Angel Olsen Goes Solo on 'Whole New Mess'

CUL_Kylie Coutts_Banner
Angel Olsen Kylie Coutts

Last month Angel Olsen performed a solo show at the virtually empty Asheville Masonic Temple in Asheville, North Carolina. The show wasn't in the singer-songwriter's original plan for 2020 which had been a string of dates in North America and Europe in support of her then-latest album All Mirrors. Then the pandemic hit. So Olsen began doing a series of livestreamed performances.

Despite the sea of unoccupied chairs, Olsen, 33, performed with her signature conviction and vulnerability—qualities that have endeared her to both fans and music critics for the last 10 years. Standing in front of a painted scenic backdrop with just her guitar and a microphone, she played her introspective and melancholic music and displayed her uncanny ability to shift between different guises, from a folk singer with a haunting vibrato to a jazzy torch balladeer. The empty auditorium suited the mood of the music.

The intimate solo performance echoed the bare-bones sound of her upcoming record Whole New Mess (out on August 28 via the indie label Jagjaguwar). Versions of nine of its 11 songs appeared on last year's All Mirrors. The songs on Whole New Mess were recorded two years ago with only voice and guitar. Those initial lo-fi recordings were intended as demos for the elaborately produced All Mirrors, which featured a band and a 12-piece string section.

"I love the All Mirrors version," Olsen told Newsweek. "But when I played these songs live solo, they have a completely different meaning and feeling to them."

"I feel like All Mirrors is very synth-y and very Goth, and I'm all for it," Olsen says, "because a lot of the material is really from a dark depression place."

Stripped down and raw, Whole New Mess is a throwback to the singer's earlier DIY efforts, particularly 2010's stark Strange Cacti. "I was just so used to recording things in demo form and then keeping them that way," she says. "When I record in my own home recording situation, it's totally vulnerable. If I'm going to do a solo record or a solo version of these songs, that it's something more along the lines of Strange Cacti, because that was me just completely in my world [with] no other person being like, 'You should do this with your voice' or 'You should add vocals here.'"

CUL_Kylie Coutts_01
Angel Olsen performing at the Palace theatre on December 5 2019. Pooneh Ghana

Beginning with 2014's Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Olsen expanded her sound not only with a full band but also with different styles, like the indie rock of 2016's MY WOMAN or the art pop on All Mirrors. "I love the statements that [the band records] make," she says, "and I love that people can get lost in them as well as the lyrics of my work. But it's also interesting to make something weird and totally relate it to mainly the lyrics and the guitar. Playing with a band changes the way that I sing, it changes the vulnerability of the performance. Sometimes it makes it better. I just felt nostalgic for the experience of being vulnerable in that way."

The lyrics to the songs on Whole New Mess were born out of a challenging period for Olsen. She drew inspiration from the end of a romantic relationship and from her friendships. Recording was done in the fall of 2018 at a church converted to a studio in the small town of Anacortes, Washington. It was co-produced by Olsen and engineer Michael Harris, who had worked with the singer on MY WOMAN. "We would always have really deep conversations about the world, our lives and spirituality, and being in nature versus being in big cities," she says. "I felt safe exploring my depressed state with him around," she adds with a laugh.

Olsen and Harris considered adding overdubs to the solo recordings, but in the end the singer kept them close to their bare-bones beginnings. Following the sessions, the singer returned to her home in Asheville and began working on the more elaborate versions for All Mirrors. "I knew the songs had the potential to grow and become this big thing," Olsen says. "But at the same time, I wanted to take a snapshot of [them] in demo-like form, and to capture it and do something kind of intentionally weird with it."

Olsen's solo performances on Whole New Mess heighten the songs' introspection and heartbreak, especially on "Tonight (Without You)," "Lark Song" and "Impasse (Workin' for the Name)." In the devastating ballad "Chance (Forever Love)," Olsen sings, "It's hard to say forever love/Forever is just so far."

"On some of my old stuff, I can't remember what was bothering me at the time that I wrote it," says Olsen. "But these songs, I know what was happening and it was very personal. I didn't try to make it poetic in a way that wasn't relating to the things that I was dealing with. I have done exercises where it's like, 'This is based on a thing that sort of happened, but I'm gonna make a song about it and pretend that it happened this way.' That's not what's going on in these songs. So it is more personal."

Whole New Mess features two tracks that did not appear on All Mirrors, one of which is the solemn bluesy title track. (Olsen recently performed it on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.) "I was thinking about, 'Man, how many years am I gonna be making records?' and wondering if I'm ever going to do anything else," Olsen says. "Sometimes I come home from a tour and I'm like, 'Damn, it's so nice to be home,' It's hard work, and it's work that people think is easy because music is supposed to be fun. But actually, your back starts to hurt really bad," she laughs.

"What makes me so sad is knowing how important it is to be attractive or interesting, or as a woman to sexualize yourself," she adds. "It's like, 'Why would I do that, when my music is sad and all about all these serious things?' I go back and forth about wanting to be interesting and then trying to be like, 'You know what? I don't actually want to be interesting. I just want to be interesting enough that I can continue to share my music with the world.' The song was more toward the system and knowing that this is the way that it's been. It's just my own personal blues."

"For me, I can still get into the songs and go to that place when I listen to them, sometimes," she says. "As far as the actual situations in my life, there is closure. I feel much better having gone through all of that."

"When I go home, it's nothing like my life on tour," she says about Asheville, where she relocated to after living in Chicago for several years. She is originally from St. Louis. "I live in a place where it's like, 'I don't come home to more work with people.' So that's nice for me. Having the balance of a very private, not-really-musical life at home has been life-changing. Now that I'm around trees, I feel way more relaxed than I had been."

Olsen says she's uncertain of what her next stylistic direction will be. "It's fun for me to experiment and keep things fresh for myself. I love listening to electronic music, soul and a lot of different things. But I also really love solo stripped-back performances and bare-bones recordings. So I hope to continue doing both."

As the live music industry waits to reopen, Olsen is continuing with her online performances, including another one on August 28 that coincides with Whole New Mess's release date. "I have come to terms with the fact that no matter how depressing or f*cked up the world is, people need to hear music and they need to be hopeful. They need to take a break and dance and hear a song, and I'm okay with promoting that," she says.

Further listening

Strange Cacti (2010)

Olsen's debut solo recording. Recorded at home and originally released as a cassette, this EP introduced her soul-searching lyrics and distinct croon amid an atmospheric and moody backdrop; the romantic "Some Things Cosmic" is one of the standouts.

Half Way Home (2012)

Half Way Home features a brighter sound with minimal instrumentation and pushes Olsen's vocals to foreground. While a good number of the songs are moody ("Lonely Universe," "Tiniest Seed"), others are somewhat upbeat-sounding and even pop-friendly at times ("Acrobat," "The Waiting").

Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014)

Often regarded as her breakthrough work, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is Olsen's first proper band record. The result is something fuller-sounding: from driving rockers "Forgiven/Forgotten" and "Stars," to reflective tunes "White Fire" and "Unf*cktheworld."

MY WOMAN (2016)

MY WOMAN shattered the notion that she was merely a folk singer; this time she was also an indie rocker. The record is divided into two halves: uptempo pop-rock tunes ("Shut Up Kiss Me," "Never Be Mine") and introspective numbers ("Woman," "Sister").

All Mirrors (2019)

The singer branched further out with this lush synth- and orchestral-heavy work. It is a beautifully-made art pop record highlighted by the title cut, "Lark," and "Tonight" and others.