Angel Olsen :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“They’re very different songs, even though they’re the same songs.” That’s how Angel Olsen puts it regarding Whole New Mess, an alternate timeline vision of the album that would become 2019’s All Mirrors. But as mentioned in our previous review, Whole New Mess isn’t a mere collection of demos. It’s a snapshot of Olsen at one point in a ongoing processing of thoughts and feelings, alive in a single moment.

Released in the midst of this ongoing pandemic however, Whole New Mess presents an interesting duality. Recorded before All Mirrors, it ought to be more of a clear path from it to its formal successor, and truly those connections are clear. But mixed and arranged after All Mirrors, it’s also like a look back on old thoughts, a slide back into some unfamiliar moment when we’re still figuring things out, arranging ourselves in hindsight. Not too far off from 2020 as a whole, so all the more appropriate.

Below is our conversation in full, edited for clarity, as we discuss the new album, traveling to The Unknown, the difference between those who listen for lyrics and those who don’t, directness in songwriting, trying to inspire by just doing what you do, and how Angel doesn’t really listen to albums in full that much anymore either. | j neas

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve got a new record in a loose sense with Whole New Mess and the promotional materials that have come out ahead of this stress that these aren’t just demos from All Mirrors, last year’s record, even though they share nine out of the eleven songs, because this album was recorded prior to All Mirrors.  It can be kind of hard not to think of Whole New Mess in that way, but was that ever a consideration, to take these original recordings and make that the record as opposed to what you eventually did with John Congleton and Andrew Brandt on All Mirrors?

Angel Olsen: Yeah, I guess I was just trying to experiment and see what I felt should come first.  For me, you know, I wanted to come out of the gate swinging with like a big sound at the end and almost like by the time I had recorded All Mirrors I had already worked through a lot of those thoughts and feelings in the record.  This one, I was still in the process of going through a lot of the material emotionally.  I think I just wanted to have an account of everything the way that I would’ve done it without anyone really stirring the pot, and I wanted to show fans that I was embracing this part of my roots and the part of my earlier recordings.

AD: This is your first solo record since 2012 basically, and solo being mostly just you as opposed to with your band and everything, so it certainly makes for a different sound than from All Mirrors which makes it even more fascinating as a juxtaposition with that as part of the process.  You went to this studio in Anacortes.

Angel Olsen: Yeah.  I went to Anacortes, Washington. It’s called The Unknown. It’s where Phil Elverum has recorded many of his records.

AD: Yeah, and this thing is like a rehabbed Catholic church—it was a Catholic church at one point, and also a sail making shop, and all these different things. It’s kind of cavernous in some respects because of that and even possibly haunted as well. It’s such a fascinating space and everything, so it seems like a very specific environment to bring the songs that you had.  Did you choose it because of that environment, or did the environment itself end up kind of shaping some of the songs once you got there and started recording?

Angel Olsen: Honestly, Michael Harris and Christian, my manager, recommended it to me just because I was looking for a spot, and I didn’t need to go somewhere where there would be super high quality gear and amazing equipment; it was just me.  I just wanted an environment where I could be far enough away from where I live to process those songs and record them, and I didn’t want to do it alone obviously, I wanted someone to help me through that process, so Michael Harris became part of that.  I really just needed to go to a different space. That was the main thing and I called Phil [Elvrum] and was like “I don’t know if you’re involved in this space anymore” and he was like “I’m just using it as storage right now, but no I’m not and I don’t really know much about what’s going on there these days, but you know like you should reach out to them and see how you feel about it.” And I was like, okay well I’m not really going there to do something crazy or grandiose. It’s actually just me recording stuff I would’ve normally recorded at home, but I wanted to do it in a different way, I wanted to do it a step up from that.

Yeah I guess, if I had released demos I don’t think that they would necessarily sound the way that they sound on this record.  I mean it’s probably hard to imagine because it’s very experimental anyway, but if I had recorded it myself, the sonics would be very different.  But you know at this point, now that I’ve made this experiment with myself and my music and capturing the solo version of things, part of me is kind of getting to the point where maybe I will start getting more into the sonics of doing my own solo records and working on just capturing the songs as they are before I share them with people and they change completely, you know.

AD: These songs are really different than the versions that you would end up doing for All Mirrors and everything, and one of the ways I find most interesting, I have a slight obsession with sequencing on albums, I always find that really fascinating and so these songs are ordered very differently than you ended up doing them on All Mirrors.  Which sequence came first, like what you ended up doing with All Mirrors, or did you have one in mind for this version of the album when you recorded it?

Angel Olsen: This record was mixed after All Mirrors was done and John Congleton mixed this record with a lot of my notes, but yeah I think it was important to wait ’til it was all done to reevaluate and see because I wanted them to come together and be part of the same project because they were the same songs. But by the end, and after the mixing of Whole New Mess, I realized that because the context and the vibe and the tone of these songs and their original recordings are so different, the context of the words they’re not the same, it’s not emotionally the same experience for me listening or performing them, so it made sense to completely change the arrangement of the tracks.  I mean the arrangement of the tracks to me—honestly, I never listen to a record from the very beginning to the end anymore. I wish that I did. It’s only when I get an lp that I really do that, and I know that when I was growing up, a lot of my friends would get the latest record, and we’d listen to it from beginning to end and talk about it, and I loved doing that, miss that, but right now I think that the way a lot of people listen to music is they just find the one that immediately sounds like the one they want to listen to at that moment, which is the world we live in, you know. It’s accessible.  I don’t really think it matters that much to people, the tracking, but for me I think if I want to tell a story for those who are paying attention to that, then yeah I’d have to think about the context of the songs differently and change them accordingly.  Does that make sense?

AD: Yeah. In terms of a very specific example of how I feel like the sequence changed things on this, I think about the song “What It Is” and on All Mirrors it’s right in the middle, it’s kind of this bridge between two halves of the album, this connection between thoughts that are being processed in the first half and going elsewhere. Then on Whole New Mess it’s the very last song, and it almost seems like a summation rather than a connection. It reminded me in ways of “Reason to Believe” on  Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, the very last song, this wrapping up of all these things that have kind of come before on the record. “What It Is” kind of lands like that to me.  Did you think about these songs kind of differently in that way with each project?

Angel Olsen: Yeah, they’re very different songs even though they’re the same songs.  I collaborated so deeply with these people on All Mirrors that the songs, the context and the tone of the words completely changed.  For example, “Too Easy” sounds like a very different song than it does on the solo record.  It’s manic and almost sinister on All Mirrors whereas on Whole New Mess it’s more intentional and hopeful. I think for me, it’s an example of how music can really change the way language is heard and for me sometimes I just want to hear the words. I have this conversation with a lot of people, a lot of musician friends of mine actually, and I feel like it’s the great separator—people who like music for music and they ignore the words and people who listen to music for the words and the music is hit or miss sometimes, but the words are there. Then there are the people who really try to bridge both together and that’s what I’m trying to be, one of those people. But I have always been, at the centerpiece of my work, it has always been about the writing, and I find it to be annoying when I listen to music with someone and they’re like “I just like this song” and I’m like you’re basically like listening, you’re allowing your subconscious to hear words over and over again that you don’t even care about, and that is a powerful thing and that can be a lazy thing. But I feel like there is this divide.

I’ve never really discussed this in a way that’s like philosophical, but I feel like there is a divide and there are people who listen to music for just the emotional tone and not the words, and I think that that’s just as important, but what I’m doing here, what I’m trying to do with my work, is to write words that make sense about things that are actually happening to me and things that I actually see.  Whether or not they’re true is up for debate. I’m a writer, so I’m sure there’s a little bit of exaggeration in my material. But I think for me, writing is my centerpiece and my push and my goal is to kind of balance both and continue to balance both as I continue writing music, to be as invested in the musical tone of something and sharing that and opening up doors for myself as I’m pushing myself musically, but also pushing myself to explore new writing and more direct writing. In this record it’s less poetic and more direct writing, whereas my earlier material is very poetic and very clever.  I’m trying to look at myself as a musician and look at myself as a writer, but I’m in it, so it’s difficult to kind of understand what’s next for me.  Even right now, explaining what Whole New Mess means to an audience is difficult because I’m still kind of in it.  I don’t know if that answers your question or if that’s even an answer for you, but that’s something that really for me, both records matter because one is showing what a song can become if you open up to others and share an idea of tone and collaborate with people and then the other one is more like here’s a song based on something that I thought with no distractions, and I think that that is just as important. For me, having both has been an exercise in that.

AD: Going back to a little bit of what you were saying about what we do and don’t pay attention to in lyrics, some of it has to boil back down to writing. I think you kind of anticipated my thought there that some of my favorite songwriters, their lyrics could more generally be described as impressionistic, like they aren’t intended to be taken literally. It’s more about the sounds of the words and the way that things come together as opposed to trying to tell a direct story or a direct thing, but there’s a talent certainly to being much more direct. I’ve seen a number of songwriters who have done a similar thing where I feel like over their careers they’ve made a concerted point to be more direct as they go along and that really is a big change sometimes if you’re familiar with an artist’s one way of writing and it changes, that can be a pretty dramatic shift.

Angel Olsen: Yeah, it can be. I think Bill Callahan is a great example of that. I feel like his writing has become more and more direct, maybe that’s just my opinion, I don’t know. I think that, I’m not saying it’s not as important when people are just trying to be impressionistic, that’s just not my style and I find it to be annoying sometimes. When words don’t make sense but they sound nice is not enough to me, as a writer, but as a musician I’m like, well, just don’t say words then.  

AD: Most artists have been trying to find ways to still do live shows of some sort during the pandemic, and you’ve been doing this series of shows called Cosmic Streams that are shot live in various venues around Asheville, North Carolina where you live. You’re working with your long time video collaborator, Ashley Connor. Was this part of just wanting to be able to be doing something while all of our issues with the pandemic were going on?

Angel Olsen: Yeah, I think for me, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the independent music community in general. I’m talking about independent venues and booking agents, independent labels and everyone working for them.  I’m not sure what independent business will look like after this pandemic. I’m terrified. So for me, I’m just trying to keep going and keep playing music and stay positive, and right now I’m in a good place financially and I can share my funding and I will continue to do that by just performing these streams and that’s part of why I charge people for them. I don’t feel bad because I’m not keeping it, I’m giving it to people, you know, so it’s sort of like a way to give back to the community because the government refuses to do so and to also use my platform to talk about how voting is super important and what it means to flip the senate and what it means to get to know the people we’re electing, but also to just talk about doing our own personal research every day in our own communities. People are at home and they’re bored and they’re buying stuff and they’re just trying to feel like they’re happy about anything, and they’re defeated and they’re emotional or whatever. They feel sorry for themselves, or they’re trying to help in some way, and this is just my way of kind of continuing with the thing that I have always been doing which is playing music to share with people and to share my experience in hopes that people will be inspired and find that they’re not completely isolated in their experience, or that they themselves can get out and sing a song or dance and put themselves in a good mood or whatever the case.  That’s the beauty of music, it can inspire anyone, and it doesn’t matter if it’s something I wrote, people can just interpret whatever they want from it.  The power of that and also believing if people do listen to what I’m talking about, like believing in the things I’m writing is part of why I don’t feel ashamed of sharing my stuff right now. For me it’s always been about my own struggles and the struggles that I see and this sort of, these dynamics in my life and these issues in my old life that I think people can relate to, and they need music right now, people really need music right now.  I think a lot of artists are just “I don’t want to talk about my art or I don’t want to talk about me right now, I wanna be more active in my community” and I was like just be active every day in your life and continue to play music that you believe in, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that.  So yeah, I think for me that’s what the streams have been about, and I’ve been doing a ton of work outside of that.  When we were recording all of that, within a matter of three or four weeks at the height of like the uprising in Asheville and everything that was going on with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement just kind of erupting all over the world, I was forced to relearn all of my oldest material [editor: the first Cosmic Stream was Olsen playing her 2012 album almost in its entirety] and I mean I say forced because I didn’t want to do it, it didn’t seem like the best time to be doing this, you know, but now that I’ve taken some time to myself about it, I think it’s important to go back and revisit the person that I’ve been, the person that I am, the person I’m becoming in my writing and face it. It’s been a really interesting process for me, and I recorded three streams, two music videos, two live TV performances, [National Public Radio’s] Tiny Desk, and I’ve done countless interviews during this time, and it feels weird to be like what is it for, you know, but for me I think it’s simple right now: it’s for people to feel better and to be inspired, and I think people really need to hold on to whatever inspiration they can to get through these times.  It’s been a lot of work and it’s not always been emotionally what I wanted to focus on, especially now, but now I’m just kind of like no, I’ve always been a writer, I’ve always been a performer, and I’m going to use my platform to shed light on what I care about and that’s just as important.  Stopping playing music, that would do nothing. 

I think that that’s where I’m at with all of it, and I’ve been feeling, it’s cool to continue this relationship with Ashley Connor who worked on numerous music videos of mine.  Everybody involved in that process while it was happening, we really had to push ourselves to be present because we were all emotionally kind of like, “is this the time to be doing this?” You have to push through something that’s uncomfortable sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t make sense in the moment why it’s happening. But I’m happy we took the time to do that because it’s keeping me super busy and there’s this feeling that comes when you have a lot of work, it’s like I just can’t wait to go back to just writing things again because I am writing stuff, so all of this promotional stuff and videos and streams, this is fun but it’s also making me want to do covers and to push myself in different ways.  So it’s been an inspiring process for me.

AD: You talked about supporting venues. One of the kind of neat things about Cosmic Streams is that the tickets are being sold through venue websites. Is that a way of helping support them through this too?

Angel Olsen: Yeah, so I’m teaming up with NIVA [National Independent Venue Association]. I want to support independent venues because they supported me, but in addition to that we need to look at the people who have invested in us to give us the opportunity to play those venues and negotiate with them in the first place and that’s our independent booking agents, so I’ve been trying to work something out for just saving or working towards highlighting the people that give the opportunity for us to even have the platform to share our music. I know it’s tricky because a lot of people are like “well you can just book yourself,” but I wouldn’t be here if I booked myself, I’ll be honest.  So I think it is important to shed light on those people who have invested in me, and I’m trying to look for ways to do that in a way that makes the most sense.

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