Angel Olsen Sees Your Pain

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On a rainy afternoon in mid-April, the singer and songwriter Angel Olsen steered a Subaru through Asheville, North Carolina, while a cardboard box of VHS tapes clattered in the back seat. Olsen, who is thirty-five, had recently excavated them from her childhood home, in St. Louis. Some promised footage of significant events—“Angel’s Graduation,” “Angel’s First Day of Preschool”—and others were labeled “THE POKEMON” and “WORLD PREMIERE DARK HORIZON.” After pulling up at a video-restoration shop, Olsen did some hasty sorting in the parking lot, trying to decide which tapes were worth dusting off with a tissue and which ones she could toss. Olsen, who was adopted when she was three years old, has spent much of the past two years figuring out what to hold on to and what to surrender. In 2021, her adoptive mother and father de ella died two months apart (her mother de ella, from heart failure, at age seventy-eight; her father de ella, in his sleep de ella, at eighty-nine), shortly after she realized and told them she was gay. Ever since, Olsen has been sifting through the material and psychological aftermath.

“Big Time,” Olsen’s sixth studio album, will be released in June. It is in part a chronicle of her grief for her, though it’s also a document of self-actualization, heartbreak, isolation, and the intoxication of new love. Olsen began recording it at Fivestar Studios, in Topanga, California, with producer Jonathan Wilson, a few weeks after her mother’s funeral. On her phone, Olsen showed me a few photographs of the scene. The studio compound was green, rustic, and artfully unkempt. I told her that it reminded me of pictures and paintings I’d seen of Joni Mitchell’s home de ella in nearby Laurel Canyon, a fantasy of woodsy bohemian glamour: unruly ferns in terra-cotta pots, colored glass, open windows, a distinguished house cat lounging on a Moroccan rug. “Everything’s made of wood,” Olsen said, nodding. “There’s a creek in the winter that’s full up, and a painting studio, and this old bar.” She had chosen Wilson’s studio in part because she recognized something in him and in the musicians who congregate there. “Everyone in this crew has a story,” she said. “It was the first time I walked into a studio and I knew everybody there had endured hard shit and come out with a sense of humor.”

These days, Olsen doesn’t have much interest in anyone who has not at least briefly locked eyes with the void. “It’s so easy to go to that place where you’re romanticizing—Woe is me. But what does it symbolically mean when these things keep happening?” she wondered. On “This Is How It Works,” a new song, Olsen sounds worn out, deflated. “I’m so tired of saying I’m tired,” she sings. “It’s a hard time again.”

Olsen arrived in California to record without having rehearsed with her band. “She got here, and said something to the effect of, ‘In the past, I would have had these songs prepped, and I would have been practicing them. But I’ve had to do all this other shit that’s just been so fucking heavy,’ ” Wilson told me. “She was, like, ‘I’m just here.’ ” Though she had considered postponing the sessions, delays at a vinyl-pressing plant and other scheduling concerns led Olsen to submit to the immediacy of the experience. “I was, like, my parents died. . . Fuck it,” she said, laughing. “Give me a rollie and some tequila. We’re making a record!”

The bassist Emily Elhaj, who plays on “Big Time,” has known Olsen since around 2007, and they’ve been recording together for about a decade. “I’ve never gone into the studio with her de ella without rehearsing,” Elhaj told me. “I had no idea what to expect.” In Topanga, Elhaj found subtle ways to express her support from her to Olsen. “I’d leave her a note from her. She’d find it and know, ‘Hey, I see you, and if you want to talk I’m here.’ ” In recent years, Elhaj said, Olsen has “put in a lot of work to hash out whatever things she had going on personally. It’s made her more communicative, maybe less anxious. She’s more open, more comfortable with herself.”

A few of the songs on “Big Time” were written years earlier, such as “All the Good Times,” a loping country number with lap steel, hints of Mellotron, and a horn section that might have been airlifted out of Muscle Shoals circa 1965. Olsen considered offering “All the Good Times” to the country singer Sturgill Simpson, but her voice—gritty, sour, beautiful—carries the song. “I can’t say that I’m sorry when I don’t feel so wrong anymore,” she sings. She sounds weary yet knowing—life has once again proved her right.

“Big Time” is more firmly rooted in country music than anything Olsen has done before; vocally, it nods to Dolly Parton, Nancy Sinatra, Loretta Lynn, and a “Landslide”-era Stevie Nicks, if Nicks had grown up listening to Can LPs. “Have you heard ‘A Tender Look at Love,’ by Roger Miller?” Olsen asked me. “He’s known for being a jokester in his songs by him, but this is really different.” She cued up “Little Green Apples” on her car stereo. “Now, this isn’t country, but it is.” Miller became famous for goofy novelty songs like “King of the Road,” from 1964, but his cover of “Little Green Apples” is sentimental, dreamy, a deeply felt treatise on true, benevolent love. “And when my self is feelin’ low / I think about her de ella face de ella aglow / And ease my mind,” he purrs. I suggested that the song contained vague echoes of Townes Van Zandt—its narrator is desperate for comfort, companionship, shelter. Olsen nodded emphatically: “That’s the kind of country that I like.”

In 2021, Olsen and the singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten released “Like I Used To,” a sumptuous, aching duet. Van Etten recalled feeling stunned when, a decade earlier, she first heard Olsen sing: “When you hear an artist that moves you so much, and you feel so connected to them, and you feel like they’re finding the words for you. . .” She paused. “It’s a special feeling. I thought, This is gonna change the way I think about writing and singing. I felt like she was someone who could embody emotions that I was learning how to communicate myself.”

Olsen and I first met in September, 2016, when she was performing at Basilica SoundScape, a music-and-arts festival held in a renovated nineteenth-century factory near the riverfront in Hudson, New York. Over lunch, her demeanor of her was careful and vaguely defiant. I immediately liked this about her. Olsen seemed exhausted by the fact that no matter how good the work was—how attentive she had been to the events of her life, how delicately she had pried them open to accommodate melody, rhythm, breath—she still had to sit down and explain. the songs to reporters, or, worse, listen as they attempted to explain the songs to her. In the video for “Intern,” a single from her third album, “My Woman,” from 2016, Olsen, wearing a sparkly silver wig, sits across from a music journalist who looks about thirteen years old. “I don’t care what the papers say / It’s just another intern with a résumé,” Olsen sings, her voice cold.

Now Olsen picked me up at my hotel in downtown Asheville and drove us to a dimly lit bar in an industrial-looking corner of the River Arts District. We took cocktails outside to a concrete patio. Distillation is such an instinctive and central part of Olsen’s creative process that even her casual conversations tend to proceed with a kind of urgency. She prefers to forgo watery chitchat. “I like driving aimlessly, and I like getting lost,” she told me. “But I don’t like small talk. That’s not the kind of lost I’m looking for.”

Olsen sometimes worries about the intensity of what she does, how her music might inadvertently magnify her suffering. But the process of transfiguration—denaturing her pain from her, turning it into song—can also be healing. Olsen has been harnessing her anger and sadness and making room for it in her work since at least 2012, when she put out her début studio album, “Half Way Home,” which was followed, in 2014, by “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” the release that earned her widespread critical acclaim and a sizable audience. Pitchfork awarded it Best New Album upon its release; the Times described it as “patched and striking.” “Burn Your Fire” opens with “Unfucktheworld,” a tense and echoing song about disappointment. “Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more,” Olsen sings. In late 2013, a few weeks before the album’s release, she sang the song, solo, for NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series. It’s a remarkable performance: her eyes are eerily still, almost stony, but her voice is bloody and sorrowful. It feels as if she were channeling something extraterrestrial—as if, in those moments, her body was on loan to some faraway consciousness.

After “My Woman,” a raucous meditation on love and resistance to love, came the dark and synthesized “All Mirrors,” in 2019. The following year, she put out a companion piece, “Whole New Mess,” which contained the same songs but recorded as haunting directions. Olsen is often described as a folk singer, and though that doesn’t feel inaccurate, she is also a dedicated student of experimental music. Even when the hooks are sweet or seductive, her work is still dissonant and provocative.

With “Big Time,” the ferment of the past two years provided an almost uncanny amount of fodder. “The artists who I know who have had interesting lives or stories have also had a lot of hardship and a lot of change and a lot of adventure—I feel like I can relate to that,” Olsen said. “Something happens, and then you chisel your way through it, and then art is made. But it doesn’t always feel artistic. It feels like survival mode.” When it goes well, the experience can be triumphant. “If you can turn something that has been really disappointing and scary and weird in your life into something that sounds like a Dolly Parton song, and you sing it with a little wink, there’s nothing better than that feeling,” she went on. “Gotcha! You almost had me.”

That evening, Olsen was dressed in black trousers, a loose-fitting blazer, purple socks, and brown loafers. Her dark hair was cut bluntly, and her blue-green eyes—smart, pretty, beset by a swoop of black eyeliner—flashed. “When I sit down with my catalogue, the one thing I’m really grateful for is that I’ve only written about real-life shit,” she said. “Not everyone wants that in music, and not everyone’s like that in music. It’s taken me years to not have a chip on my shoulder about it, because I can be really intense. I’ll meet somebody new and they’ll be, like, ‘Whoa.’ ”

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