Angel Olsen’s new release, Whole New Mess, sounds like a lockdown album even though it isn’t. Like Taylor Swift’s Folklore, it has a quiet intimacy, as though written to be experienced alone rather than heard at top volume in a concert crowd. Like Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, it was recorded quickly, deliberately lacking polish, a set of scribbled diary entries that are powerful because of the immediacy of the emotions expressed. You can hear her fingers sliding across the frets. “This one is just about me and a guitar and my songs. I missed that,” she says. “A friend said to me the other day: ‘What apt timing.’ I was like: ‘You know what? Misery is always in vogue.’”
It was certainly made in isolation, recorded over a 10 day spell in a 100-year-old former Catholic church with just engineer Michael Harris for company. There’s a control room where the choir used to sit and you can record in the confession booths, though she mostly sang in the hallway for the echo. This was in Anacortes, a small town at the tip of a finger of land 80 miles north of Seattle, on the opposite side of the country from Olsen’s home in Asheville, North Carolina.
However, the recording took place in October 2018, long before the world went as quiet as these songs sound, and just before the 33-year-old recorded her fourth album, last year’s All Mirrors. That album was extravagant and unrestrained, piled high with strings and horns and gothic drama, a fittingly ambitious follow-up to her hugely acclaimed 2016 breakthrough, My Woman. Nine of the 11 songs on Whole New Mess went on to be on All Mirrors, but sound so different that they appear here in a different order and mostly with different titles. She stresses that these skeletal recordings aren’t merely the demos for the bigger-sounding album. Really it’s a new experience altogether.
“When we made it, I was still processing a lot of the songs, so for me, it’s harder to listen to this record than it is for me to listen to All Mirrors,” she tells me. “When I recorded All Mirrors, other people had their hands in the pot, which separated me from the songs. I could get into them in a distant way. On Whole New Mess I’m feeling every feeling that they evoke.”
It was a rough period for her, following the end of a long-term relationship. “I was really depressed. I had no idea whether the songs were good. They were just about my life. I could have recorded them at home and kept them as demos, but I knew Michael was someone I could be depressed in front of, who would help me to explore it in different ways. It was such an emotional process.”
She’s an open, blunt, slightly daunting interviewee, agreeing to speak on the phone rather than on video call because “I don’t understand why anyone needs to see my fucking face. They’ve seen enough of it already. Just look at a picture!” In the past she has sent out a fact sheet to journalists in advance, which doubled as a handy list of things she was sick of being asked about. “I know it rubbed people the wrong way,” she says today. “I just want people to do their research. I want them to try harder, because I want to try harder. I have expectations.”
That doesn’t mean there is a requirement to stick to the subject of her new music. Her thoughts range far and wide, and finding a tiny gap to ask her another question is like trying to jump onto a moving bus. Over the course of an hour I get her thoughts on the soul singer Alice Smith performing I Put a Spell on You (“It’s amazing how connected she is to that song.”), the 1978 Dada and Surrealism documentary Europe After the Rain (“It’s so profound. I really related to it.”) and her country’s upcoming elections. The online performances she has been giving in the absence of real gigs, which she calls Cosmic Streams, recently included an interview with a representative of the Democratic organisation Swing Left.
“It’s so important for people to care about voting because it will definitely affect the pandemic here. Not only do we need to get that man out of there, we need to completely rethink the whole structure of our government,” she insists. “He’s just the face of so much that is corrupt. We need to get to the bottom of that before there can be real change.”
So there’s a lot on her mind besides songwriting. Lockdown has offered valuable thinking time. “I’ve been going out on a lake in a borrowed canoe, rearranging my house, working on different projects in the community, trying to reckon with a lot of things,” she says. “I’m just trying to be better as a human.”
At the same time, as many musicians have already said, it’s a weird moment to be promoting an album. “I have been focusing on these other issues, but I do feel very strongly that people need to hear music right now,” she argues. “If you share what you’re vulnerable about with the world, it can help so many people rise to that as well. I don’t feel embarrassed to share these things with people. I think it’s super important.”
As a parting thought, she shares her experience of being asked to sing at the funeral of a friend. She played her song Tiniest Seed, from her debut album, but took a lot of persuading. “I thought, ‘Why would you ask me to do that?’ It felt so intense. I didn’t know if I could. Then someone said to me, ‘It’s not about you. Just come and play your music. That’s all we need. We don’t need you to be there in that way.’ It was the hardest performance, but it was so powerful, and I’m so grateful. It made me realise that the music really isn’t about me.”
That’s why a stark set of songs, written about the most traumatic period of her personal life, still have value to a wider world that ostensibly has bigger things on its mind. “Music and art is so important to reflect what’s going on and to help people connect with each other. I absolutely believe that it’s worth fighting for.”
Whole New Mess is released today on Jagjaguwar.