- 06 Oct 20
Indie singer Angel Olsen talks about her health struggles and eating issues, rebelling from her alt-pop “pin-up” image and how she found salvation by pouring her loneliness into her incredible new album.
In early summer, as people across the world took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd, Angel Olsen was at home in a pool of sweat.
“I had a fever for five days,” she says. “I thought I had it [Covid]. I did a Zoom chat with the doctor. They gave me a prescription for strep throat. And I was like, ‘I can’t believe I have strep throat.’”
By the time Olsen had recovered to the point where she could engage with the outside world, Floyd’s brutal killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis had lit a touch-paper and Black Lives Matter marches were sweeping the globe. Being indisposed with a potential case of Coronavirus, Olsen had not weighed in. Her silence on the subject was noted. And so, for the first time in recorded history, the internet rushed to judgement.
“I was like, ‘what happened – why are people yelling at me for not mentioning George Floyd?’ I was sick,” she tells Hot Press. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Olsen was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 17 and has been seeing out the pandemic at her adopted home town of Asheville, a city of 90,000 some 240 miles due west of state capital Raleigh. The illness flares up off and on, she says. She hasn’t always been smart in how she manages it and admits to being especially cavalier touring her first big hit, 2016’s My Woman.
“I wasn’t taking my medicine, [Or] I was overdosing myself. I didn’t like the way I looked. I would take more medicine than was prescribed to me for my thyroid disease, which slows down my metabolism.”
Olsen speaks quietly and thoughtfully. The last time we conversed she was polite and amiable and yet something in her manner suggested performance. There was a sense of talking to someone having fun with their persona as an on the rise alt-pop star. Three years on, she comes across as slightly hollowed out by fame and acclaim and, if not quite disillusioned, then certainly emerging from the other side of the mother of all reality checks.
She’s dropped the meta, “this is a version of me, doing an interview” thing. And when she looks back to the person she was around My Woman, she obviously feels a degree of ambivalence. There was a lot to take on board. Brie Larson, Miley Cyrus and Christina Hendricks would come to her shows and hang out backstage. She was selling out venues such as Vicar Street in Dublin. But with a higher profile came increased demands. The touring never stopped. She would like you to know it’s lonely at the top.
“I ate half an avocado for breakfast every day. And I’d have a little piece of fish and rice for dinner. And that was it. I drank the rest of my meals. So that is where I was at. People talk about eating issues. For me it was my way of being in control of something. I felt incredibly isolated by not only my manager but also my band. I was gone from all the friends I cared about. I would never see them. I was a work horse for this music thing.”
Olsen parted from her manager, hired a new touring band – and poured the trauma into her music. Then she went to the Anacortes, Washington studio of Microphones/ Mount Eerie songwriter Phil Elverum (a recent Hot Press interviewee) and laid the material down as super-hushed, barely-there ballads.
“I was in such a low place,” she says. “I was really feeling lost, like I was losing everything around me.”
These same tracks would later be upholstered with strings and lush ornamentation and released as All Mirrors – one of 2019’s finest records. Now, some 12 months on, Olsen has put out those earlier, mostly acoustic takes as the stunning Whole New Mess.
“Mess” is probably an overstatement. She did however find herself at a crossroads in Anacortes. With the success of My Woman, she became an indie cause célèbre – the sort of songwriter with whom fans develop an intense relationship.
Olsen was fine with that. To a point. But music had never defined her. Validation from an audience isn’t something she constantly craves. Nor does she look in the mirror and see “Angel Olsen: indie star” staring back. It’s part of who she is. Not the whole picture. Not even a tiny part of it, actually.
“Sharing my work with people – that’s not connecting in the same way as human to human, friend to friend. I need that too. I need people to check in with me, even though it seems I’m doing really well. To just be curious, just consider that maybe I don’t get validation from an audience. That I’m doing it because I feel I have to. I was in this really fucked up place. I thought I never looked better. Honestly, I looked pretty good that year. But it wasn’t out of health. That is something I have really struggled with.”
Olsen was raised in St Louis, Missouri. Born in 1987, she was adopted at age three by her long-term foster family. Her adoptive parents were middled aged and already grandparents. She has spoken of how this gave her a unique perspective growing up, telling Spin in 2016 that she “fantasised about what it was like to be young in the ’30s and ’50s, more so than other kids my age”.
As a kid, she would sing along to Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey. She became an introvert in high school, channelling her confusion about the world into songs. A move to Chicago after graduation saw her connect with Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. He hired her to play with his ensemble, the Cairo Gang (presumably not named after the British deep cover intelligence unit executed on the orders of Michael Collins in November 1920).
This was surely a meeting of minds. Oldham through his career has been interested in art rather than image. Olsen is a kindred of spirit. She has, in particular gone back and forth about allowing herself to be portrayed glamorously.
She looked incredibly mysterious on the cover of All Mirrors – and in the extended photo-shoot spread across the record’s sleeve. A year later, she seems not quite sure if it was the right thing to do (the pictures were by a now ex-boyfriend whose typical subjects were, she says, “heroin chic models”).
“I was participating in being objectified,” she says – not specifically of that shoot but of her public persona around that period. “I still struggle with that. I do want to feel good. I want to be pretty, I want to be handsome. I want to be interesting looking. Just like anybody….The power of an image is still powerful. It can change your life, but what I’m realising is also I need to give myself a break. I’m going to get older. I can’t just play this pin-up girl role. I have to play other roles. I’m not against using image as an advertisement for work I care about. I wouldn’t put music into the world if it wasn’t talking about something.
“It has to be something real. Whether it’s true or relates to anyone – it has to be real to me. I don’t feel ashamed to advertise it. But I do feel ashamed to hold myself to this expectation that the only way it is heard is through this advertising.”
She draws a breath. “What I’m saying is fuck what you think about my pin-up girl look. I don’t care any more. Can’t I just be able to get old in front of you – so just get used to that?”
Olsen has clearly been thinking about the relationship between image and art. And her conclusion is that she’s not really up for playing the game.
“I don’t need to put my body on a poster for people to take Whole New Mess seriously,” she says. “Fuck that. I don’t have to do that all the time. And this goes into a conversation about women using their bodies in publications and then doing an interview about injustice for example…
“Or posting a photo of themselves half-naked and then being like, ‘I’m a powerful nudist woman who wants to take charge of this radical opinion’. I’m very much like, ‘real talk – I’m just looking at your body right now. I don’t even know what you’re saying. Because your body is so beautiful, it’s distracting me from the message’.”
Olsen wants to be clear that she isn’t calling anyone out or criticising a particular artist. It’s just that this isn’t for her.
“I’m not against people who want to be proud of their bodies and not feel shamed. I think that people should not feel ashamed of their bodies, no matter what position they are in. But to use that as a way to talk about injustice is really fucking corrupt – you’re not using your power for the greater good. I like my body. I want to feel sexual, I want to feel powerful …It’s an existential crisis of the balance of using your image sometimes to sell the message. But, you know, sometimes I just want to give people art and let them interpret it and if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell.”
She sighs and then laughs softly: “I wish it were more simple.”
• Whole New Mess is out now