Her latest record is a glorious paean to lost love and friendship. So how will it fare when Angel Olsen brings it to Scotland on Valentine’s Day?

Like all the best pop records, All Mirrors by Angel Olsen turns darkness into light. As smooth and reflective as its title suggests, the 33-year-old Missourian’s fourth album is born of emotional upheaval, yet the 11 songs within are more intoxicating than exhausting, set to sail on a sea of keening strings, burnished synthesisers and enough echo to fill the Barrowland ballroom, where, in an act of either genius programming or cosmic paradox, Olsen and her group will bring the curtain down on their European tour on Valentine’s Day.

“The record is very sensitive,” Olsen says down the line from her home in Asheville, North Carolina, where she’s recovering from a lurgy that floored her upon the conclusion of a North American tour. “There’s stuff about going through changes in the band, changes in friendships, changes due to relationships. When you lose a relationship, sometimes the hardest part is not losing the partner but rather the atmosphere that surrounded you and who you are. That was a big chunk of the pain and frustration I was feeling.

“I have very few close friends. I’d be sad about that and then realise I only need a few close friends, so that’s fine.” She laughs.

Meeting with almost uniformly ecstatic reviews upon its release last October, All Mirrors is a departure from Olsen’s previous solo records, embracing not just humid synthwave but also the orchestral manoeuvres of prime Scott Walker and lacing them through glam rock, dolorous balladry and lovelorn nocturnes. The scale and scope are conspicuously grander than before, though perhaps not to the record’s maker.

“My friend said, this is the biggest record you’ve made yet, and I’m like: is it?” says Olsen, cheerily. “I don’t know how I feel about that yet. It’s big and epic because there are strings and the material is dark and honest. It’s a left turn, especially from the last record [My Woman, in 2016], but it’s hard for me to say whether it’s the most colossal work yet. I’m still in it.”

An even bigger gulf exists between the Olsen of All Mirrors and the young musician whose baby steps came through touring as a backing vocalist for Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, in 2010, having moved from St Louis to Chicago at the age of 18. The association continued on a handful of releases and, allied to early solo recordings including her debut EP Spectral Cacti, earned Olsen a reputation as a folk singer. While she hasn’t severed her ties with the simple formula of voice and guitar – a pared-back version of All Mirrors is pencilled in for release later this year, she says – Olsen’s music has entered a new phase of sophistication.

The same can be said for the aesthetic in which Olsen has swathed All Mirrors, one dominated by strong black-and-white photography and symbols of classic glamour and opulence. Perhaps indicative of Olsen’s growing confidence, the kernel of the album and promotional material’s look ended up to the fore.

“My partner at the time was the photographer and we just decided to do a shoot without telling anyone to see how it went,” she recalls. “The album cover is the first photo we did. I really fell in love with that image, and the fur, and I wanted to continue with that idea – fur and fringe and lace.

“I visualise certain things when I’m writing and I imagined when I was writing All Mirrors that it would be somewhat sci-fi or like art deco sci-fi, so that was a theme I stuck with.”

The monochrome veil that covers All Mirrors lifts only once, in the video for the Spectorish opener Lark, as bold a statement of intent as you are likely to hear, Olsen’s voice alternately fragile and booming. The footage is correspondingly arresting.

“It seemed so raw and visceral that it needed colour,” she says. “We shot it in North Carolina, 30 minutes outside of where I live, and all over Asheville. We went to the Outer Banks [a 200-mile string of barrier islands on the North Carolina coast], which is an eight-hour drive, so that was quite a haul. It was very intense, working 15 hours a day for an entire week. It was like following a tornado.”

Dark as her new record might be, translating it to the stage has been anything but, a fact Olsen attributes to her growing ease with her chosen career. “The performances have been really, really fun,” she says. “ I now understand that there’s no need to be drinking too much, and there’s no need to be angry when the lights are upsetting me or we mess up a song. It doesn’t affect me in the same way any more.

“I laugh about it and move on. In the beginning, when I was trying to prove all these things to myself, every single thing that was wrong really affected me.”

It’s easy to imagine the intensity of Olsen’s apprenticeship. Scour the internet for footage of her performing and it’s striking how focused and unflappable she is. “I still get nervous,” she maintains. A long pause ensues. “Sometimes I get lost in thought when I’m singing. It’s like the words are coming out of me automatically and I’ll be thinking about something else entirely.” Olsen laughs. “I often wonder at what point in my life I’m going to have one of those projector things with my lyrics on it. But so far so good.”

Olsen’s current potency as a performer comes as little surprise when you consider music is a lifelong passion. “I’ve always been into singing. I always wanted to re-enact movies and I’ve always been into writing little songs. Recently my cousin was going through our childhood stuff and she found some lyrics I wrote” – she dissolves into laughter – “when I was 10 or 11, which was really funny.”

She’d like it on record, however, that she wasn’t a brat. “I wasn’t a show-off. I would show off to my cousins but not my parents. I always hid things I was working on from my family because I felt it was too personal or too raw, so I didn’t want them to hear it.

“I would record something upstairs on my tape recorder and my mom would say, ‘I really like that – what are you working on?’ And I’d get really embarrassed and tell her not to ask me about it.

“I was very private about the process of stuff and I still am.

“When I lived with room-mates they’d come home and I’d stop playing piano and they’d say, ‘You could keep going.’ And I’d say, ‘No, I can’t.’”

Spool ahead to the present and the concept of “can’t” holds little water in Olsen’s world. Since it’s impractical to take a full-size string section on tour, Olsen and her group have deployed their creativity in reproducing the extraordinary curlicues of violin, viola and cello from All Mirrors onstage.

“I don’t have a 13-piece orchestra with me but I have two string players who play through pedals and are very good at improvising,” says the singer. A combination of Hammond organ and other keyboards including Mellotron will add drama. “We’ve assigned different registers of string parts to the key players, so each section blends well underneath the string players. It’s not the same but it’s still exciting and fun to play.”

Besides solving musical puzzles, Olsen is equally sanguine about coping with the rigours of touring, even if reality often confounds her best intentions. “Every time I get home I get sick,” she says. “It’s like my body won’t let me get sick on tour any more. I came home for Christmas and I was sick for 10 days. I was like, well at least it’s happening here and not on tour.”

How does she maintain her energy levels? “A lot of it is not drinking as much as I used to, and sleeping. And, if I do drink, making sure to sleep plenty and to eat well. It’s really hard to eat well in Europe because you’re fed cheese and bread all the time so often the band, especially the vegetarians, will go and find the nearest Thai restaurant. Any cuisine where you can get vegetables instead of bread and cheese.

“It’s hard to stay fit on tour as well. I think people are bringing their yoga mats on this tour so that will be interesting.”

She laughs and quickly adds, “We know how to have a good time, though. We still have nights where we all get drunk then regret it the next day. It’s just not every day.”

Absention might be an issue when the tour wraps up at the Barrowland, though. “I know,” she laughs. “We’ll have a lot of Scotch. We all have flights the next day at 5am so we probably won’t go to sleep.

“I’m excited for that final show. I’m sure it will be wonderful. We’ll be a well-oiled machine by then.” In more ways than one, by the sound of things.

Angel Olsen plays the Barrowland, Glasgow, on February 14. All Mirrors is out now on Jagjaguwar


Since backing Will Oldham, Angel Olsen has collaborated with a number of American artists including singer-songwriter Cass McCombs, Hamilton Leithauser of indie rock outfit The Walkmen and musician, author and film director Tim Kinsella.

Her most high-profile collaboration, however, is with the English producer and DJ Mark Ronson, co-writing and performing the song True Blue on last year’s Late Night Feelings album, whose other guests include Miley Cyrus and Lykke Li.

“He told me he wanted to make a disco record,” she recalls. “I didn't really know what that meant but I sent him Nico’s version of Heroes. I was like: I want to do something dark like this, something slower but still disco.

“He was surprisingly very open about the whole experience.

“We come from very different backgrounds in music but he was respectful of the way I wanted to hear things. He allowed me to play guitar on the track, and I sang several different vocal takes so he could choose from high or low or mix them together.

“It was exciting to hear a song that I could give someone and have them turn it into this disco thing. It was really wild.”