By Emma Madden
This is Angel Olsen‘s least favorite part of the job. After failing to pick up our call at the scheduled time, she apologizes. She ran into a friend at the bookstore and forgot about our conversation. Forced to leave the shop where she was, presumably, not having to again discuss her latest album All Mirrors, she’s not keen on small talk. My “how are you?” is met with an imperative: “Let’s get into it.”
An element of confrontation runs throughout Olsen’s music, as it does in her conversations with journalists and fans. When she performs live, she tends to act as a funhouse mirror to her audience — refracting their own expectations of her, sometimes mockingly, so that they’re confronted with the absurdity of their own preconceptions. “I’m about to play some dark shit,” she said before premiering “White Fire,” her most goth song, to a London crowd in 2013. “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart,” she started, before keening over with laughter. “I can’t believe I actually wrote that.”
Her five albums, especially her latest, function like a mirror held up to herself and the people she’s loved. It’s been a concept in her music from the very beginning: “I’ll hold your mirror / All you have to do is turn around / So you can see the face you make when you are giving out your soul,” she sang on her first EP, 2011’s Strange Cacti. The same concerns show up time and again throughout her discography. The will to like oneself and live self-reliantly — to burn your fire for no witness. The need (and impossibility) to be seen wholly and truthfully. The sheer desire to be loved and touched (shut up, kiss her).
In her earlier recordings, these themes took the form of epiphanies. Olsen seemed to be willing herself to learn her own lessons: “Know your own heart well / It’s the one that’s worth most of your time,” she sang on that first EP, with a voice like a muffled chainsaw. Now eight years into her recording career, Olsen has relaxed and matured into her own worldview and guide for being alive. “I’ve had many epiphanies that I later realized were not completely actualized,” she says. After two band-centric albums — 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness and 2016’s My Woman — she toured and released Phases, a compilation of covers, demos, and B-sides in 2017. It was the first time she’d toured solo in many years. While it gave her the opportunity to revisit old songs, to “think back at how silly I was, and how pure it was for me to not really know anything, now that I know so much,” it also gave her the chance to actualize those epiphanies. “A lot of realization from previous records came to me when I was performing them on my own.”
Her latest album feels like a full self-actualization. But at its core, All Mirrors is about moving forward. “When you think something’s a certain way and then convince yourself of it and imagine it, it can be a really wonderful tool for writing,” she says. “But in a way, doing that can be very dangerous.” Now when she performs her older songs, she almost feels as though she’s covering someone else — the shadow of her younger self revealed to her like a reverse scry.
As a result, All Mirrors is less committed to epiphanies than it is to charting the process of moving on. And it does so with excruciating beauty. “I like the air that I breathe, I like the thoughts that I think, I like the life that I lead… without you,” she sings like a question on “Tonight,” quite possibly the most beautiful and painful song she’s ever recorded. It’s Olsen revealing the most heartbreaking part of heartbreak — the moment you realize you can exist without the person you never thought you could live without. When you wonder whether the person you gave your heart to really knew you at all.
“It’s easy to imagine love from a new person and imagine all these things and give them your heart. But it’s hard to find somebody who will really want to know you and share their life with you,” she says. “I think it’s just so much more special to never say, ‘I love you,’ and to just show that you love someone.”
Does that make All Mirrors a breakup album? No, that would be too simplistic. “While that’s definitely a part of it — the experiences and the feelings that I have are quite literal — it’s never about a specific person or one specific event, but instead about multiple events that have been similar in a lot of ways,” she explains. Olsen pulls from a full depth of experience, nesting the entire flute of existence and emotion inside a single song. It’s what makes her one of today’s greatest songwriters. Listen to album opener “Lark” and count the moods. Within six minutes, she conveys grief, greed, elation, rage, remorse, and peace.
Olsen is much more singular in conversation. Depending on the day and the mood, her interactions with journalists and fans can vary quite drastically. Today, she sounds dampened. She’s in the midst of a “heavy week,” she says. Her days have been filled with interviews, which have dragged her away from spending time at the bookstore and with friends. “I’ve told myself I don’t want to do it anymore and I end up doing it anyway,” she says. Music is the one thing Olsen’s known that she’s always wanted to do. It’s the thing she knows most about herself and of life. “Not very many people have been blessed to know that that’s what they want to do from their childhood. And it stuck with me whether or not I’ve enjoyed every aspect of it.”
Those aspects include “having to perform all the time and never getting to spend time with those I love, and having to dissect it all the time.” A bit like what she’s having to do right now? “Yeah, sort of.”
More than ever, Olsen wants to live rather than explain. “And it’s not because I don’t love,” she sings somewhere between relief and fear on “Tonight,” “just don’t have time to explain all the things you think you’ve come to understand about me.” It’s not an epiphany, but rather a hard-fought resignation.