Angel Olsen Is Ready To Start A Whole New Mess

Angel Olsen Is Ready To Start A Whole New Mess

Angel Olsen Is Ready To Start A Whole New Mess

V spoke with the artist about her newly released record — full of solitary, frank and unflinching examinations of what it’s like to love, lose and survive.

V spoke with the artist about her newly released record — full of solitary, frank and unflinching examinations of what it’s like to love, lose and survive.

Photography: Hannah Sommer

Text: Valerie Stepanova

Angel Olsen is far from your typical music or entertainment celebrity. Typically eschewing all things superficial, insubstantial, inconsequential, she is outspokenly yearning to have meaningful dialogues about things that really matter in our country and the world today.

“I want it to be a two-way conversation,” she says. “I'm so tired of that being one-way when you want to talk about other things, things that are important.” 

Don’t get me wrong — while the singer-songwriter is eager to talk about things outside of her music, she realizes the power of her creative medium and is keen to use it in a way that makes people enjoy and feel things they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

By her own admission, Angel Olsen has been spending a lot of time researching, rewatching, re-examining, re-evaluating. In recent years, she got to spend a lot of her time outside of the country, traversing the lands of Australia, Ireland, Portugal, and Greece. Now, she feels like she can afford to really slow down and face all of the things she inadvertently shied away from in the past. 

“It's a lot of learning and a lot of un-learning,” Angel recalls. “At first, they were overwhelming. Now, I know that if I read the news and I feel defeated, I get to the point where I want to just throw my hands up. I can take a break and go out with the girls and look at the plants and notice things about the earth. Then I can go back and do it again. But I need those breaks.”

Today, she is releasing her fifth studio album titled Whole New Mess, which also happens to be the first LP recorded without a backing band since 2012’s Half Way Home. To honor the project that emerged from feelings and emotions brought by a period of personal tumult, V spoke with the artist about her creative processes, the feelings that come along with them and the trials and tribulations of trying to explain her work to others, each time in a new, unique way.

Read the full interview below, and check out The Century of the Self docuseries on BBC — Angel said it’s a worthwhile watch.

V Magazine How are you, Angel? What have you been up to lately?

Angel Olsen You know what I've been doing? I've been staying up late. And I've been writing, and I've been laughing, waiting and lying. And I'm getting out those roller skates again! And I've been talking to people in Asheville and getting to know them, and it was really, really great, actually.

V You're about to release your next studio album, Whole New Mess. I've read that it's very much about going through breakup and processing all the feelings that come along with it — am I right?

AO Well, that's true and that's not exactly true. I mean, Whole New Mess in itself is not even about romance. It's about lifestyle, the lifestyle of being someone who's never home, and what it does to your body, and having to constantly do press and constantly talk about yourself... And all you want to do is make music. That's the basis of the album and the song, "Whole New Mess."

V Is there anything you want your listeners to take away from this project? What do you want people to think or feel when they listen to this album?

AO Tell them to react the way that they react. That's what I want.

V How was it for you, working on this album?

AO It was hard. I made it before All Mirrors, so I was still emotionally sitting in those feelings if that makes sense. At the time of recording this version of the songs, there was no one else in the room, save the engineer and my friend whom I love and respect and who I can open up to about life with. So I just let myself go in a way that I wouldn't have if I had tried to start with the high production first.

V Your last studio album, All Mirrors, was a huge success. Did you ever feel like people have expectations for you and your work at this point?

AO I'm sure people have all kinds of expectations for me and my music, but I've never really known what they are. I care about reaching people, helping people, and making music a wonderful, enjoyable experience. But I don't necessarily care about that in my writing phase. I write what I write, whether or not people will relate to it. It's unpredictable. 

With All Mirrors, both records sonically are not easy listening, they're pretty dramatic. Honestly, I thought maybe there would be so much going on that it would just be like, 'You know what, I'm just going to listen to something simple and that all sounds the same.' And I feel that way about music too. Sometimes I want to listen to The Cars, sometimes I want to listen to punk rock, sometimes I'll listen to Patti Smith or Kate Bush, or I'll listen to Nick Drake because all of his songs are so soft and quiet.

People want to listen to music for all things — the people that really want to listen to it, they will be able to, and sometimes I think I have to come to those terms for myself. And the way that I project my music into the world, and remember that if it's not for somebody right now, it still might be for them later, you know?

V You've worked on this record with your friend Michael Harris, whom you have known for years — how did you two reconnect for this project?

AO Michael is the kind of guy who I'll just get into these hour-long conversations with about trees, and before I know it — we've lost track of time and I'm late for therapy or something. Michael is just somebody I can be myself with, so that was part of why I think he ended up being part of the project.

V You chose The Unknown, this Catholic church in the small town of Anacortes, Washington, as your recording studio. Could you talk a little bit about why you ultimately chose that space?

AO I don't know if you're familiar with The Microphones or Phil Elverum, but I've been a fan of his music since I was 17 years old and I've met him a few times. One of the things that I think is really wonderful and inspiring that he told me when I first met him, I was recording and trying to figure out who I would work with. Am I going to work as a pop musician or pop producer, or should I just do it myself? And he just looked at me straight in the eye and he said, 'Do it yourself. You have it all — do it yourself.' And I said, 'Well, like on GarageBand?' And he was like, ‘Absolutely, you should do it yourself.' 

Years later, I remembered that conversation — that it was before I recorded My Woman when I had talked with him that time. And then my manager and Michael both were like, 'Did you know about The Unknown studio where The Microphones recorded?' And I was like, 'I don't know anything about it, but I'll check it out.' It's a really cool space, and the fact that it's a church and the fact that it's ghostlily haunted wasn't really the draw. I just had these people around me who were like, 'You should consider recording here.'

It's funny because it led me back to Phil, which led me back to remembering that conversation of 'Well, why can't I just do it myself? I did it myself before, you know?'

V When you finally finished recording this project, how did that make you feel?

AO Well, I went home and I was still sort of processing the feelings of that record. And about two days later, I got a call from John Congleton and Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff, who all worked with me on the record, and they were asking for edits and feedback for arrangements for All Mirrors. And I was just like, 'Man, I really put myself in a pickle here.' I didn't space between Whole New Mess and All Mirrors, and I had to jump right into pre-production for All Mirrors right after recording Whole New Mess. It was very exhausting because I just wanted to listen to something that wasn't me for a minute.

But it was a process, and when I eventually did go to LA and work with them, being able to collaborate with people was part of the reason why I could continue to love the songs in a way, you know — because the songs were old to me after recording them. And then I went and put myself in this process of seeing how other people heard them, and then just going for it and recording that. And that made me feel like, Oh wow, sounds can change form with music behind them they could mean something else. They could change form and meaning.

An example of that is the song “Too Easy” on Whole New Mess. It's very earnest and goes like, 'I'll do anything, everything you do is too easy', in the kind of way that we relate to each other. And then by the time you get to All Mirrors, I was hurting when we recorded that and I started to sing it in falsetto, and John and I both looked at each other like, 'This sounds like someone having a psychotic break, I love it so much.' It's a completely different context — so manic and outside of themselves, and they are like, 'We can be together!’

V Is there any reason why “Whole New Mess” is the opener and the title track?

AO It's sort of like a disclaimer about what I think about my process. Doing interviews after interviews, answering the same questions but trying to get everyone the most unique version of the answer is that question...it's impossible! And taking the right photo that will perfectly capture the mood of a record is impossible! So press altogether is just this way, just a tool to get people to notice things in different languages, and see what connects the songs to the language of the people, and get that — but it's not about the music. 

The photos I take and the way that publications have their angle on what I said has nothing to do with my music. Just listen to it, you know, find your own meaning. And I'm saying that about anything that pertains to music, I'm not just talking about myself — and that's why I get so passionate. People are like, 'Wow, she's really going deep with herself here!' And I'm like, 'No, that's what I hear when I hear music — I don't hear a person, I don't look for their personal life, I don't care! Why should I?'

V What's next for you, personally and professionally?

AO I think I want to be behind the wheel in a lot of ways. I want to drive this machine myself.

Credits: Casting: Greg Krelenstein

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