renaissance they celebrated each other and did it all over again.”
She’s enjoying Gombrich’s book, despite the fact she didn’t ace history at school. “I sucked at it, but you suck at everything at that age because you’re going through so many changes. Then you go to college and you’re not ready, because you don’t really know who you are. You think you know who you are and that you know what you want and then you spend all of your parent’s money.”
Olsen went to college for one semester, but then switched to a clinical massage therapy course. “We worked on athletes. It was like science, you had to learn about pathology and diseases. We got to that part of the process and I decided I didn’t have it in me to do that, so I quit and continued to play music.”
For all her success as a musician, Olsen says she thinks a lot about different means of creative expression, including starting a record label and launching a literary magazine. “It would be poetry, short stories, photography, interviews with different artists I know.” An artist she has in mind is Roy Molloy - Alex Cameron’s ‘business partner’ and saxophonist. “Roy’s a historian, a weirdo and one of the smartest people I know. He always has anecdotes about history, he’s an encyclopaedia for it. I’d have a section where its Roy talking about history for two pages.”
I tell her I’d buy that book and Olsen says “Yeah? You’d buy it? OK, I’ll work on it, but right now I’ve just finished this record.”
For all the turmoil that heartbreak brings, I ask Olsen why do we persist with love? “I didn’t want to persist with it, in fact, every time it’s over I’m ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ Especially now. I was ‘I’m so happy alone. I don’t want to change my narrative for anyone. I don’t want my light to be dimmed so that a man can feel important in my life’ and I feel like I always dim it myself. It’s not just about them dimming me, I’m just submissive in that way, I’m very traditional. I want to find a new way to be with a partner that isn’t that way, because it’s detrimental to them that I do that. I do it and then I become resentful, but I voluntarily become a submissive human because I just want to be loved.”
“I used to think of myself as an old lady with a bunch of cats everywhere peeing all over everything, but I always looked down on that and thought it was really sad. I’ve said to myself ‘I’m most honest alone’ and you know what happens after that?”
You meet someone and they knock you off your feet?
“They knock you off your feet, and the best is when you’re not looking for it and don’t expect it. It breaks your heart all over again, because you want to protect yourself and the person when you really care and really, really love them. Even if they’re new love, you just want to say it - and you get better at saying it - because you don’t want to waste time.”
Olsen tells me her ideal ground-rules for love: “These are the things that I hate, I’m neurotic about this and I just need you to know. I really need you to listen to me and I really need you to know that you have to chew with your mouth closed. When I brush my teeth, I don’t want you in the room with me.
“I’m sorry, I will never take a shower with you - I like that time to myself. Don’t be in the same room when I’m working on something in the morning; it’s just space, but space is very important to me. When I get back from a long trip, don’t surprise me by taking me to an event with friends or a baseball game. Instead, pick me up from the airport, tell me I look beautiful, drop me off, go to the grocery store and leave me alone for a few hours to shower, so I can look nice for you and be present for you. I just want to be present for you, and these are things that happen that keep me from doing that, and vice versa.”
“It’s just simple things, but you get better at it and at saying it.”
As our conversation closes, Olsen tells me “I’m really good at articulating the things I don’t like and that trouble me. What I think would be a huge challenge would be to write happy songs that aren’t boring, that make people feel the feelings they should feel when they’re in love. In that way you were saying that it’s difficult to write a good ‘being love’ song." She takes out her phone and plays “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” by Irma Thomas, singing out loud to the line, “You can run around, even put me down, still I’ll be there for you” - note perfect.
“Just wait until the chorus kicks in,” she beams, before adding counter harmonies to the line, “The world may think I'm foolish, they can't see you like I can. Oh, but anyone who knows what love is, will understand.”
The singing is so good, and I say that maybe she should cover it? “Maybe I will, she does it so good though. The words are so beautiful. I love that song so much. I walk around my neighbourhood, look at the oak trees and listen to it and think about it.
“It’s so simple, but that’s a good love song.”