Angel Olsen has rarely been satisfied with stillness. In less than a decade, the 32-year-old emotionally resonant singer has transformed from an urgent and arresting, albeit occasionally desolate lo-fi folk singer into a fierce full band leader whose rollicking and self-assured sonic declarations reverberate with an electric punch. Most recently, on last month’s “All Mirrors,” her stunning fourth album, Olsen sits at the center of a kaleidoscopic fever dream of sound — eight of the 11 tracks feature a 12-piece string section, the singer’s devastating voice weaving its way through the eye of a synth-and-piano-fueled storm.
Calling from North Carolina, hours removed from her tour’s kickoff show that took place the previous night at a former cotton mill, Olsen said in time she’s come to not only embrace but in fact lean into her knack for musical shapeshifting. “There are people who will always want you to stay the same,” she said of the naysayers, though there aren’t many to be found these days. “I’m that way about certain artists as well,” she admitted. “But it gets boring. And as I’ve done it more I also keep in mind that you’re stuck with your songs. You make them and then you put them out into the world and then you have to sing them for a really long time. So you better like them.” Olsen laughed and added, “That’s what I’m really focused on — making sure I continue to like my own songs.”
In the wake of “All Mirrors,” countless others — critics, fans, industry aficionados — share in Olsen’s affection for her songs. Don’t tell that to the sarcastic singer, though. Olsen said she’s far too stressed over the minutiae of her day-to-day life as a touring musician to concern herself with her growing fame. “If I think about that too much it makes me feel insane,” she said with a laugh. No, she’s more focused on how to translate her bold new album into the live arena. “It’s more just making sure that it translates, and then working hard to create something that, even if it isn’t exactly the same live as on the album, it’s just as inspiring.”
In many ways, it’s the third time Olsen has transformed her still-new material. Reeling from a discombobulating breakup that occurred during the tour for her 2016 album “My Woman,” and then subsequently retreating to the remote Anacortes, Wash., Olsen initially wrote “All Mirrors” in decidedly bare-bones fashion. A few months after its completion, however, the songs underwent a drastic metamorphosis thanks to her deciding to add string arrangements from Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff, as well as production help from John Congleton. Olsen at first thought she’d release both records simultaneously, but ultimately decided the more grand version should come first.
Working with arrangers on “All Mirrors,” Olsen admitted, was a frightening but ultimately highly rewarding exercise in collaboration, and unlike anything she’d done previously. But when it came time to translate the songs to the stage, the artist realized only she could have the final word. “I hired someone and asked them to help me do it,” she explained of building her new live show, “but at a certain point I was just like, ‘Eh, you know what, I’ll do it now.’ Because eventually I’ll be the one performing it. And I have to be happy with the way it feels. I’m just a little stubborn about that part of it and want to be as part of the process as possible. I don’t like anyone coming in and being like, ‘OK, this is how your songs are going to be live for the next five years of your life.’ That just seems a little weird to me.”
Olsen has maintained this sort of push-and-pull between collaboration and independence in several facets of her life and career. Amid scouting new band members and then several months of intense tour rehearsals whereby she reimagined her dynamic live show, Olsen would periodically retreat for days at a time to the solitude of her home in Asheville, North Carolina. She’d first moved South from Chicago several years ago because “I met somebody who owned a record store there and chased them and made them my boyfriend,” but in time she’s come to embrace its slower pace and tranquility as decidedly her own.
“I go home and that’s my place,” Olsen said of Asheville. “Just me and my cat. And I don’t think about anything else. It’s nice. It’s gorgeous there; just going on hikes and being in the mountains. It’s like a Hollywood movie — there’s a storybook feeling walking in the neighborhoods with huge oak trees and beautiful houses and people walking around with their dogs.”
For Olsen, embracing Asheville has been a self-realizing process in discovering how her former Chicago-dwelling self is no longer who she is.
“It was a very different time,” the St. Louis-native Olsen says of those years earlier this decade when she called Chicago home. “For whatever reason, the way my life was in Chicago, I thought that’s what I had to do all the time,” she continued. “Be cold and just feel the way I was feeling there. And I had a good time making music there and I met a lot of great people and I miss living in a place that has more diversity. But I just needed to be in a place that was quiet. And I found that was Asheville. I don’t need to live in a big city anymore because I’m always leaving anyway. So when I go home I just go to quiet places and that always sounds real nice.”
With a 30-date tour now in front of her, Olsen said she’s back in grind mode. “This is what I do now,” she said matter-of-factly of her life as one of music’s most compelling and ever-evolving talents. “And I’m gonna be doing this for a long time. So I have to keep making it more interesting for me and I have to keep making it more interesting for other people. And if people aren’t into it that’s OK,” she concluded of her tour and the album that inspired it. “Because,” she Olsen confidently, “it’s definitely not the last one I’m gonna do.”
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