Born and raised in St. Louis by older adoptive parents, Angel Olsen wants something real—no-nonsense experience full of life’s highs and lows rather than polite niceties; she doesn’t mind if it’s messy or hard, especially if it’s life-altering. During Olsen’s 2017 Pitchfork Music Festival performance, her band vamped while she slowly strutted her way across the stage in big sunglasses, before strapping on her black Gibson and playing a smoldering version of an early song, “High & Wild.” This is a woman who once sang backup for Bonnie “Prince” Billy and plotted her revenge on the exploitative, male-dominated music industry from the back line. She tossed her sunglasses aside with effortless cool to reveal accusatory eyes. When the song ended in a fiery rave-up, she said, “Sometimes you’re out there and you just got to get a couple things off your chest. And it’s hard out there being real with people, every day. Being real with them. It’s hard to be real with everybody in your life.” Then she laughed, and you saw that her anger, leavened by a wry sense of humor, was part of the tenacious resilience that has enabled her to step into the spotlight and command her own band.
Fast-forward to 2021: there’s a global pandemic, and Olsen’s come out to her parents as queer, only to have her father die within a week of her revelation, with her mother following soon after. As I was writing this interview, a friend asked me, after listening to Olsen’s new album, Big Time, “Did she go through a breakup?” I laughed—an understatement. The record is an expansive processing of Olsen’s grief that reckons with heartbreak while basking in the sunshine of new love. After playing a new song, “Ghost On,” in a June 4, 2022, performance at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, California, Olsen sighed and said, “It’s fine. Everything’s fine. It’s all real. It’s all real. It’s all very, very real,” and you got a sense that all the turmoil captured on the record was ongoing, and while she would acknowledge the turmoil, she was moving forward because she had a show to play.
THE BELIEVER: You’ve been doing this professionally for more than ten years. Is it about ten years?
ANGEL OLSEN: Ten years for me, twelve if we count my time playing with Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
BLVR: What are things you felt went right for you in order to have the career you’ve had?
AO: I stood in someone’s shadow for a few years before I jumped into it myself, and I learned a lot by just watching. Looking at how other people did stuff, and working as a backup singer, I got a sneak peek into this corrupt, male-driven fucking industry. When I was working for other people, I kept to myself, and I was like, I’m gonna avoid this in the future. I’m gonna do it differently. And when I have a band, I won’t do this. If anything, the things that upset me or angered me ended up propelling me to create. I took whatever that anger-frustration was, and I was like, No, these are words that need to be written down, and I need to put them to songs, and then we’re gonna go on the road. I was so angry. I was quietly angry. I was a shy person. As a twenty-two-year-old, I was really shy, and I didn’t know what touring was, and I didn’t know what the world was; I didn’t have a passport, and then all of a sudden, I’m all over the world, and I’m meeting booking agents, and I’m like, That guy kind of looks weird. Why is he hanging out after the show? And I’m like, Oh, because he booked the show. Why does he get to hang out here? He needs to go. He’s ruining the vibe. You know? When I started putting out my own music, I think people were familiar with me because I was already working for someone else, which I wasn’t trying to use at all as an angle. When I started out, I didn’t know what would happen. I did one European tour. I literally packed my LPs in a huge rolling suitcase, and mid-tour the wheels fell off, so I was dragging the suitcase from train to train. Then I did one US tour on the East Coast right after a hurricane hit, and I thought, Well, I guess no one’s gonna go to my shows, but people came and it was the first time I was like, Oh, people listen to my music. I didn’t really work that hard at trying to promote my music. It was weird to me, actually, that people were there, but I guess when Strange Cacti came out, it was a success on the internet. I think people just got it from word of mouth, and I never toured any of the songs. Imagine never touring any of your music, and then you go somewhere and there’s just people there. It’s weird. I don’t know what worked for me other than that I’ve been kind of oblivious to a lot of stuff that people calculate. I think if you are good, you’re good. People are gonna know if you’re good. In the beginning, I was making music for me. I think people can tell when you don’t make it for yourself.
BLVR: Were you surprised by the reception you had, or were you shy but confident?
AO: I was shy, but I knew that the things I was writing about were real for me and they were coming from a place that was real. I had played shows. I think that’s where I felt like I could be confident. It’s so classic. You are really shy and then you get onstage… and people are like, “Wait, I thought you were shy?”
BLVR: It’s like being two different people.
AO: It really is. I don’t want to be a leader. I’m about to do all these things with a band that I’ve hired, and I love all of them, and they’re really sweet, and they work really hard, but I just don’t like telling people on the spot what I think all the time. It’s so exhausting to have seven people ask you how you want something to go, and you have to put it delicately so you don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s just very exhausting. In the past, back in the day, it was just me and a guitar. So I didn’t have to talk to anybody about it. I could change it at any moment I wanted. I think being in a band is a very different thing, and it has taught me to get out of my shell and describe things that I want more and to just be more outspoken and to feel less afraid to say, like, Hey, I don’t really think we need that guitar part there. In the past, I would have been like [adopting a high-pitched, conciliatory voice], Well, I hope they’re not offended or hurt, because I really do like their playing. I don’t want to spend all this time thinking, Well, I don’t want them to be upset. No! I wrote the fucking song. If you don’t want to be here, don’t be here.
BLVR: Do you think some of that is conditioning from being a woman?
AO: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m trying to imagine Will Oldham being told… Oh my god, don’t even get me started. Imagine me telling Will Oldham, Can you change the tone of the guitar, because it sounds like shit?
BLVR: Do you think being in that male-dominated atmosphere taught you how to tell people what you wanted from your music?
AO: Yeah, I think I’ve learned to just gray-rock it. [Gray-rocking is a technique used to divert a toxic person’s behavior by acting as unresponsive as possible when you’re interacting with them.] Like whenever a cis dude pouts like a child because I’m telling him something very simple, which if he heard it from another cis dude would be totally fine. So then I just say, “OK, well, everybody, let’s just keep going.” And I just kind of move forward; I move forward, and I ignore the face they’re making and keep going, and I don’t apologize. I don’t say, I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings earlier in front of everyone. Because I’m like, Dude, your feelings are hurt too easily. I’m not going to coddle you. That’s not what this is about. You’re not my special star, OK? But with my current band I do have a good group of people that I can be honest with, and I think that is something I actively look for. I think the hardest part of what I’m doing, as the leader of my own band, is telling people to play less—like, play simply and play less, because it isn’t about guitar solos with my music. It is sometimes. There are little moments. But for the most part it’s about the words.
II. “A Rare Visual Imagination”
BLVR: As a writer, I think your music is obviously about the words.
AO: Yeah, but some people listen to music and they don’t hear the words, which I find to be incredibly maddening.
BLVR: There are several schools of songwriting. You seem to use story-driven songwriting, but you also use a lot of symbolism. And then there are songwriters who write, like, postmodern novels, where the point is not to make a point, but the point is that the words are sounds.
AO: Yeah, and the sounds replicate and then you meditate on them. I love that. You know, what I love is Alabaster DePlume and listening to music that has no words. I sometimes think that’s more helpful. I do think there are very different kinds of experiences when we listen to music. It is important to have musical elements surrounding the words, but in any given precise moment, the music doesn’t need to trample over them. When the words are there, they are progressively taking up space. I feel like I tried to be a scientist about it. I’m like, It’s not about the importance of the thing I’m saying. It’s that there’s too much going on percussively, and we can’t say the thing and play it always at the same time.
BLVR: That makes sense. Have you ever considered other art forms?
AO: Yeah. I really loved making the film [Big Time] with Kim [Stuckwisch]. When Kim and I collaborated, we put together symbolism from both her life and mine to create this sort of surreal thing. You know, when you collaborate, it’s always different from how you would have done it if you did it completely alone, which is beautiful and frustrating, but I really enjoyed working with her and I love what we made together. I learned that I don’t ever want to be an actor.
BLVR: That’s a question I was going to ask.
AO: I realized that when you act, you don’t get to write. Kim was changing the screenplay every other day. She’d add different things, and I’d be in the middle of a table scene with everybody, and Kim would be like, “And this is the part where you say your mom died.” And I was like, “But the way you’ve written it is not how I would have said it.” I was in front of everyone, and I said, “That’s not how I’m gonna say it, because this isn’t just a story, actually. So I can’t just be your actor right now.” It was intense to do. I realized that when you’re an actor, you don’t get to be the writer, performer, and editor. As a musician, you get to do it all, and you get to edit it. You get to be a part of the last touches to something. There’s nothing better than that. I think I have a rare visual imagination, and that is why I started writing songs.
III. Ringing a Bell for Roadkill
BLVR: How did you adapt to the limitations of the new world we live in?
AO: Man, I’m still adapting. I am a decade into my career and I have stable income, whether or not I take five years off. So the pandemic didn’t really interrupt anything in my income. I will say that it has emotionally affected me. I started to pay attention to politics all over the world. And every day was just a new kind of overwhelming, and it still is. But now I take breaks because I will spiral out and be like, What am I doing? I’m looking like I’m just another fuckin’ white virtue-signaler on the Instagram account. Get me off of this. I need to just live my life and do the work in my life. No one needs to fucking see it, and I don’t have a duty to be on here all day talking about it. That’s not my duty. My duty is to fucking just live a good life and try to just do acts of kindness in my actual daily life. But I was losing it a little bit. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I don’t know: there was a gift to it because it made me appreciate small things that I really do love. Like I saw everyone going on long walks again and getting back into nature and really slowing down and looking at people and listening. As far as livelihood, though, I feel like I have enough of a following at this point where I could take a break and try to do something else, and I would, in fact, like to do that.
BLVR: Does it feel freeing to have that ability to make those kinds of decisions?
AO: Yeah, I mean, it’s been a privilege that I have to check a lot. I remember eating rice and beans all week and going to donation yoga, and trying to write a song at the café I worked at. Now I’m like, Well, I could write a book or I could not. You know? It’s so fucking stupid. I want to read something to you from my journal. Is that fucking weird?
BLVR: No, I would love that.
AO: This is just an example of what my writing would be. I went to a wedding, and this passage is about a conversation I had with someone on the way to the wedding. I’ll just read a little bit.
We discussed a myriad of topics, some gossip, some about open relationships, heteronormative structures within the queer community. And then somehow we got on the topic of moss and the book Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, and then also on to Bluets by Maggie Nelson. And I rang a bell in the middle of the talk because my friend had given me a bell to ring whenever I pass dead roadkill as I drive, so I ring it most of the time. It’s also just weirdly fulfilling to ring a bell. Anyways, we got on to our mutual obsession with bells, dreams about them, religious associations with them, how they sound, how they teach you to pause for breath or acknowledgement, and then I suggested to her that she write a book, not unlike Bluets, but all about the endless meaning of bells. And then I realized the genius of Bluets is that she reminds the reader not about the color blue, but to look further, to take something small and sit with it. Letting it expand, we can find deeper directions of meaning and truth. And the example of that is so important. In this life, there’s possibility and intricacy and marrying truth all around us if we just sit with it and notice it.
BLVR: I love that.
IV. “The Look on People’s Faces”
BLVR: Do you like touring?
AO: No. [Laughter] But I do like the feeling of interacting with people and seeing their faces. Like, Oh, they know the words to my song. I just like experiencing the look on people’s faces. I like to know that what I’m doing is real, too, and that it’s affecting people, and you can only really feel that when you’re in front of them playing, and I like playing. I just don’t like the lifestyle. I just wish it could be like there’s one show a week and the rest of the time you’re just getting to know everybody.
BLVR: Do you think that would appeal to you: to do a residency where you could be somewhere for a while, and people could come to you?
AO: Yeah. That would be sick. [Laughter] You know what I want to do? Maybe I’ll do a residency in gorgeous New Mexico. We’re doing a festival; we’re playing on Georgia O’Keeffe’s property in September. I’m so excited because Patti Smith is gonna play and Sharon [Van Etten] and Devendra [Banhart] and all these people I love. I’m thinking about staying after to just hang out. It would be sick to do a residency at a museum, or at a museum that is also a venue, so you can enjoy other art while you’re there and it doesn’t have to be only you.
BLVR: There has to be something like that. Museums should get on that.
AO: They really should.
V. Surrealists without Freud
BLVR: Something that comes up a lot is your interest in the 1930s, because of your parents. I thought some of the costuming in the film you made with Kim was referencing the ’30s—is that correct?
AO: Yeah—my parents’ parents were probably more ’30s, but I’ve always been an appreciator of nostalgia. I think the appreciation did start with my parents, because when I was younger I would go through their photo albums and look at pictures of them when they were young to try to connect with them. Later on I got really into surrealism and women surrealists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington—people who practiced surrealism that weren’t Freudian.
BLVR: What’s the difference between Freudian and non-Freudian surrealists?
AO: The difference is that the Freudian surrealists are just chauvinists, and Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington are like the punk rock duo. They’re like, Fuck you. We’re making our art with the occult and witchcraft and folktales. And our dreams don’t come from wanting to be a muse for a guy. Varo and Carrington were really special, and they don’t get a lot of public acknowledgement. I got really into their little world of surrealism. I was obsessed with that era—the surrealist movement to the Dada movement. It was its own punk rock thing, before punk rock existed.
BLVR: You mentioned Georgia O’Keeffe, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington. What are some of your favorite paintings either by those three artists or any other surrealists?
AO: When I was seventeen or eighteen, I was obsessed with the relationship between Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, because they were best buds and they had such a romantic friendship. Leonora passed away kind of tragically. They practiced mysticism, and stuff from the occult, and paganism, and I don’t consider myself an occultist, but I find that dreams and mysticism are interesting, more interesting to me than Freudian philosophy. I also really love Leonor Fini, who was famous for living with one hundred cats, and she was just kind of the crazy cat lady. One painting I really love, that I was obsessed with forever, is called Figures on a Terrace. There’s this figure wearing a black-and-white-striped long dress on the terrace, and I looked for that dress forever, and it just looks like Montmartre. Like all these people lounging on the top of that hill in Paris. There’s another painting called The Passenger, which I felt really moved by for a while, and I would always go back to it. But Fini is an interesting character, because the surrealists would have these masquerade balls, and she was the one who would make all their beautiful masks and hats. It’s hard to find my favorite Remedios Varo paintings, but these three are pretty good for me: There’s one called The Call, and it’s just beautiful. She often draws these figures of women where their hair is going up to the sky, then the top of their hair swirls into the moon, and their bodies and the clothes they’re wearing look like shells. So they’re wearing lots of shells. Some people would sexualize that and say it looks like a vagina, but for me, it looks like there’s an endlessness to the creature that’s walking through this hallway. I have no idea what Varo was thinking when she was painting these things, but I get a sense that she was trying to find her way through all these dark, shadowy places in her life and this was her dreamworld. There’s another one called Dead Leaves, and she’s sitting in this one. She’s sitting in a big hall where she’s made herself colorful… and then there’s a ball of yarn that she’s holding, and she’s pulling the yarn out from inside a floating man that’s just a few inches away from her, and inside his stomach there’s endless mirrors and she keeps pulling the string out from them. I really connected with that. And then there’s one called La tejedora de Verona. I like how she incorporates music and chemistry into her paintings as little jokes. In Música solar she has someone playing some sort of instrument that is made from the light of the moon, and as the moon shines down, she plays the rays like a harp. I thought, What an interesting way to talk about music and feeling a space. It’s just really dreamy and spooky. I relate to surrealists because I felt really isolated a lot of the time growing up and I had to create my own world too. I’m a very visual person. When I’m not making music, or when I hear music, I think visually. I had another interview recently where we talked about synesthesia. We tried to figure out if I was a synesthete. I think I might be.
BLVR: Do you find that surrealism is more immersive for you than minimalism?
AO: Yeah. It’s also about Varo’s life. These surrealists just seemed really alive during a time that was dark. Whenever you go through a hard time in any situation or relationship, you can choose to feel sorry for yourself and let it eat you alive and complain about it to everyone, but you’ll only push people away. Or you can start appreciating the things you can control and that are there and that are free and that are within you. These things are in your community, and they’re in the language you speak with people. Making art sometimes feels like a way of encapsulating some of those things. It’s like a feelings document, like, Here are the things that are ironic and cracking me up and making me laugh. Every now and then I hold something up that I made, and I realize, That’s not mine. This is something I enjoyed doing, and now here it is for people to see, and they can have it, and we can hold it here together.
BLVR: You make a lot of references to dreams and dreaming. Why do you bring dreams into your music so much?
AO: Because I dream a dream every day. I talked with my friend Coco about this the other day, because she dreams a lot too. I was like, “Dude, I want to do something more with dreams other than just make little videos and stuff. I want to practice remembering all the details of them.” I’ve always just been someone who dreams a lot and has really vivid dreams every day, especially if I’m going through changes, and right now I kind of am. Since my mom passed away, I have been having a lot of time-travel dreams where she appears as, like, the lord of time travel or some shit, you know, or, like, I’ll be going back to her high school. It’s literally like I’ll be going back to her high school that I remember from her yearbook, and she’s there with her friends and she’s got the belt wrapped around her books and stuff. And I’m like, Where am I? And it sounds so cheesy to talk about, but, yeah, I don’t know, it’s difficult to talk about those kinds of themes without overdoing it or whatever. But I have a lot of dreams.
VI. Autobiography v. Fantasy
BLVR: You said you’ve been going through a lot of changes. How did that affect your work?
AO: Just the events in my life, or?
BLVR: I almost think the line between autobiography and creative work is sort of like a false thing. I think people try to hide their biography because they don’t want invasive inquiries. They want to do it selectively. I just take it as a given, like, it’s neither… it’s not more important or less important than if it was created from complete fantasy—
AO: Because even in fantasy you’re trying to tell yourself something, and you wouldn’t be who you are if you weren’t trying to tell yourself that thing. So, yeah, you are showing who you are always. I agree. I agree. I have a friend who’s a writer. I love his work. He was like, “Angel, why are you revealing your private life so much in your work?” And I was like, “What? Don’t say that to me like that. Like that. Don’t say it to me like that.” I wanted to flip the table. I was like, “Are you fucking serious?” This writer friend, he said, “Don’t do that to yourself. Why are you doing it this way? It’s so personal. You won’t be able to get out of it.” And I was like, You know what, no matter how honest you are about every single aspect of your life, you can count on everybody’s personal lens to be put up against it and to get it wrong. And there is some fucked-up safety in that. I get what he was saying to me. He was trying to warn me to protect myself more. And I was like, Do you think I’m living to protect myself? Do you think I’m gonna go back inside now and never write about anything that’s deeply touched me or hurt me? You think I’ll do that? Why would you think I would do that? [Laughter]
BLVR: That seems like it would make music more formulaic. I mean, you’d have to have a hat, right? Like topics—all right, I’m gonna write a song about this.
AO: And, you know, I am practicing a little bit of that too. I do that. And sometimes I’m surprised by what subconsciously enters that space when I think I’m doing it in a contrived way. So, yeah, to prove your point, I think that no matter what, even if it’s intentional or contrived, there is an aspect of the truth that you are revealing about yourself and everything you make. Maybe I should be more careful about it. I should definitely learn how to protect myself from narcissists. [Laughter]
BLVR: Yeah, I agree.
AO: I like writing. I like sharing things with people. I think you lose when you close yourself off. Getting hurt is worth it because you get to see things. But it’s a lonely thing, to see things deeper and deeper, when the people around you, your peers, are not enduring that kind of shit. But when you meet someone who has, it is so fucking special.
BLVR: I agree. I noticed you said something like that in the New Yorker profile. You did talk about how, making your record in Topanga, you were with people that had seen shit, and that really resonated with me; it made a lot of sense.
AO: I’m glad, because you say things like that on paper, and people just read through it, you know, but it is more real than anything. It’s more real even than making the art itself. I’m just so glad I could sit in a room with all those people. Like, how fucking cool is that?
BLVR: Yeah, finding your people, just the ones that get it: there’s nothing better than that.
AO: It really makes me want to cry. [Mock sentimental voice] It’s just all so beautiful. [Laughter]
BLVR: You say on your record, “I’m a crier.” We think of tears as being a bad thing, but they’re just an expression of emotion.
AO: I’ve cried so much during the pandemic. If I could bottle the amount of crying that I’ve done in the last few years… It feels so good to get a lot of that shit out. I feel for my parents’ generation and the people who were never taught to access their feelings. It is interesting. I feel like Gen Z feels too much sometimes. You need to talk every emotion through, and everything is a political and a safe conversation where you use the emotional tools we were given through nonviolent verbal communication, and part of me is like, OK, kid, get it together. That’s not the world we live in. Get prepared to use the tools you were given in your private school and get out there, because the world is an ugly place, and you’re not going to be able to nonviolently verbally communicate it to everyone. I know that we should use those tools, but sometimes you’ve just got to say, I’m angry. Man, I’m angry! But in my parents’ generation, someone would commit suicide in their family and they wouldn’t talk about it. There’s got to be a middle ground here. I love that people from Gen Z listen to words. They’re really invested in words, and meaning, and multiple meanings. I think it’s so fucking cool. I just wish more people also could feel that. My parents—I just had to be like, We’re never going to know each other, we’re strangers on this earth, but I love you.
BLVR: You said if you weren’t yourself making the music, it might not be something you were into. Are you saying that at a certain point you make something and it no longer belongs to you? Are those two things related?
AO: Here’s how I guess they’re related. I am an evolving person, just like anybody else, and sometimes I write songs, and later on I’m like, Why the fuck did I feel like I needed to embrace that? And I’m like, Cool, that’s theirs. And I will continue to sing it, but that’s not who I am anymore. I was actually lying in my bunk today, because I was thinking about how my biggest dreams and my biggest hopes are to find a place to hide and to evolve privately without anyone watching me. Going on my endless search for meaning in my life without anyone being an audience to that, and here I am doing all the things that are preventing me from having that. God, I hate the internet sometimes, because what if I do want to change my mind about something? I just want to evolve privately, but in music you can always do it again. I can always make something again, make something different next time. My dream would be to just play this record live, and I know that it would not be acceptable among fans, and I understand why; I understand why.
BLVR: It’s been three years since they’ve been able to see you.
AO: I do feel a responsibility to connect with people. And I also need to connect with people. Over the last few years, I haven’t been able to feel like what I do is real. I want to see people sing back to me, and I want to feel like they are relating to what I’m saying. Otherwise, I’m just doing it in vain. I need people so that, at a certain point, the music ceases to belong only to me.