Angel Olsen’s latest album, Whole New Mess, is a stripped-down set of songs she recorded in the wake of a breakup, many of which would be embellished with synths and strings for her stunning 2019 LP, All Mirrors. The Asheville, North Carolina–based artist, who has garnered years of critical acclaim for her blend of pop, garage rock, and classic country à la Patsy Cline, recorded the stand-alone record in 2018 and has, of course, experienced a lot since. With the pandemic putting a planned solo tour on indefinite hold, Olsen’s 2020 has involved a combination of outdoor pursuits and introspection that keep her mind occupied and as peaceful as possible while the news churns out daily horror stories. “It seems that my path in life is to be heartbroken and then be open,” she tells Vulture. “I just need to spend more time alone, loving things in my own life.”
Here, Olsen reflects on all the oddities and curiosities that have kept her busy over the past few months, including her new friendship with an elderly widower, a growing fascination with moss, and her desire to become a private investigator. As she says, “When I get out of something, it’s hard at first and then I realize, Oh my God, I’m so free, free to explore the world by myself. That is an amazing gift! If you choose to see what’s in front of you, you could be really surprised. You should try it.”
Getting lost in the moment
I found a friend in a 90-year-old man whose wife passed away recently, and he’s been letting me use his canoe to go out on the lake that he lives on. I started taking little breaks to do that. I would go over there and we would talk about fascism, we would talk about the Social Security department, working with the City Council and the preservation society. Then he would [say], “I used to be a private investigator in L.A.,” and then I find out that his in-law is Allen Ginsberg and that he skydived at 88. This person is a vault of history and knowledge, and I decided to explore that one day.
It’s so nice to speak with someone who’s been on earth for so long about what’s happening right now. It’s what I mean by going on hikes, getting lost, and following signs. Sometimes, it’s nice to just look at plants and take photos of them and be calm. I sat out on the dock and looked at dragonflies for about 45 minutes, and that was its own way of meditation. I didn’t say, “Om,” I didn’t think about a chant, I wasn’t trying to take deep breaths: I was just looking at the dragonflies for 45 minutes, and that changes my life. All of the other stuff that’s happening in the world, it’s like a cradle for that.
I’ve been going to this moss garden just down the street from my friend David with the canoe. It’s Japanese-style, with beautiful rhododendron, kudzu, and tropical plants, and a gray heron, turtles, and all kinds of little critters. It’s this whole ecosystem. The land is supposed to be open to the public once a year, but in the meantime, I’m just secretly going in there, so now my plan is to learn more about moss and get them to hire me. There’s a dam up the lake that’s falling apart, and if it comes down, all the moss that’s been growing on this seven-acre land for nearly a century will completely die. I’m trying to get involved — I’m not just trying to trespass.
Some people that work on the land who’ve been kind to me were like, “Are you Angel?” and I totally used my name. They [said], “You can come back anytime.” This is why I need to get my PI license. My plan when I go there with my glasses on and my little notebook is to eventually show my badge and say, “I’m a private investigator for moss. I am just learning about how moss grows sideways and would love to talk with you about preserving this land.” In the meantime, I’m just secretly going in there.
David didn’t become an investigator because he wanted to solve mysteries. He wanted to be able to have an understanding of politics and the community. North Carolina is a swing state, and property is the biggest asset we have. I think it would be really helpful not only to learn about moss and protect properties that don’t belong to me but also to understand further what’s going on in my community.
Obviously, there’s that French noir, 1940s, smoking-cigarettes, big-shoulder-pads, chic idea of me being a PI, but straight up, I think it would be really helpful. I would love to be “Angel Olsen, private investigator.”
I was adopted when I was 3. My family, it’s quite big. Nine children altogether [and] my brother Chris was adopted before me, so I wasn’t alone in that experience. I was really familiar with his family, but at the same time, they were so much different. I couldn’t look at them and say, “That’s where I get my nose, my eyes, my sense of humor, my music abilities.”
I would go to their room and look at all the photos of people that were in their family over the years. I’d bring them to my mom and my dad and ask that they tell me a story about the past. That was when I really started to get into writing and really playing with narrative. I just obsessed over those family albums. One had a photo of my mom and dad — their wedding was at the courthouse and they just wanted to have a family. You could see that. It’s so beautiful. Back then, that was all there was: We didn’t have the internet, we didn’t rely on YouTube for fame or validation. They saved so much of their everyday life in photographs and music. Those were the two things where they could have it their way and capture it on their own. Now it’s so polluted. Everyone can make a memory, and everyone can make a remark about that memory, and [it] can be shared with thousands of people. Before you know it, it’s not as special anymore. Looking at the way my parents grew up has kept me grounded and rooted in the reality of how social media has changed reality and, also, how powerful an image or a song can be for capturing something important.
Making lists (and rediscovering them)
I stayed over with The Raincoats, Ana da Silva and Shirley O’Loughlin, once, and we had a day where we listened to Patti Smith records. They said Patti writes a lot of lists — she put a book out of them — so I would send them and friends lists of stuff, like, “This is what I’m up to.” And I have to write notes to remind myself of what I’d like to be writing about in the future, because I’m at a dinner party and inspiration struck. This is from August 22, 2018:
• Solo Europe tour.
• New York with Devin and David Lynch.
• House searching.
• Hernan Diaz dinners.
• Music tour doc with Conor.
• Trip to L.A.
• Scrambler pedal gifts, given to me by Ronson.
• Conversations about divorce and breakups.
• Finding a mansion.
• Friends and associates coming out of the woodwork to help.
• Losing the house from the Matisses.
• Finding the right one.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience of running into a friend at the grocery store and you’re embarrassed by what’s in your bag, but I have. Mainly because it’s usually cat food and wine. I’m like, I’m that lady now, the lady who buys cat food and wine.
At-home workout jams
I’ve been dancing to a lot of ’90s music, like Des’ree, “You Gotta Be,” All Saints, and Spice Girls, and then Lijadu Sisters’ “Come on Home” and “Strawberry Letter 23” by Shuggie Otis. I dance to that, and I have little mini-trampoline under my desk and a pull-up bar. I’m just trying to be my own person, be the best I can be. I’m trying to be a survivalist, a business owner. I’m trying to be behind that wheel.