Cover Feature Divine Intervention: Angel Olsen

For her new opus, ‘Whole New Mess’ finds Angel Olsen looking to the future but reaching back to the past, to an emotionally-purging set of recordings that would lead the singer to her rawest work yet.

As a kid, Angel Olsen would climb the stairs of her family’s Victorian home in St Louis, Missouri, right up to the small landing at the top of the house. With her she would take a Yamaha keyboard and a cassette player. After being sure to close the door to the landing, Angel would record herself singing over and over into the tape machine, stacking harmony upon harmony. “I would add layers the old fashioned way,” she explains, using the double deck to multitrack her vocals. “That’s how I taught myself to record and sing.”

By the time she was in high school, she’d built up enough confidence to leave the door to her DIY home studio open. Since then, her instantly recognisable, reverb-drenched, postmodern torch singer style has been defined by two things: a willingness to let the world in on her own intimate thoughts, but also a staunch lone wolf mentality. Now, after a decade of acclaimed releases - fittingly beginning with 2010’s cassette-only ‘Strange Cacti’ EP - she’s pulled back the curtain even further, going back to basics for the devastating, stripped-back ‘Whole New Mess’.

Her first proper solo album since 2012’s debut ‘Half Way Home’, the new record is driven by the singer’s powerful vibrato, twanging guitar and bursts of stark, emotional release. As well as taking her career full-circle, ‘Whole New Mess’ also breaks the traditional release pattern: it was, notably, recorded before last year’s masterclass in symphonic rage, ‘All Mirrors’. In fact, ‘Whole New Mess’ should sound more than familiar to fans of Olsen - all but two of its tracks are made up of the very first versions of the songs that went on to comprise that last album.

But this is no mere demos collection. Taken on its own merit, ‘Whole New Mess’ is a powerful thing; the close, often uncomfortable sound of someone working through the spiritual detritus of a break-up and coming out not with answers, but catharsis. And in the context of ‘All Mirrors’ it also offers a fascinating insight into how an artist works, showing us the bare, brittle bones of songs before she was able to stand back and cover them in sinew and flesh, to dress them in dramatic, scene-stealing costumes.

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As featured in the August 2020 issue of DIY, out now.

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