In the fall of 2018, Angel Olsen left behind her life in Asheville, North Carolina, and traveled across the country to the most remote place she could find. To hear her tell it, there wasn’t much to leave: She’d just gotten out of a five-year relationship, which also spelled the end of several friendships. “That’s the hardest part of a relationship in a small town,” says Olsen, 33. “You realize who your friends are, who can deal with conflict between two people and not be shitty. … It was time for me to be alone for a while.”
As painful as the experience was, it left Olsen with a batch of incisive songs about loss, solitude, and emotional reckoning. She took them to Anacortes, Washington, an even smaller town north of Puget Sound, where she met up with engineer Michael Harris, who’d become a close friend after they worked together on her album My Woman in 2016. “I thought, if any engineer can handle me being kind of depressed, it’s Michael,” she says.
Working long but leisurely hours in a tumbledown church that Anacortes local Phil Elverum had refurbished into a studio called the Unknown, Olsen and Harris got down to the bones of ballads like “Lark Song” and “(Summer Song).” Later on, in Los Angeles, Olsen would re-record most of the same songs with lush string arrangements for 2019’s All Mirrors. That album’s rave reviews celebrated her as one of indie-rock’s richest chroniclers of heartbreak and self-reliance, with a vision far grander than those of most of her contemporaries.
First, though, she wanted to capture the songs with as little adornment as possible — just her guitar and voice and an occasional keyboard, straight to two-inch tape. “The mood of the day was sad, spooky weirdness,” says Harris, who remembers capturing many of Olsen’s vocal takes in an empty stairwell. The singer-songwriter says she was looking for “the most ghostly version of these songs,” in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or Arthur Russell’s homemade pop. “I felt so damn lucky to be there,” Harris adds. “I’d be sitting in the control room, weeping inside when she’d get a good take.”
Those Anacortes recordings, so stark they sound like X-rays of her soul, are out August 28th as Whole New Mess, an album with a beauty and intensity all its own. Coming after a series of acclaimed releases with steadily expanding sounds, the new LP marks a return to her earliest mode — a full-circle moment for fans who’ve been following her career, and for Olsen herself.
A decade ago, Olsen was working at a coffee shop in Chicago, where she’d moved in her early twenties after growing up in St. Louis. The customers were cranky, and her paychecks often bounced, but she loved the freedom the job gave her; she remembers writing songs on the backs of receipts during the day and performing them at tiny clubs by night.
Her first EP, 2010’s Strange Cacti, which she recorded by herself using GarageBand after a few unsuccessful tries with local producers, won her a spot in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s backing band. Her first full-length album, 2012’s Half Way Home, led to more solo shows and a tour of Europe by train. “Seeing the amount of people that were in attendance, compared to my DIY space in Chicago, was fucking insane and astounding to me,” she says. “That was when it hit me that I could sustain this — but I would need some help overcoming my shyness.”
Olsen moved to Asheville after recording Burn Your Fire for No Witness, the 2014 album that became her breakthrough. Many of its songs, she says, were fueled by the incandescent anger she felt at exes who hadn’t supported her aspirations. “I felt like my vision was blurred by some of the men in my life,” she says. “It’s a weird experience when you love someone who is a man who is jealous of your career. The people I was trying to date would be inspired to a point and then feel threatened.”
She recalls getting caught up in mind games from people she trusted early on. “I didn’t have people being like, ‘You should definitely go out into the world and play these songs,'” she adds. “It was more like, ‘It’s going to be hard, and they’re going to use you, and they’re going to sexualize you, and it’s not going to work out.'”
As her career began to catch fire, putting together a backing band of her own for a rougher-edged sound seemed like a natural next step. “I wanted to play music with the big boys,” she says. “I got overzealous about the idea of playing in a rock & roll band because of the aggression I was feeling. I wanted to prove people wrong, and prove myself wrong.”
She developed her sound even further for My Woman, dipping into film-noir atmosphere and hints of R&B. The album was another critical success, but Olsen began to have doubts about how far she’d moved away from her solo-acoustic origins. A career that had begun with a desire to share her inner voice with the world had turned into a multi-person money-making enterprise, with all the responsibilities that implies. “I opened a business [by starting a band], and that’s not what I wanted when I started to play music,” she says. “Complaining about that gets me nowhere, because I sound like a privileged asshole. But I didn’t realize I had to wear so many hats when I went into this.”
The stress of navigating the interpersonal relationships in her band, followed by her romantic breakup, contributed to her growing feelings of loneliness: “The more successful you become, the harder it becomes to meet new friends and trust new people. You wonder, is that why people are nice to you?”
By the time she got to Anacortes last fall, she was ready for a reset. “I needed to make sure I could make something that was mine again,” she says. “There’s something to be said for going with my own intuition, whether or not it’s a sonic revolution. That’s not what my music has ever been about, anyway.”
Releasing the songs in both forms — the jeweled gravity of All Mirrors, followed by the skeletal radiance of Whole New Mess — was always part of the plan. “It’s this very lovely thing that’s been waiting secretly for everyone to hear it,” Harris says of the latter album. “I love that.”
Olsen had hoped to support Whole New Mess with a solo tour this year. Instead, she’s been living quietly back home in Asheville, thinking about how strangely well the album echoes the isolated year we’re all living through. “It’s a sad and lonely time, but in some ways it’s been a blessing to have to face a lot of stuff,” she says. “And I’ve been writing again. Who knows, maybe I’ll have another record by 2022.”