People feel like Angel Olsen knows them. The acclaimed songwriter makes genre-straddling indie rock that shoots straight to your most intimate feelings. That quality made her last studio album, 2016’s My Woman, a hit with critics and fans alike and led to major festival sets and a global tour. Meaning so much to so many, however, has made Olsen a harder person to know, even to herself.
My Woman was a success by nearly every standard, but Olsen’s new fame also brought her a deep sense of isolation and self-doubt. “Being honest, I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping,” she remembers as we sit together in downtown Manhattan in early August. “I lost like fifteen pounds. It wasn’t just about me, it was years of feeling bad for doing well.”
How do you forgive yourself for success? It’s a hard question to answer because it’s a hard one to ask.
Olsen’s new record, All Mirrors, works as her way of responding to that paradox. The album retains all the profound empathy of her past work while fleshing out her natural ear for melody with sweeping strings. It’s a powerful account of finding peace with oneself, and it’s some of the best music of her career.
All Mirrors didn’t come easy. She started by recording new material in a haunted church in Anacortes, Washington, then took stock of the work and decided to re-record many of the songs in Los Angeles. She opened herself up to collaboration, swapping tracks over the holidays until they reached their final, expanded form. Olsen considers these final songs completely distinct from what she originally recorded in Washington; she doesn’t know if those original songs will ever be released.
Olsen’s personal journey, however, may be more important than the musical one. Before and during the recording of All Mirrors, Olsen committed to practicing different forms of self-care, from taking in nature to seeing a therapist. In a conversation with GQ, the beloved musician talks about how she stepped back, took time for herself, then burnt down the proverbial house to build a new one.
GQ: This new record seems very cathartic, lyrically and musically. Was that deliberate?
Angel Olsen: Is epiphanic a word? I wanted to do songs that were different vignettes of pivotal moments in my life. This record has definitely been a chapter closing for me, a work that feels a bit like burning down the house. It’s time to burn the house down, start from scratch.
What was that chapter?
I love playing music and I love writing, but the processes of writing and performing and doing photo shoots—they're all fun in different ways and they all teach me about myself and make me reflect about other people and other writers and other music, but too much of it drives me insane. It's difficult to keep in touch with people, and feel known and to know people.
So I think a lot of the songs came from the isolation that I felt and the irony of becoming successful, somewhat, and known in this way that I'm now responsible for. It's been really good for my life, but it's also been isolating and a little weird. In my experience, people forget to check in because they think, “Oh people love your music and you’re doing really well. You must be doing really well. You must feel on top of the world.”
But that’s so often not the case, actually. You're working so hard, you don't actually even get to enjoy the money you've made or the place that you're in. You can’t even know the place you’re in, because you’re working to feed people. You’ve actually opened a business on accident, and now you’re responsible for everyone’s happiness and livelihood. Everyone just sees your photo on Instagram and thinks, “This person gets everything they want. They never had to work a day in their life,” you know?
It’s a job, though.
It’s completely a job, and not just a singing job. It’s a spiritually draining job. I’m never really in the place that I’m in and yet am required to be so present for so many different things, and then at the same time allow people to probe me about it.
I’m fine with it, but when I reach my limit, if I come off as an asshole, it's usually not about what's happening at hand. It's all these other things that people are not seeing. I'm glad they don't have to see it—it's in fact not their responsibility to see it.
Part of that struggle has been just trying to forgive myself for the way that I feel and know myself and know that I'm not evil for feeling those things. That I'm not someone who isn't grateful because I'm tired sometimes and I don't wanna play in front of 2000 people. I’m not trying to be a baby or a prima donna, I just miss my friends.
And also, when I’m feeling good that day and I feel like dancing in front of 2000 people and
enjoying the songs that I wrote, I don’t have to feel bad about that either.
How have you been practicing that attitude?
It’s been this “how do I just be with myself” kind of moment. I actually like being alone, I get energy from being alone. I don’t get energy from being around people. Though I like that people relate to my music and I can perform it in front of them, it’s definitely like I’m giving all of myself and not getting anything back, really.
I took a break from touring with a band and left a relationship. I started regularly seeing a therapist, which I have done over the last few years because of the weird stuff that happens when you’re doing what I’m doing. Everybody should have a therapist because you should have the person you talk to that isn’t the friend that you put everything on, you know? If you have the money for it, that is. Sometimes I don’t even really have much to say to this person. It's just nice to have someone who keeps a journal about me because I don't, always.
So I was on a solo tour and I felt less stressed out and got to revisit some old material. I got back to writing, was reading a lot, taking more care of myself and enjoying the tour.
It’s not that I hate playing with a band—it’s hating that I feel so responsible for everything. They’re not trying to make me feel responsible, but it falls on me. Even if everyone should go to the manager, because I’m there in such an intimate environment with them, they will come to me.
That’s not their fault. That’s just me being like, “Ugh, I want to find a way to not to be so affected by everyone’s feelings.” Cause I can’t tell if it’s their depression or mine, or if it’s this big super depression because we all miss our partners and our lives at home. And we’re at that point in the tour where we’re all getting the same cold.
Can you imagine being in a bus for six weeks with some of the people you work with? It would be absolute hell, even if you liked them all. It’s an interesting dynamic, like dating more than one person, your whole team, but not getting the fun part. Just getting all the, like, how you chew, how you cut your nails.
But then the weirdest part is when it’s over, you miss it. You miss everybody. It’s like a family. You know each other the way that no one will ever know you.
Do you enjoy the travel component of touring, or do you find yourself wishing you were home?
What I don't love is when I do a European tour and then two weeks later I go back to Europe. That is not cool. Like, Europe and I need to take a break from each other. Europe is a lot of different cultures and every day there’s a different story. That’s very humbling. You experience xenophobia everywhere in different forms wherever you go. You’re faced with being an American in the country we’re living in now.
I was talking to a friend today, when I was getting my hair done, [about] how when I go to Europe, it’s such a reminder that we’re still living in the ‘50s in a lot of ways. The world is actually not progressive. You end up missing the United States because there is at least the false sense of progressiveness, even though it’s not really true here either.
Everyone wants to talk about the President being this influencer who’s changing the way people think, but it’s also eye-opening to see how many people are still very, very conservative, and it’s really scary. That’s what I mean by missing [this] country, because it at least puts up a façade of progressiveness. But then we’re living in this time where that’s being pulled away. Young people are more active and more aware politically, but at the same time I’m also seeing young people becoming more and more conservative.
You see young people becoming more conservative in Europe, or in general?
In Europe I feel like it’s always been that people are very upfront about their racism and classism. Whereas here, I feel like people are starting to say it more.
Does that change the way you approach your music at all?
I hope that my songs are reaching people in a way that’s powerful because I want people to have an escape, even if it’s just for a couple minutes. For me, when I listen to music, it completely takes over my world. It’s my way of meditating.
When you stepped back to recharge, were you practicing any specific kind of self-care?
I was just hanging out with friends and not talking about music, and I was looking for a house. I bought a house in Asheville recently.
Thank you. It’s nice to be in that position. I hope I can continue to make music and do what I love for as long as possible, and I’m trying to find ways to enjoy it.
Like home ownership?
Like home ownership, and feeling like I have a home and roots somewhere, even if I’m not there. So I bought a house, which is insane, because I was not expecting to do that. But I took a break for a minute and was like, “I’m going to finally congratulate myself and do this for myself.” I don’t spend money, I work a lot.
Do you work at home?
I do. I write at home. I don’t really believe that you can’t write everywhere. If you can’t write everywhere, you just need to fix something. You gotta learn to write everywhere. Sometimes I don’t leave the house. That can be a problem. I’ll be in the house all day and get cabin fever, then I’ll go for a walk.
What else were you doing at the time? Were you listening to music?
Yeah, I listened to a lot of Ariel Kalma, New Age stuff. That music helps calm me a lot, stuff that’s just atmospheric but wordy at the same time.
I started getting up earlier. That was a big change for me when I went through all this stuff. I used to be a person who would get high or drunk or go out with friends. I was a night owl, and I would maybe stay up and work at night, and then wake up at 11am or 12om the next day. That’s how I spent my 20s.
Then when all this shit happened—and it’s hard to say it was just a relationship because it was a lot of relationships. It was people witnessing me going through this, being successful and changing. I felt I needed to become more aware of how I was interacting with people, not worry about what they thought of me but like how I thought of myself and just deal with that. A lot of it is just letting go of stuff.
To do that I had to clear my mind more and not go out as much and if I did, just make an effort not to miss the day and get up early. So I got up at like 7;30 or 8:00 every day and just went on walks in the pouring rain in a raincoat, looking at flowers and stuff.
What is your neighborhood in Asheville like?
It’s an old neighborhood that’s really lush and overgrown. Like an old English garden with old oak trees and old brick roads and stuff. It’s nice, it’s very picturesque—there are vines and weird wildflowers. I feel like everyone in my neighborhood is really trying to amp up their flower game. I just hired this landscape artist, we really got the rhododendron on now.
Do you like to host, or is home a private place?
I don’t want to live with anyone. I don’t want anyone in my house. Which keeps me from having romantic partners. I need them to leave at some point, you know? If they could live down the street and then they had a dog or a couple of dogs, and I have all the cats, and I can come to their house sometimes and they come to my house, but never really own the same house. It’s all separate.
Separate houses, separate pets.
Separate bank accounts. We [wouldn’t] rely on each other financially. All the love is just the love. There’s no need for need, you know? We just love.
That doesn’t exist. I will probably never find that. I’ll just be honest with myself and that’s okay, ‘cause I love my house that much, that I’m fine with that.
So you’ll take the house first, and see if you can find the romantic relationship from there.
Yeah. I will take the house over that any day. Just give me my fucking house back. “Gimme my fucking house back” is a great headline. I wish I named my record that.
Originally Appeared on GQ