Sunset Boulevard, Russian science-fiction, and five more things that influenced Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors
"I am mainly obsessed with the 1920s and 1930s," says the 32-year-old singer-songwriter. "A lot of this record is inspired by the art, music, and film of that time"
On All Mirrors, Angel Olsen’s follow-up to her heart-wrenching 2016 effort My Woman, the 32-year-old singer opened herself up to a more collaborative environment beyond her band, bringing in musicians Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt. “We made these crazy epic string arrangements and I wasn’t expecting it to be so big sounding,” says Olsen, while lounging on a slate couch in Brooklyn. An expansive jaunt into the Asheville-based musician’s brain, Mirrors (out now) is also punctuated by synths and jarring melodies. The result is her most cinematic and self-reflective album yet.
Olsen came up with the phrase “all mirrors” while writing the project’s title track. “That was the song that carried the [album’s] throughline,” she recalls, noting that the term encompasses the way that she navigates the struggles of a relationship as well as how she views herself. “It doesn’t relate to all of the songs, but I liked the idea. I’ve had to forgive the things I’ve done and things that have happened and see them as actual blessings.”
The making of All Mirrors also had Olsen mining various artists, musicians, and filmmakers for inspiration, from Agnès Varda to Patti Smith. Below, in her own words, she takes us through the project’s various influences.
I had been revisiting older songs of mine because I went on a solo tour, and I revisited this place in my life where I was 17 or 18. I don’t know why I was so inspired to study this woman or women in surrealism. But I ended up studying women like Remedios Varo to Leonora Carrington, and these circles of women who moved from Paris to New York to Mexico City. I kind of stayed away from Frida Kahlo and the Freudian thought-based surrealists. I mainly focused in on Remedios and Leonora because their relationship to each other was so unique; they were best friends and sisters and they shared a partner at some point. I liked how they took from Irish folklore and made dreamlike images from it that were surreal without applying some male or family structured science behind it. It was very magical, mysterious, and dark. And I went back to that place when I was writing a lot of these songs, re-reading a lot of those books on them and looking at their paintings.
Agnès Varda’s 5 to 7
I’ve always loved Angès Varda and been obsessed with Cleo from 5 to 7. I kept thinking of that specific movie when I was singing “Chance” because I was like, “I wonder, cinematically, does this song belong in my version of Cleo from 5 to 7?” [The film is] about a singer — she’s obsessed with herself but she’s also so sad, alone, and isolated. She only has the woman who works with her and is taking care of her. And then she goes to see a fortune teller and the fortune teller tells her she has cancer. She’s having a rough temperamental day after the fortune teller. The day goes [on] and you don’t really have empathy for the character at first, but then over time you get to know her. I really like that. [Agnès] features this character in this way because it shows you that even when you imagine that someone’s life is super easy and they’re obsessed with themselves, that’s not really the full story.
I am mainly obsessed with the 1920s and 1930s. A lot of this record is inspired by the art, music, and film of that time, like Aelita, which is this 1920s sci-fi Russian film about a woman who lives in space. Their version of sci-fi in that time period was so elegant, beautiful, and minimal because they didn’t have the same kind of imagination yet. It didn’t become sci-fi in the way we see it now. Pandora’s Box and Metropolis specifically relate to “All Mirrors” [in that way].
Definitely at the end of “Spring.” The weird soaring guitar synth that we made on that song really reminded me of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. I don’t know if they sound like that to other people, but I was going for something like that there.
Watching silent films and seeing how difficult it was to come across without actually voicing stuff was such a different process. Then I started to think about Sunset Boulevard. It’s a movie about an old silent movie actress who lives in the Hills on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. and she has a butler and this guy who’s having a little bit of trouble. She’s just nuts and alone — similarly like Cleo [in 5 to 7] — talking about how she used to be the number-one film actress. She’s so desperate to get this man to stay and be her partner. He’s so much younger than her. This movie is so insane. I was thinking about that when I made the video for “All Mirrors.” The staircase and the grandiose Art Deco feel of that is very related to the isolated feeling the woman has in Sunset Boulevard. But it’s also Labyrinth. That song specifically is very cinematic and inspired by those surreal images.
Chicago and the Jazz Scene
For me, “Endgame” is more of a jazz piece and it’s still from that time period. I could imagine that song existing, [though] maybe it’s far-fetched for me to assume my music would ever exist in the ’30s in Chicago. But when I think about this one, I think about Chicago. I spent seven years going to [this venue] the Hungry Brain, listening to Northwestern students play old jazz standards and everyone had to shut the f–k up or the bartender would have to kick you out. So I would go in the middle of the winter because there’s not much to do other than freeze to death. I fell in love with old jazz music [there]: Mildred Bailey, Lil Green, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane. I’ve been reliving it a lot lately, especially in songs like “Endgame” and “Tonight.” I like that jazz is both chaos and melody. It’s such an example of the balance you have to have with writing, singing, and performing.
A lot of the lyrics being as wily as they are is a nod to Patti Smith. I won’t compare myself to Patti Smith, but I’ve just been listening to a lot of her music the past couple of years. I was really in my head, so I felt inspired and felt her influence. But I guess not being afraid to write poetry and trying to write a song that had to run, that was just a story of me being a wild, enraged human and just putting that into a song. I think a lot of that came from listening and reading about her life.