We chat to the celebrated songwriter about her new album, All Mirrors.
Success seems to make Angel Olsen just want to work harder. Having risen to international fame with her previous two records – 2016’s critically exalted MY WOMAN and 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness – Olsen’s latest, All Mirrors, is her most sonically elaborate album to date.
Olsen, who began her career in Chicago but is now based in Asheville, North Carolina, premiered a number of All Mirrors’ songs on her 2018 solo tour. She appreciated the intimacy after years of touring an indie rock show, and initially recorded the album as a bare-bones solo effort.
Olsen then became interested in making a double album featuring separate iterations of each song, leading her to seek out producer John Congleton, multi-instrumentalist Ben Babbitt, arranger Jherek Bischoff and an 11-piece orchestra. Together they recorded fleshed out versions of the same songs, which we’re now getting to hear.
“It was just such a weird change that I wasn’t sure if people would like it,” Olsen says. “But at the same time, I knew it was necessary and it felt really good to me, it felt right to me.”
All Mirrors touches on a range of styles and dynamics, often within the same song. Opener ‘Lark’ is a constantly evolving epic poem; ‘Spring’ begins as a conventional singer-songwriter number and morphs into a psychedelic jam; ‘What It Is’ starts out as an uptempo indie-pop song akin to Olsen’s previous two records before a wall of sound is assembled, punctuated by tension-raising strings.
“I was a little scared to have these dissonant sounds at first,” says Olsen. “The first time I heard ‘Lark’ I was like, ‘Do I hate this or do I love this?’ because I had grown so attached to how it was when I played it solo. And then I just woke up the next day and I was like, ‘This needs to be the first track on the record’.”
All Mirrors continues the trend of Olsen adding more dimension, instrumentation and variety to her sound with each successive release. Her low-profile debut, Half Way Home (2012), revealed a gifted vocalist still learning how to get the most from her means of expression. It’s something she comprehensively achieved on BYFFNW and My Woman, and All Mirrors suggests the sky’s now the limit.
Though, letting go of the songs’ earlier identities to embrace the input of her collaborators wasn’t always a straightforward process.
“I still wanted control,” Olsen says. “It’s hard for me to let other people collaborate with me, mainly because I have to be playing these songs forever. It’s really hard to let other people decide how they should go when I’m the one who has to play them.”
It quickly became apparent that the contributing personnel were all greatly invested in the project, which encouraged Olsen to relinquish some control.
“I sent [Babbitt] ‘Tonight’ and some other songs to play piano on and he just decided out of the blue he wanted to personally perform and record 50 tracks of violins and strings of an arrangement that he wrote for ‘Tonight’,” Olsen says. “He just performed every part of it, sent it back, and I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’. One, this is amazing; two, you’re insane, because that’s incredibly time-consuming.
“Ben was doing a lot more than just strings so I wanted to get Congleton to come over. I didn’t want him to do much pre-production without Congleton being a part of the process. Eventually, Jherek was there and we were all there making stuff.
“The hardest part of all of it was communicating one on one with all of them about what their desires and intentions were, and then on top of that getting them all in the same room so they could look at each other and not feel threatened. But it’s been really sweet – Jherek and Ben worked on another project with Congleton after me. It seems like they’re all getting along pretty well.”
Angel Olsen’s new album, All Mirrors, is out now via Jagjaguwar. Give it a spin via streaming services.