Angel Olsen is standing on a rainy sidewalk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, smoking a cigarette. “I’ve just had a really emotional day,” she says, staring at the Manhattan skyline across the river. “I cried a little bit. I feel OK now.”
Olsen is preparing for the release of her new album, All Mirrors, and it’s been a little hectic. “For every record, there’s just something you couldn’t plan for,” she explains. “I’m shifting gears a lot. Rehearsing with the band, doing promo. Now I’m in front of a camera trying to look cute. Now I’m being probed spiritually and emotionally about my record. Then I go home for four days and take care of my house, because I just bought a house.”
The house is in Asheville, North Carolina, where Olsen has lived for the past six years. She spends most days drinking coffee on the porch and writing, or doing chores like weeding and paying bills — what she calls “normal shit.” “It’s a really nice balance to traveling and doing all this stuff,” she says.
Her fourth studio album, All Mirrors is Olsen’s stunning, most personal record yet: 11 tracks with sweeping string arrangements, glossed with synthesizers and haunting piano chords. It’s cathartic, heartbreaking and even cinematic at times. “I felt I was being bold by allowing 100% of myself into something for the first time and admitting that it is about me and about my life,” she says. “And I didn’t really admit that in previous records.”
Tell me about the background of All Mirrors.
I took a year to do solo touring and revisited earlier writing; just reflecting on that part of myself and how I started from that. Listening to “Always Half Strange” and stuff from way back when, I’m like, “How, as a 22-year-old, did I ever think I had experienced life?”
When you were 22, did you imagine that one day you’d collaborate with Mark Ronson?
[Shakes her head “no.”] I was really hesitant about it up until it happened, because I don’t need someone to write songs for me. I know for a fact that everyone will think that he did everything, even if he’s a nice guy. My whole purpose of what I’m doing — what my path is — is to not try to climb a ladder and use someone else’s success to propel myself. If I suck, I suck, and I’d rather suck on my own. But we met in person, and he let me do what I wanted and use the song that I wrote. He was very sweet and very open about the whole experience. He let me go and do the final edit with him. He didn’t have to do that.
How does All Mirrors differ from your last album, My Woman?
I just knew that I needed to do something that was both all myself but also allowing new collaborators in, because I’m always in control of everything. In a lot of ways, my openness to collaborate with John Congleton and Jherek [Bischoff] and Ben [Babbitt] came from me [originally] recording all of those songs in their stripped back form. But I didn’t want to do it with the same backing band, because I knew that I would feel responsible for allowing everyone’s opinion in, in the way that I did with My Woman. I needed space. It’s not anything personal. It’s just I need to go back to my past a little bit and be 100% myself without holding back out of fear of hurting anyone’s feelings.
What music did you listen to during the making of the album?
I was definitely listening to Brian Eno and a lot of Gary Newman. Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor. A lot of the Reels, a lot of late 80s music. But also a lot of Nina Simone and jazz and Mildred Bailey and Phil Green. I wanted to do something with those influences like on “Endgame.”
Is there any correlation between the songs “Spring” and “Summer”?
No, actually; it wasn’t spring when I wrote “Spring.” But I just thought of what was happening in the spring and this moment that happened with my friend: We were talking about how we thought we were going to be totally different people in our 30s and that we would never have children. But certain things just happen in your life, and you become someone else. You start to understand why people do things the way they do, and you start to understand your own value system and what you love and what you hate in the world.
“Summer” is supposed to be this really fun time, but I was in the middle of chaos and feeling really isolated, and so that song was more about feeling like I didn’t have a support system.
What’s “New Love Cassette” about?
I’ve had such a bad example of what a good relationship is, and that song is about meeting someone that showed me what a good relationship can be. And realizing that I would do anything for them; to let them love someone else, because I love them so much.
What kind of head space were you in when making the record?
It was wintertime, so it was raining a lot in L.A. The same thing happened when we made Burn Your Fire: it rained every single day. When me and John Congleton work together, it just rains.
How do you think you’ve evolved as a songwriter over the years?
I’m less worried about the risks. And not everything has to be this complicated poetic sentence. Some things can just be very literal and very forward and have just as much impact — if not more — when they’re like that. So much of my time in my early 20s, I tried to make something really double entendre or make it sound whimsical or do all these back flips with my voice. And I still do those things, but I can tell that my writing is getting a little bit more specific.
Is there a theme to the record?
There are a lot of themes that have to do with navigating whether or not something is actually happening the way we see it. “Impasse” is about the isolation of doing what I do for a living and losing people along the way who didn’t understand that it’s not just about me writing songs and posting about it on Instagram; I don’t get to just turn that off. The consequence of making myself important is everywhere now. I have to be responsible and aware of it no matter where I am, and that’s not something that everyone understands. I think those people should be psyched that they never have to experience that. That song was just kind of like, “It will be so easy for you to just go and gossip to your friends and tell everyone that I’m just completely unaware of you and myself. It would be so much easier for you to do that, because people will believe you.”
What is it like when you’re home?
It’s great. I have a good community of friends, we talk about how weird and alien it is to do this for a living. Sometimes they experience it by going out to dinner with me, when someone will come up to me. They see me change and shift into “Angel Olsen.” I could be in a really shitty mood telling my friend about a conversation I had with one of my parents, something really personal, and someone who knows who I am could be sitting next to me and hearing the whole conversation. But it doesn’t really happen where I live very much. People aren’t as ladder-climbing in Asheville as they are in L.A.
How do you spend your days?
I just hang out with my cat. I love her so much. I lost her one day and I broke down and started crying. I was freaking out and calling all my friends, and I eventually found her in a bush. I was like, “I’m insane.” I became a crazy cat lady.