Angel Olsen is ready for her close-up
On a block in the neighbourhood of St Louis, Missouri’s Richmond Heights, there’s a red brick house Angel Olsen walks by every time she returns to her hometown.
This is the house Old Lady Chris lived in with her many cats. Once a week, every week, when she was growing up, Olsen’s mom, a good Christian woman, would go to the grocery store and pick up two bags of ice, a six-pack of Coors beer, cat food, and deli meats. She’d leave the groceries on Old Lady Chris’s front porch, and pick up the cheque left for her, which Olsen remembers always smelled “like cat piss”. Olsen never once saw this woman in the flesh, and Old Lady Chris remains a mystery, long after her death and the gutting of her house. “Who was Old Lady Chris?” Olsen muses, with a pressing look. “And why did she need those exact items every week?”
It’s an early August evening in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A brief thunderstorm had burst not 30 minutes before Olsen and I meet, leaving the chairs in the backyard of this bar pretty wet. Olsen, with her hair falling loose from a big, bouffant-y bun done up for a video interview recorded earlier that day, took the bottom of her striped linen dress and wiped off a seat, so my skirt wouldn’t get too damp while we discussed death, love and her striking fourth studio album, All Mirrors.
By this time, Olsen’s been in New York for almost a week, her days stacked with interviews like this one. But when she’s home in Asheville, North Carolina, where she moved about six years ago, mostly Olsen hangs out with her cat, Violet, and goes to watch her best friend DJ. Sometimes she goes on hikes, or to dinner with friends. And now that she’s just bought a house, she has a lot on her to-do list (actually, she says she has multiple, categorised to-do lists). “I gotta like, buy air filters,” she tells me. “I’m like, calling the lady who owned the house before me, ‘What air filters did you use, biatch? Those are expensive! Who do I call? You mean I gotta call somebody to have him in my house to fix it? And then hopefully it goes well? This is a lot!’”
Angel Olsen is funny and acerbic and she’s dramatic in this casual way. It’s like, she doesn’t get why everyone won’t just let her have her drama. She tells me she does all this press because she wants to talk about her music, but also because she loves to dress up. “Don’t you just wanna wake up and dress up sometimes?” she asks. “When I run out of clothes or laundry, sometimes I wear a lot of makeup and put on my nicest dress, ’cause it’s the only one that’s clean. And everyone’s like, ‘Why do you look so good today?’ Because I didn’t do my laundry! Why can’t I just have that day, or that kind of experience in my life… performance – the way I play music? She ends most of her thoughts with, “You know what I mean?” Like she wants to be understood.
Sipping soda water and lemon, Olsen tells me she likes fashion that’s vampiric, romantic, big. Like the video for All Mirrors’ titular lead single, in which Olsen first wears an ethereal white dress, before she’s transformed by black patent-clad hands and hooded figures into a version of herself in a black lace gown, who faces another version of herself in black velvet and an illustrious, spiky crown. (“I wore a crown in my video, I don’t think I’m a queen,” she says later. “But I do have to rule my own life. I have to rule my own thoughts, and that’s important to me to know that I can.”)
Olsen says she and director Ashley Connor created a minimalist, surrealist “mindspace” for All Mirrors, a sweeping, building track in which Olsen sings about being buried alive in someone’s smile. “At least at times it knew me,” she repeats until the strings ebb. It recalls the films of Man Ray and Luis Buñuel; Olsen stuck in a dream she can’t escape, she explains, and the dream is a like an unsolvable puzzle: “Which part of myself is the truest?”
She takes a pause from deconstructing the video and asks if I’ve ever seen Sunset Boulevard. And even though my answer is yes, Olsen recounts the plot of the 1950 Billy Wilder film – about an ageing silent film actress stuck in the past, obsessed with her former celebrity, unable to move on – with her characteristic, rhythmic run-on sentences. “She’s lost everyone,” Olsen says, “because she spent all this time being the perfect self, to herself.”
All Mirrors is grander in sound than anything Olsen has done before. She’s leaned into the drama, the synths and strings and high production. She says she wanted to be “sonically playful,” and thus there are rumbling, emotive tracks like Impasse, and the seven-minute opus of an opener, Lark; straight-up jams, like What It Is, which is successfully both synthy and orchestral and contains the standout line, “You just wanted to forget that your heart was full of shit.” And Endgame, which could be a ballad from a tear-jerking 70s romance soundtrack, like Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were – “Made a life, made a scene, made up everything/ Life carries on just like a song I sing but I don’t know/ I walk away from all the noise/ and I’m on my own.”
On her last album cycle, Olsen was questioned endlessly about the synth pop of Intern, the tinsel wig she wore in videos (she tells me interviewers would ask if she was “afraid to be herself”), about being a woman. She’s even been accused of relinquishing her creative control, after the release of her recent collaboration with Mark Ronson, True Blue, which is about fucking around and falling in love. “If you know me personally,” she says, “You would know that I’m the last person that’s a pushover. I am so in control. Maybe my writing’s changing, but I don’t feel like I’ve lost myself to the industry.”
Olsen, unlike Norma Desmond, knows exactly who she is. And she is not afraid of change. This is clear, not only by her demeanor and her artistic choices but because she says it to me multiple times, in various ways. It’s because she knows that time is wild. That a person changes not only over a lifetime but every single day. “Yes, I know myself, but I also know that the nature of the self, and the nature of the world, and what time does really changes how you view the things you think you know.”
"I feel so smart, but when it comes to love, I have such
For example, she says, when she was in her 20s she found the idea of dying alone with cats upsetting. Now that she’s 32, her tune’s changed. It wouldn’t be so bad, after all, to be an Old Lady Chris type. “I’ve been with wonderful partners,” she says. “But it didn’t work out. And then I’d go out on dates and try to meet people, and I’m very much like, ‘I’d rather be at home with my cat right now!’ And that’s not sad to me. I’m actually not sad to lose you, because I get all this,” she says, gesturing boldly toward herself. “Whereas before, I was always like,” – Olsen puts on one of her voices; this one is droopy, comically sad – “‘I’ll never find the right partner.’”
The right partner, she realises, would be like a jade plant, or a cactus, the kind of flora she has at her house in Asheville because it will be fine while she’s on tour. “Something that can grow on its own without being nourished for many weeks. I’m looking for that in a partner, if you know anyone.” She also says if you ever notice one of your relationships sapping energy, you should “fire” them from your life. “Sometimes people are in the way. They’re vacuums, in fact. They take from you and they never give back, they don’t listen, they don’t ask questions, they don’t give anything.”
© Davey Adesida
Olsen is emphatic on the topic of love. In the music of All Mirrors, and in our conversation. She’s learned so much from others in relationships, and so much about herself – like that she has to be patient, not go headlong into situations expecting it to be perfect. Love takes time, and often you see what you want to see in another person, not what’s truly there. “I feel so smart, but when it comes to love, I have such an imagination!” she says. “‘You don’t need to worry, I’ll imagine that you’re someone else, and we’ll get through this for another few years.’ Just completely on the magic carpet of my imagination about you, and us. That’s not healthy!” She’s searching through her bag as she says this, looking for a lighter for a yellow American Spirit. “I have a bra in here, I have some panties. I got two bras! I got some almonds, I have some shoes, some cheap concealer, a little bag from Istanbul.”
"Maybe that's why I feel like I am a goth. I'm just always thinking about time, and then I start thinking about death"
Here, I scramble through my notes to find what lyric she’s reminded me of, and she teases me: “Is it a goth lyric?” (It wasn’t a lyric, actually, it was something she’d written about All Mirrors: “We are all mirrors to and for each other… I just want to know that what I’m seeing is what I’m seeing and not what I’m looking for.”) And then starts to sing a line from My Woman’s Heart Shaped Face, the one that goes, “Was it me you were thinking of?/ All the time when you thought of me.” A lot of the lines in her music that sound directed at someone else, she says, are really about herself. “It’s not your fault you’re an idiot and didn’t notice, it’s my fault you’re an idiot and I didn’t notice.” She laughs. “I don’t know why I didn’t notice that!” And then she really laughs.
“Wow, time has revealed how little we know us/ I’ve been too busy, I should’ve noticed,” she croons on Spring, a charming, echoey tune from All Mirrors that wishes for true love, with a music box twinkle. Olsen thinks a lot about time. About evolving through it, how it leads to death.
“I’ve always been kinda goth and now I’m just fully embracing it.” She laughs another one of her big laughs. “I’ve always been someone who obsesses over life and death and darkness and brightness. And the way I see things and if they’re real. I was thinking, if the world ends today, and the last thing I do is this photoshoot, just like watching a bunch of people run around – ‘Hold the rose, don’t hold the rose, can you do a little bit of this?’ – and then all of a sudden the world is ending. The last thing I watched is The Princess Diaries, and that’s the last thing my brain processed before I died on this plane. Maybe that’s why I feel like I am a true goth. I’m just always thinking about time, and then I start thinking about death.”
In thinking a lot about Angel Olsen I have wound up thinking a lot about myself. It’s in the music, the urgent, stretchy quality of her voice (a voice Jenn Pelly once called “anarchic”); the way she sings “I just want to see some beauty, try and understand,” with a pained, almost operatic tone, on the breathtaking All Mirrors finale Chance. And then how she switches her delivery, and sings, Broadway-esque, “I’m walking through the scenes/ I’m saying all the lines.” Getting lost in the piercing delicacy of Tonight, I’m reminded to “like the thoughts that I think,” and the “life that I lead.” And Summer – a stunning, Western sounding track that feels windy and drenched, like the storm earlier that day – well, it makes me want to fire everyone from my life who doesn’t enrich it.
Olsen and I don’t really talk all that much about her music in the hour we have. Mostly we talk about life. Her cat, her plants, her take on love. Getting older and closer to death. How buying a house is like taking on a second job; about the upkeep required for her appliances, her yard, health, relationships. “This is the songs. You know?” she says. She’s right. “Maybe my life is really fuckin’ boring. But, Old Lady Chris is a real story! I’m still wondering about her! I walk past that house every day I visit. I wonder what they do on the inside. I wanna know if it still smells like that. Or if somebody lives there now and kept something of hers. Or what she named her cats, what her story was. I don’t think it’s sad. I think the only thing that’s sad about living alone is that, eventually, sometimes these things happen and sometimes it’s not your foot or your ears, it’s your brain that’s deteriorating. I imagine her eating cat food on accident, thinking it’s real food. But then, I don’t feel bad for her – if she likes it, she likes it!”
Photography: Davey Adesida
Styling: Shayna Arnold
Makeup: Mariko Hirano
Hair: Dana Boyer
Location: Milk Studios, New York
All Mirrors is released on 4 October via Jagjaguwar.