Back in February, US indie-folk songwriter Angel Olsen played her biggest ever UK gig. While the scale of the show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo felt “like a documentary about our lives, it was insane”, it wasn’t quite the unmitigated triumph she imagined.
“It’s a powerful thing to say I played the same place as David Bowie and Kate Bush,” says Olsen, “but at the same time, my favourite-sized audience is 300-500 people. I know it was incredible to do that, and as they say to me: ‘Angel, it’s a good look!’ But you know what else is a good look? To continue to write songs for the rest of my life”.
Later, she goes even further. “If I could just write stuff and publish it and never tour again that would be great. I’ve done it already.”
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It’s not often you’ll come across an artist who appears to be reassessing their life choices in real time. Yet Olsen has reached a point where everything is being reconsidered: her career, her past, her future, her worth, both as a creative entity and a human being.
It’s not a reflection on her prospects: this weekend, Olsen was due to headline End of the Road festival in Dorset. It’s just that the Missouri-born songwriter is beginning to wonder if it’s all enough – and if it’s not, what replaces it?
It’s taken a decade to get to this point. From cutting her teeth in the bars of Chicago, Olsen has slowly fleshed out her sound from lo-fi folk, through to gorgeous alt-rock (2016’s breakthrough third album My Woman) to the dramatic opulence of 2019 opus All Mirrors.
Critics laud her regularly. Her fiercely devoted fans – Miley Cyrus included – cling on to her tales of romantic trauma and millennial anxiety like a life raft (Olsen says her supporters see her as “a healer by experience”).
But Olsen has been left unfulfilled. “My whole life isn’t completely validated by [success],” she says. “Losing a bit of attention might actually be some saving grace for me. Maybe it’s because I’m in my 30s, I don’t know. It’s a whole new way of looking at my life.”
It puts her new album, Whole New Mess, in an entirely different light. Her fifth album represents Olsen’s first attempt at reclaiming herself. Planned for more than a year, it lifts the lid on the creative process by featuring, alongside two new tracks, the original stripped-back versions of nine songs on All Mirrors.
Recorded in 2018 at The Unknown, an old Catholic church in Anacortes, Washington, that is supposedly haunted – “the scariest ghosts are the ones we carry with us” – it sees Olsen, alone with her guitar and emotionally bruised from a recent “divorce” (she was never actually married), at her most soul-baring. It is a gripping but awkward listen: hearing these stark, love-scarred, “purposefully messy” songs feels like intruding on personal grief. “I was depressed. I was those songs. I needed to get out some of that confusion, disappointment, anger, rage, the kind of feelings I was having.”
The album’s back-to-basics spirit coincides with Olsen’s longing to reconnect with her early independence. “I’m going back to the past, because I never embraced the past like I should have. And I’m ready to now.
“I’m inspired by the person I was before the industry stepped in and guided me. You get so involved in people and relationships and companies and arrangements that you lose yourself in it, lose the heart of why you did it in the first place. Whole New Mess is all about admitting that.
“And you know what? It’s going to be messy, because life is messy. But I’ve got nothing to lose any more. I’ve learned what my value is. I’m ready to take the wheel. I’m ready to lose fans to do what matters most to me.”
Olsen isn’t quite how I expected. She’s known for her dry, cutting sense of humour, and a willingness to go toe-to-toe with journalists. Yet neither trait is on display; she’s very polite and spends most of the conversation unloading, stream-of-consciousness style.
Sometimes, she turns the lens on herself: she says those close to her have occasionally “accused me of being selfish in a way that’s problematic. But the truth is, if I wasn’t as selfish as I was, I wouldn’t be able to do these things. It’s a balance.
“I won’t say I’ve figured it out, but it’s important to be able to listen to people. I’m learning to do that more, I think.”
The coronavirus pandemic has helped her with that perspective. Not that she’s had much time off – “the way I work I don’t take breaks, it’s my life” – but in-between writing, press duties and performing live-stream concerts from her home in Asheville, North Carolina, she’s relearning to enjoy the little things.
“The pandemic has been inspiring, to realise other things make me happy. Waiting in line makes me happy sometimes. You lose track of the everyday stuff if you’re preoccupied with your own life and career.”
So what comes next? Olsen is still figuring that out. She might make solo records that “aren’t as polished or interesting to people”, or take five years off to write a book. She might switch gears completely: there is “community stuff and activist stuff I’d rather be doing at the moment”.
To that end, Olsen is taking a keen interest in the forthcoming US election. During a lengthy discussion on the “corruption” of the current system and the need to overhaul how politics functions, she implores people to vote out Donald Trump in November. “We need people who are radical to see the bigger picture. It’d be so stupid if people didn’t vote because they saw Biden and Harris as too moderate. I think that’s careless and lazy.”
Could she not merge these interests and pivot to protest songs? She’s not interested in that, she says. Besides, she has set herself another songwriting target. “One of the biggest challenges I have right now is to write a song about happiness and love.” It’s very on-brand that she would find that such a challenge. “Well, I’m working on it in my life, so I’m working on it in my songs.”
In the next chapter of Olsen’s career, perhaps that really would be the biggest change of all. “There will still be new heartbreak and disappointment,” she says with a resigned laugh. “There always is.”
Whole New Mess is out now on Jagjaguwar