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4 October 2019

“I don’t always feel in control”: Angel Olsen explains how she let go on her expansive new album, All Mirrors

All Mirrors is the Missouri-born musician’s grandest album yet. But for Olsen, letting multiple musicians into her private sonic world wasn’t always easy.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When we speak over the phone, a week before the release of her fourth studio album All Mirrors, Angel Olsen is in Los Angeles for rehearsals. She lives in North Carolina, where she’s bought a house – “I live there, not here,” she makes clear – but by now she’s spent so much time on the west coast that she knows her way around. It’s still morning where she is, but she’s already been for “a nice run by the reservoir, listened to a song I have to learn, and taken a shower”. As we speak, she’s sipping a coffee and thinking about the day ahead. “I might smoke a joint today, I don’t know.”

All this talk is biding time. Really, she’s “antsy about getting on tour”, impatient to be in the middle of everything rather than waiting for the next phase to start. She’s a perfectionist, she reminds me several times throughout our conversation, who doesn’t “really let go until about two weeks into tour.” Up until then, she’ll change something different in a song every night, insisting her band learn each new version, to make it just right in her eyes. “You have to figure out what the weakest link is in the song and what the best thing is, and you can always do that by touring the shit out of a song. It’s stuff that I notice that nobody else notices, because I have to notice it.”

Since releasing her first EP, Strange Cacti, in 2010, the St Louis, Missouri-born guitarist has released a line of critically successful records, which put her soaring voice above anything else. Following Half Way Home, a raw collection of folk songs released in 2012, 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness re-introduced Olsen as a purveyor of charred guitars and contagious melancholia. My Woman, a gleaming record with rock and roll leanings, was named Time’s sixth best album of 2016.

On the face of it, All Mirrors, released today on Jagjaguwar, seems a strange album for a “control freak” like Olsen to make. On “Lark”, the album’s glorious six-minute-long opening track, which is at turns both pastoral and operatic, 14 musicians other than Olsen are credited: there are violins, violas, cellos, Mellotron drones, drums. As a whole, the record is more expansive than anything Olsen has written before. “Chance” becomes a sophisticated movie star’s waltz draped in warm piano; even “New Love Cassette”, at its heart a tender love song, turns into a whole new beast once its playful string arrangement kicks in.

“You wouldn’t know because there are all these strings and things happening, but there is also a solo record of All Mirrors,” Olsen tells me. Originally, the plan was to release both the solo version and the band version of the record at the same time. She first recorded the album alone, “determined to keep it bare bones”, so that she would always have versions that were “completely raw and real”, no matter where she later took the songs. For the second version she worked with the orchestral composer Jherek Bischoff, who put together arrangements that, when played back, shocked Olsen with their sheer power. For the time being, this latter version is the only All Mirrors we’ll get to hear. “I wasn’t regretful of the fact I’d changed my mind. I was more like, this actually is a really nice exercise in letting go of the reins.”

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But with so many people in the studio, letting go doesn’t always come easily. “I don’t always feel in control,” Olsen says, suddenly quiet. She pauses. “I have to work on how to work things for twelve people at all times. If I can write songs, I should be able to communicate what I need and when I think something’s wrong.”

“I learned that a lot of the material was stuff I was really still feeling. Like with ‘Impasse’, I was really really still feeling that song, and doing it was hard for me because I was so mad, still. There was still a nerve that was exposed.”

Why was she mad? “People think they know you because they listen to your music. Really all they know is the way you express something. I was mad that people assumed I didn’t need a check-in – I had everyone’s attention, so why would I need anything from friends? Why would I need people saying ‘You’ve worked really hard, and I’m proud of you’? Why would I need anyone to say that, because the proof is in the pudding – people are coming to the shows. But it’s like: all I ever want is for you to care.”

“Impasse”, a song that starts with Olsen singing in a slurred murmur and burgeons until she is shrieking “Don’t you now” over and over, is a masterclass in vocal control. At just the moment you think her voice will crack, she stretches it even further; just as you expect her melody to reach its climax, she pulls back. “I’m just living in my head / I’m just working for the name,” she sings, before the song melts away in a shiver of strings. 

On “Lark” she does just the same, always taking her vocal parts to places both unexpected and sublime. At times it feels as though she’s trying on different characters, using her voice to be one person one minute, another the next. She starts in the vein of Ella Fitzgerald; by the chorus she’s trying on an Elvis impersonation for size; at the bridge, she’s Dolly Parton singing down a telephone line. 

For Olsen, it’s all about the sonic drama. “I like the emotional revelation in it. It reminds me of cinema, where someone is in an argument and all of a sudden they’re yelling at the other person and then somebody leaves and they slam the door. The other person is left alone and they start crying and there’s an emotional change that happens in a matter of seconds. I feel like that’s what I try to do.”

“I definitely have had a lot of different voices throughout the years. And finding my through-line in all of them is really important. It’s not important to me to be everything anymore. Instead it’s important to check in with myself and make art that has integrity.”