Waving, Smiling: Angel Olsen On 'Whole New Mess' And The Lessons Learned
Angel Olsen’s breathtaking ‘All Mirrors’ was one of 2019’s most profound releases, a glorious, baroque-tinged song cycle that spoke eloquently about break ups, emotional damage, and the process of moving on.
A few weeks ago, however, she shared something unusual. ‘Whole New Mess’ was recorded before ‘All Mirrors’, yet contains largely the same songs in a radically different setting.
Written in the immediate aftermath of those emotional ruptures, it was recorded at The Unknown, an American studio housed in a beautiful Roman Catholic church.
Pensive and spartan, it’s a chilling experience, with Angel’s feelings left entirely on show – there’s no adornment here, nothing to distract. It’s simply her voice, her words, her guitar, and her experiences.
Out now, ‘Whole New Mess’ is a riveting solo mission, the work of an artist with a profoundly intense sense of purpose.
Speaking to Clash, Angel Olsen looks back on those solo sessions, the lessons learned, and what might come next.
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Do you view these two albums are distinct entities?
I think they’re both part of a process, but at the same time they’re both separate. ‘Whole New Mess’ was recorded prior to ‘All Mirrors’ without anyone having their input into the creative pool. I was very keen on having a documented version that was just mine… and it also allows me to open up control over creative endeavours with John Congleton and Michael Harris.
Did you intend for ‘Whole New Mess’ to even have an audience?
I wanted it to have an audience, for sure, but I wasn’t sure when it would come out, or what would happen. I knew I wanted a version for fans that was solo. I had come home from a solo tour around Australia, and I was inspired to re-visit my earlier stuff and get back to basics. So I wanted to come out with a record no matter what, I just didn’t know in what context.
Now that ‘All Mirrors’ is out, it became my plan to release in the Fall – with or without a pandemic! That was always the plan! So I thought it would be interesting to look back on how much the songs changed, rather than coming out with the solo record first.
It must be one of the rare 2020 plans that actually worked out, then!
It’s wild how things have worked out. I feel very charmed in my life. I didn’t plan to become a musician that was successful, I just hoped to be able to play music for a long time. The difference is that I… opened a business! But I had no idea I could do that.
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It’s an incredibly personal record, particularly in the way it was record. What was your headspace when you began the project?
Well, I was still sitting in those feelings. They were still there. I was still going through a lot of that stuff. I was emotionally very open and very vulnerable at the time. But I was recording with someone I really trusted – Michael Harris, who worked on ‘My Woman’. I can talk to Michael about anything. And John, too – I love John. But I wanted to try a version of these songs just solo, without John. So Michael Harris was the guy! He was the guy I wanted to talk with. And then John mixed it, so he was still involved. Michael is somebody I can be personal with, but also be professional with.
In the press note you describe the album process as being a mixture of long walks, hikes, and drinking coffee every morning. It actually sounds very calming…
It really was. I mean, it was hard to face these feelings, and I was going through a lot of changes during the process of recording ‘All Mirrors’ even after ‘Whole New Mess’. I was dealing with needing to re-evaluate my business relationships a little bit. And also to communicate boundaries in the future, so I wouldn’t feel embittered, and so other people wouldn’t feel embittered. That was something I needed to focus on.
It wasn’t about heartbreak – there’s heartbreak in there, but we all as humans pour different values of who we are into a project. Whether we’re creative, or whether it’s a relationship. And to put a money sign or a dollar on your emotional contribution would be impossible. So in the meantime you have to delegate. I have to say to people: well, if you feel emotionally invested in a way that is taking up all of your life, then I don’t want this to get out of hand! Because you can never possibly pay someone for the emotional input that is given to something.
So it’s such a weird thing to delegate business in the music industry, as it’s an industry based on art. And to have these conversations is so important. Plus, I didn’t yet understand my own value system, so I was going through heartbreak and figuring this stuff out… I mean, Jesus. It was a lot. I was almost at a point where I thought: I don’t care if anyone relates to this music, I just need to get it out.
The studio itself looks incredibly beautiful. As a vocalist, what is it like to record there?
I wanted to continue to play in a manner that was theatrical, and sonically experimental, like I did with ‘All Mirrors’ but I think that what this has taught me is that I also want to continue along the path of keeping some songs at their bare bones. I think that the context of these bare bones recordings changes the context and meanings of the words, in a way. I want to be able to have both, sometimes.
The tracklistings of ‘All Mirrors’ and ‘Whole New Mess’ are slightly different – what is that? Do some songs simply not fit the bare bones style?
Well, it’s because I wanted those records to be different. A song like ‘Spring’ was written in the interim of those two records. So they just ended up being on ‘All Mirrors’. And then ‘Whole New Mess’ and ‘Waving, Smiling’ just didn’t seem to fit. We’d recorded all of those during those sessions and in that style, so there will be releases of those songs at some point at a later date, but in the meantime when I recorded them, and listened back to them, I realised that those two songs needed to stand alone. I decided to put them on a solo record instead.
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When you perform solo you must have so much more space – how do you approach that?
That’s part of what I missed about playing solo, was being able to change the way things go in the moment. So yeah, I think there is more space in those solo recordings, but I like the experience of losing myself with the band and falling into some musical arrangement. But I also love being really in it, and really controlling it and manipulating it in the moment.
Were the songs actually finished when you began ‘Whole New Mess’, or is what we are hearing the process of bringing those songs into focus?
They were, yes. Well! The way that I make demos, is that I’ll record over and over and over again. But this time, I had only made one or two of the demos for these songs. I tried to go close to what the demos were, while also trying out different types of echo and reverb. Different ways of recording.
Is there a song on ‘Whole New Mess’ that you found particularly challenging to get right?
The whole thing was emotional, for sure. I was still processing a lot. I mean… I was processing stuff during ‘All Mirrors’. So many people have their hands in the pot! I had to separate myself enough to actually process the songs. Whereas for ‘Whole New Mess’ no one was around to witness that, so I could just get really lost in my writing. There were just less people around to engage with or perform for, conversationally or creatively.
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In the press note you discuss the life of an artist, and how being on the road means you can’t fully process events and emotions. But right now, we’re all cooped up inside – has this been a period of introspection for you?
Oh, I mean I’ve been soaking it up! I’ve been working on press and the streams since mid-June, so when I do the last run of press I’m changing my focus to work on other things. Things that are outside of music. And I… cannot wait! I fucking cannot wait! Music is not my entire life, that’s just a linear perspective of me.
I love sharing music with the world, but I am so grateful to be a part of my community, and to do things that I have been putting off for years. I’m really inspired right now! I’m staying up until 3am and getting up at seven! My brain is like money brain – I have so many ideas that I have to write down, it’s almost as though my hands can’t type fast enough for my thoughts to be recorded.
I’m at this point in my life right now where I’m trying to use all this energy and inspiration and all those conversations where I’ve had to talk about myself… almost, in a way, press can be like compressed therapy sessions, where I have the opportunity – if I want to – to go further, and re-examine those same questions and find a sharper way of answering them. So by doing so I can also convince myself of certain things.
And I have a lot of energy all of a sudden! I’m sharing, and I’m articulating myself. I’m applying that to other stuff that has nothing to do with music, and I really can’t wait to dig my hands into the dirt with that stuff.
So right now, it’s just been fucking incredible. A lot of people feel exhausted right now, and are sharing all these feelings, but I’m sitting at home like… completely inspired. I have so much work to do! It’s like, one day I was hit with a flood of stuff that could have broken me. But instead… I’m about seizing the day. Let’s fucking take our time back! So that’s where I’m at right now.
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That’s incredible! Is there anything in particular you could give us some insight into?
So, I’m working on writing something. I don’t want to go too into it right now. I’m also working with a friend on starting a literary chapbook, which will release unsigned artists and rarities. And there’s a printing press in Asheville that I have a meeting with. I’m doing stuff, and it doesn’t relate to music necessarily. I’ve been thinking about this chapbook for four years, so it’s amazing to finally have time to do it.
Finally, do you miss the connection of playing live? Or have you been able to foster it in other ways?
I’ve found it in other ways. I feel for the first time I’m responding to fans directly. I’m trying to re-evaluate and re-examine my newsletter. And that’s partly why I want to start the chapbook, so I can have more direct engagement with fans, and find out their stories, and feature them. I think it would be really fun and interesting. I’m not sure how it would run yet… but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
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'Whole New Mess' is out now.
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