How Whole New Mess, lockdown and the U.S. election helped Angel Olsen reflect on herself

A conversation about defeatism, activism and demonic baby voices

Last October, Angel Olsen released her most orchestrated and highly produced album to date, All Mirrors. Only upon repeated listens did the album’s inner truths seep out. Beneath the seeming detachment of Olsen’s archly chilly vocals and luscious string arrangements lay hidden tales borne from the turmoil of a difficult breakup. Indeed, the contradiction between a set of lyrics detailing achingly real sentiments and the icy sheen of the record’s aesthetic was paramount to the album’s mysterious spell.

That central riddle has to some extent been answered with the release of her new record, Whole New Mess. It is comprised of nine of the songs from All Mirrors plus two that did not make the cut, but this time in the form that Olsen first recorded them nearly two years ago, during the period when their emotional pain was very much a live presence in her consciousness. Olsen’s voice croaks with anguish and her guitar is presented raw and unadorned. In many cases, the very sentiment of the songs seems diametrically opposed to that of their All Mirrors counterparts. Olsen spent an intense ten days secluded in a remote studio in Anacortes, Washington, with her friend and producer Michael Harris, capturing the innate pain that first brought the songs into existence.

Ahead of the release of Whole New Mess, I spoke with Olsen to discuss the nature of releasing multiple versions of the same songs, moving forward following a painful breakup, and using your energy to make a positive influence in the world, especially in a US election year.

The circumstances around this album are very interesting. Could you just explain why you wanted these songs to exist in the two formats?

I wanted to show the process of something that is raw and still being worked out, and still isn’t quite yet finished or polished, and then take it to other people and collaborate and make it grow and make it this big statement. And then I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at how it started. So that’s why I decided to release Whole New Mess after All Mirrors.

When you were making the recordings that we hear on Whole New Mess, did you already know that one day you’d release these early versions?

I wanted to keep the production as shaky as possible [laughs]. I wanted it to sound as close to the demos as possible, but while also being inspired by Arthur Russell and stuff like that. This was more of an exercise for me. I wanted to have an edition of these songs that felt really raw and intimate, because I know that when you take demos to a producer, a lot of the time things just change so much. I wanted to show the full-spectrum process of it.

One of the most interesting things about these two records is how differently the sentiments of the same lyrics can come across.

I think the tone of performing something alone with a guitar, the context of the words changes, the meaning and the feeling behind it. When I was recording Whole New Mess, I was still in the process of crying a lot and dealing with all that stuff. For the recording of All Mirrors, I had to force myself to share with people so I had to put up a shell, so in order to do that I created this theatrical thing with loads of people involved.

So then, with the earlier, raw recordings about to be made public, does that still feel vulnerable?

Yeah, it sounds vulnerable to me, but I don’t feel the same fears or difficulties. Those problems I was going through at the time, they’re just things to reflect on now. I’ve moved through them.

Do you think that’s because you’ve already released these songs in the other format, or because you’ve moved on in your own life?

Probably both. Yeah, I mean, for me, I’ve got to the point where I really am thankful for all of the things that I’ve learned about myself through the things that I have lost. I got into music because I thought it was fun and beautiful to share with people, but to continue sharing it requires all of these other invisible mechanisms that people don’t really see, and because no one sees them, you can’t talk about them or describe them; they’re not really real to anyone. It’s thankless in a way – I mean, it’s not thankless because I have people showing up and hearing my music, but what I’m talking about is the amount of personal growth that a friend needs to hear from a friend, not from a fan. And I needed that. I didn’t have boundaries, I was trying to play mother hen about everything, and in the end I got bitter that the only people who were seeing me were my fans. That’s not a reality.

So you were reaching out for friends and they weren’t there?

I think what happened was I got caught up in enjoying the successes that were coming to me and feeling confused about how to communicate with people through that, and because of that the friendships just got harder. There were friendships from home that I couldn’t be present for because I was so consumed with what I was doing. Which leads me to why I would write a record called Whole New Mess or All Mirrors. To me, it’s just been a cycle of not dealing with stuff unfortunately, and I don’t want the process of making music to feel that way. I’m learning to not make it that way. And now in this time of crisis in the world, and especially how our government in the US is handling the pandemic, it’s a time of forced reflection, which has its good days and its bad days. On its good days, I get to finally reflect on all the things I’ve written about and all the times that I’ve had touring with so many different people, whether they’ve been my good friends or if we’ve had fallings out. But sometimes it’s too much and you’ve got to get out of the house and distract yourself. I haven’t had that much time to reflect over the years, and this record is about not being able to reflect and not really having time to be present or knowing how to navigate those relationships. That was where I was at at the time.

One of the songs that is most striking in its two versions being so different is ‘Too Easy’. On Whole New Mess it comes across as earnest and heartfelt, but by comparison the All Mirrors version seems almost distant or disillusioned.

Part of that is when we were recording it for All Mirrors it sounded too much like a rock ‘n’ roll song – it kept feeling really mundane to me. We added synths to it and it created a whole different energy. It’s almost like I’m talking in a baby voice, but it’s a demonic baby voice! At the point of recording All Mirrors I was at the point of the grieving process where I was angry, and at the point of Whole New Mess I was still in it and I was crying a lot, and even when I wasn’t crying, I was in the mode of hours would go by and I’d realise I was just looking at my shelf [laughs]. I don’t know if you’ve been there but that’s where I was.

It must be interesting for you to have these two versions of your own state of mind preserved.

Yeah, there are so many ways to look at your life, although at a certain point you do have to make a decision to move forward. In time, looking back, that’s when you really start to know. You can’t know when you’re in it. The things I’m saying to you right now I’ve never said. I don’t sit around thinking about Whole New Mess because I’ve already finished it. When I talk about it, it’s like a therapist is talking to me about my childhood, it seems so far away now. I’m already writing another one!

So you’ve been writing in lockdown?

I had a little bit of a slump in May but now it’s picking back up. Unfortunately, when I write a lot, it gives me so much energy and adrenaline, because I’m editing and listening and it gets stuck in my head and I can’t stop thinking and all of a sudden I’ve only slept five hours. So that’s where I am now. That’s the only part of writing that sucks.

It’s nice that you’ve has something to fill your time with though.

Yeah, I take breaks, and for most of the spring I’ve been mostly taking it easy and cooking and going on long walks and reading, trying to make the days go by and forget somehow that we’re living through this weird, surreal dream. But yeah, I’ve been recording a lot too, and doing live streams.

You’ve been working with [anti-Trump group] Swing Left for the live streams. Why did you want to get involved with them?

I think because the election is coming up it’s important to steer some of the attention that I have on me and share some of that with what’s important to me, which is making sure that people my age and people in general get out to vote, and not just because they don’t want Trump to be their president but because they are thinking about all of the candidates. It’s super important right now for people to pay attention and vote.

When you think about the election at this point, does it fill you with hope or with dread?

Right now I feel hopeful. I can’t tell if that’s just my own reality and my own effort, but I feel hopeful. When I watched The Hunger Games for the first time, I thought, ‘thank god the world isn’t like that’, and now the world is a lot like that. But you don’t want to get defeatist. I think that’s part of what’s so ingrained in my generation; it’s almost stylish to be defeatist. I don’t know how we change that, we just have to educate ourselves to stay motivated and to admit that it does nothing to be defeatist. It’s cool to say, ‘everything sucks, maan’. That kind of attitude, that’s great, but what can you be doing with your energy that day in your own fucking community instead of just talking about it? What can you actually be doing in the room with your family and your friends and how can you have non-violent communication about it with people you love and respect. I think that’s the real work.

It’s probably some form of coping mechanism for some people, right? Like, it’s easy to feel that you’re powerless or you can’t have any impact.

Yeah, that’s a luxury to feel that way. It’s a strange time and a lot of stuff in the world is happening and it always has been but I’ve just been becoming an adult and I’m just starting to really think about how the whole world plays its part. It’s not just the US election; we’re all affecting each other. It’s a lot of information and it’s easy to think you don’t know where to start. But I think starting to connect to other people is where to start. I’m doing my research and trying to correct myself when I fuck up publicly, looking through the stuff I’ve said and done in the past and examining it again. That’s my work.

With the state of things at the moment, have you got any idea what the next year or two might look like for you?

I don’t know, honestly. I’m preparing myself for releasing music for a while and not performing it in a live way.

Will you miss the touring?

I think financially I’ll miss it more than emotionally. It is nice to have the break. I’m wondering how it will be sustainable in the future though. If we can get people together in a studio in a big way that would be great. Some people are doing that and it’s a risk. That’s part of why the election is so important too. Not only is this person – our president – fucking it up, but so many other people are behind him. That’s the scariest part; how many people support him and how he’s just the face of this thing that stands for so much more than him. We have to do something about it but everyone is forced to stay inside. It’s hard to not spiral when thinking about that, but we’ve got to do something.

Photography by Kylie Coutts