Angel Olsen on love, loss, and All Mirrors

Ahead of her show at Glasgow's Barrowlands on Valentine's Day, we catch up with Angel Olsen to discuss her latest album All Mirrors

Feature by Tony Inglis | 03 Feb 2020
  • Angel Olsen

There’s an exchange in Greta Gerwig’s generous, brilliant adaptation of Little Women, between Florence Pugh’s Amy and Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie, that places the two characters at odds with each other on the subject at hand: love. Both are at a turning point in the story. Laurie, spurned by Jo, is in flux, reconsidering what his love for Amy’s sister, for anyone, means if it isn’t being reflected back. Amy is coming to terms with her place in the world; that if she cannot be the great artist she aspires to be, then perhaps marriage, describing it as an “economic proposition”, is all that is left. “I believe we have some power over who we love, it isn’t something that just happens to a person,” Amy tells Laurie. “I think the poets might disagree,” he pings back.

Angel Olsen’s love is multitudinous, allowing space for realism and romance. At least, that’s what she conveys on All Mirrors. It’s a powerful, affirming, dramatic, but never tragic, work about the ways in which we love and can be loved back. It clearly reflects on a recently dissolved relationship, but it would be retrograde to tag it as a 'breakup album' when it so actively engages in dialogues about platonic love, love as an artist, love as a professional, even loving the children you never thought your friends would have. And loving yourself: 'I like the air that I breathe / I like the thoughts that I think / I like the life that I lead / Without you'. Spending time with All Mirrors is opening yourself up to countless epiphanies about how love manifests in your own life and relationships, such is Olsen’s clarity of artistic vision and deep wisdom.

Olsen is often portrayed as spikey and brusque during interviews. She would be entitled to be, picking up the phone as she does, whilst the US is in the midst of celebrating its most important national holiday, Thanksgiving, and she specifically is enjoying some downtime before heading out on the road. 

That could not be further from the truth. We find her relaxed, the stress of an album rollout very much done and dusted. Her cat Violet, a star in her own right, sidles up to Olsen as soon as she picks up the phone from her North Carolina home, grappling for her attention throughout the conversation. When answering questions, she expounds when she wants to, prioritises brevity when she needs to. Like in her songs, little vocabulary is wasted – if the answer is obvious, that’s what she’ll say.

“I just went to a friend's house and we played charades and made pies,” she explains nonchalantly of her Thanksgiving. “I don’t really care much about holidays, especially when they’re rooted in our people taking land away from Native Americans,” she goes on, less nonchalantly.

Released in mid-autumn last year – rarely has an album’s chilly, gothic overtones resonated so seamlessly with the season it was put out – All Mirrors felt then as it does now: momentous. Even when the 12-piece string section recedes into the background, and Olsen’s voice quietens to a whisper, it still has the ability to slice your heart in two. It far outstripped the plaudits dished out to her previous work, even as Burn Your Fire For No Witness was given an end of decade re-evaluation. It was a great record when it arrived, and is even greater now.

“This thing that I just released a few months ago, people are singing it back to me in an audience,” she says of the reaction. “The very beginning of anyone sort of responding is always like, wow, that's crazy that people are immediately into this weird material. I know it's not an easy record on first listen. But I needed to do it and I'm really happy with the way it came out.”

With love can come strife, disappointment and hardship, and Olsen went through it all to arrive at All Mirrors. She has said that having her heart broken is the “coolest thing that ever happened” to her. 

“After My Woman, I didn't know I was going to have another record to write about, or that it would be anything like this one,” she says. “And this just happened in my life. Okay, it was messy. And it was embarrassing. But it made me stronger. I didn't go out and find a desk somewhere and say I'm going to write about the love of my life and the loss of it. Each song comes together and I have no idea what it's all accumulating to mean or what the theme has been in my mind until the record is made. And then I'm like, well I guess I was thinking about that stuff a lot.”

On Summer, Olsen sings: 'Took a while, but I made it through / If I could show you the hell I'd been to'. Atop galloping guitars, you can almost see Olsen ride triumphant over a dusty hill, red setting sun behind her like a halo. It’s the aftermath of her experiences touring previous record My Woman, which saw her dealing with personal struggles alongside the disquieting fug of depression settling in even as she dealt with the toing and froing of taking her music to audiences.

Now she is bringing All Mirrors to the stage, a far more ambitious and complex task to execute. It’s not the unabashedly personal material (“I don’t feel exposed in any way. I don’t feel like it’s ripping open a wound when I’m performing”) but the cinematic scope of its sound. And more importantly, Olsen is an unapologetic homebody these days. “It took me a long time to feel safe by myself as a human and, now that I wake up and feel that I know myself, I cherish the simple things. Going out and sitting on the back porch with my cat and drinking coffee, reading, going out on a walk and running into a friend. That to me is home.”

Olsen is an ever-evolving artist, but she is also a businesswoman, and few singer-songwriters talk so illuminatingly about that part of making music. Touring is increasingly the most important, to use an Amy March phrase, economic proposition, and so pulling it off is vital. She talks about having to be a “leader” and taking on players, and how important that is to them as a stable means of employment, with empathy and a willingness to continue learning. But it's clear she's a perfectionist. “I'm not the kind of person who is like ‘that sounds great’ when I don't believe it,” she admits with a self-deprecating laugh.

“I value the people who work at presenting it with the integrity of the songs in mind,” she continues. “The presentation of it has become more interesting because not only can I zone out and forget who I am in it, but other people can look at me as a character or as some sort of artifact of the record. We're all showing up to present the record and perform it as though it's happening for the first time.

“I have a lot of new members in the band, and I think having the new energy around has helped me feel less like someone's watching and scrutinising my arc, and more like people are showing up and performing because they want to be involved. It’s been stressful, but I’m so happy with the way everything is sounding.”

The last time Olsen played Glasgow, an audience member threw a note at her early in the set. That makes it sound like a wispy scrap of paper floating its way on stage. In reality, it was a foreign projectile coming fast out of nowhere.

“Stuff like that happens and I know that people wouldn't do such a thing if they weren't watching the show and engaged,” she says sympathetically. “But until you know what it is, when something's coming at your face, you're like, what the fuck? I used to be a whole lot more sensitive. I brace myself for all kinds of things. I’m ready to fight. I have a sense of humour about it now though.” 

This month, Olsen will play All Mirrors at the Barrowlands on Valentine’s Day. There is romance to be found in these songs, and the way that Olsen performs them, that make it a good fit for this trivial holiday. It’s also hilarious, and a little masochistic, to imagine her singing lines like 'Knowing that you love someone / Doesn't mean you ever were in love' to a room full of couples. She laughs heartily at the thought of it too.

Angel Olsen plays Barrowlands, Glasgow, 14 Feb
All Mirrors is out now via Jagjaguwar