Angel Olsen Experiences a "Great Unravelling"

"Now that the world is maybe ending, where do I fit in with myself?"

Photo: Angela Ricciardi

BY Kaelen BellPublished Jun 3, 2022

Angel Olsen begins our conversation by apologizing — she'd had to reschedule our interview due to a nagging sinus infection, the kind that refuses to vacate the body in spite of press obligations and looming rehearsals. 

She's seated in a sun-drenched, plant-filled room in her home in Asheville, NC, and through the windows behind her you can see the culprits — Asheville is heavy with spring, a place overflowing with green and blossoms and pollen.  

"It's so pretty, but then the wind blows," she says, laughing. "And then I'm like, 'Maybe I should stay inside.'" Safely inside the walls of her home, she's been practicing Big Time songs for a series of upcoming solo performances. She sounds at ease as she describes running the new songs alone on her guitar, their three-chords-and-the-truth tenderness a world away from the sci-fi extravagance of 2019's All Mirrors.

"I was surprised by it, but I love how easy these songs are to play," she says of that left-turn from a left-turn. "I'm excited about that. Because playing 'Lark' seven times in a row at a rehearsal in a back room is like, psychotic."

Big Time doesn't completely abandon the grandness of Olsen's previous full-length — star-spun threads of that hugeness are woven through songs like "Right Now" and "Go Home" — but it's an altogether warmer and gentler vision, horns and strings arriving like sun showers rather than hurricanes. 

"I know the songs are still sad, but ... country music can be sad and happy at the same time. And I can kind of convince myself that it's easygoing," she says. "People are like, 'It's still sad.' But there's something at peace." 

Despite its hard-earned sense of acceptance, Big Time is anything but easygoing. Olsen spends the album grappling with a domino-collapse of loss and discovery that left her to revaluate three decades of life, and to find comfort — even humour — in change and calamity. As she sings on the loping "This Is How it Works," "I'm moving everything around / I won't get attached to the way that it was." 

"I'm 35. I still have a lot of shit that I need to sort through in my life," she says. "And I'm realizing that, yeah, it does get harder. It does. They lied to me! Everyone lied about how it gets."

She continues, "The plot is continuously thickening in my life. And I think I'm at a point where I'm more at peace with that, and I'm learning to laugh more at it. Like, remembering the first time I thought I was losing my mind and that things were going poorly for me? That was nothing. That was nothing! Y'know?"

Though a large portion of the record was written beforehand, Big Time came to be partially shaped by the loss of Olsen's parents. They passed within a month of one another, her father dying only three days after Olsen came out as queer. Her mother fell sick soon after, and Olsen began recording the album three weeks after her funeral. 

"I'm gonna be working on that shit forever," Olsen says, her smile softening. "But I'm learning to just be like, 'Okay, I'm gonna try to get through this once more.'

"It's not just like, 'Oh, here's this record and a companion film for you to look at that's really intimate and about my life," she continues, mimicking dusting her hands clean. "No, that's gonna continue to be part of my life forever."

A collaboration with filmmaker Kimberly Stuckwisch, that companion film (also titled Big Time) is a lushly-rendered fantasy that pays tribute to Olsen's mother and explores the very idea of 'big time' — "less about like, 'oh, you've made the big time' and more like, 'time has been really big,'" Olsen explains. "It's expanded, and I'm a completely different person."

"I just kind of wanted to put myself through hell to process it, because it's part of letting go of what happened, and finding the words for it for myself by talking to people," she says of the decision to explore these fractures so publicly. 

"Sometimes it is overwhelming. You know, like, my mom's voice is going to be heard in this film, and it's scary," she says. "I want to make this an homage to my mom; I don't want to exploit my experience or her experience or anyone's experience of losing her in my family."

The film and album (and every album in Olsen's sterling catalogue, in one way or another) also wander far and wide in the realm of dreams. Historically, Olsen's dreams are both grounds for escape and proof of uncompromised selfhood, held as closely and fiercely as love itself. "What about my dreams / What about the heart?" she bellows with frightening defiance on 2018's "Lark" as diving strings careen past her. On 2016's "Pops," she promises to "be the thing that lives in the dream when it's gone." Dreams may be fragile and sometimes unknowable, but they're as essential to life as air and water. 

"Writing this record — this is so weird — but I had a lot of dreams about time travel," she says. "Like, I would go back in time with my mom and I'd be with her, walking her halls in high school." She explains that these vivid dreams seem to come and go by necessity, often coinciding with bouts of writing.  

But recently, surfacing from these visions found Olsen suddenly earthbound again, striving to make sense of life in the face of immense loss piled atop a pandemic, looming environmental collapse, a rapidly-disintegrating political hell. The world rolled forward. 

"I watched so much TV. And I would wash the laundry, but it would never get out of the basket. And I would just get so fucking pissed at, like, the superficial conversations that I would have with people," she says. "I would be so annoyed that life just continued on. Like, people were fine."

She continues, "For me, there was a big unravelling. I thought I knew myself before. And then a lot of stuff came to the surface. I haven't really thought about any of this stuff because I've been so busy trying to fit into the world. And now that the world is maybe ending, where do I fit in with myself?"

Part of what came floating to the surface was Olsen's understanding of her queerness. It's a journey that's addressed in sensitive, glittering oaths across Big Time: "I'm telling you right now / If we're apart or here together / I need to be myself / I won't live another lie / About the feelings that I have," she sings on the thunderous "Right Now," while on "Go Home," she intones, "The truth is with you / You can't rehearse it / Pretend to know it / It's time to live it." 

"I might regret it later. But right now, I guess I feel like — maybe it's the pandemic — I'm just tired of the bullshit," she says about this newfound approach of considered openness. "And like, this is my life."

Or, as she sang more than a decade ago on Strange Cacti's "Some Things Cosmic," "I want to be naked / I don't mean my body." "It helps me to be able to share [these songs] and feel like, 'Oh, someone relates,'" she says. "That makes me feel less alone, too."

But being transparent about this new frontier has introduced Olsen to fresh challenges with press, a part of the job that she's long said often leaves her drained. "Doing a lot of press, I tend to feel like I'm going through like, six therapy sessions," she says. And those therapy sessions now come with expectations she feels she's unable to meet. 

"It's overwhelming, when there's a certain personality that's like, 'Okay, that was great Angel. But if you could say that again, in this way?' Like, bitch?" She's laughing again, but there's a small ember of genuine frustration in her voice as she recounts the attempts to blanche and pre-package her queerness for soundbites and pride-approved blurbs. 

"That's the soul-sucking part," she says. "Y'know, I'm doing like, pride radio stuff. And it's like, 'Tell me about safe spaces and your favourite artists that inspire you who're gay.' And it's like, I like all artists. And I'm left scratching my head. And then I say that, and they're like, 'No, say it this way.'"

She says, "I want to celebrate being queer and being proud. [But it doesn't] have to be, like, a targeted moment." Even in her good-natured indignation, Olsen is careful not to overcorrect in her push against that corporatized ideal of queerness. She says she understands the quiet (though sometimes overstated) value in visibility. 

"I don't think [my mom] understood me being gay, but she thankfully was very loving about it," she says. "And that's not always the case for other people."

She adds, "I've had comments or fans being like, 'Oh, I didn't need to know that about you.' But in reality, some people need to know, because it helps them feel like somebody out there understands their experience and is in their corner. So ultimately, that's why I say yes to the commercial pride stuff."

It's another thickening of the plot, another hurdle that Olsen is attempting to clear with care and humility and laughter. Her clarity on the subject — that there is no clarity, that life's bends can't be explained in soundbites, or even songs — is a gift that she partially attributes to the ache of the past two years. 

"I think the loss of my parents has really brought stuff to the surface that matters to me most. And the friendships that matter to me most and the kind of conversation that I want in life has been clear to me since that," she says. "So, I'm not mad at that lesson."

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